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Southern Exposure

An Interview with Pacific Northwest Ballet Soloist Laura Gilbreath

by Dean Speer and Francis Timlin

We had the opportunity to speak with Ms. Gilbreath during the week that PNB was enjoying working with international choreographer, Alexei Ratmansky. What follows is a summary of that interesting conversation.

How did you get started in ballet?

I’m from Hammond, Louisiana which is between Baton Rouge and New Orleans. My first teacher was Phoebe Brantley in Baton Rouge. My mother, who was a serious ballet student through her high school years, wanted to pass on ballet to her daughters – I rode the coattails of my older sister.

My next school was the Giacobbe Academy of Dance in New Orleans, where Aubrey Morgan and Janie Taylor had also studied and I followed in their footsteps to the School of American Ballet at 15. However, I did not get into New York City Ballet but was hired at PNB. I loved ballet immediately, including loving pointe.

What is it that you love about ballet?

The magic quality – you can be someone totally different. It's the freedom of being onstage, wrapped up in the costumes, the movement, and the music, and the feeling of “bringing it home” to the audience.

Who were some of your teachers at SAB and how did they influence you?

Susan Pilarre, Kay Mazzo, Suki Schorer, Jock Soto, Andrei Kramerevsky. Pilarre got me to use my length – to eat up space – and to go for turns. Mazzo had us work on rolling up and down precisely through our feet, and she gave us refinement and épaulement; the beauty of a well-placed foot.

Can you summarize what some of your career highlights have been here...and what you’ve learned?

You grow so much in a short period of time. ‘Siren’ [“Prodigal Son”] was a great part – I need more performances in the part as I only got to do it a couple of times and would to it differently. ‘Titania’ and the Divertissement Pas de Deux in “Midsummer Night’s Dream” are also highlights.

What are you looking forward to performing during the rest of the current season?

For the rest of the current season, I’m looking forward to “Apollo,” “Carmina Burana,” and the return of “Coppélia” as I missed it the last time due to a stress fracture.

I was impressed that in watching your recent debut as the Black Swan during the “Love Stories” repertory run, that you’re a left turner...

Yes, that’s me! Turning comes more easily to the left for me and I find that I have to push for multiples on the right side. I love turning and want to do the full “Swan Lake” someday.

This brings us to the artistic side – how do you prepare and approach a role?

I don’t watch a lot of videos – I prefer to rely on coaching. In addition to coaching, I like to rely on my own instincts to some extent as well by allowing myself the freedom to experiment with doing something (maybe playing a character) slightly differently than the time before, so that it enriches the whole experience. I take one thing at a time and compartmentalize, otherwise, it gets overwhelming.

Which leads to your performance ritual – if you have one.

I’m not set on one thing. I like to take a short nap before the show, get in a snack at 6:30 or 7 before the performance [PNB evening curtains rise at 7:30 p.m.]. My shoes have to be in excellent form and I like to have more than one pair available, as sometimes the pair that you had picked out which was perfect, now suddenly isn’t working out.

Many of our readers will be interested to know what kind of pointe shoes you wear and how you prepare them.

I wear Freed and my maker is “Anchor.” I use a 5 ½ double on the left foot and a 6 single on the right. I flatten the box, and bend to foot right on the arch. I like a wing block, a full shank, and a “hard” shoe. This process shows the foot better.

What does your dance bag look like?

It looks like a suitcase! It has lots of shoes, toe tape, and cushion jello “things,” two pairs of leg warmers, a shirt, a tennis ball to roll my feet over, and a theraband.

Do you train outside of the daily regimen here?

Now and then I engage in Pilates and I occasionally workout on the elliptical, as I have found that by strengthening the glutes on this device, I can take the pressure off of my shins – hopefully preventing a stress fracture in the future. Age focuses awareness.

Choreographer Alexei Ratmansky has been in residence this week. How has it been working with him?

We’re happy to have him. He’s very picky, energetic, and shows everything. In his upcoming “Don Q,” I’ve been cast in multiple roles – as one of Kitri’s friends, as Mercedes, as Queen of the Dryads, and as one of the ‘tall’ Dryads [I’m 5'10"].

Comment about working here and have you had any roles created on you; being in on a creation of a new ballet?

I love working at PNB – and feel very fortunate. Fortunate that Kent Stowell and Francia Russell hired and nurtured me and Peter [Boal] has also been very good. We have quite a varied repertory. I love the Balanchine and only wish for more!

Benjamin Millepied created his “Three Movements” here. It was a very fast process, with grounded movement and high intensity at the end. He would give a sketch and then see how it worked on your body.

Care to share what some of your hobbies and interests outside of the ballet might be and any parting comments?

I like crafty projects. I just started getting into sewing [I’m a very beginner] and am trying to make baby cloths for my sister and sister-in-law who both have babies due in April. I also make pillows and curtains. I like to cook. I enjoy playing with my dog, Bonnie, who is a four-year old Chocolate Lab. My house has a good backyard, just right for her.

The overcast Seattle weather took some adjustment. My first summer here, I just froze!

I am involved in the Second Stage program and am thrilled to be participating in Seattle University’s classes which they bring to us here. I am interested in Arts Management and our classes have already begun in this BFA program. Our first class for 2012 is Ethics for Business in the Arts. In total, it’s a five-year program, plus core classes.

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