Vanessa Zahorian rehearsing
Robbins' Afternoon of a Faun. © Erik Tomasson
Born in Allentown, Pennsylvania, Vanessa Zahorian trained at the Central Pennsylvania Youth Ballet and with the Kirov Academy prior to joining San Francisco Ballet in 1997. She quickly rose through the ranks and was promoted to soloist in 1999 and then became a principal dancer in 2002. Vanessa has dazzled audiences in a variety of works, including Aurora in The Sleeping Beauty, the Sugar Plum Fairy and the Snow Queen in Nutcracker, Myrtha in Giselle, and most recently, Kitri in Don Quixote.
Listen to a podcast of this interview.
Backstage: Vanessa, How did you become interested in ballet? Did you start when you were very young?
Well, my parents had really close friends that were our babysitters, and they had their daughters in the ballet, and they said to my parents, "Oh you know, Vanessa's really small, petite; she looks like she could be a dancer, or she may like it." [My parents] said, "Okay, you can start ballet and you can tell us whether you like it or not. And you can pursue it or not." I really liked it, I liked the tutu.
I understand you also spent time studying at the Vaganova Academy in Russia. How did you end up there?
My sister and I started at the Central Pennsylvania Youth Ballet. I was 13 when I left. We were offered a scholarship to go to the summer program at the Kirov Academy in Washington, D.C., and that is the Vaganova training. They're affiliated with the the Maryinsky Theatre, the Kirov Ballet in St. Petersberg. The director was Oleg Vinegradova at the time, and his wife was the director of the school in America at the Kirov Academy, and they really liked my dancing right from the beginning. I was there for three years, and my last year, the Prince of Monaco wanted a female dancer to have the opportunity to go to Russia and be an apprentice with the Kirov Company, and [he] wanted to give this full scholarship and chose me. It was a tough decision, because being very young, I was 16 and going to Russia, [and] didn't know the language.
So did your sister go also, or no?
No, actually, my sister quit ballet when she was 15.
Tell me more about what it was like living in Russia.
Russia. Well, my first experience, all I could think of was how cold it was. And living in Russia was just fantastic. Everything was new and the language was difficult for six months, and then after a while I picked up the grammar in the studio very easily. Then of course, the training was just fabulous. It was just the best classical training; that is what I really wanted to get because where I grew up in Pennsylvania, we had a more Balanchine-American style. I loved watching the classic ballets of Don Quixote and Sleeping Beauty and Swan Lake, and I wanted that technique and artistry. When I was in Russia watching the ballerinas onstage, I could go every night to the Maryinsky Theatre and watch Diana Vichnova and all these names that you hear of and you see on videotapes, and they were right there, in front of your eyes, just amazing. I learned a lot.
How would you characterize the training you received from both the Kirov Academy in D.C. and then in Russia?
The training I learned at the Kirov Academy was basic school training, very clean, proper technique. But when I went to Russia, it was a major leap in finding that artistry, the characterization of a role, not so studio-like. So it's definitely a different working method.
How did that training in Russia prepare you for the type of repertory you're doing now?
Well I think when you have a foundation—whether it be classical, Balanchine—when you incorporate the two, three, four, whatever you have, it all comes down to the foundation, the technique that is inbred in your body. And I think that is what prepares you for the roles. In Russia it's a very classical training, and in America, we have Balanchine: very quick, fast paced. In Russia, it's a slower pace, so to have the two is great, and has been great for me. And when I went from Russia back to America, I found that before I came to a company, I needed the American style back, in my body, the quick, fast pace. So, I decided to go back to my hometown for a year, and that's where I graduated high school. So I went back to my old school and got back the American style before I came to San Francisco, so that helped a lot.
What was the first principal role that you performed with San Francisco Ballet? What was that first performance like?
