One of the longest tenured ballet dancers in the country, Principal Dancer Greta Hodgkinson is a pillar of the National Ballet of Canada. She’s danced nearly every great leading role in the canon and has been nominated for our Best Ballet Performance award three years in a row. In choreographer Guillaume Coté’s stark and startling contemporary piece Being & Nothingness (returning to the stage May 30), Greta steps out of her classical mould in thrilling ways to create an intense philosophical moment alone onstage.
My first question is always do you remember the first ballet you ever saw?
No. I don’t remember the first ballet I ever saw [laughs]. I mean the first ballet that I really remember that sort of I guess made an impression on me was New York City Ballet’s Nutcracker.
What was it about ballet that made you want to pursue it professionally?
I think it was just something that wasn’t really a conscious choice, it was just something that I loved. I started when I was 4 doing tap, jazz, ballet, you know, the whole gamut at your local dance school type thing, and ballet was just something that, immediately from the beginning, I just took to. I loved it from the beginning, so I think it was just a natural thing for me. People were born to do something I guess.
Who are some of the performers who have always inspired you?
I think mostly they were the ones that had their own voice, that were unique individuals, dancers that maybe put a stamp on a role or a part. There are so many and they vary from classical to contemporary. There’s just so many performers that have inspired me over the years but I think each one of them has really sort of made an impact on the art form with their own unique interpretations and they’ve all had something to say that’s uniquely their own when they’re attacking roles that have been done by generations of ballerinas and yet you see them in a new way when you see them perform it. I’m inspired by that.
You have a big anniversary with the National Ballet coming up in the 2015/16 season. In the time you’ve been with the company, what have been some of your favourite performances?
[laughs] Gosh. Well, I’ll be celebrating my 20th year as a principal dancer, so I mean, there’ve been so many. You always remember your first time doing a role. They’re really memorable. But often it’s been over the years when I’ve come back to certain ballets and grown in roles like Juliet and Tatiana and Manon- all those great story ballets. There’ve been performances of each of them that have been so memorable.
How has the National Ballet changed in its day to day identity and in a larger sense in the years that you’ve been a part of it?
It’s evolved. When I joined the company, there were 70 odd dancers and they were touring all over the world and it was just a different time in the 90s. Of course each artistic director has had a vision for the company and so that changes. The dancers, the types of dancers that they hire, those things change over time. But I think the one thing that has always been the reason why I love the company is we have one of the most extraordinary repertoires in the world, of any company. Which is one of the reasons I wanted to join the National Ballet of Canada, to be able to do Giselle and also William Forsythe. It’s really, really challenging for an artist and so those are the things that have remained the same. But the company goes through different challenges and we went through a time, like I said, when we were touring a lot and then we didn’t tour for a while and we’re back to being on the world stage and performing all over the world again, which is very exciting.
Can you tell us a bit about working with Karen Kain?
We’re doing Sleeping Beauty in June and she’s incredibly hands on with a ballet like that because she danced it with Rudolph Nureyev and she has such a personal experience there and of course a wealth of knowledge and experience. So, you know, in something like that, it’s very much hands on. And in other ballets when the ballet’s being created, it’s really the choreographer who is there and who is responsible for the day to day things. I’ve known Karen since we danced together, then she became the director, and she’s just incredibly understanding of a dancer’s position and the position that I’m in the company being principal dancer, she understands that first hand. So in that way, it’s wonderful to have someone who’s so understanding and who really gets it.
As one of the longest tenured dancers in the company, do you find yourself filling a sort of mentorship role with some of the younger dancers? What’s your go-to piece of advice?
I think it’s natural to be in a more mentorship position when you’ve been here for that long and I love that. There’s really nothing that can account for experience, so obviously you can try and pass on as much advice as possible to the younger dancers, which is what I try to do, but a lot of times they need to learn that through their experience and through their work on stage and studio.
But I don’t know if I have a go-to thing. I mean, I try and be really individual with what I say to each dancer. Certainly if someone asks me my advice, I’m more than willing to give them my experience and my opinion and my knowledge, but I wouldn’t say that I have one sort of phrase or a particular mantra, except that, certainly, work ethic and discipline is something that I think is extremely important. I think a lot of times it trumps talent. Being quick, being reliable, being flexible in the sense of being able to jump in and take advantage of opportunities and being a quick learner and all those things are something that have served me really well. I see that in a lot of the young dancers and I think that’s a really good attribute.
Is there something you wish you’d known when you started out?
I don’t know if there’s one thing. I do think that when I joined the company, having the principal dancers at the time, they were really great role models and I think that just seeing them, getting to work with them every day, getting to watch them in rehearsal was just great. I hope that the dancers today can take advantage of that kind of stuff with the dancers we have here now.
