The Benefits Of Being An Older Ballerina (Yes, Even Into Their 40s)
Jun 5, 2017
Greta Hodgkinson (L), Sonia Rodriguez (C) and Xiao Nan Yu (R), and pose for a picture at a studio inside the Walter Carsen Centre at the National Ballet of Canada, in Toronto, Friday May 26, 2017.
It might be one of Toronto’s most idiosyncratic spots, the stretch of road where the crumbling artery into the city’s downtown core runs alongside the National Ballet of Canada headquarters. In a window overlooking the Gardiner Expressway, the company’s three most senior ballerinas are quick with suggestions on how to pose. Time for a Globe and Mail photo shoot is scarce, an occupational norm in the ballet world. Sonia Rodriguez is in rehearsal for the Canadian premiere of John Neumeier’s A Streetcar Named Desire, which opens Saturday night and in which she’ll be dancing the canonical role of Blanche DuBois. Greta Hodgkinson and Xiao Nan Yu are both preparing repertoire for the company’s annual gala on June 6 – Hodgkinson will be performing in Jiri Kylian’s Nuages and Yu in a premiere by choreographic associate Robert Binet.
When the photographer is enthusiastic about what Yu has done with her arms, the statuesque ballerina instructs the others with playful high-handedness, “Do you see what I’m doing!?” As Rodriguez balances inside the window ledge, Hodgkinson keeps reminding her to be careful about slipping. There’s a lot of laughter, wryness and warmth; after all, these women have been working together for the better part of their lives. It’s Yu’s 20th anniversary with the company, Hodgkinson’s 25th and Rodriguez’s 27th. All three have been in the company since they were teenagers.
There’s a popular misconception that dancers, like athletes, peak in their 20s and retire soon after that. The averages reflect this – a 2004 study from the Columbia University Teachers College stated that the average age for American dancers to retire was 34. But this number doesn’t account for company rank; it’s much more common for a dancer who spends 10 years in the corps de ballet to retire around 30. Principal dancers, barring injury, usually have much longer careers. All eight of the female principal dancers at the National are in their 30s and 40s; the average age is 36.8. (The male principals are a little younger; the average being 31.8). On the female side, this is a little older than the average at larger companies such as the Royal Ballet (female: 33.25; male: 33.5).