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The Dance Insider Interview, 10-9: Tina LeBlanc
"Music is the reason I dance"
Interview conducted by Paul Ben-Itzak
Illustration by Robin Hoffman
Copyright Robin Hoffman & Paul Ben-Itzak
Tina LeBlanc, making what will likely be her farewell New York performances with San Francisco Ballet beginning Friday (in Balanchine's "Divertimento No. 15" and Christopher Wheeldon's "The Golden Hour") may be the only ballet star of the past quarter century who has conquered both North American coasts, first in her meteoric rise with the Joffrey Ballet in New York in the 1980s, then as a principal with San Francisco Ballet for the past 15 years, with frequent returns to her New York City Center home with the company. Paul Ben-Itzak first saw LeBlanc perform with the Joffrey in 1991 in San Francisco's War Memorial Opera House. Her performance in the lead in John Cranko's "Romeo & Juliet" hooked him on ballet. He subsequently interviewed LeBlanc for Reuters in 1993, profiled her for Dance Magazine in 1995, and has tracked her career nationally and internationally since. Robin Hoffman met LeBlanc when both were members of the Central Pennsylvania Youth Ballet (CPYB); they subsequently danced together with the Joffrey II.
Paul Ben-Itzak: Tina LeBlanc, you've been dancing now for 27 years, since you were 15. Will this next season be your final?
Tina LeBlanc: I'm winding down. I'm in good shape, I'm still dancing well, but it's getting to be time; mentally it's harder to make myself push so hard, I have other interests, and it's time.
PBI: What's the next stage?
TL: I'm going to teach in the [San Francisco Ballet] School.
PBI: Are you interested in directing a school?
TL: For the first year I am just going to be teaching. We're going to see what develops after that. I've got some learning to do and some exploring to do, and I'm going to need a little bit of time, even though I've taught since I was a student because that's the way our school at CPYB worked. CPYB has a teacher's course in August that I would like to attend to further my learning as a teacher, and I would love to visit some well-known schools like Paris Opera and the Royal Ballet, and even go home to CPYB and observe and broaden my horizons in the teaching department and understand mentally where students are at. I can teach professionals and advanced students very easily because I understand where they're at, but I want to learn how to teach from the very beginning -- what goes into that, how one molds a dancer from the beginning, because that's very hard. We have a lot of dancers come to us [at SF Ballet] with issues that need to be corrected: improper alignments, inadequate understanding of what goes into having a base for technique.... If you have good base for technique, everything else is icing on the cake, but you need that base in order to be free with the upper body, emotions, the head -- that technical base needs to be automatic so that everything else can grow. Some of those problems we see could have been avoided if things were done differently from the beginning. There are many teachers out there, but they're not all good. I was one of the lucky ones in that I had very good technical training from a younger age. I feel blessed with that and that's what I want to give to other kids, that advantage.
PBI: Speaking of kids, you have two boys, 11 and five years old respectively; you must be getting tired of being away from them on tour.
TL: In a funny way, it's gotten easier because the boys are older now; I can talk to them on the phone. I'm also very confident with the way my husband handles things at home so I don't worry. It is hard on me to be away from them, but I can talk to them on the phone, if they miss me they can call me. Sasha, the youngest, still has moments of being really clingy when one of us is not around, but even that is starting to come under control a little bit more now. It was worse when they were babies.
PBI: So back to this final tour: How does it feel to be back in New York, where you had your first triumphs with the Joffrey?
TL: It's like a gift because I thought that our last performances here were it, I didn't think we'd be back so soon. It's one last chance to see City Center, my home for so many years, to get to visit New York, which I lived in for many years.
PBI: Does any particular memory come back of earlier performances in New York City or at this theater?
TL: There are too many to count, my mind is just flooded with them. From dancing with Ashley [Wheater, now the Joffrey's artistic director] -- I had a very special performance with him there -- to even times before the renovation, when the stage seemed even smaller and backstage non existent; seeing San Francisco Balllet dance there for the first time in 1991, going back there a couple of times later with SF Ballet -- so many memories. People I used to work with, the crew.... It's a lot of deja vu....
PBI: Tell me about the performance with Ashley Wheater.
TL: We did an Arpino (Gerald, the longtime Joffrey choreographer and artistic director) piece called "Reflections." We had a pas de deux together, and it was one of my first slower, adagio pas de deux -- it was not a perky pas de deux. Up until then I'd been the soubrette -- faster, cute -- so it was a big step for me. We had one performance there where we were both relaxed and everything just happened, everything just worked as well as it could work -- extra pirouettes, on balance, no struggle. It was a dream and it was over before we knew it -- one of those magical moments where you are so in the moment you're unaware of the audience or anyone else around you. I don't think dancers get many of those kinds of shows where you're so lost in the moment you're unaware you're performing. You're just kind of existing, out there doing it -- it's an incredible feeling.