What would you say is the biggest obstacle you’ve had to overcome to make it as a professional ballerina?
The greatest obstacle… Well there are so many. Because so few of us make it to being a professional ballerina, then to work your way up the ranks- there’s only very few. But I don’t know what would be my biggest obstacle. I think not getting in my own way was a big thing, especially when I was younger. I think trying to be perfect or striving for perfection, which is impossible. That’s the art form, that’s the discipline and we grew up knowing that. But I think sometimes you’re your own worst critic and I think trying to get out of my own way has been a big one and just trusting myself. I feel like that came with experience and it came with years of performing and being in the position that I’m in. But it’s something that you have to try to do is trust yourself.
Who are some of the partners that you’ve worked particularly well with over the years?
I danced with Rex [Harrington] a fair bit when he was dancing. But I danced for many, many years, 20 something odd years with Aleksandar Antonijevic and we had a very special partnership. And I had the incredible opportunity to have danced many times with Roberto Bolle who’s one of the greatest male dancers in the world, and Marcelo Gomes, so there’ve been quite a few [laughs]. I’ve had a lot of wonderful partners and I‘ve been really, really blessed. Oh and Guillaume [Coté] too. Can’t forget Guillaume because of course we work together on so many ballets. So that’s been really nice too, to have grown together with Guillaume as well.
Your husband Etienne Lavigne is also in the company. What’s it like working with him in rehearsals every day?
Well, that’s the thing, we don’t really work in rehearsals every day together. We’ve been partnered together a few times but not a lot, it’s actually a rarity. It’s a nice kind of special time that we have but oftentimes we’re dancing with different people, we’re dancing different roles, our schedules actually are quite different. We might spend the entire day not ever seeing each other. I think people might think that we’re in each other’s faces all the time, but we’re actually not.
Do people watch you guys closely whenever you’re at an event with a dance floor?
I think people that get what we do get that once we’re outside the studio and at an event or doing something like a social call or a reception, that is just not something that we do. But, you know, we’ve gotten a lot of requests, like at a dinner party ‘oh, why don’t you just get up and do something’ and you’re like ‘that’s not really possible in someone’s living room’ so we have gotten that. But yeah, most of the time, people understand that we’re not on show all the time.
What would you say separates your performance style from some of the other women in the company?
That’s hard. I don’t know. I think that one of the great things, actually, about the principals in the company is that I feel like we all have a really unique style and it’s interesting because we all dance the same roles. There’s five of us doing Aurora in Sleeping Beauty or four Giselles and I feel we all have a different approach to the character. Certainly a different way of moving, a different physicality. You know, Xiao Nan Yu is a lot taller than me, whereas Jillian Vanstone is smaller than me, we all have our unique way of moving and interpreting movement. It’s hard to say what our differences are. We’re just all very different and I think that actually makes it really exciting for the audience because they can see the ballet five times and it’ll be a completely different ballet. It’s a totally different experience to see different people interpret the role.
This is actually your third My Theater Award nomination in a row. The first was for Giselle back in 2012. That’s a role often referred to as the ballerina’s Hamlet. What were some of the unique challenges of doing that part?
That part is really special for me. It is called that because the ballerina has to not only be able to do the technical challenges, which are immense in a ballet like that- to be a peasant girl in real life for the first act then be completely ethereal and ghost-like in the second act, it’s really goes through a physical transformation- and it’s also a really spiritual ballet. You go through spiritual transformations. You also have to be able to act and you have to have an enormous dramatic range to not only make it believable but to [play] the very famous mad scene at the end of Act I. All the greatest ballerinas in the world have done that ballet and tackled that scene and they’re all so different, it’s really wonderful. It’s like Hamlet. One of the reasons why people come back to see that ballet over and over again, like people who go to see Hamlet, you go to see different interpretations and how they’re going to play that part, but the actor has to be good and has to be believable and has to have that dramatic range. It’s incredibly challenging. But I find something new in it every single time and it really is a favourite
This year your nomination is for your gala performance of Being & Nothingness. That’s really contemporary piece; do you train your body slightly differently for something sharp and intense as opposed to classical stuff?
No, the training is the same. We come in every day for ballet class, like taking your vitamins. The classical training is the same. It’s really demanding, not just physically but also emotionally, it’s quite tense and the smallest movement has meaning, it has to come from someplace. So it’s actually seven and a half minutes of pretty intense work. But the actual training for it in terms of what I would do every day would be the same. But of course, in the rehearsals, the requirements on your body are quite different.
You mentioned him before, but the choreographer of that piece Guillaume Coté is your fellow principal dancer. Is it helpful working with a choreographer who is also your co-worker? Does the piece change at all through the rehearsal process having him so present in the process?
