In 28 years with the National Ballet of Canada, Principal Dancer Sonia Rodriguez has left lasting impressions on audiences and showcased her versatility through roles that range from the titular Sleeping Beauty to contemporary works like Wayne McGregor’s Chroma. A gifted actress who excels in character-driven roles, Sonia earned an Outstanding Ballet Performance nomination in the “Leading” category for her tour-de-force performance as Blanche DuBois in John Neumeier’s adaptation of A Streetcar Named Desire. From the opening scenes, where she trembles on the bed in an asylum, Sonia skillfully depicts the fragility of a woman who can’t adapt to the changing world around her.
Do you remember the first ballet you ever saw?
It was Swan Lake on TV.
What made you want to become a ballet dancer?
I think the first impulse was probably after watching that performance on TV. The image of that woman just floating onstage seemed so beautiful that I felt like I wanted to be part of that world.
What are some of the biggest challenges that you’ve had to overcome in your training and your career?
I don’t want to call it a challenge but when you’ve had as long a career as I’ve had, I think just finding that renewal in your passion for what you do. It’s something you need to keep in check and make sure that it’s there because there are always ups and downs and you have to go back to what drives you, what makes you want to come into the studio every day to work on your craft. I think it’s important.
You’ve had such a long career with the National Ballet, do you ever find that it’s difficult going back to the same repertoire over and over and keeping your passion up?
I feel quite fortunate, actually, that the National Ballet is a company that has changed quite a bit since I’ve been here. I’ve been through three different directorships and each one brought a new and different view of what they wanted the company to be, so I sort of feel that I got to be part of three different companies without having to leave home. I’ve felt very challenged and motivated to have different works created on us, the opportunity to work with many different choreographers, and still have all of the classics that I’ve loved doing, especially when I was younger. It’s very, very challenging. One of the things that inspired me to come and be in this company was the repertoire and that has continued for all these years.
Tell us a little bit about your working relationship with Karen Kain and what makes that collaboration work.
She was a colleague of mine in the company at one point and now she is my boss; we go way back together. It’s been great to see her jump into different facets in her career and find different hats to wear, first as a leading ballerina with the company, and then as an assistant, and also promoting the arts and trying to find funding, and then eventually becoming the Artistic Director, she’s had such a long, personal relationship with this company; it’s been her home for so long, she grew up there. I think it means a lot to her to have the reins and make it what she thinks is the best it can be. It’s been wonderful to work for a female Director and to have that aspect where she can relate to your needs also as a woman and a mother and she’s known me for a long time so it has been great.
You joined the National Ballet in 1990. Since that time, what have been some of your favourite ballets?
I’ve gone through a very wide spectrum of ballets since I started that it’s hard to pinpoint just one or two. I find different pleasure from doing different works and certainly as you develop as a dancer and as an artist, your priorities change a lot. If you had asked me this question ten years ago, I would have had a very different answer. I do hold certain ballets really dear to my heart because they have, at one point or another, meant a lot to me through my career. I love Sleeping Beauty and always have because it was one of the first major leading roles that I did, and it’s such a pure, rewarding role. I love Giselle, because of the challenges technically and because emotionally it has such a wide range for the ballerina. I love character-based ballets because I love being able to dive into a character and become someone else and try to figure out the psyche of the character – I like that sort of psychology aspect of it. There are some beautiful masterpieces we have in our repertoire like Onegin, by John Cranko, and a lot of John Neumeier’s ballets, which are some of the ones I cherish the most just because he’s so intellectual and the characters have so much depth to them. I’ve done The Seagull, various roles in Nijinsky, and A Streecar Named Desire, which was a dream come true. I could talk about a lot of ballets that I love.
Speaking of A Streetcar Named Desire, you’re nominated this year for your work in that ballet. It’s a very physical ballet. How did you prepare for the role and being thrown around like that?
To be honest, I didn’t find that the physicality was the most challenging part, just because we’re all fit and pretty good athletes in the company. We are used to rehearsing a wide range of styles and so we are quite versatile in that sense and I feel that any of the dancers are up to a challenge like that. I think that the major challenge in that ballet was really understanding the character and really becoming her. When I was learning the piece, I knew it was challenging and I knew the depth of the character and how complex it was and how many layers there were in the choreography that were all driven by different emotions and situations that the character was put into. But stepping back and then watching the whole thing, watching different casts and really seeing the whole picture, I realized how much the story depended on that one character and how important it was that she was very strong and very clear and you could not go in and out at any point of who that person was. She really carries the whole story and if she faltered in any way, the whole thing sort of crumbled, so that gave me a real sense that I had to step it up. It was a big weight on my shoulders going into it but it was such a beautiful role and it was so wonderful to get lost in it. It also came at a really good point in my life because I feel that you need a sense of maturity to tackle something like that so I just felt very fortunate that it happened to come along at this point and not five or ten years ago. It is something that I’ll treasure.