PBI: If someone saw you 20 years ago, hadn't seen you since, and then came back for these City Center performances, what differences do you think they'd notice?
TL: I would hope I would be safe in saying that as a general audience member they might not catch the reason I look different, but that they would notice the difference. If the person were a dancer, they would be able to say, "Oh, her arms are better" or "She takes more care" or "She's more consistent." I feel that my artistry is ten times better than it was when I was young. When I was young it was instinct, or the coaching -- this is what I was told to do -- whereas now I put my own thoughts into it and the choices as to how I'm going to do it. I would hope they would see the difference in the nuance....
PBI: Such as? What changed?
TL: There came a point where all of a sudden I knew that where I was going to step was where I was going to be. I know now that if I take a piqué arabesque, more likely than not I'm going to stay for as long as I want to stay. I'm not going to fall over or fall out of it -- I'll be on my leg where I'm supposed to be. When I was younger it would scare me; people would say, "You can do anything, you're so strong," but I didn't feel confident in that I didn't know I was going to be on that leg if I took that piqué, I didn't know how to achieve that. That came with age and with different people along the way helping me to understand how my body worked, so that now I don't just throw myself into it, I know exactly how to place it, whereas when I was younger I would just throw myself into it and hope for the best. Now I'm also much more measured, in my energy as well. When I was younger I had no idea how to pace myself. If I was dancing really hard I would push and push; I had no idea how to make myself look like I was doing the most with doing less. Now, even though there are pieces which will totally make me fall on the floor when I'm done I know how to achieve it, so I'm not actually killing myself.
PBI: What have been some of your favorite roles?
TL: I can start with a couple of roles I did at the Joffrey. My absolute, absolute, absolute favorite is (Arpino's) "L'air d'esprit" -- that one I did a lot. Another very special one to me was "La Vivandiere pas de six," by Arthur St. Leon [as reconstructed from the dance notation Saint-Leon invented by Ann Hutchinson Guest].
(Reviewing a Joffrey performance of this ballet in the New York Times on November 7, 1989, Anna Kisselgoff, who also cited the notation history, began, "Was there ever so pretty a maid as Tina LeBlanc, flitting with such filigreed grace...?" Calling LeBlanc "one of American ballet's most lustrous pearls," Kisselgoff proclaimed that "to see her each time in her Degas-style costume -- big tulle tutu and black ribbon at the neck -- is to see her anew. On Sunday afternoon at the City Center..., Miss LeBlanc took to Arthur Saint-Leon's floor-skimming choreography with such lightness and beauty that viewers in the audience gasped audibly. All six members of the cast, in fact, brought the house down.... What Mrs. Guest and the Joffrey dancers remind us is that 19th-century ballet technique -- especially in its leg beats and speed -- by no means lagged behind the technique we see today. Miss LeBlanc's solo is a burst of feminine energy, ending in higher and higher scissor leaps and a delightful cascade of foot-shaking shapes known as gargouillades.")
Also, after joining San Francisco Ballet, the evening-lengths.... Of course, "Romeo & Juliet" in both companies. When I was younger, that used to be my dream role because you can identify so well with the pain that she goes through. That music, the role -- it's so complete. Also "Swan Lake," "Giselle." I would not put 'Don Q' in there, but in both "Swan Lake" and "Giselle" the character really speaks to me, and I feel like attempting both of those pushed me in a new direction, past what was comfortable.... [Balanchine's] "Theme and Variations"; I knew that from childhood and always wanted to perform it. [Balanchine's] "Square Dance," Lar Lubovitch's "Smile with your Heart," I really loved doing that one. And of course "Night," by Julie Adam; that piece was very special to me. Also a couple of pieces of (SFB artistic director) Helgi (Tomasson)'s that weren't necessarily choreographed for me but that I loved doing; "Valses Poeticos," I really enjoyed that one.... I got to do a pas de deux of his called "Sonata" for the gala last year and I enjoyed that; he does beautiful pas de deux.... Of course [Agnes De Mille's] "Rodeo." I thought that was the oddest thing for me, to have grown up watching "Rodeo," and then I don't get to do it until I'm 39. I loved doing that. Anything that has a character, for me that takes it to a different level because you're not just using the technique you used all your life, not just the artistry you've learned over the years, but you're actually pretending to be somebody else. You've got feelings, something to say. You've got to convey to the audience that character and that's so all-encompassing for me... Like in Kurt Jooss's "Green Table," in which I played the Young Girl.
PBI: Are there roles you haven't done yet and would like to perform?
