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By Michael Crabb
When Elena Lobsanova steps onstage to perform the First Fairy variation in Sleeping Beauty, the National Ballet of Canada corps de ballet member has a natural aristocracy. A strong jump and confident turn show off her lovely proportions. Her developpé is tastefully majestic, and her long feet make her line seem to stretch forever. There’s an authenticity to her movement that suggests an artistic maturity far beyond her 20 years.
Since joining NBC as an apprentice in 2004, Lobsanova has been watched closely by critics and balletomanes as she has garnered demi-soloist roles. “Elena has a spiritual connection in her dancing,” says NBC’s artistic director Karen Kain, “which is a wonderful ability to see in one so young.”
That quality was in evidence from the start. Recalls Mavis Staines, artistic director of the National Ball School where Lobsanova trained for nine years, “One always felt Elena had been on this planet before and that she’d been a ballerina.”
Lobsanova was born in Moscow. Her microbiologist father moved the family to Toronto in 1991, and her mother still speaks to her in Russian.
Lobsanova had never studied ballet in Russia, but in Canada her instinct for movement was soon apparent as she danced around the living room to her older sister’s piano accompaniment. She began her ballet training in the NBS’s associates outreach program. In Grade 5, having passed the school’s audition, she became a fulltime student – academic and ballet.
The following year Lobsanova was chosen to dance with the National Ballet as Marie in Kudelka’s reworking of The Nutcracker. The pre-pubescent Marie and Misha in Kudelka’s version are warring siblings. For Lobsanova it was a dramatic departure from her naturally demur demeanor. In person she is quiet and can seem almost diffident. In reality, says Staines, Lobsanova is an acutely alert and remarkably self-possessed young woman. “She’s very able to stand by her convictions.”
It was partly because of Lobsanova’s remarkable talent that Staines decided to stage Act II from Erik Bruhn’s production of Swan Lake for NBS’s 2004 Spring Showcase. Kain, then the National Ballet’s artistic associate, supervised the production. Lobsanova still recalls the thrill of being coached intensively for the role of Odette by the former Canadian prima ballerina.
Ballet fans pack NBS’s annual showcase in the hope of spotting tomorrow’s stars. Lobsanova’s serenely poignant performance, partnered by National Ballet principal and Nehemiah Kish, triggered a rush of excitement. Not surprisingly, then National Ballet artistic director James Kudelka and Kain offered her an apprentice contract for 2004-05. Staines, however, was apprehensive. Although the 17-year-old had completed the regular professional training program and collected her high school diploma, Staines believed she was not ready for the unforgiving rigor of company life. “Elena is hyper mobile and she was still growing,” explains Staines. She believed Lobsanova would benefit from another year of intensive training.
Lobsanova took the contract. As Staines predicted she not only grew more than an inch but also sustained a stress fracture in her left foot sidelined her for six months. “It was a case of overload,” she says. “I simply wasn’t used to so much pressure and so much standing up.”
Nowadays, although Lobsanova is not spared corps duty, the National Ballet is mindful of the need to develop her carefully. “It’s better not to rush anything,” says ballet mistress Mandy Jayne Richardson, one of Lobsanova’s firm admirers. “Her talent is not going to go away.”
With regular performances before an audience in NBS’s fully equipped Betty Oliphant Theatre she also got over her fear of the stage. “I used to be very superstitious about performing,” Lobsanova reflects. “I guess it’s in my Russian genes.” As she progressed through the grades Lobsanova also demonstrated her versatility. “I love contemporary works, to explore what they offer. I’m still at the stage where I can experiment”
Insiders say NBC staff are wise not to push Lobsanova too quickly, allowing her to acquire the strength and stamina she will need for the full-length roles that may await her in the future. Nor is she restless for the speedy advancement that could come her way in a smaller troupe. “For now,” she says, “this is a great place to be.”
Michael Crabb is dance critic of Canada’s National Post.