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An Exclusive Interview with Dancer, Jamie Kopit From The American Ballet Theatre

Run time: March 3rd- 8th, 2015

Written By: Angela Hatcher

The darling of storybook fairytales awakens hearts and propels true emotion with its kiss of majestic grace and elegance. The Segerstrom Center for the Arts presents American Ballet Theatre’s World Premiere of the classical full-length ballet The Sleeping Beauty.

This grand and opulent ballet is choreographed by Marius Petipa with staging and additional choreography by renowned American Ballet Theatre Company’s Artist in Residence Alexei Ratmansky. Lavish sets and extravagant costumes are designed by Tony-award winning designer Richard Hudson. The costumes are based on the historic work of Leon Bakst, who created a seminal version of The Sleeping Beauty for Serge Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes in 1921. Under the baton of Musical Director, Ormsby Wilkins, Pacific Symphony performs Peter Tchaikovsky’s exquisite musical score.

Ratmansky began the monumental task of creating a perfect melding of music and intricate steps while insisting on keeping the integrity of the 19th-Century ballet intact. According to Elizabeth Kaye, esteemed author of “American Ballet Theatre: A Twenty-Five Year Retrospective, ” Ratmansky painstakingly searched through photographs, videos, studied bits and pieces of film and researched everything he could get his hands on. He was a man on a mission insistent not to alter or change the performance, but to recreate the ballet in its splendor as it was originally written and meant to be danced and seen. Kaye explained that the classics are much more challenging and demanding because they don’t stop, never pause and are not like anything else. Ratmansky is a former principal dancer with the Ukranian National Ballet, an award-winning choreographer, an artist with a vision, and he has achieved what some may have thought the impossible. With his assistant, wife Tatiana (also a former dancer), he brought back the artistry and the beauty of the archetypal The Sleeping Beauty Ballet as it was originally fashioned, and the result is breathtaking.

From the corps de ballet to the principal dancers, there is an engaging connection between the finest disciplined dancers, their physical eloquence, the lavish sets and costumes, and the distinctiveness of storytelling through dance. Once the curtain goes up, the audience becomes trancelike as the crowd is swept away by the magical fable on pointe. Hudson’s scenery and set design are alarmingly beautiful with its majestic castle, pillars that reach the sky, and the sumptuousness of the royal kingdom is indeed fit for a king.

Although ABT’s production is vast, there is not a single detail that has been overlooked. The stage is filled with dancers with perfect lines in glittering silks and satins, fantastic headdresses and hats, and soft flowing fabrics. In the opening scene, the King and Queen are celebrating the christening of their daughter, Princess Aurora. There are children dancing around, fairies floating about, and the Royal Palace’s joyful Gala is an elegant affair. But then, the uninvited evil fairy Caraboose crashes the party – and the Royals realize they had forgotten to include Caraboose. The angry Caraboose puts a deadly spell on Aurora. Caraboose announces that Aurora will prick her finger on the day of her 16th birthday, and she will then die. But the good Lilac Fairy intervenes and tries to soften the blow with her declaration that although Aurora will indeed prick her finger on a deadly spindle, she shall not die but sleep for one hundred years and then … she shall be awakened by a prince. Aurora’s fate comes to pass, and on her 16th birthday, she falls into a century-long slumber. Aurora’s prince comes to save her, and “happily-ever-after” is a mere kiss away.

There are five dancers sharing the principal role of Princess Aurora on various evening and matinee performances, and they are Diana Vishneva, Gillian Murphy, Hee Seo, Paloma Herrera, Isabella Boylston. On the evening of this review, world-class Russian ballerina Diana Vishneva danced the part of Aurora. Vishneva’s graceful lines, elegant stature, perfect pirouettes, technical precision and strength is hypnotic, but it is also her generosity as a performer that makes her as enchanting as a soloist as she is with her partner.

