Eugene Ballet - Principal Dancer Jennifer Martin
by Dean Speer
May 7, 2006 -- Oregon
I chatted with bright and energetic principal dancer Jennifer Martin about her career, following the second showing of Eugene Ballet’s “Pink Martini” program.
Tell me how you got started in ballet.
I was born in Long Beach, CA. My parents actually started me in dance because I had auditory perceptive problems and I was dyslexic. They also did it to help with my coordination. And it stuck! They have been very supportive throughout my career.
Great. You liked it from the start?
I started when I was three and a half or four so I really wasn’t aware of how much I liked it at that point. My parents told me that I used to dance around the living room when I was little. About the age of twelve I became aware of how much I loved ballet. By sixteen I knew I wanted to be a professional ballerina... generally at that age you continue with training... or you be a teenager and pursue a university – and at that point I decided what I really wanted.
And who were some of your first teachers?
In Long Beach, I had a personal coach, and that was roughly around thirteen or fourteen; I was very behind in my technique. Her name is Patricia Stander and she is from Rhodesia, what is now Zimbabwe. She’s a wonderful teacher. I keep in touch with her still. She’s still coaching and teaching, and is currently the Artistic Director of Ballet Peninsula. She used to be an adjudicator.
For the RAD [Royal Academy of Dance]?
Actually, for international ballet competitions. She has prepared many dancers for these events. If fact that is how I met her. I wanted to attend a competition and had heard that she was the person to see. It should be mentioned David Wilcox was also one of my teachers. To finish my training, I went to the Royal Winnipeg Ballet School at age 18 with recommendations from Patricia and Arnold Spohr.
Was that when David Moroni [director of the Royal Winnipeg Ballet School] was still there?
Yes, I adore that man.
In fact, my graduate year, I took men’s Level 7 class because I just loved him.
How long were you in Winnipeg?
I was there for three years. I finished my training in the Vaganova method and graduated in two years, and then I spent an extra year as a graduate working on “Partial Contract ” for the Royal Winnipeg Ballet Company. Interestingly, Peter Pawlyshyn [Eugene Ballet Associate Artistic Director] and I had the same teacher from Winnipeg, Julia Arkos, so we have that bond.
And how did you get from Winnipeg to Eugene?
That’s a funny story. [laughs] The company’s directorship changed from John Mehan to William Whitener and he didn’t care for me. So I didn’t have a job. I didn’t want to do a second year of grad work there and it was definitely time for me to get a job. So I asked permission to take a weekend and go for an audition. There were four of us from the school that went that weekend. We borrowed a friend’s car and we drove 24 hours straight to Salt Lake City for Eugene Ballet’s audition. Oddly, I was not aware at that point that Eugene Ballet and Ballet Idaho were going to begin the merge that year. And fortunately, I got a job. [laughs] Toni [Pimble, Artistic Director of Eugene Ballet] and Riley [Granen, Managing Director of Eugene Ballet (and founder, along with Pimble)] were both there. I still remember some of the exercises from that audition – I was very nervous!
I can imagine.
But we did it and went back to Canada and each of us were called a few weeks later and were told we had jobs -- all four. So I was very thankful and I have loved dancing for this company ever since. I remember Riley saying, at the start of the audition, “If you don’t want to tour and you don’t want to work hard, don’t audition.” So he was clear from the beginning.
What have been some of your career highlights at Eugene Ballet? For example, it could be a number of things like certain roles or it could be with a specific ballet, or a partner or choreographer that you liked working with….
I could answer all these questions because there are so many aspects…this coming year will be my thirteenth season. We will be performing one of Toni’s pieces, “Still Falls the Rain.” It is my favorite choreography of hers. I was fortunate to have been a part of the process when she initially created it and have been looking forward to the opportunity of dancing in it again. She’s an outstanding and amazing boss. She really respects people as people. She looks at that element of them being human beings first. I would like to say that she’s my friend; it’s difficult to say because there needs to be a working relationship. However, I would say that I feel very close to her.
As far as friends go, my best friend is Brett Mills. She was another principal dancer at our company who retired a few years ago and has since moved to Chicago with her husband. I miss her tremendously, but we have remained close. And she grounds me. We just have a sense of camaraderie. I have never worked so closely with another female like that; the willingness to share and not feel threatened. It was just a symbiotic relationship. I greatly admire her.
As far as partners go, the partner that I work most with now is Hyuk-Ku Kwon. That’s another phenomenal relationship because after a few years working together, we both opened up to each other. I enjoy working with him; he’s a beautiful dancer. He’s such a neat person and I feel quite safe working with him. I also have my boyfriend in the company, Juan Carlos Amy-Cordero, who is a great source of inspiration. I have nothing to complain about! [laughs]
What about any particular choreographers that you enjoyed working with.
Even though I didn't get to work with Dennis Spaight -- I have heard he was a wonderful man -- in regards to restaging, Carol [Schultz] and Sandy [Baldwin. Ed: ballet repetiteurs] were wonderful to work with when they set Spaight’s "Scherezade." I believe they captured the choreographer’s intent. I loved that ballet so very much. And I really enjoyed working with Lynn Taylor-Corbett when she set “In A Word” a number of years ago. I had never danced a piece to spoken word before. And it’s been really nice working with our company members who choreograph. I would love to work with Gillmer Duran. I want to be in one of his pieces so badly because I greatly admire his style. He reminds me of Kylian in his approach to movement and interpretation of the music. That would be a dream.