Oh, the piece changed hugely in the creative process. I commissioned the work and when we started working in August, I think even the initial concept that he had was completely different than what we ended up with. But it’s crucial that the choreographer is there, that’s what I love about it, that’s what I loved about the experience was actually the creative part. I mean, of course, in the end, it’s a wonderful solo and I love it, but I love the creative part. Really, working with Guillaume has been one of the best creative experiences I’ve had working with someone and we’ve collaborated on a couple works together. I just find that his vocabulary and his physicality and his understanding of how to make the look and move differently and expressively is just a great experience. It’s the best part of creating a ballet, working with someone [who has] those creative ideas and who sees movement in such a cool way.
Is choreography something that you’re at all interested in beyond your career on stage?
No. Not really. I’ve worked with some of the greatest choreographers of the 20th century and I feel like I like being the vehicle. I love collaborating on ideas and working through movement, but I’m not sure that I have the need. I hear a lot of choreographers talking about, they just have these ideas and it’s their creative output. That’s how they feel. They want to express themselves, and I’ve never really had that bug [laughs]. So, I don’t think it’s something that I would really do.
The physical strain and demanding hours must take their toll. What would you say is the hardest part of being a dancer?
The hardest part…. I guess exactly that. It really is this physical toll. But it’s not really a career, it’s a life. It’s a lifestyle. It’s not just what we do, it’s who we are. So when we come home, our job doesn’t really end. Every single thing we do is geared towards being a dancer. How much we rest, what we eat, what we do outside of work, the therapy that we need to get, the cross training that we need to do in order to do our day and keep up and get stronger. The demands of today, and the demands of the choreographers are so great, what they’re asking us to do. So I think that’s the hardest part.
I have a 5 year old son and he keeps me very busy [laughs]. It’s just trying to do everything, you know, keep up. And we’re very, very high caliber athletes. We require a lot of fine tuning outside and inside the studio. So it’s really a full time life thing.
And what about the best part?
I just love performing. I love the live theatre thing. I love the being on stage. For me, that’s the best part. And as the years go on as well, I’m really enjoying the work in the studio more. I’ve always loved that process but I think that when you’re staring to create with people like Guillaume and do new work, it’s so inspiring. And coming back to ballets where you don’t have to think about steps because you’ve been doing them for so many years, you can find so many nuances or you can explore other areas that you weren’t able to before, that kind of thing. It’s really some of the best moments. Some of the best moments don’t happen on stage. They happen when you’re just you and your partner, or you and your coach, and those are really wonderful things too. But in the end, I love performing. From when I was 4 years old, I wanted to dance, to be on stage.
Do you have any dream roles left that you haven’t gotten to dance yet, or someone you would like to work with?
Yes. I have a few people that I would like to work with but, in terms of ballets, or pieces even, there aren’t that many. I would really like to do Marguerite and Armand one day. In terms of classical things, I’ve been very, very fortunate to have performed pretty much everything. But there are always things being created all the time too. There’s new things happening, and you sort of hear about them and then you might see a video and you’re like, ‘oh that’d be so cool to do that’. It’s never ending, this incredible stuff that’s being done around the world. So, there’s always something to keep yourself challenged and inspired.
You referred to Giselle earlier as your favourite ballet. Is that true and why?
It’s true for all the reasons that I talked about. I just identify with her in a way that’s hard to explain. When I’m doing that ballet I kind of completely forget where I am and I just live that for two hours. It’s also a very, very spiritual ballet and so I just find that it takes me to another place and I love the challenges of it, and I love all the steps… I love everything about it.
People always say ‘what’s your favourite ballet’. There are so many that I love and I don’t know. I mean, Giselle is one of my favourites, for sure. I love dramatic works, so I’m kind of drawn more to those and it sure does have a lot of drama. The universal themes of forgiveness, betrayal, love and loss and all of those things everybody goes through every day but you can live all of that in two hours and it’s just so incredibly fulfilling.
What are you working on now?
I’m actually working with Guillaume. We’re working on the rest of Being & Nothingness, which we’re going to premiere in June, so it’s going to be more of a complete work. And that’s been really fun.
You’re also playing the Red Queen in Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland (closing March 29). What’s that like, bringing a literary icon to the stage for the first time?
It’s really fun. It’s a huge crowd pleaser and box office success and we’ve toured it a lot. We went to LA, we went to the Kennedy Center in Washington, so we had a lot of opportunity to do it. I’ve had a lot of opportunity to attack the role and try different things. It’s a comic role and there aren’t many opportunities for a ballerina to really do over the top comedy. And this is definitely one of those. It’s actually a lot of fun. It’s a lot of fun to do, and the audience just loves it. They get a kick out of it and that’s always nice to hear the response from them.