Elena Lobsanova is convinced that she's a very unfocused person. "I'm really sensitive to distractions," the National Ballet of Canada principal dancer says with a self-deprecating sigh. "In [ballet] class, at the Walter Carsen Centre, I go crazy because there are mirrors everywhere and I can't stand it. Little things really affect me and I have to find my way around them."
You wouldn't quite believe it if you've seen Lobsanova on stage, which Toronto audiences will have a chance to do again next week. The National Ballet's production of The Sleeping Beauty, which opens on Thursday night, will feature two debuts in the quintessential, late-19th-century role of Princess Aurora: Lobsanova and first soloist Alexandra MacDonald.
Lobsanova is the kind of rare performer who seems to undergo a transformation on stage, peeling back a social veneer to expose a layer of unprocessed feeling. You see this quality sometimes in the best stage actors, but it's even more uncanny to witness in a dancer, because the intensity is fully embodied and can feel larger than life. The Moscow-born, Toronto-raised ballerina has been with the company for 14 years, three at the rank of principal, and already has an impressive repertoire under her belt, including
Giselle, La Sylphide and Romeo and Juliet. But I can't say that I'm entirely surprised to hear that she struggles with focus and memorizing sequences of steps, a problem she wryly calls "chronic." Lobsanova seems so unusual and genuine as an artist that it's easy to imagine her tripped up by the job's more quotidian demands.
She tells me that she's learned to deal with her racing mind with a set regimen, inspired partly by her interest in theology, which she's developed in the past few years. "It's reaffirmed for me that you don't need to focus on so many things – separating movement or corrections, isolating muscles – to create a work of art. For me, it's so important to keep one true thing in mind, so that the rest of the things you do become subject to that one true thing."
For the role of Aurora, a good chat with former prima ballerina Evelyn Hart has been hugely influential. "She said, the third act? It's like sex," Lobsanova tells me with a laugh. "And I got it. I thought, this is actually amazing, because [Aurora] is a really pure person, but she's ready for marriage, she's ready to have children, she's ready to be a queen and take on serious responsibility. In a way, there's a slight sensual undertone to the variation." Lobsanova hums the famous sequence of Tchaikovsky's music. "You know the passées? It's actually quite sensual; you're preparing yourself for this man – and it was just amazing for me to hear that."
The Sleeping Beauty will be MacDonald's first lead role in a full-evening ballet – it's exciting (and overdue) to see artistic director Karen Kain push her into more ambitious parts. Because of her blend of sheer physical power, immaculate technique and stately classical presence, MacDonald is a dancer who commands attention on stage. Last summer, in the company's production of Swan Lake, she turned the relatively small role of the Hungarian Princess into a scene-stealer because of her stylish mastery of the part's unwieldy, staccato footwork. In 2016, she took my breath away in The Four Temperaments – a dead ringer for the best Balanchine ballerinas with her speed, unfettered confidence and musicality.
Despite seeming made of boundless energy and strength, MacDonald tells me that stamina is her primary challenge for Aurora. Working closely with company ballet mistress Magdalena Popa, she's learning how to be powerful and calm at the same time. "It's amazing choreography, such a gem of a ballet. It is so rewarding, but it's a mountain to climb." MacDonald chuckles. "It's a four-act ballet. … It's a lot of dancing, more than I've ever done. Pacing is key, where to push and where to breathe. Figuring out how to expend my energy."
MacDonald relishes these physical trials and the ritualistic nature of her career. "One of my favourite parts about being in the company and being a dancer is coming in every single day and learning more and more about how to push my body – where I can take it and, 'oh that muscle wasn't working yesterday, now it's working today – what did I do differently?' I just love the anatomy behind things. I love the theory behind all the techniques we're using and I love exploring that," she effuses.
For Lobsanova, there's a constant and necessary overlap between life and work, and while she says the greatest joy of being a dancer is being able to give "everything you've got," she thinks the biggest sacrifice can be relationships. "For me at least – for everyone it's different – but for me, you've got to be a monk to be a dancer."
I ask whether she means because of time constraints or something more fundamental. "We're so weird," she explains, sounding a little ironic but utterly unapologetic. "At least I am. I don't know, we're just different creatures. It's always needing to talk about things that people don't want to hear – it's not realistic. It's just very – I don't know, like, metaphysical."
In January, Lobsanova had her first work performed at the company's choreographic workshop – a subtle and very contemporary piece titled 3(4), set largely to music by Arvo Part. But she's modest and evasive when I ask about the possibility of future creations.
"I just want to be creative," she continues. "Even in my downtime. Playing piano, reading, drawing. I always have to return to the thought: 'What if I had nothing? What if there were a nuclear war tomorrow?' You know – you always have to be happy – you always have to look back and see your actions." She pauses. "And with that means constant activity, constant reflection, constant communication, constant creativity. It's really a cyclical thing."
The Sleeping Beauty will be presented at Toronto's Four Seasons Centre from March 8-18 (national.ballet.ca).