Let's talk a little bit about this season. I wanted to focus a little bit about...give us some sort of overview about how this season has gone for you, and talk a little bit about the process of “Pink Martini.” I think that would be fun for our readers and then maybe wrap up with what you're looking forward to...
The season started with "Giselle.” It's the first time I've performed the role of "Giselle." I've danced Myrta and I've been in the corps. I think there were some doubts and concerns because people view me more as an aggressive dancer and not a soft dancer. It was a nice challenge but I was skeptical. It wasn't something that I was looking forward to initially, but in the end, I really enjoyed it and it is absolutely something that I would like to do again.
The company performed "Princess and the Pea" in February. That was another really difficult and challenging piece. It was something that I didn't think I was going to enjoy because Daniel Pelzig, the choreographer came to re-choreograph the ballet. He has a raw personality and is a bit sarcastic; it took me a while to adjust. He knows what he wants and not all of his choreography is in the classical repertoire. [laughs] He wants you to play and feel comfortable, and that part of letting yourself go and finding your way can be difficult at times. I was discussing this subject recently with our Associate Artistic Director, Peter Pawlyshyn – saying by the time that we were finished, I was disappointed the production was over because it had been another fun experience and had truly enjoyed it.
And most recently with "Pink Martini," it has been a challenging season. Being Caucasian, obviously I don't have any Latin in my blood. So that has been a big, big challenge to try to get that Latin style for some of the sections in this production. Company member Dubraskha Arrivillaga, a Venezuelan, has been so helpful with this because she inherently has that style and rhythm in her body. So Toni really utilized Arrivillaga and her husband, Gilmer [Duran], from the start; although it's not a literal version of salsa, capoeira, tango, the style of the movement is put onto a classical and contemporary framework. They certainly were instrumental in getting this going. It's been hard dancing in a pair of heels, the costumes, though beautiful, have been challenging, and ultimately, having “Pink Martini” play onstage with us gives us energy. You can tell that we were pretty tired today but having them there with us gave us energy to continue with what we're doing. It's a really high energy show especially with Melissa Nolen’s piece (“Idyll for Eight”) starting the program. Her piece has lovely choreography. In speaking with several people over the last few days, I was saying how much I enjoy being a part of her piece. That was really important to me and I felt really honored to be a part of it. Finishing the program with “Pink Martini" has just been exhausting – a serious workout!
I can imagine. And walking in, I could tell the audience was a-buzz...
I know. It was difficult too because many of them were there to see “Pink Martini” and not us. There were high expectations. This is a new audience for the ballet company, so we were very serious about trying to make a good impression on those new audience members.
Just hook the audience and bring them in...
Absolutely. But “Pink Martini” has been delightful. They're such nice people; so accommodating. It's just a great group of people. Really fun choreography, lighting, and costumes.
You may not know this but where did the selection for the different songs come from?
I think a lot of the ideas came from Toni; she has an amazing ability to find great music. I am constantly impressed. She always puts so much time in to this aspect. Most likely Gillmer Duran had some input as well because he choreographed “Bachianas Brasilerias Number 5.”
I love that music.
It's haunting in a way.
It is haunting. In the Latin poetry you know when they are singing about the moonlight, they’re actually singing about something else. It's a very famous piece of music.
In regard to collaborations similar to this production involving singing, live music and dance, I'm looking forward to the first program for next season. It's going to be so powerful because “Carmina Burana.” will have live music and full chorale. I am also looking forward to the full length “Carnival of the Animals,” which we are due to perform later in the season.
Well if it's any comfort, Mr. Christensen, in Salt Lake City, did a “Carnival of the Animals” and it was a quite nice piece. He took it seriously and everyone did it.
The score has such lovely sections.
I look forward to seeing it. A lot of our readers are dance people, and I would like to ask about your pointe shoes. What do you wear, what size, and what kind of special preparations do you go through to get them ready?
I wear Capezio 190. The owner of the Empire Dance Shop in Spokane, Phillip Broadbent, does a lot of work on my shoes to finish them to the specifications I like. For example I have the bottom scraped. I used to have the satin reversed but I don't do that anymore. I like the satin right side out now. And it takes me about an hour and a half to darn the ends. And a lot of people ask why. Capezios tend to be a little noisy so I want something to dampen the noise a little.
One of my ballet teachers knew how to darn pointe shoes; it's like a dying art.
I know. And actually, in this company, we have quite a few girls that darn now. [laughs]
It takes a long time. That is one thing that I am looking forward to in retirement: no more darning. It takes too long! But it's worth it.
And speaking of outside interests, we also like to ask everyone what hobbies and interests you may have – or the last book that you have read or are reading, things that fill your life other than ballet.
I have two gorgeous cats that I miss; they are in Boise. And actually I love baking and cooking. I used to work in pastry for a small restaurant that closed in Boise. And fortunately my boyfriend and I enjoy cooking together. We don't fight in the kitchen. So that's really nice. And our apartment overlooks the Boise River, so I like spending time with Juan Carlos on the balcony.
Speaking of Boise, tell us a little bit about how it’s like being located between two states for work.
To be quite honest...
I feel very connected to the artistic staff here in Eugene. I believe it's a sense of family here. And because I met Toni and Riley first, I feel very close to them. We do have so much support from Boise but I adore Eugene. I like the climate here, it is green, lush and humid. People, in both places; they recognize us and they give us such a sense of passion and appreciation. But I would have to say, quite honestly, that I am very partial to Eugene. Something has to be going right between the two cities for the merger to be intact for 12 years. They are doing a lot of good work to keep us employed and I do respect and appreciate that everyday in my job. And I love my job!
Happy to hear that!
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