The National Ballet of Canada's newest principal dancer, Bridgett Zehr, is special, according to the highest authority - company artistic director Karen Kain, coach Magdalena Popa, and dance partner and fellow principal dancer Guillaume Côté.
"When Bridgett came into the company," says Côté, "everyone knew it would be a quick ride to the top."
Zehr entered the Toronto-based National Ballet as a second soloist in 2006, and with rocket speed was promoted to first soloist in 2007 and principal dancer this summer. Zehr will perform her first Princess Aurora in Rudolf Nureyev's very challenging version of The Sleeping Beauty in the matinee this Sunday.
Aurora is the Mount Everest of classical ballet technique, and excelling in the role would place Zehr, 24, among a rarefied pantheon of ballerinas.
Even more impressive about Zehr's rise is that she lost almost a year due to a non-union stress fracture in her foot. The corrective surgery in 2008 required two bone grafts from her hip. Says Zehr: "I was pushing myself too hard and I've had to learn to become as passionate about looking after myself as I am about ballet." Zehr feels her road to good health has been influenced by the teachings of German-born, Vancouver-based spiritual leader Eckhart Tolle, author of A New Earth and The Power of Now.
Zehr was born in Sarasota, Fla. To audition for the Sarasota Ballet of Florida's free after-school program for lower-income children, Dance: The Next Generation, children were supposed to be 9, but Zehr was accepted when she was 7. A full scholarship to the ballet's school followed, and by the time she was 14, dance had become Zehr's all-consuming passion. "In my free time, I watched ballet videos," she says.
She spent three years at the Harid Conservatory in Boca Raton, Fla., when she felt she had outgrown her Sarasota teachers. A similar desire for "something bigger" triggered her audition for the Houston Ballet's Ben Stevenson Academy in her senior year. At the school, academics were via correspondence course, and Zehr sheepishly admits that she never graduated from high school (which hasn't stopped her from being a New York Times crossword-puzzle fanatic). When she was 17, artistic director Stanton Welch took her into Houston Ballet as an apprentice. According to National corps member McGee Maddox, 23, who knew Zehr when he danced in Houston, the dancer was, and is, absolutely focused on dance.
"Bridgett is endowed with a gifted body, flexible long limbs, high extensions, delicate port de bras, impeccable technique and a knack for characterization. In person, she is humble and sweet, but onstage she can be passionate and emotional. Even as an apprentice, she was getting leading roles like Calliope in Balanchine's Apollo . My classmates and I loved watching her in rehearsal."
Zehr was promoted to soloist in Houston in 2006, but she was feeling restless again. "I wanted a company that understood the art of ballet," she explains. She auditioned for the National that year after hearing positive things about the company from her former Houston colleague and current National principal dancer Zdenek Konvalina. (Konvalina is now her significant other.) Both Kain and Popa were so impressed that even though no soloist contracts were available, a private donor was found to underwrite Zehr's salary.
Says Kain: "Bridgett has a kind of magic. Her musicality, her beautiful line, her co-ordination speak of her undeniable talent. It is like a light shining in her." And Popa adds words like "sensitive, intelligent and versatile." She points to Zehr's surprising sensuality in roles like Carmen, and her ability to produce movement that is both powerful and dynamic.
"Every single part of her body is expressive," says Popa.
Zehr's fragile appearance belies a strong personality that is both willful and determined. Côté compares Zehr's work ethic and her penchant for detail to that of legendary Royal Winnipeg Ballet ballerina Evelyn Hart. "Bridgett understands that dance is all about communication," he says.
And Zehr adds: "I love to tell a story. I want to make Aurora human."
The Sleeping Beauty runs from Friday to Nov. 22 at Toronto's Four Seasons Centre. Bridgett Zehr performs Aurora, dancing with Guillaume Côté, in the Sunday, Nov. 15 matinee.