Let there be light

San Francisco Ballet principal dancer Sasha De Sola

1 Sasha De Sola, principal dancer of San Francisco Ballet. Photograph by Karolina Kuras

“I am the daughter of two immigrant parents from Venezuala and I was born in the United States. I happen to be very fair, blonde, blue eyes but I just got all the recessive genes in the family, basically,” Sasha De Sola beams.

De Sola, a newly appointed principal dancer at San Francisco Ballet, has everything to smile about. Even at seven in the morning when we gather in San Francisco’s Presidio, still shrouded in the city’s infamous fog (known as Karl to the locals) for a chilly photograph session.

“Both my parents are musicians, and music and art in general has always been a big part of life,” she explains. “When I was little I was extremely, extremely shy, but I would sit my entire—like extended—family down in my grandma’s house and put on shows. So my parents put me in dance class.”

It didn’t take long before the Florida native was passionate about the art. In the beginning, it was the challenge that drew her in. “I started doing jazz, tap and a bit of ballet, but I realised that I liked the challenge of ballet. It was always the hardest class that I would take and it felt impossible to master, and it still does.”

Sasha De Sola. Photographed by Karolina Kuras

Aged ten she had made up her mind: “I told my parents, this is what I want to do. I want to become a professional ballet dancer and I think they were both like whatever, I’m sure that’s not going to happen, just keep studying. Luckily they both supported me and took me to more professional ballet studios in Orlando, and finally I went to the Kirov Academy in Washington, DC.”

De Sola trained at the Academy from grade 9 to 11 under Ludmila Morkovina, a student of Agrippina Vaganova herself. “I remember her coaching me and saying, in her tiny voice, Sashkina, you have to remember because this is what Vaganova told me directly and you have to pass it on.

“I definitely recognise the weight of that and feel very very fortunate that that is an experience that I’ve had. But coming here, because we have to be so versatile, most companies are like that, but particularly here because we’ll do new works and then “Swan Lake” all within two weeks—a huge range—I always try to remember the basics in class and that keeps me strong, and then I have to let it go other times.”

In the summer prior to her final year at the Academy, she competed in the Varna International Ballet Competition, in Jackson, where she was awarded a bronze medal. “Helgi [Tomasson, artistic director of San Francisco Ballet] saw my videos from the competition and that’s how I ended up here,” she explains.

De Sola moved to San Francisco to join the company as an apprentice dancer when she was sixteen. Since, the city has become home, and a source of inspiration, too.

“San Francisco feels like home now to me and it’s such a great city because it’s so diverse. It definitely adds to my dancing through enriching me as a human being, basically. I think it’s a wonderful melting pot in its little 7×7 radius, and it has such a rich history of art and music and free spirits and that’s something really nice to be surrounded by.”

De Sola was promoted to soloist in 2012, and then to principal dancer in December 2016. “Helgi likes to surprise the dancers. Both times for me, it’s been a complete surprise.”

She goes on to explain: “When I was promoted to soloist we were in London at Sadler’s Wells, and I had just danced one of the principal roles in his ballet, “Trio.” I was in all three ballets that show so I was running upstairs after “Trio” to get changed for the next piece. Helgi comes up and says, good, very nice, and I just want to let you know that you’re officially a soloist.

“I was like what, really? I had tears in my eyes, and I was like, thank you so much, I gotta go! The next piece I was on another planet the whole time because I was very excited.

Her jump to principal came equally unexpectedly, in the midst of “Nutcracker,” and a last minute change of cast. “There had been a little of shuffling because the partner I was supposed to dance with that day was sick and the other couldn’t make it so, I didn’t have a partner, basically.

“Helgi said, you’re going to dance with so and so; I was like ok, we’ll do a little rehearsal after class. After class I go to get my tutu for the rehearsal and Helgi comes up, asking if it’s ok that we do this; I’m like, yes, it should be fine, no problem. He gave a long pause, and he kind of does this side smirk, and he’s like; I have a little Christmas gift for you.”

She braced, thinking she was going to be scheduled for the evening performance too. “I was already dancing the morning of the Christmas performance, and I was thinking that he was going to make me do the evening performance too. Then he said you’re our newest principal. I was definitely surprised.”

De Sola says she’s looking forward to growing into the role, and that “it feels like your hard work has paid off, even though it’s still a journey; it’s a nice milestone.”

De Sola’s repertoire to date includes numerous Balanchine ballets, as well as from the classical canon including Fokine’s “Petrouchka,” contemporary ballets by William Forsythe, Wayne McGregor, amongst many more.

Feeling drawn to the classics, she says, “there is something about classical ballet; the purity, the challenge and the history of how it has been passed down that is intriguing to me—how it changes, how it doesn’t. But, I think also here in SFB we’re really fortunate to have so many new works, and that is one of my favourite things about dancing here. Getting to work with so many different types of choreographers, and also seeing the trajectory of where ballet is moving in the future as well.”

Recently De Sola performed in Forsythe’s “Pas/Parts 2016,” rechoreographed on SFB having premiered at Paris Opera Ballet in 1999. “I think one of my ultimate dreams was to work with Bill Forsythe and I got to do that, so that was incredible.

“He really has a wonderful way of working with individual dancers which is really nice. He’s open to your individuality and it still stays within his style, which is kind of rare.”

Working with Crystal Pite is on the wish list, as is ABT resident choreographer, Alexei Ratmansky: “He has such a sensitivity, I think that’s what I love about him the most. It’s a very sensitive process, every step is precious almost.”

With several months of rehearsal time before the season 2017/2018 opens in October, De Sola looks forward to taking to the stage. “I do love rehearsal, but I think it goes back to the core of me when I was little and I was shy but when I was performing I felt free; there’s still that feeling. I never feel so free as when I’m on stage. That’s when I feel the most myself, I feel most in the moment.”

 

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