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By Mary Ellen Hunt
It’s been a long rehearsal day at San Francisco Ballet. Vanessa Zahorian walks into the company’s conference room apologizing for looking tired and for the informality of the loose rehearsal clothes she’s thrown over her lanky limbs. But there’s no need; her bright blue eyes sparkle with the all-American girl freshness that serves her so well onstage.
Trained at Central Pennsylvania Youth Ballet and the Kirov Academy, Zahorian is one of SFB’s most reliable principals—rarely injured and gifted with a solid technical facility that was evident from the time she joined the corps in 1997. She stays in top form through a mix of common sense and lessons learned over the years about what works best for her body.
Double Breakfast A typical day starts with breakfast: first, an edible breakfast of oatmeal and perhaps an egg for the protein to keep her going; then, a danceable “breakfast” of daily technique class.
“I feel that that’s my time for placement,” she says, “At barre, I might test out my balances a lot, take my hand off the barre—I like to place my body and save the flourishes for the stage. I’m always a little tired at the end of the season, so I conserve my energy for the stage and leave my emotions out of the barre. As long as I have a good class to start out with, I feel like I’m set for the day.”
Selective Supplements Zahorian, who was promoted to soloist in 1999 and made principal by 2002, says that at this stage of her career she doesn’t like to do a lot of other working out beyond ballet. “On layoff I might do yoga, but I don’t ride a bike or do aerobics because that just makes me tight,” she says candidly. “I don’t do weight training. I can get all that I need in class and rehearsals.”
One form of conditioning Zahorian does like is Gyrotonic, which she discovered while preparing for her first Swan Lake and continued faithfully once a week for two years. “I like the flowing, breathing, round movements for the torso, and I really wanted to work on opening up my chest,” she says, as she gracefully demonstrates the classic wingspread of the Swan Queen. “My shoulders are quite square, and doing Gyrotonic helped me to extend back.”
Pre-Show Rituals A few hours before a show, Zahorian likes to put on her headphones and listen to music—Lady Gaga, Jay-Z, Beyoncé. Even if she’s getting ready for Giselle, she might be plugged in to hip hop beforehand. “I don’t like to listen to classical music before I’m going to do a classical piece—it makes me nervous!” she says. “I want something that’s totally opposite to what I’m going to be doing. I’m actually a little more chill before I have to do something contemporary, like Wayne McGregor’s Chroma, than I am before Swan Lake!”
Zahorian’s other little ritual, she says, is to carve out time before going onstage to lie on the floor and elevate her legs on a chair. “Even if I only have 10 minutes, I have to give myself at least 5 minutes of leg elevation,” she says. “That’s my time to focus and think—or even not think at all. It’s like the calm before the storm.”
Depending on what she’s scheduled to dance, Zahorian prepares her body differently, often taking advantage of the company’s facilities. “The night before a really hard show, I like to contrast-bathe my legs from the knees down,” she says. “I’ll go into the Jacuzzi here and then ice my legs and then repeat that. I really feel different the next day.
“We all have aches and pains, but I’ve been so fortunate that I haven’t had anything major,” Zahorian continues, knocking on the wooden table. “I have little things, of course, like tendonitis. But I can tolerate that, and I’m not the type of person to complain.”
SFB also offers its dancers the services of massage therapists and acupuncturists. “I don’t like to have a massage the day before I perform,” she says. “I like to feel strong and don’t want to be out of control. I don’t mind having acupuncture before a hard show, though—it helps the tendonitis and is really releasing.”
Cutting Carbs? No Way Zahorian’s approach to diet is straightforward, with an emphasis on fruits and vegetables during layoff and a combination of healthy proteins and carbs during the season—not excluding dessert. “I eat very healthy usually, but during the season I eat everything—sugars and sweets,” she says with a wry grin. “My fiancé (fellow SFB principal Davit Karapetyan) will be like, ‘You’re hungry again?’ But my metabolism is super fast when I’m performing.
“I don’t like to eat salads before I perform, it just makes me very bloated,” she adds. “I like cooked spinach and carbs like brown rice or pasta to give me energy, especially before I have something really hard. I love yogurt and cheese, I could just live off of those. Davit always says I’m going to turn into a piece of cheese,” she adds mischievously.
Mary Ellen Hunt writes about dance and the arts for the San Francisco Chronicle.
In company class, 2008. Photo by Erik Tomasson, Courtesy SFB.