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Sonia Rodriguez will end her National Ballet of Canada career digging deep in ‘A Streetcar Named Desire’

For someone who has danced pretty much every significant ballerina role in the repertoire, Sonia Rodriguez has certainly picked a scorcher to go out with.

After a remarkable 32-year career with the National Ballet of Canada, the beloved dancer will bid her many fans farewell portraying the tragic Blanche DuBois in choreographer John Neumeier’s version of Tennessee Williams’ “A Streetcar Named Desire.”

“It’s physically and emotionally draining,” Rodriguez said. “There’s no holding back. You have to give it your all. If ‘Streetcar’ had arrived in the repertoire, say, 10 or 15 years ago, I’m not sure I’d have been ready to tackle the complexity of Blanche’s character.”

Rodriguez was the original Blanche when the National Ballet first performed the work in June 2017. For those who followed her long career from sunny ingénue to poised classical ballerina, it was like watching an artist transcend all expectations, drawing on every ounce of accumulated experience to conquer an almost insurmountable peak.

Unsurprisingly, as Rodriguez began contemplating how she’d like to dance her way into retirement, she asked then artistic director Karen Kain if she’d consider bringing “Streetcar” back. Kain readily agreed and programmed Neumeier’s adults-only dramatic ballet for a March 2021 revival. The pandemic derailed that “Streetcar” plan, but the company still wanted to give Rodriguez a fitting send-off and, with the ballerina’s happy agreement, simply postponed the production until now.

Blanche is a big role in every sense. She rarely leaves the stage. She drifts emotionally from fragile reality into self-destructive delusion. She seeks love in all the wrong places. As for the actual dancing, it’s as demanding as it gets.

“Every step has an emotional intent,” said Rodriguez. “You have to dig deep.”

There’s another important reason Rodriguez is happy to be going out in “Streetcar.” It’s a heavily populated ballet and will allow her to be surrounded by those who’ve formed her artistic family for so long.

“The ballet allows me to be onstage with the entire company, with the people who have inspired me every day. This for me is really important.”

Rodriguez’s National Ballet career almost didn’t happen. She was born in Toronto to Spanish immigrant parents. They decided to return to Spain when she was five years old. It was the time she saw her first ballet, “Swan Lake,” and was smitten by its romantic allure.

Her first ballet teacher in Spain almost crushed Rodriguez’s love of dance. Things improved when she began studying in Madrid with renowned teacher Pedro de la Cruz and later at the Princess Grace Academy in Monaco.

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Rodriguez was 16 when she placed first at the Enrico Cecchetti Competition in Capri, Italy.

“People came up to me afterwards to say I should come here or go there to dance,” she remembered.

Jury member Betty Oliphant, co-founder of Canada’s National Ballet School, returned to Toronto to tell recently appointed company artistic director Reid Anderson that Rodriguez would be an asset to the National Ballet.

Rodriguez recalls that she did not give Anderson’s subsequent invitation to audition a great deal of thought. She was happy to visit the land of her birth, but when she’d signed the contract offer she thought, “What have I done?” The fact that Rodriguez had forgotten most of her English, that it was snowy weather and that bustling modern Toronto was a stark contrast to Madrid with its deep-rooted artistic heritage did nothing to help.

“It was a major culture shock,” admitted Rodriguez; but she never regretted her somewhat rash teenage decision.

“The company was incredibly welcoming. Being so young, just 17 when I joined, for the first year they made me almost feel like a pet.”

Even so, her ascent through the ranks was far from meteoric. Rodriguez, who has now worked under four artistic directors, admits there were times she was tempted to consider other options. It was a long wait to become a second soloist and another five before she was appointed principal in 2000.

In her early career, Rodriguez tended to be pigeonholed as a soubrette, one who plays a lively or flirtatious role. Then, after a memorable “Sleeping Beauty” debut, she was seen as this immaculate classical dancer; but Rodriguez was always so much more.

“I always thought Sonia had magic onstage,” recalled Aleksandar Antonijevic, a former principal dancer and stage partner. “Her smile, her joy, she’s so giving, so in the moment.”

“There’s fire there, too,” said Kain, “a temperament that’s available as needed.”

Eventually, Rodriguez was given the chance to spread her artistic wings in all directions to become an exceptionally versatile artist, as adept in works by neo-classical master George Balanchine as in cutting-edge contemporary choreography. But it is as a dance-actress that she’ll be best remembered.

“Sonia is this tiny person but such a huge presence onstage,” said Kain. “She finds the truth in every role she dances.”