I think it was either Stern Grove or when we went on tour to Scotland. I was dancing Symphony in C, 2nd and 4th movement corps ladies, and I loved that, just to be a part of the company, and dancing with huge San Francisco Ballet. I was so nervous, I remember, I was like, "Am I going to stay in line with the other girls? Do I look like them?" And I also danced David Bintley's Dance House in the corps, and that was just great, because modern ballet—it's not exactly modern, but it's neoclassical. I had never [growing up] gotten involved with modern and neoclassical ballet. It was always classical, or Balanchine. So that was exciting.
What was the first principal role you performed here?
Oh, the first principal role was probably [the] Sugar Plum [Fairy], in Nutcracker.
How was that?
It was a shock! It was wonderful. I couldn't believe Helgi was giving me this opportunity to do the Sugar Plum. I didn't know how he knew that I could handle it, and it was so exciting. I danced with Gennadi Nedvigin. And we had been in a competition and met prior to coming to San Francisco Ballet—we have the same training—so even without knowing each other, we knew how each other would approach something, and it was just so exciting and intimidating to dance this huge role amongst all these ballerinas who had such huge names. Tina LeBlanc—who was from my school—to be dancing this role with her was just amazing.
You've been featured lately in a diverse array of works, from the very classical The Sleeping Beauty to the more contemporary Night by Julia Adam or Paul Taylor's Spring Rounds. Is there a style of dance that you prefer, or that you think is better suited for your body and your training?
I'd say that I like dancing everything. I really like a diverse repertoire. I think classical ballet is just so "in my body" from training and school, and so classical ballet is easier for me, but I think that it's so important to have a neoclassical, modern, grounded effect to your classical work, and it's important to not be so elevated, like the ballerina is on their toes—you have to come down, you have to go through every position, every movement, to get to where you are in a position. I think that helps. I think the modern and the classical go very well together. I think that's what makes this company so great. We have this diverse repertoire, and we can get stronger by doing all of it.
What have been some of your favorite roles over the years?
Kitri [from Don Quixote] is definitely one of my favorites. The Sleeping Beauty, and I also love Balanchine ballets: Serenade, Square Dance and Apollo. There's so many. And I love modern pieces. I love neoclassical work; Billy Forsythe is a great choreographer. Chris Wheeldon, there's so many great ones, it's really hard to have a favorite.
Are there any choreographers that you haven't worked with yet that you'd like to?
Let's see, one-on-one, I'd like to work with Chris Wheeldon. That would be great. Or Billy Forsythe. I think basically I would like [to] be choreographed on. I've always been the second cast or third cast. So that would be exciting.
I've seen you perform lately with a few different partners. What do you look for in your partners?
Well, I think it's all about communication and finding the rapport together, because it's easy to find a partner that doesn't suit you or your body, but you make it work. So going to the studio maybe for [an] extra hour or two, just to find a different way of making it work. I think it's possible to do anything with anybody.
This past summer you participated [as a partner] in the International Ballet Competition. What was that experience like?
It was definitely interesting because I am at a different stage in my career, where I wasn't competing, and I'm older compared to the dancers that were there. I have a lot of experience in a company, whereas these young dancers haven't ever been in a company. So it was nice for me to look at these young dancers and learn from them; I could pick out the things that I liked or didn't like and give them advice. I didn't feel like I was stressed or nervous. Probably because I wasn't competing as well, but I felt like a mother to these young kids. It's different when you're growing and maturing in ballet.
How do you prepare for performances? Do you do anything special?
I used to. When I was growing up, when I first got in the company, I would get more nervous, and I wasn't used to the performances. Now, I'm on every show; I have a routine where two hours before the show I'll get ready, and you have an hour for your hair and makeup, and then you have a half hour to stretch and futz on the stage and fix your ribbons, but nothing special.
Is there anything that you eat or don't eat right before a performance? Nothing like that?
Well, I used to be very picky, like, okay, two hours before the show I can't eat anything, and now I have to make sure that I don't eat too early, because I'm dancing a lot during the day and using a lot of energy for rehearsals. In order to revive my body, I need to maybe eat more frequently when I'm having such busy days, so that I have enough fuel to get through the performance and the next day and whatnot.
