The best dancers can seem capable of a slightly spooky transposition: the ability to express the inexpressible through their bodies.
It's an idea that recurs while I'm watching certain performances, and it hit me at full force when I first saw Jurgita Dronina dance with the National Ballet of Canada. She joined the company in the fall of 2015, but I didn't see her on stage until the following spring, when she performed the title role in La Sylphide. The Romantic-era ballet is the oldest still produced by major companies and watching it is a bit like being teleported back to the origins of ballet itself. Dronina's mystical, yet unaffected, embodiment of the half-woman/half-ghost made me think of first-hand accounts of the earliest ballerinas, when the image of a dancer in a long tutu, rising onto the tips of her toes, must have felt as surprising and timely as … Beyoncé smashing car windows in Lemonade.
Just a few weeks ago, audiences in London were treated to the Russian-born, Lithuanian-raised ballerina reprising the role of the ethereal sylph – this time in a version by Danish choreographer Frank Andersen. That's because Dronina is an official member of not one, but two, major companies. For the 2017-18 season, she has joined the English National Ballet as a principal dancer, while maintaining her position as a principal at the National Ballet.
"Sometimes I call it being at the right place at the right time," Dronina says in an interview, smiling. "It was completely unplanned." She modestly lists the series of events and coincidences that made the double-appointment happen. Last winter, she was a guest principal dancer with the ENB, performing Giselle in London and Coppélia in Japan. Then principal dancer Alina Cojocaru announced she was taking maternity leave. This left Dronina's former dancing partner, Isaac Hernandez, without a ballerina to dance with. When ENB artistic director Tamara Rojo went looking to fill the contract, Dronina was already on her mind.
But there's a flash of the underlying ambition in her pale blue eyes when she explains what the second contract means to her career. "I want to be on the international map. I don't want to dance in one theatre and that's it – it's just not who I am. That means I need as many audiences as I can get … and a whole other repertoire means twice as much dancing." Moreover, this is hardly the first of Dronina's affiliations with prestigious companies; before the National, she was a principal dancer with the Dutch National Ballet and The Royal Swedish Ballet.
Since early summer, Dronina's schedule has her regularly bouncing back and forth across the Atlantic. The day after her final performance of John Neumeier's A Streetcar Named Desire in Toronto last June, she got on plane to begin rehearsals for Romeo and Juliet in London. Now, as she prepares for her reprisal of Hermione in the National's The Winter's Tale on Saturday night, she's already rehearsing another Shakespearean heroine. Later this month, she'll dance Rudolf Nureyev's Romeo and Juliet in London. There are international galas on top of all that. Just more than a week ago, she performed the grand pas classique in front of a packed Sony Centre at Toronto's second Canada All Star Ballet Gala. Two days before our interview, she was dancing a Don Quixote pas de deux at the Youth America Grand Prix in Mexico.
Dronina thrives off this kind of busyness, but her double-barrelled schedule is also possible because of the women at the helm of both companies: Karen Kain and Tamara Rojo. In an industry dominated by male artistic directors and choreographers, Dronina has landed at the only two major companies run by women. "What I love most about that is both of them were leading, world-calibre dancers. They know what it is to be an internationally renowned ballerina and what I want out of it. It's very important to have the directors understanding that I want to travel. And it's amazing to know that after each performance, they see what you do and they appreciate it. Artistically. Both women have a clear vision for their company, and it's wonderful to agree with both."
Dronina is a technically strong and musical dancer; her expressive upper-body and graceful port de bras are matched by dynamic footwork and powerful jumps. But what distinguishes her artistry is the sense of fullness, joy, and sensitivity that she brings to her interpretations. She's a consummate actress and works tirelessly to master technical details in the studio so that she can rise above them on stage and focus on the role. Because of that, she thinks her performances get better with repetition. "The choreography becomes second-nature and I sink deeper and deeper into the character," she says.
These days, it's the psychological challenges that give her the most pleasure and demand the most work. Dancing Blanche in Neumeier's Streetcar at the National last June was a career-changing experience. "I've worked with John many times, but the role – I've never done anything so layered. Blanche basically never leaves the stage and to carry the story, the intention, from the first moment you enter, and to be able to show everything that goes on in your head – when it's a memory and when it's a reality – everything has to be so clear. That was a real challenge. It took me a long time to re-read the play and figure out how it connected to moments in the ballet – not just the steps, but the gestures, even the eyes." She gives a quick demonstration of how a new thought can instantly darken her stare. "It made me realize how much you can do by doing so little and being very exact with your thoughts. Every thought reads."
The idea of creating a blueprint of onstage thought – mapping a character's psychological journey in order to trigger her emotional one – is becoming a key part of Dronina's process. It's given her new insight into The Winter's Tale's Hermione, a role she'll reprise on Saturday night. Dronina has danced the part with the National Ballet many times, both in Toronto and on tour; still, she feels she's discovering new details about the character's quiet but powerful resistance. "There's a line in the play where she says something like, 'I'm not going to cry, I refuse to cry' – the more I've thought about this, the more it's changed my approach. In the big picture, she's still a victim of jealousy, but I don't think it has to be played so literally."
Will Dronina be able to apply this thought-oriented methodology when she revisits Nureyev's Romeo and Juliet in London in a few weeks? "Of course." She smiles, and narrows her eyes a little. "I never finish my work on the premiere. The premiere is just the beginning."
Reflecting on the season ahead, Dronina says it all feels a bit too good to be true. "I go home and think, 'Am I really living this life?' I always travelled, but I never thought it could be a reality to belong to these two best companies … Sometimes, very rarely, I do believe in things that are meant to be."
The Winter's Tale continues until Nov. 19 at the Four Seasons Centre for the Arts.