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No time to bow out

A popular misconception finds that dancers, like athletes, peak in their 20s. But as the National Ballet of Canada's most senior ballerinas prove, Martha Schabas writes, there are benefits that come with age

Greta Hodgkinson (L), Sonia Rodriguez (C) and Xiao Nan Yu (R), and pose for a picture at a studio inside the Walter Carsen Centre at the National Ballet of Canada, in Toronto, Friday May 26, 2017.

It might be one of Toronto's most idiosyncratic spots, the stretch of road where the crumbling artery into the city's downtown core runs alongside the National Ballet of Canada headquarters. In a window overlooking the Gardiner Expressway, the company's three most senior ballerinas are quick with suggestions on how to pose. Time for a Globe and Mail photo shoot is scarce, an occupational norm in the ballet world. Sonia Rodriguez is in rehearsal for the Canadian premiere of John Neumeier's A Streetcar Named Desire, which opens Saturday night and in which she'll be dancing the canonical role of Blanche DuBois. Greta Hodgkinson and Xiao Nan Yu are both preparing repertoire for the company's annual gala on June 6 – Hodgkinson will be performing in Jiri Kylian's Nuages and Yu in a premiere by choreographic associate Robert Binet.

When the photographer is enthusiastic about what Yu has done with her arms, the statuesque ballerina instructs the others with playful high-handedness, "Do you see what I'm doing!?" As Rodriguez balances inside the window ledge, Hodgkinson keeps reminding her to be careful about slipping. There's a lot of laughter, wryness and warmth; after all, these women have been working together for the better part of their lives. It's Yu's 20th anniversary with the company, Hodgkinson's 25th and Rodriguez's 27th. All three have been in the company since they were teenagers.

There's a popular misconception that dancers, like athletes, peak in their 20s and retire soon after that. The averages reflect this – a 2004 study from the Columbia University Teachers College stated that the average age for American dancers to retire was 34. But this number doesn't account for company rank; it's much more common for a dancer who spends 10 years in the corps de ballet to retire around 30. Principal dancers, barring injury, usually have much longer careers. All eight of the female principal dancers at the National are in their 30s and 40s; the average age is 36.8. (The male principals are a little younger; the average being 31.8). On the female side, this is a little older than the average at larger companies such as the Royal Ballet (female: 33.25; male: 33.5).

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The National Ballet of Canada’s Xiao Nan Yu, Sonia Rodriguez and Greta Hodgkinson have all been with the company for at least 20 years.

Rodriguez, 44, Hodgkinson, 43, and Yu, 39, have a few things in common that might account for their long careers. All are versatile dancers who have been able to distinguish themselves in a range of repertoire and under the leadership of very different artistic directors (Rodriguez and Hodgkinson were hired by Reid Anderson, a traditionalist, in 1990; Yu by James Kudelka, an innovator, in 1996). They've all avoided major injury and continue to push themselves physically; Rodriguez tells me that she's completely reworked her technique for turns in the past year and a half.

More fundamentally, though, they share an almost preternatural devotion to a form that has consumed the bulk of their waking hours and defined who they are.

Career longevity is typically (and unsurprisingly) proportional with renown; when you're great, audiences want you to stick around. Margot Fonteyn famously gave her farewell performance at Covent Garden at the age of 60. Alessandra Ferri, 53, came out of retirement last year to dance Juliet with the American Ballet Theatre. The irreverent French ballerina, Sylvie Guillem, left the Paris Opera Ballet at 50. Wendy Whelan retired from the New York City Ballet at 47; three years later, at 50, she's still performing with more contemporary companies. Canada has its own claim to long-lasting stars: Evelyn Hart left the Royal Winnipeg Ballet at 49; Karen Kain retired as dancer from the National at 46.

When I ask Hodgkinson what she can do better now than she could as a dancer in her 20s, she doesn't hesitate to say: everything. "You hone your craft as you go. All the years of experience come into play when I approach any role, all of that muscle memory and stamina is in your body. When you're young and you're doing all these roles for the first time, there's so much to learn – it's massive." After years of repetition, she says, "You're able to focus and dig deeper. Once you have the technical mastery under your belt, your focus is freed."