What's the craziest thing that's ever happened while you were onstage?
Well, I can go through two things. My first being my ribbons came undone onstage when I was in Mark Morris' A Garden. The ribbon was not long enough to go around my ankle twice, so I stuffed it in behind; I don't think I tied the ribbon really tightly so it came undone, and I'm dancing and I step on the ribbon and it makes this squeaking noise, and the audience gasped, and luckily the part I was doing was very short, so I came on, danced, and then ran off. So I ran off—I was humiliated, tied my ribbons and I was just thinking, "Helgi's gonna fire me, Helgi's gonna fire me" … I didn't know what to do.
But also, I was in Mark Morris' (again) Sandpaper Ballet, and it was the first time I ever fell onstage. I was holding onto Jason Davis, a former dancer, and he had my hand and I was having a lot of fun, and I go to fouetté around, and my foot slips from underneath me, and I go face forward onto the marley, and I was just like, "What just happened to me?" I get up really quick and I look down the line and everybody's laughing, and I'm humiliated, again—run offstage, and I'm like, "I can't believe that happened to me." Oh gosh yeah. Crazy!
You didn't get in trouble, of course.
Who do you look up to in the Company?
I look up to [former Principal Dancer] Muriel Maffre a lot. I just think she's the epitome of the ballerina. She's always there for every class, she's in her pointe shoes, she always has great attire, she is always giving 100 percent no matter if she's feeling injured or hurt or tired, she's always there—mentally, physically, 100 percent. I feel like that is a great example for the young ones. And whether it's classical ballet or modern, neoclassical, she gives her all in everything. You see the process. It's not just thrown together, but you see her backstage going over—100 times—everything. And she also finds time for schoolwork. She's doing extracurricular activities as well, and that's inspiring for me because I also love school. It's all very inspiring.
How do you like to spend your time when you're not dancing?
I like to go to the beach and lay for hours under the sun—that's on vacations or going to Europe or Hawaii. I also like swimming. I like to spend time with friends, my boyfriend, my family. I like to go to dinners with my girlfriends. I like to go to the movies. I like school; schoolwork is great. It's mentally challenging.
Where are you taking classes?
I go to Saint Mary's College in Moraga, but it's actually an extension, the LEAP [Liberal Education for Arts Professionals] program—because we're full-time, professional dancers and working, they come to us once a week, every Sunday night.
So the LEAP instructors come from St. Mary's to the ballet building?
We all meet at a hotel downtown, it's at the Ramada, so we meet there. Or the Holiday Inn. There's two places, depending on what class.
Is it possible to maintain a personal life when you're a professional dancer?
Of course! Yes, and it's so important. You have to. I find that is what grounds me, is having my personal life. You need time away from the ballet and you need some escape.
If you weren't a dancer, what career would you want to pursue?
Hmm … first thing coming to my mind right now is fashion; I don't know why. It's funny, because my sisters—I'll go home and I'll put something together, and they'll look at me and they're like, "Oh Vanessa, you need to change that or wear that." So I have very little fashion sense, but I'd like to improve that, and find that whatever-it-is that my sisters have. Fashion or photography, or something with design.
Are you pursuing anything like that now?
I'm actually working on a senior project with Sarah Van Patten, and we're doing a film documentary on Muriel Maffre, and it's great because we're at the point of the editing process and it's great to see what footage you have and to edit things that you don't like or you do like; it's neat to see what we did.
What advice would you give to young dancers just beginning their careers?
Well, I would say be patient, to not force anything. It'll come if it's meant to happen. To not get frustrated quickly. And it's hard to be patient and to want it all to happen right away. But there's a whole process, and the best part is the experience and having the bad days with the good days and the feeling you get with each, and just to keep pursuing your dream. And if it is that you want to be a ballerina or a ballet dancer, it takes a lot of hard work and perseverance and patience.