Ballet San Jose Principal Dancer Karen Gabay Reflects On Her Career
by Dean Speer and Francis Timlin
2006 -- San Jose
Amidst the backstage flurry and excitement of preparation for their production of “Romeo and Juliet,” we met with Karen Gabay in her dressing room. Gabay and Ballet San Jose were celebrating her 20th year in the role she created in Dennis Nahat’s production. We found Gabay delightfully charming and full of energetic life. Blithely, we told her that we were looking forward to her “dying beautifully!” Due to time limits, we continued our conversation over the ether. Here’s what she had to say about her dancing career.
How did you get started in ballet? How old were you, where was this, and who were some of your first teachers?
I started ballet at the age of eight because two of my friends at school were going to begin classes at the Park and Recreation Center in San Diego. A few months later, I went to the California Ballet audition for “The Nutcracker,” and got cast as a Bon Bon with Mother Ginger, and then enrolled in that school. My two teachers at California Ballet who gave me the most in my training were Maxine Mahon and Marius Zirra.
What are some of your memories of SAB?
I remember being in awe of seeing dancers like Merrill Ashley and Gelsey Kirkland take class with us whenever Stanley Williams taught. Darci Kistler was also in that class and it was great to see her at that time, when she was on the rise.
What did you take away technically?
I think I walked away with the knowledge that I really did want to dance professionally. New York City was a whole different environment than where I grew up in San Diego, so it gave me a first-hand look at what the "real" dance world was like.
What really aided your dancing the most?
My training in San Diego was very “hands on” which was very important to me, and it was a school where I got to perform with the California Ballet, among professionals. Being given those performing opportunities continuously at a young age was something that taught me a lot about performing, learning choreography, and keeping your technique up under pressure.
Who were some of your teachers there?
My teachers at SAB included Tumkovsky, Kramarevsky, Williams and Danilova.
That’s great you had Mme Danilova – any special stories or memories?
I had Variations class with her, and I loved the chic dance attire she would wear. I knew that she was very special, and the wealth of information she was giving us was one-of-a-kind. I especially liked watching her demonstrate the variation from “Coppélia.”
Other teacher stories that you may want to mention...?
One funny story when I was there was that I fainted in Tumkovsky's class. I was used to a heavy Russian class, and she was giving eight grand battements in each direction. I was standing in the sun at the barre, and I guess the summer heat, direct sunshine, and loss of fluids made me faint. I was so embarrassed, but didn't wake up until the class was in the center.
What are some of the artistic and choreographic highlights of your career at BSJ?
I think having the role of Juliet choreographed on me was a huge one for me. At that time in my career, the company was creating large scale works, which included ballets like “Swan Lake,” “A Midsummer Night's Dream,” and Bournonville's “The Toreador.” Great repertory pieces were being added, as well such as Limon's, “Moor's Pavane,” and Flemming Flindt's, “The Lesson.”
Also, the opportunity to work with Cynthia Gregory and see her dance some of the same roles that I was dancing was so inspiring, as well as having Rudolf Nureyev tour with the company to Ireland and Scotland.
Tell us about your working relationship with Mr. Nahat.
Mr. Nahat is a wonderful artist and has given me a great work ethic as a professional. He is meticulous on detail, and has always worked the company hard; yet in the end, I feel it has always paid off. My theory is if you can work in this company, you can pretty much work anywhere because he works his dancers very hard. My relationship with Dennis has endured these last 26 years, and I look to him as a mentor and have learned, and am still continuing to learn from him.
How has this evolved over the course of your career?
I have always had so much respect for him, and now that I choreograph, teach, and manage a small group of dancers myself, I have grown to appreciate all that he does for the company (with all the many hats he wears.) It is not an easy task, but he always gives 150% to make things happen. He is definitely a survivor!
You've been a muse for many of his creations. What inspires both of you?
I think I remain open to what he says and what he is trying to create. I think it is very important to not get stuck or resistant, and that allows one to grow as an artist and has enabled us to continue to work together well.
How do you collaborate?
I think I understand what he wants when he choreographs and he allows me to go beyond just the steps to make them truly dance. He is a very musical choreographer and I love taking on that challenge when we work together. Sometimes, he doesn't have to say much because I can fill in the blanks before he even has to say it....
I read in your bio that you make ballets yourself. Please tell us a little about these, and your own artistic vision and creative process.
I was always interested in choreographing, and when the company was in Cleveland, I had a friend who played with the Cleveland Orchestra who encouraged me to collaborate with his music. I'd choreograph and dance, and he'd play. He got some gigs, and then we began to establish ourselves as "Pointe of Departure." When the company moved to San Jose, I was encouraged by some people in Cleveland to continue what I was working on, and ended up forming a small board with a modest budget to still be able to bring classical ballet to Northeastern Ohio. Now, for the past five summers, Raymond Rodriguez [regisseur for BSJ] and I direct fourteen dancers for a summer season in Cleveland. We fundraise, dance, I choreograph, and so I have immense respect for Dennis because now I know what it entails to run a company. Every season, I also choreograph one new ballet and enjoy the process immensely. I am mostly inspired by the music I choose, and most of the time work through in my head with color and basically, move to the music and see what happens. It's a fun and rewarding process, but it can be difficult as well.
You also teach. What do you like about it?
I enjoy passing on what I was given as a student or as a dancer teaching a role to someone else. It is gratifying to see that transformation in students or other dancers when things all fall into place.
What makes it fun and interesting?
What makes it fun and interesting is the challenge of trying to convey the knowledge that I have to someone else. When it clicks, it is satisfying for both teacher and pupil.
What do you feel are some of your strengths that you bring to your teaching and coaching?
I think that my temperament helps people believe in themselves. I always hated being criticized by a teacher who made you feel less of who you were because you couldn't "get it." I think that the more relaxed and comfortable one is in the learning process, the faster and easier it is to absorb everything.
Tell us about how you approach and prepare for your role as Juliet.
Two of my most favorite movies as a kid were Zeffirelli's, “Romeo and Juliet,” and “The Turning Point.” I love to watch the Zeffirelli movie to help me feel those feelings I had when I watched it, and I love to think of the way Leslie Browne and Baryshnikov made me feel when I saw them dance the pas de deux in the movie. I read the story over and over again as a teenager, and before I take on the role, I like to think of certain dialogue from the text. I just love the music and since I have always been the type that is "in love with the idea of love," I think that helps in my preparation to remain innocent and open to the idea of love, and the desperation and feelings of desire you have when you meet your first love. I also keep the performance open to a certain degree, since the beauty of live theater is that spontaneity and the unknown, until the moment happens.
What pointe shoes do you wear -- maker, size, type?
I wear Bloch's Serenade in a 3.5 B.
And how do you prepare them?
The shoe is a rather hard shoe, so I break them in for a few classes at a time, until they feel ready for the stage. I also hammer them if I feel they are too noisy, which most of the time they are. I also alternate feet when I break them in, since I have a tendency to pronate, and alternating them from foot to foot keeps them squarer when I wear them for the performance.
Outside of ballet, what are some of your hobbies or interests?
With a four-year-old daughter, I love to spend time with her mostly, but I do like to go see movies, shows, most anything pertaining to the performing arts.
I’ve heard too that you're going to college...
I had done most of my required credits when I was in Cleveland, then had my baby, so I put off continuing my education for a time. Since the LEAP program is offered in San Francisco, I decided to go back and finish my degree. The program is great because it was geared toward professional dancers and although it is a lot of work to juggle with a full time dance job and parenting, I feel I need to think about the future as well.
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