Marcelo Gomes portrayed Prince Desire to his Aurora on this eve. As Gomes glides across the stage, he exudes tremendous confidence and power in his dancing, and with perfect posture, masterful jumps, and beautiful lines, he is magnificent to watch. The other dancers sharing in the role of the Prince during different performances are Cory Stearns, Alexandre Hammoudi, Denys Nedak (guest artist) and Joseph Gorak.

ABT’s The Sleeping Beauty brings drama, expression, physicality, precision, sophistication, and beauty to the stage without compromise. When asked, corps de ballet dancer, Jamie Kopit said, “I hope they (audiences) are moved by the beauty of ballet.” It is impossible not to be moved by this production, and it is probable that for many, Sleeping Beauty is a new awakening.

American Ballet Theatre’s lovely corps de ballet dancer, Jamie Kopit rested her twinkle toes long enough to sit down with me, and here’s what she had to say:

kopit

Q: Who did you look up to as a dance role model when you were a child? Was there anyone who inspired you to want to be like him or her?

Jamie Kopit: As a young aspiring dancer I had countless idols in the dance world. I spent most nights after my daily ballet training, watching videos of the world’s leading dancers on YouTube. That’s the incredible thing about being an artist in the technological era; you’re so easily exposed to what’s out there. Now, being in the American Ballet Theatre, I am constantly inspired by the dancers around me. I am incredibly privileged to rehearse and perform with the best dancers in the world, many of which were the exact dancers I watched on the internet as a teenager. From working beside them and knowing them as people, I began to look up to them even more. Like me, they have made it their life’s work to grow as artists and contribute to this beautiful art form. The dancers that have the strongest work ethic and the humblest of hearts are the people I idolize the most. Two of my biggest inspirations in the company are Stella Abrera and Christine Shevchenko.

Q: When did you start taking ballet lessons? Where did you study when you were young?

JK: My parents enrolled me in ballet classes shortly after my older sister had started. I was three years old and began at Southland Ballet Academy in Fountain Valley. I trained there until I was 15 years old. Then I received a scholarship to attend the Royal Ballet Upper School in London.

Q: When did you know that you wanted to be a professional dancer? If you weren’t a dancer what would you be?

JK: When I was about 13 years old, I began to realize that ballet was not only a passion of mine, but a potential career. I was starting to get encouragement from teachers and began to take it more seriously. If I weren’t a dancer, I’d be doing something science related. I’ve always been fascinated by psychology. My grandpa was a psychology professor. I’m currently attending classes for undergrad through St. Mary’s University on Sunday nights. The idea is that by the time I’ve retired, from a hopefully long and satisfying career as a dancer, it will be easier for me to make a career transition into a completely different field.

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Q: What came first for you, learning the technical aspects of your part in Sleeping Beauty or finding the spirit and the soul of your character?

JK: Most rehearsals with Ratmansky start with learning the choreography first, then developing the particular character within the steps. However, the rest of the company and I are all obviously aware of the story of Sleeping Beauty. That being said, I went into rehearsals already having a sense of what my particular character was supposed to convey. What is so interesting and challenging is how differently Ratmansky wants us to approach our roles. Instead of expressing ourselves with high extensions and exaggerated por de bras, he is challenging us to project with more subtle movement. Since he is trying to recreate the original Sleeping Beauty, the movement to us dancers seems “old-fashioned, ” but has a real and genuine quality to it that is beautiful. He tells us dancers that if we don’t believe our characters, then the audience won’t either. Every step and every gesture have a purpose. I’ve found that I am getting a better grasp on how to convey each of my roles as I practice and rehearse them more and more.

Q: What roles are you playing, and what did you do to prepare for your roles in this all new world premiere of Sleeping Beauty?

JK: As a member of the corps de ballet, I have the responsibility of performing many different roles. Little Red Riding Hood is a solo role that I have the honor of performing, but I am also a Garland Waltz dancer, one of Aurora’s Maids of Honor, a Peasant, a Nymph, a Duchess and a Mazurka dancer! It is difficult to keep track of all these roles in various casts, especially with the little time we have to put on the production. It’s great as a performer though since the show always feels fresh and exciting. It’s fun changing personalities from act to act. You really have to be present and in the moment.

