Sonia Rodríguez, Spanish influence in the National Ballet of Canada
Sonia Rodriguez (Toronto, 1972) is the main dancer of the National Ballet of Canada. With spanish parents, and living in Spain from the age of 5 until the age of 17, she took dance lessons with Pedro de la Cruz. Life took her back to Canada in 1990 to claim her spot in the prestigious academy of Toronto. Since then, her career has grown and she has become one of the more solid and brilliant dancers of the international scenery. Sonia has interpreted the leading role in some of the most important and popular plays such as “The swan’s lake”, “Romeo and Juliet”, “The Sleeping Beauty”, “Giselle”, “Hamlet”, or “Alice in Wonderland”.
In the year 2000 she became a dancer in the National Ballet and strengthened her career with new choreographies such as when she played Dulcinea in the world premiere of “Don Quixote” of George Balanchine in Washington in 2005. She has performed in the most important stages of the world and has imposed her strong personality and expressions as a dancer. In this interview with Panamerican World, Sonia Rodriguez speaks about her life as a dance star, her experiences as an emigrant, her experience in Canada and her role as a mother (she has two kids, 10 and 6 years old). She also wrote a children’s book “T is for Tutu” and since 2012 she has her own star in Toronto’s hall of fame.
Sonia has been defying stereotypes from the beginning. You would expect to find a dancing diva but she is more like a regular mother of two children, that are with her during the interview. Far from the lights of the stage and the sophistication of dance there is a very natural and charismatic Sonia; something heartwarming for the interviewer, that was expecting a rigid and distant interview. Non of this happened. She used a tone that was both solemn and firm when she talked about her profession, as if she wanted to shake off any doubt about her noble and sacred character. She has her feelings towards dancing so interiorized in her. that these flow with the beauty of her honest words. That is the same passion that makes her different on stage, according to the critics. But with the same honesty she also looks for the most vulnerable corners of her brain, those in which the lights turn off and the only thing that remains are the insecurity of a dancer seeing herself in the mirror. That’s when she speaks as a mother or simply as a woman.
Your life is a trip back and forth. You were born in Canada, grew up in Spain but you became professionally successful in Toronto.
That’s right. I came here because the company offered a spot for me, and also because I wanted to get to know the country I was born in and I left at the age of five. I had always felt different in Spain because I came from Canada, even though I didn’t know anything about this place. To me it was something exotic my mom used to talk about… She talked about the cold and the terrible winters. Everything she said sounded so different to Spain; but when I came back here at the age of 17 I checked that all she said was certainly true.
How did the possibility of becoming part of the National Ballet of Canada rise?
I went to Capri (Italy) to compete in the Enrico Cecchetti. They jury can sometimes offer the winners contracts or different kinds of offers. The point is, I won that competition and the director of the National Ballet’s school, Betty Oliphant, talked to me about the school and thought I could fit in. But since I was so young she offered me a year at the school first. I came back to Spain thinking about the offer but I didn’t know anything new until several months later. I came to Toronto to audition, the fourteenth of february of 1990 and they offered me a contract.
Did you think then that you would be there for almost 25 years?
You never think that. I see it now, and it was one of the moments that shaped my life, how it was going to be. I always thought it was going to be something temporary, I saw it as a good experience and a way to meet people and grow professionally, nothing more than that. Then, I was very interested in the repertory they worked with and that influenced me. But I never thought I would be there for so long.
What did your parents say? It was the daughter the one going back to Canada…
I wasn’t ready. I thought it would be a great adventure but I didn’t realize what it meant until I signed the contract. It was then when I realized I was going to leave my family in Spain. I called my mom, and started crying on the phone. My dad and my mom where more ready than I was, they knew I had to leave Spain if I wanted to develop my profession as a classical dancer because there was no future for me there.
You come back to Toronto, 17 years old, in 1990. How was that reunion with the city you were born in?
It was all very different, I thought I was coming to the North Pole. I met with a city that was younger than I expected and also a city with very little culture, and that got me at first. I had traveled to other cities in Europe in which you smell their history in every building, every square. But here I was bothered by how young the city was. But with time, that helped me in that time to value things about Spain and Europe in a way that I didn’t before, because they were part of my natural environment; I’m talking about the architecture, history, and other things you don’t value when you have them around you.
How was the arrival of a Spanish teenager in the National Ballet of Canada?
The dancing world is generally the same everywhere because every company is very multicultural and cosmopolitan. So you take naturally the fact that people come from other places. To me the language was the main barrier because in all my years in Spain I had barely practiced my english and I met with a group that in many cases was very tight because they had been working together for many years. I smiled and pretended like I understood… maybe that’s what I was always smiling and always quiet and I fit in since the beginning.
How was the National Ballet of Canada when you first got in, in 1990?
It was a very well known company and very welcoming too. They were, and are very nice and generous but in general they are more reserved than spanish people generally are.
Does your spanish blood shape your character in any way?
I was born in Canada but I developed as a person in Spain and my oldest son was born in Spain but is growing up in Canada. It’s a great paradox in my life. I, really, feel more from Spain because I grew up there, but I feel the emigrant’s curse: you end up being from nowhere. I notice I am very different here than in Spain. In Canada I don’t develop personally in the same way I do in Spain, but when I go there I notice something pulls me towards Canada.
