California Ballet Company is just a couple weeks out from opening the season with the full length romantic classic Giselle at the San Diego Civic Theatre. The dancers have been hard at work, and are ready to impress on November 1st and 2nd!
We caught up with California Ballet Regisseur and former Prima Ballerina Denise Dabrowski and took a moment to get to better know this woman who has dedicated her professional life to California Ballet and the art form the company strives to preserve. We also asked her how she feels about Giselle, and why it’s still relevant today.
CBC: How old were you when you knew that ballet was going to be your world?
DD: I think I knew when I wanted it to be my world, but I had no idea that it was going to happen. I was a soldier in The Nutcracker. I was sitting with my mom in the audience of the Civic Theatre, watching dress rehearsal, watching Clara onstage. My mom, although she doesn’t remember doing this, she turned to me and said, “I could picture you doing that some day.”
Oh, that was all I needed: that little bit of encouragement. I thought, “I would love to do that!”
I wanted to be Clara, and then eventually I was Clara. And then every ballet I saw, I dreamt of doing. It was like, “Oh God, please let me do it and then I’ll die a happy girl!” The love was there from, I guess, around age 10 or 11. I had no idea you could make a living at it. I had no idea what that would entail. I think I was very fortunate to be so supported from my family and from the California Ballet family.
CBC: What’s your favorite role to dance?
DD: I think I have three. I think I would start with Romeo and Juliet, Juliet of course. And Giselle. And, I loved [Lucy from] Dracula because that just went from one end of the world to the other as a character. But, I always, always loved best the ballets where I was somebody other than myself. Somebody to play. Somebody to make the audience laugh, like in Coppelia, or cry, like in Giselle and Juliet. Those were my favorites.
CBC: Tell us about Denise outside the ballet studio.
DD: The greatest thing in my life is my husband, John Stubbs. [California Ballet Company Music Director and Conductor] We’ve been married 21 years. That’s the best decision I’ve ever made. He’s my life. I love to read, I love to garden, I love to work with my hands. I go and take pilates classes to try to stay in shape. I try to visit my parents as much as I can and help them – they’re getting older. I like to travel, though I don’t have the opportunity too often. But, I’m just a regular person.
I don’t have any other major things in my life – I spent my whole life focused on the dance world. I’ve never had a job outside of the dance world. I’ve never been a secretary. I’ve never had to be a waitress, thank God. So, I think that my focus is always on that. I’m always exploring, through reading and seeing things, how to be a better teacher, how to be a more inspiring person to the artists I come into contact with, how to best serve the dance world that served me so well.
CBC: What is the most rewarding thing about your job?
DD: That’s a hard one! I think to watch someone blossom. To know that maybe I gave a couple of the right words to somebody, that made it click, what they needed to either develop a role or have the confidence to go for something.
One of the things that I’ll never forget is, on tour with The Nutcracker years ago when I was still performing, we’d go to Colorado Springs and besides being the Sugar Plum Fairy or the Dewdrop, I would help the families there – or the children who were involved with the ballet outside of San Diego. I got a sweet card from them once that thanked me for my patience, and my grace working with the children. But, most of all they said, “For your kindness and humor.” I thought to myself, that’s all. That’s all I want to do. I want to be maybe remembered for that. When someone responds to that part of me, then I feel that I’m satisfied, that I’ve done my job. Maybe as much as lying still as Juliet at the end of the ballet, lying dead onstage and hearing crying in the audience. To be able to move somebody like that? Unbelievable. An unbelievable, satisfying experience. Since I can’t do that onstage anymore, my most satisfying and rewarding moments are watching others move forward, maybe because of the little help I gave them. I’m proud of that.
CBC: Why do you think Giselle has withstood the test of time, being one of only a handful of ballets continuously restaged and produced by most major and regional ballet companies?
DD: Well, I think that it is one of the only ballets that has lasted from the romantic era. The only ballet older than that is La Fille Mal Gardee, but the story of Giselle is timeless. It’s about true love, being taken advantage of, retribution, and then the power of love to overcome all things.
Plus, Giselle gets to go mad, so there’s a mad scene. Everybody gets into that. It’s a really interesting scene to see, and it’s so basic to the romantic era of music, art, and ballet.
CBC: How do you think Giselle is still relevant today?
DD: I think it’s kind of a period piece. But I also think that if it’s done really well, really, truly with integrity by the performers, I think it still speaks to people today. How you feel when you fall in love. How you feel when you’re jilted in love. How you forgive. And how human that makes us.
So, not only to look at the ballet as this is where we’ve come from as an art form, but also what part of Giselle or Albrecht do you see in your own relationships? I think every person that comes and sees the ballet will connect with it in a different way.
Denise as Giselle, 1987
CBC: How does the role of Giselle compare to other roles in regard to technicality and stamina?
DD: Oh, it’s a toughie! It’s hard, but wasn’t as difficult for me as Sleeping Beauty and Swan Lake, which are four acts long. Giselle is just a two act ballet. The technical demands on the body are not as difficult as those ballets. It was made earlier than the Petipa ballets, so the technique of the dancers was not as fancy. There aren’t tricks. It not as physically demanding, but it is at least, if not more, emotionally demanding than any other ballet.
I would rank maybe Giselle and Romeo and Juliet as the most emotionally challenging, and satisfying, and devastating.
Wilis, Giselle Act II
CBC:What would you tell an audience member? What should they expect when they come to see Giselle?
DD: It probably depends on if they’ve been to the ballet or not, because Giselle’s style is a little more old fashioned than you’ll see in more familiar ballets, like The Nutcracker and even Sleeping Beauty and Swan Lake. But Giselle – if they have any sense of the romantic era where there was such a dichotomy brought out between the earthly and the spiritual – you’ll find that all throughout Giselle.
The audience has to open their mind and see. Watch for the very realistic, very heartfelt acting and character portraying that you’ll see in the dancers. They will tell you the story. You don’t need to read the story ahead of time. With the atmosphere that’s created, hopefully you’ll just get sucked into that story and feel what Giselle feels. Feel what Albrect feels. Pull for them in the second act.
Just open your mind, dig in, watch it and see if it relates to anything you’ve ever experienced. If you’ve ever had your heart broken. If you ever have, and do love someone so much that you’ll love them beyond your death. And relate to the dance onstage. I think they’ll enjoy that very much.
California Ballet Company presents Giselle at the San Diego Civic Theatre
November 1 & 2, 2014.