There is a unique amount of violence in Streetcar. How did you and your partner, Guillaume Cote, navigate the violence, particularly the sexual violence, in a safe way that you could handle mentally?
It is very graphic, more so than any other ballet I’ve ever done. The whole production is very theatrical. Interestingly enough, in a way it was harder to watch somebody else do it than it was to do it myself. Obviously when you’re rehearsing it, you create certain safety zones that you work around and when you’re learning the pas de deux, it’s really all about learning the technical aspect of it, so that at some point you can let go and really allow the moment to happen in real time and not be rehearsed, per se. Once we had mapped out technically what we had to do, like all the mechanics of ‘you have to be here at this point’, ‘my leg here at this point’, etc., then you can really let go and be in the moment. It’s one of those things that you don’t want to rehearse too much. Once it’s physically mapped out then it’s just a matter of allowing yourself to go through the emotional roller coaster that it is and when you do the run through scene you just really go all the way, but it’s not something that you can just put on, it’s not something where you can say ‘oh I’m going to work on what it feels like to be in this moment’, it’s just something where you have a very good understanding of the character and her journey and the relationship between you and where you each come from. And you can talk about that and talk about what the choreography itself and what the steps are trying to say and how they’re trying to say it and then it’s really just about losing yourself in it.
When you’re working on a ballet that is a literary adaptation like Streetcar, or based on historical people like Nijinsky, how do you research the role and how to best portray those people with accuracy?
At lot of the time you do what, I assume, an actor would. You try to get as much information as is available to you and then you try to picture what their lives are and who they are and why they are the way they are; you really have to put yourself in their shoes and understand a bit about their psychology and how they came to be. And then you have to put your point of view a little bit aside and see what the choreographer is trying to say. For example with Streetcar, it was not like the play in the sense that it was seen through her eyes so John [Neumeier] had decided to tell the story from Blanche’s point of view. If he had picked a different character, then the story would have been different because it would have been his side of the story, so I had to see what John was trying to say and how he saw those characters. He also added a lot of depth to characters who in the play are not given a lot of significance, like Blanche’s previous fiancé, so things like that give you a deeper or different understanding than perhaps just reading the play. You have to work with what he’s trying to present and so you try to figure that out and then there is a lot of conversation back and forth about how he sees it. With John it is a wonderful process because he’s very generous and he puts a lot of thought into everything he choreographs and he does all the work himself. There is a lot to converse about so it’s wonderful.
The National Ballet has been doing a lot of world premieres and new ballets in the repertoire in recent years including things like The Winter’s Tale and Nijinsky and even Streetcar was a debut for the company. Tell us a little bit about working on a new work vs. bringing back something more classic.
If you’re referring to tackling a new work that you haven’t done, it’s always wonderful, especially when they’re such great works as the ones you’ve mentioned. It depends on who you’re working with, but with someone like John Neumeier for example, I feel that within the frame that he has for a character, he gives you a lot of freedom to find yourself in it. He doesn’t try to make you dance it like somebody else so there’s something very rewarding and very challenging and exciting for a dancer to be able to do that work for yourself and see what you can bring to that role instead of just trying do it exactly as someone else has created it; that has been one of the wonderful things about working with John. When you get to do a work again, which usually you do because even world premieres tend to come back so you get to tackle them again three or four years later, it’s a very different experience because now it’s in your body and even though it’s been a few years, it’s amazing how it just doesn’t really leave you so you’re able to work on different things or there’s always something more to find for your character or see something different that maybe you missed before. And then relationships change, casting changes, and so working with different dancers always brings something new to the whole energy and to how the performance develops; those relationships with your partner and with the other characters are really important. It tends to feel fresh in a different way. Essentially, when you tackle a work that you’ve done before, it’s always kind of nice to see what else you can bring to the plate this time around.
In ballet multiple people dance each role so the audience is always seeing something new even if they’ve seen the ballet before. What are some of the ways that you bring something unique to a role and your style of dance is different from some of the other primas in the company?
We all have our own style. We all come from different backgrounds and also just the way we approach things or move naturally is different and just what our priorities are. Our way of working is also different, how you tackle a role – some people may focus more on the physicality of it, some may like working on finding the character first and developing from there. It’s very different and it also depends a lot on who you are working with, who the choreographer is, how much freedom you have. There are certain people who are sticklers about how certain things have to look and there’s not a lot of give there, it has to be a certain way, and other choreographers give you a lot of leeway to explore and to see what you can bring to the choreography, so it depends a lot on which situation you’re in.