How does that kind of “binational schizophrenia” influence your personality as a dancer?
Spanish people are more open, and also more honest and direct. That is the part of our character that I still have. My coaches are the ones who suffer in a more direct way, because my character is always out there. That is fine for some things, but for some others it is not very recommendable; specially for those people that are close to you, that coach you and take care of you. It is them who suffer when I lose my temper during training sessions and behind the stage. But spanish people are also very passionate, and for an artist, that is a great quality.
Talk to me about that passion on stage?
I have never felt that I’m different because I’m Spanish. But it is true that as an artist I have always been someone who doesn’t mind being vulnerable and open herself without any modesty, and I manage to portray those feelings on stage as something real, not as something acted.
How are you on stage, which of all the different foci and silences highlight your movements?
The attraction towards ballet hasn’t been something only physical but emotional too. It has been a way to express myself that I wouldn’t have done or explore in a different way. This way of expressing my feelings through dancing has made me feel totally free on stage. It is what I like the most, the freedom of being on a stage and throwing those experiences and emotions in such a profound way. When you love on stage it seems like you love much more and when you suffer, too. All this happens because that time is pure and nothing else matters: there is nothing that keeps me from expressing myself freely. That’s why I dance. In some way, I wish I was always like that, out of the stage too, free from any chain.
Did you ever dream about being the main dancer of the National Ballet of Canada?
I never did this to be famous but because it was something I had to do. I am here since so long ago because I saw it gave me the opportunities I needed as an artist. As a dancer your goal is always to do “Romeo and Juliet” or Giselle; but my concrete hopes weren’t those. However, you always dream about doing those. What I really didn’t expect was to enjoy such a long career and so full of opportunities.
How is it to dance in Toronto, your home?
That’s it, I feel I’m dancing at home, in my teathre. I know people, and you know they come to see you because they admire you. When you leave Toronto it is very exciting because you face new crowds you need to conquer but here is where I feel the most comfortable and safe.
Which play has made you feel the most accomplished?
There has been many ballets after 25 years. It is that time in which you are so into the role you are playing that you don’t think about anything else… it is that time that makes me feel the most accomplished. Of course, there’s roles that allow you to develop more than others. The first time I did the Sleeping Beauty -it was my first main role in the 90s-, I got the role after an audition to which another dancer was also applying to, who was already a main dancer and she also wanted to play that role. I felt they were giving me their trust and I felt I was ready to do it.
And which choreography has allowed you to express yourself more freely?
I love Cranko and John Mayer’s ballets; I like both because they are choreographers that have a great category to tell a story. When you execute the play you don’t think about the steps you learned, that becomes secondary in the choreography. Mayer is alive and that allows me to have a tight relationship with him when we are preparing a play, and it allows me to identify myself with him and talk to him about how to execute and interpret the character in that play.
What are you most proud of?
My two sons without a doubt. And also of having a career that has filled me, and given me so much.
Tell me which has been the worst time in your career?
There has been a lot, almost always product of stress and competition. This is a very critical world, they are always criticizing you and you are always criticizing yourself. You spend seven hours a day looking for a perfection that is impossible to accomplish and the only thing you hear is precisely what you are doing wrong. Sometimes you just have to remind yourself that you are doing things right. And in such a rough environment, if you don’t have the capacity and mental power you need you can feel very dejected.
Is all of that compensated by the public’s ovations and the cajolery the critics and fans give you?
It doesn’t matter how big you are because we all have the critique in us that makes us drag insecurities with us everywhere.
Describe your actual situation?
Physically and artistically I’m very well. I never thought I would reach this age like this. I have reached a certain maturity in which I know my strengths and weaknesses. I’m not planning anything because I am very satisfied with my career and with what I have done. This will allow me to retire without any traumas when the day comes. I won’t feel like I still need to do things the day I stop dancing. I see other dancers that retire with the feeling that they didn’t do everything. I don’t feel that way, but what I do know is that the day I retire I will do it at the top. The time hasn’t come yet in which you have to turn down roles because of physical limitations or other type or limitations for that matter; when that day comes I will leave this without any trouble. If I don’t have more to offer I don’t want to do it.
You were the first dancer that managed to balance your profession with being a mom…
When I had my oldest son, Gabriel, I came back to the stage and I felt more powerful than ever. It was a very difficult time for me because my dad had just died and I had experienced physical changes due to the pregnancy. But the feeling of power I got from the first day back to the stage was amazing. After creating my own child I put things in perspective and I felt I could do anything I wanted. I felt that if I had been capable of creating that creature I was capable of doing anything.
Has being a mother changed you as a dancer?
It has made me look at things from a kid’s perspective and rediscover the world. I have started to value small things again and that is very important for an artist.
Since 2012 you have a star in Toronto’s Hall of Fame. How are those type of recognitions digested?
It is a huge honour and something I’m very proud of. That filled me a lot because I never was after that award, neither I promoted my self to gain connections that could influence that. Having received that recognition without having looked for it is even more important to me. That night was very emotional and I felt people’s love, but an honest love. In this world there can be fake praises but that night I felt everything was honest.
In some occasion you said your dream is to dance in the Alhambra of Granada
I was wondering about a magical place and I always thought that the Alhambra in a summer afternoon would be perfect, with that mysticism. That is my dream.