Hodgkinson, who was born in Rhode Island and trained at the National Ballet School, joined the company at 16 and was promoted to the rank of principal five years later. A lithe dancer with expressive dark eyes and a reputation for perfectionism (in a field where perfect is the baseline), she was honoured with an Order of Ontario appointment this year for her contribution to ballet. She says that, as a dancer, you become much more efficient with age.

"It's kind of a flip thing because some things become harder – maybe you need to do an extra hour of massage after your run-through. But I actually find that I'm so much more efficient now and having danced these roles, and for so many years, I trust that it's there. I didn't trust myself the same way when I was younger."

Once the photo shoot has wrapped, Yu comes back into the studio in her street clothes – she's a cascade of flows, from her rippling black hair to her wide-legged trousers. She agrees that it's a powerful, underlying confidence that distinguishes a younger ballerina from an older one. "When I was younger, I knew what I could do. But my responsibilities for the whole ballet, for every dancer on that stage – it didn't really link. Now, I know that I can take the whole stage with me." She makes an elegant sweep with her arm to suggest the span of her influence.

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All eight of the female principal dancers at the National Ballet are in their 30s and 40s; the average age is 36.8.

Yu moved from China to Toronto at 17 to study at the National Ballet School; she arrived on her own, speaking next to no English. This season, she reprised one of her favourite roles, Tatiana in Onegin, which she first danced at 22. For her, the evolution in her performance has everything to do with her presence and availability.

"My intentions as Tatiana are the same, but now I'm able to look and see that there's a story coming back from across the stage."

Rodriguez is a little less convinced that, in an industry that requires constant self-scrutiny and dangles the illusion that perfection is attainable, confidence is always something cumulative. We sit together on the studio floor and she becomes visibly emotional as she tells me about a couple of rough patches in her career. "You don't go through 27 years without having ups and downs."

She laughs, then becomes a little wistful. "Even when what you're doing is great, it's your job to find what's not great – it's not necessarily the most positive environment. At one point I hit a low, the environment itself felt like too much for me. Just the pressures … I was really doubting my ability, I started questioning whether I was really worthy of being on stage. I didn't even want to come into the studio."

Rodriguez is both forthright and gentle as she speaks, revealing the faintest trace of a Spanish accent (she was born in Toronto, but grew up mostly in Madrid). Her green eyes have a disarming intensity; even as the memories overtake her, she continues to meet my gaze. She tells me that she sought help outside the dance world, speaking to a psychologist who knew nothing about ballet.

"I found myself explaining my feelings, and the environment that was causing them, and then I would go 'this sounds so absurd.' All of a sudden, it seemed so petty. It opened my eyes to not caring about what this outside influence was thinking or doing. It was liberating." She pauses. "Sometimes your whole world becomes so small."

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She adds that having children was also incredibly empowering and put the daily challenges of ballet into some perspective. Interestingly, all three ballerinas are mothers to two children, and Yu echoes how much having less time meant she wrung every drop of productivity out of what was available. "You go, 'okay, I have only two hours in the studio, so I need to work that much more,'" Yu says.

Yu, 39, Rodriguez, 44, and Hodgkinson, 43, are all versatile dancers who have been able to distinguish themselves in a range of repertoire and under the leadership of very different artistic directors.

"It's not an easy life by any means," Rodriguez says, "but I feel like the most fortunate person to do what I love every day. It's not even the performing part; for me, the process is as rewarding as being on stage. The relationships you forge with your colleagues, especially your partners, the trust you have to develop to be able to accomplish what we do, that kind of intimacy – I don't think you can attain that in many other workplaces."

She pauses. "There's such a humanity in what we do – it's amazing."

I get a flash of Yu's rigorous discipline when I ask her what advice she gives to younger dancers. "Try harder," she says, narrowing her eyes. "Even when you think you're trying hard there's always this little bit –" she brings her thumb and index finger together.

"Twenty years fly by. You need to use every minute."

When I ask what they plan to do after dancing, an eventuality that can't be too far off, there's a lot of hemming and hawing; no one has concrete plans. Hodgkinson is sure that she wants to stay in the realm of performance, while Yu expresses an interest in studying psychology. Rodriguez, for her part, wants to take a significant break.

"It's hard when you think about it, because it's not a job. It's an identity: You're always a dancer. I've been doing this my entire life."

She sighs very deeply. "So first and foremost, I'm going to take some time for myself."

A Streetcar Named Desire runs June 3-10; the Mad Hot Ballet Gala is June 6 (national.ballet.ca).

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