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q&a

Sonia Rodriguez: dancer Add to ...

This is the 15th year you've danced in The National Ballet of Canada's Nutcracker ballet. For the last decade, you've even played the same character, the Sugar Plum Fairy. Do you still enjoy the performance?

Oh, definitely. The more comfortable I am, the more I can play around with the role in an artistic way. The reaction from the audience also keeps it fresh. Besides, it's just part of the holidays for many of us, a tradition, and I can't imagine not dancing it.

For many of us, this is the only time of year we even consider going to the ballet. Why is it so popular?

It tells a story most of us can relate to, which is why you see so many kids and younger parents - not our normal audience - coming to the show. Plus it's set to music we've all heard a million times; whether or not you know that it's Tchaikovsky doesn't really matter. It's also one of the company's most lavish productions, with beautiful sets. This year we've got about 40 kids singing in a choir. So it's really appealing to people not especially versed in ballet.

Renowned dance journalist Sarah Kaufman criticized The Nutcracker in a Washington Post article, saying North America's endless remounting of the ballet "has stunted the creative evolution of ballet." In other words, cautious programming that appeals to the masses is diluting ballet as an art form? Is she right?

It sounds like she's saying we shouldn't perform any classical works, or even listen to classical music because, hey, there are so many great new bands out there. Ballet is certainly an evolving art form, and part of the reason I've stayed with the National Ballet for 20 years is it has always kept me challenged artistically. But while performing new works is certainly important, that doesn't mean you shouldn't treasure its history as well. Classical performance is the toughest, most challenging form of dance and forms the base for everything else. So dancers still want to dance to it, and, yes, audiences still want to see it.

You were born in Toronto, lived here for five years, and then lived in Spain until returning to Toronto, at age 17, to join the National Ballet of Canada. Were you ready for the cold?

My mother had exaggerated the cold to a ridiculous level. She'd tell me the snow would reach her thighs. So was this because it snowed a lot, or just because she's so short? Moving back to Toronto was more of a cultural shock than anything else. Toronto is a much newer city than Madrid, and I was used to living in a place with a much richer history. I also spoke very little English, and I was the "new girl" who didn't come up through the Canadian dance-school system. It was very competitive.

Since becoming a principal dancer, in 2000, you've been in the spotlight in front of crowds of thousands, with the ballet but also in televised arena shows with your husband, figure skater Kurt Browning. You also performed in front of 30,000 fans at a Toronto Raptors game. Do your nerves ever get the better of you?

I get butterflies every time, always, before I go on stage. But the nervous energy charges my performance in a good way. It's actually more challenging to perform for a smaller crowd. Big audiences don't scare me; at a certain point you just tune out, a few faces in front of you and a wall of people you can't see.

Do you and Kurt ever surprise people by breaking onto the dance floor in a sweaty club and doing a number?

A number? Well, I don't know about a number. We usually dance separately because he takes over the whole dance floor and it's hard to keep up with him.

So no pairs skating in your future?

I never put on skates till I met Kurt. But I think ballet and figure skating are similar. Figure skating is an artistic sport; it's more than just the athleticism. With ballet it's the opposite: an art form with a major athletic side, which we mask through artistry.

You've got two young kids. What do they think of having semi-famous parents?

What do you mean "semi-famous"? Ha! No, they don't really question it. It's just the way it is. There was one show where my face was plastered in ads on the subway, and somebody pointed it out to one of my boys. And it didn't even phase him. It's the same thing when Kurt's on TV. They're like, "Oh, Dad's on TV again."

Your home was burned down in August. How are you doing?

We're doing okay. We're just thankful that we were all okay. The rest, we'll rebuild and move on. As things start progressing and we see the house going up, we'll get excited eventually. Right now it's just more work, more decisions to make. We lost almost everything; it was a good cleansing time but not something I recommend to anyone.

So is Kurt banned from operating a leaf blower?

We haven't gone out to replace it, if that's what you mean.





This interview has been edited and condensed.



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