While it’s unlikely Rodriguez will dance a huge role such as Blanche DuBois again she hopes to take on smaller dance projects in the future.

“I know I still have more dancing in me and, even when I’m no longer physically dancing, in some way I will always be a dancer.”

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‘I’ve had a beautiful career’

Jillian Vanstone as the lead character in "Alice's Adventures in Wonderland."

Jillian Vanstone, who in the role of Stella Kowalski will perform alongside Sonia Rodriguez in “A Streetcar Named Desire,” is also making her farewell bows this season during the mixed program of shorter works that follows.

Vanstone’s career almost ended a decade ago when she suffered a serious knee injury.

“It looked completely mangled,” she recalled. “My first thought was, ‘Well, that’s my career gone.’” Fortunately, Vanstone made a full recovery.

“I absolutely loved my career and was determined to come back and be even stronger,” she said.

And Vanstone did, with new roles to dance and a treasured partnership to enrich the second half of her career.

By Vanstone’s age, 40, thoughts of retirement inevitably tend to occur more often. The physical toll of keeping the body in elite-athlete shape must be weighed against the artistic payoff in the frequency of satisfying roles. Vanstone said she reached the point where that payoff is no longer sufficient.

“It has been a hard decision. The types of roles that really inspire me were getting farther and farther apart,” she said. “I’d been thinking about this before the pandemic hit. Being forced to step away from the stage helped me figure out what was bothering me. I’ve had a beautiful career. I’m proud of what I’ve accomplished. I feel content because this is my decision.”

Vanstone grew up in Nanaimo, BC. She knew from an early age she wanted to dance. She successfully auditioned to enter Canada’s National Ballet School in Toronto at age 13 and began her career with the National Ballet in 1999.

As with Rodriguez, Vanstone did not have a fast track to stardom. They both had to work hard to earn their stripes.

Petite, vivacious and technically assured, Vanstone climbed the ladder in three-year increments to second, then first soloist. It seemed she might be stuck at that level despite making strong leading-role debuts in full-length ballets such as “La Fille mal gardée” and “The Sleeping Beauty.”

Vanstone’s big break came in 2011. British choreographer Christopher Wheeldon spotted Vanstone’s gift for inhabiting a character and picked her as opening-night lead in the National Ballet’s North American premiere of “Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland.”

“Chris trusted me,” said Vanstone. “He pushed me. He changed the whole trajectory of my career.”

She was promoted to principal within days.

Vanstone has danced a wide range of roles during her 22 years with the National Ballet, both abstract and dramatic. But it’s the latter that have inspired her most. These have run the gamut, from the put-upon Katerina in “The Taming of the Shrew,” and the tragic heroines of “Giselle”and “Manon,” to the fairy-tale princesses of “Cinderella,” “The Nutcracker” and “The Sleeping Beauty.” But as Vanstone reflects on her long career it is Wheeldon’s name she keeps returning to.

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In the summer of 2014 she participated in a professional ballet intensive at the Banff Centre. Principal dancer Harrison James, then a National Ballet corps member, was also there. The two were assigned to learn the lead couple in Wheeldon’s “Carousel (A Dance).” Vanstone returned to tell anyone who cared to listen that she’d found her dream partner.

“Harrison was like a gift. From the start he made me feel I could do anything,” Vanstone said.

The two were memorably paired that fall as the leads in Kenneth MacMillan’s “Manon” and headed the National Ballet’s premiere of “Carousel (A Dance)” the next year.

“Jill is my ballet soulmate,” said James. “We’re both very hard workers and have an instinctive understanding of what each is trying to accomplish.”

Now, as she leaves the company, Vanstone will be rapturously born aloft by James in the National Ballet premiere of Wheeldon’s “After the Rain.” Vanstone will make her final appearance, again partnered by James, at the end of the mixed program as the lead ballerina in MacMillan’s effervescent, carnival-like ragtime ballet “Elite Syncopations.”

Dancing out her career in a high-spirited, large-cast work alongside colleagues, some of whom she’s known since ballet school, is just the way Vanstone wants it to be, a company member all the way.

“It’s the people around me that I’ve shared my career with I’m going to miss the most,” she said.

“A Streetcar Named Desire” runs March 2 to 6; “Elite Syncopations” and “After the Rain” March 9 to 13; “The Sleeping Beauty” March 18 to 27 at the Four Seasons Centre, 145 Queen St. W. See national.ballet.ca for information.

MC

Michael Crabb is a freelance writer who reviews dance and opera performances for the Toronto Star.

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