TL: No, not many. I would have loved to have tried Cranko's "Taming of the Shrew."' I would have loved to have tried [Kenneth MacMillan's] "Manon." But other than that I can't complain. I've done so many incredible roles and I've had a really long career.... I shouldn't have complaints.
PBI: Who are your partners these days?
TL: Mostly these days Joan Boada and Gennadi Nedvigin, Nicolas Blanc, and Pascal Molat.
PBI: My seven-year-old nephew Dashiell recently began taking ballet at Berkeley Ballet School. Do you have any advice for him on what it takes to become the ideal partner?
TL: I can say that when a girl feels comfortable and trusts her partner, she looks better.... Damian Smith's perspective is that he does the steps with the girl; he can feel where she is and where she needs to be -- it's almost like he's doing it with her. I don't think Joan uses that perspective. With Joan, I know there have been times where he's really saved me and surprisingly smoothly, like if I'm off my leg and go into something a little too soon or too late, he just fixes it somehow, and it's almost like magic. It's really important for a giirl to feel comfortable when she's dancing with a guy; the guy has to be rock solid.
PBI: What about general training secrets for dancers?
TL: I found that I could not keep my nose to the grindstone 100 percent of time for 27 years. For me it was really key to mentally get away so I could come back fresh and appreciate what I did. Up until last year, when I completely tore my ACL, I'd never had a major injury, so to me those two times out having kids were incredible for a couple of reasons. I got away and I could take a break mentally. And then because my body had changed so drastically, I had a chance to retrain, which you don't always have a chance to do, because if you take two weeks off it's not enough time for your body to totally relax and forget all the muscle memory. When you start to hurt somewhere your body compensates to try to expend less pain or no pain. It's like a vicious circle, and then you build up muscles in the wrong places -- trying to avoid pain you get more pain. When I was out for the second pregnancy, I took four months, without doing anything. When I came back it was painful but my muscles didn't remember any bad habits so I got to start from square one because I knew what I was trying to achieve. But while my head knew the technique and how to get there, my body was totally retraining.
PBI: Coming back from the ACL (anterior cruciate ligament) in May 2007 must have been a challenge.
TL: I was coming back with one big drawback, a leg that didn't work properly. Most people are take nine to 12 months to come back from an ACL; I was back onstage in 8.5 months, but I was not at full-strength. My jumping took a long time to come back. I wasn't jumping very well then. When they say nine to 12 months they really mean nine to 12 months to recuperate and 12-18 months before you start feeling like yourself. You can't push a recuperation like that. So I'm just now starting to feel like all is ready.
PBI: If anything stands out about you to me, it's the way you become the music, part of the music, an expression of the music -- almost like you enter into and get absorbed in and lost in the music. Is there any music that's especially meaningful to you -- that you prefer dancing to?
TL: I never really know what's going to strike me.... I might like a certain composer, but not everything he does -- and sometimes it depends on more than that. It's how familiar I am with the music.... There has been music that's grown on me, because you get more and more intimate with the music and you find those moments where you can be one. For me, music is the reason I dance. I don't dance because I like the physicality of it. I dance because the music moves me. Even when I'm taking class, one of the ways for me to stave off boredom -- which after 30 years of doing barre can happen -- one of the ways that I make it interesting for myself, besides striving for that physical perfection never possible, is to listen to the music, is to feel the music. And sometimes at barre, in the part at the barre when you're close to other people, looking in the mirror a lot, I don't understand how people can be off the music. For me it's just so important, and when I'm closing on the downbeat or whatever accent the teacher has given and I see somebody's leg behind me ahead of the music, I'm like, What are you listening to? Are you listening to the same music as I am? But that's part of the joy of dancing for me."
PBI: Given that joy, when you eventually retire from SF Ballet, will you still guest occasionally?
TL: I'll probably take on guestings for a short time.... Also, the thought of that last show with SF Ballet being the last time I'm ever on stage is far too frightening and overwhelming, because that's my life, that's what I've done for so long that the thought of it just stopping is more than I can handle, so if I allow myself to peter out a little bit, to do a few things for a while, I won't feel like I've jumped off a a cliff....
PBI: In addition to teaching, are there other things you'd like to spend more time at once you've retired from dancing?
TL: I've always liked to do crafts, like quilting and chrocheting and beading. I love to work with my hands, especially since I've had kids. Between kids and career there wasn't too much time left to play, so I want to be able to have a bit more me time in that department, especially the quilting. I used to make them for friends and stuff, all hand done, not quilting by machine.... That takes a long time and I haven't picked one up since I went into labor with Sasha.
PBI: Tina, looking back at this extraordinary career, is there anything else you'd like to add?
TL: It's been a wonderful adventure for me. Everyone should be so lucky as to get paid for something they are passionate about.