With The National Ballet of Canada since 1998 and promoted to Principal in 2005, Heather Ogden is one of Toronto’s most beloved performers and among the brightest stars in Canadian Ballet (and, as a guest artist, International Ballet). With lead roles in everything from contemporary works to The Nutcracker and Sleeping Beauty, Heather is, in a lot of ways, the female face of the current company. She’s also my personal favourite Principal and the winner of our 2011 MyTheatre Award for Best Dance Performance for her role in Alexei Ratmansky’s new Romeo & Juliet.
Heather took some time out of her crazy schedule to answer some of my most pressing questions about her brilliant life and career in ballet.
Do you remember the first ballet you ever saw?
Yes! The first professional ballet I saw was The National Ballet of Canada performing Giselle in Vancouver. I remember seeing Karen Kain dance and I loved it so much I went back to see a second show where I saw Chan Hon Goh dance. Both of those shows are etched into my memory.
What is it about ballet specifically that made you want to pursue it professionally (perhaps over other dance forms)?
Ballet was the first dance class I took and I never strayed from it because I loved it. I think at first, like most little girls, I was drawn to the beauty of the ballerinas and with hopes of being like them I asked my mom to sign me up. Along the way I think I really thrived in the disciplined environment and I always loved the challenge of constantly improving and reaching for perfection.
Which performers have always inspired you?
I have been lucky to see and work with Karen Kain, Evelyn Hart and most recently with Suzanne Farrell. All three of these women, leaders in the dance community, have been an inspiration to me on and off stage.
You’ve been with the National Ballet since 1998. In that time what have been some of your favourite roles to dance?
I feel lucky to say that I have a long list of favourites. I would start with Romeo and Juliet as it was my first love, the big classics like Swan Lake and Sleeping Beauty have a very special place inn my heart. I have loved digging into deeper acting roles like Onegin and then there is the summer pas de deux from James Kudelka’s Four Seasons, and Balanchine’s Meditation and Diamonds pas de deux.
Do you have a favourite choreographer?
As you can see from my long list above its hard for me to choose a favourite! Most recently I have loved working with choreographers such as Alexei Ratmansky and Christopher Wheeldon and Wayne Mcgregor. It’s fascinating to watch these artists work and be a part of their process.
Take us through a typical casting process.
Casting is generally done by our director Karen and sometimes it as simple as a list going up on the call board. The artistic staff at NBOC know the dancers well and can cast that way. When a new choreographer comes in to set a ballet or choreograph on us they usually have full say on who they would like to use and usually make their decisions from watching ballet class or a performance.
What’s the rehearsal process like for a ballet that’s already in rep vs. a new one like Romeo & Juliet?
For rehearsals of an existing piece we start by learning the new work from a ballet master or sometimes even off a video. It’s a matter of learning the steps in the way they were intended to keep the integrity of the piece and then hopefully making it your own through the individual dancers’ personalities. When we do a creation like Romeo and Juliet it’s amazing because it is very collaborative. The steps are being created on the spot and it is a great chance to create a unique character. It is a very demanding and rewarding process.. There is nothing like it!
Multiple dancers learn each principal part- how do you navigate that in rehearsals?
We are used to having many casts. We usually learn the roles all together and share the studio and then we split up into our individual couples and work privately with our coaches.
What’s it like to walk around Toronto and see your face on streetlamps and buses?
It’s a lot of fun to see the pictures all over Toronto . It’s great to live in a city that cherishes a great ballet company like the one we have!
You and your husband Guillaume Cote have been dancing with other partners lately (I’ve noticed because it’s become a Sophie’s Choice of which night to attend!), how are the partnerings determined?
I love your Sophie’s Choice comment, haha! The partnerings are determined by the different choreographers that come in to do the casting. Although we don’t always get to dance together, Guillaume and I really cherish the times we do share the stage as it is always a special moment to be dancing with the one you love!
One of the things I love most about your performances is the quality of your acting. Is that in your mind when developing a role?
Thank you so much, the acting is definitely on my mind when creating a role. It has become my favorite part of my job and something I enjoy throwing myself into. I like it when I hear that people leave a performance touched by the character they met onstage.
The physical strain and demanding schedule must take its toll. What would you say is the hardest part about being a dancer?
The physical pain can be daunting. I go through phases that really feel like an uphill climb battling my body but that is part of the job.
And the best part?
The best part is getting to share my passion and soul with the public, and dancing with my husband.
Do you have any dream roles you haven’t gotten to dance yet or someone you’d like to work with?
I would love to dance Giselle, John Neumeier’s Lady of the Camellias, Manon, and Petite Mort just to name a few.
What are you working on now?
Over the summer I worked on a dance film with Guillaume. Then we started back in August. We will be [performing] Nijinsky [this season], which I am so excited about!
Heather Ogden is currently performing the title role in Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland with The National Ballet of Canada. Nov 10-25, 2012 at The Four Seasons Centre in Toronto.