Q: What’s it like to work at ABT? And with Alexei Ratmansky?

JK: American Ballet Theatre is one of the greatest ballet companies in the entire world, and I still can’t’ believe I am a part of it. Working with Alexei is incredible. He pushes us dancers both technically and artistically. Sometimes so much it is frustrating! He believes each of us is capable of incredible things. After every rehearsal with him, I feel like I gain strength technically as a dancer. We all have so much respect for him and are so eager to make his vision a reality. When he asks for more, we find a way to do it. It’s so great to feel challenged, especially as a corps dancer. In the Garland Waltz, he expects all 16 couples to be immaculate. It’s not about the principle roles, but the entire production as a whole.

Q: If you were put under a spell for 100 years and awakened by a kiss in 2115, what would you tell young dancers about this experience and what it was like to have been a professional dancer in 2015?

JK: The dance world, especially the ballet world, is incredibly tough. Young dancers have to be hardworking, dedicated and determined. Most importantly, they have to LOVE it. There is no way a dancer would be able to do what we do if they didn’t enjoy every second they were dancing. We work 5 – 6 days a week, dancing between 8 – 12 hours a day. We are constantly criticized, but we crave it. We love being told what could have been done better. We are always striving to grow; we are never satisfied with ourselves. Ballet is not for those who seek constant approval or praise. The standards of ballet are being raised every day, and we raise our own standards with it.

Q: What is the best thing about being part of this prestigious ballet company? What is the most challenging?

JK: Being part of a large and prestigious company such as American Ballet Theatre has so many benefits as a dancer. I get to perform repertoire by legendary choreographers with the best dancers all over the world. There is never a lack of excitement at ABT! However, what’s difficult is dealing with the intense level of competition amongst one’s colleagues. Since the level of talent is so high, many dancers don’t have as many opportunities to perform roles they dream of dancing. That being said, it is harder to climb the ranks within the company. Many dancers have to be satisfied retiring as a corps de ballet member.

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Q: Many folks have the impression that classically trained ballet dancers are serious most of the time. Can you dispel these rumors?

JK: I’ve found that most dancers who make it professionally take their art form incredibly seriously. We have focused on perfecting ourselves technically, physically, and artistically for all of our lives! However, if I let the ballet take over my life completely, I’d go crazy! It’s important for dancers not to let their career shut out all that life has to offer.

I’ve found that the most beautiful and mature dancers live the most well-rounded lives. I read, watch the news, go to concerts and take college courses to keep my mind off dance when I’m not actually dancing. I make a point of spending time with friends who know little to nothing about ballet, so I can escape the stress from work when I am not working. I’ve found that this allows me to walk into the studios each morning refreshed and ready to work my hardest. Also, I tend to laugh a lot while in rehearsal. Ballet is so stressful, and we are all trying to be perfect all the time. It is important to incorporate humor into our everyday work. Our job would be miserable if we didn’t know how to laugh at ourselves every once in awhile!

Q: What do you hope audiences will take away from this performance?

JK: I hope that audiences will feel something when they watch this production. I hope they are moved by the beauty of ballet as much as I am. And I hope it makes them want to see more of it!

Q: What do you do for fun? Aside from the world of classical ballet, have you ever been known to “bust a move” on the dance floor?

JK: I love going out with friends or simply watching Netflix or reading a book with my cat at home. I tend to have friends over at my place a lot. It’s fun to entertain. Us dancers love to go out dancing, especially on tour. It’s funny since our day off is usually Monday, so we are always trying to go to clubs on Sunday nights. It usually is just a bunch of dancers taking over a completely empty dance floor and having the time of their lives. Most of us look pretty ridiculous, but we honestly could care less! We’re a fun group.

Segerstrom Center for the Arts
600 Town Center Drive
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www.scfta.org