“I never expected to get into it… “I’m too small to be in a Balanchine ballet, is what I thought.”
Svea Eklof is one of the gems of Canada’s Ballet Jörgen. As the company’s Principal Coach and instructor for its Mentorship Program with George Brown Dance, Svea elevates dancers to new levels of technical skill and artistic mastery with her extensive experience and professional wisdom.
In this first of two feature stories, Svea shares memories and lessons from her remarkable dance journey, ranging from her first pair of pointe shoes, to her professional years as a principal dancer for the Geneva Ballet, Nederlands Dans Theater, Alberta Ballet, and Royal Winnipeg Ballet.
Svea discovered ballet at the age of five in Newport News, Virginia, when she walked into Emilie Bearden’s School of Dance to watch a friend’s ballet class. She was immediately captivated by the studio’s elegance and charm. “We went up this long stairway into the lobby and there was this beautiful ballet studio with lovely mirrors and a pianist,” she describes, sentimentally. “It was a magical place to me.”
Before her sixth birthday, Svea was accepted into Mrs. Bearden’s dance school and began taking one group class and two semi-privates a week. “It was just everything I wanted it to be,” Svea reminisces with a smile. At this young age, Svea’s naturally strong legs and articulate feet distinguished her from the other six-year-old dancers. “By the time I was about six and a half, Mrs. Bearden said, ‘We can try a pair of pointe shoes.’ Of course, I was thrilled. I would come home from school, put those pointe shoes on and just run around the house on pointe. It didn’t hurt. I loved it! I set the table while standing up on pointe. They were a little pair of black Capezio Duro-Toes.”
Svea moved frequently growing up, as her father’s job relocated the family across several states. As a result, she received different flavours of training throughout her childhood and adolescence, from Mrs. Bearden’s disciplined instruction of the Vaganova method, to the performance-based approach of Edith and Bill Royal’s commercial dance school in Winter Park, Florida.
By the time she would start high school, her family moved to Sumter, South Carolina. Svea studied for six months under Ann Brodie in Columbus, South Carolina, but had to find an alternative to the one-hour drive to and from class: “I had heard they were opening a conservatory school in Winston-Salem, North Carolina. It was the North Carolina School of the Arts. So, I auditioned and was accepted for the following September.”
Svea received her formative training during her four years at the North Carolina School of the Arts. “They really were training us to be professionals. People came from everywhere to look at the school and the students. There were lots of big names. Madame Alexandra Danilova and Robert Joffrey came. We had people coming from the School of American Ballet and New York City Ballet. We got a lot of exposure.”
“You Svea, are a very interesting one because you can’t really be typecast. You are a chameleon.”
These connections led to a seminal opportunity for Svea during her second year of training, when George Balanchine permitted the school to perform his iconic ballet, Serenade. “I never expected to get into it,” Svea reveals. “I’m too small to be in a Balanchine ballet, is what I thought. Then the casting went up for the principals and I was the Waltz Girl. It makes me emotional now. I was so shocked, so happy. Getting to dance that ballet and do that neoclassical style was absolutely itfor me. I didn’t want to miss a rehearsal or any part of it. I came home from that and said, ‘I am going to be a ballet dancer, no matter what it takes.’”
A memorable moment during her training in North Carolina occurred after class one day. The instructor, Dutch choreographer and Balanchine-trained dancer, Job Sanders, sat everyone down and started giving each dancer an insight into the type of artist he thought they would become. Svea recalls: “He said to one dancer, ‘You’re going to do classical parts,’ and to another, ‘You’re more character,’ and then to another, ‘You’re a romantic ballerina.’ He said it to all the dancers, and he didn’t say anything to me. I had already done Serendeby then. I had done several of his ballets, but he completely passed over me. Here I am, this eager-beaver student, and I asked, “Mr. Sanders, what type am I?’ I remember he turned, with very heavy eyelids, and said, ‘You Svea, are a very interesting one because you can’t really be typecast. You are a chameleon. You can go from one thing to the next. You’re going to be different in each person’s eye. They’re all going to see you differently and that will be your strongest suit. Your forte will be not having a forte at all.’” This was not the answer that Svea had wanted to hear: “To my very young ears, that sounded like a jack of all trades and a master of none.” She would learn throughout the course of her career, however, that her versatility was both a great strength, and a factor she would need to navigate in the process of identifying the styles of ballet that satisfied her most.
Hard-working and determined, Svea landed a company position with Pennsylvania Ballet at the age of 18, and after a year, joined Job Sanders’ Ballet Classico de Mexico, which performed a mix of classical and neoclassical repertoire. After Mexico City, she travelled to the Netherlands to help Job Sanders set a ballet and to try to find another company position. It was during this time that she had a fateful (although not immediately welcomed) encounter with Patricia Neary, director of George Balanchine’s Geneva Ballet.
“I was very intimated by her,” Svea confesses. “Of course, she asked the inevitable questions: ‘Who are you, and where are you dancing?’” Svea recalls replying nervously in a small voice: “I’m Svea, and I’m helping Mr. Sanders set this ballet. I’m not dancing anywhere.” Reflecting on her discomfort, she explains: “I found it just embarrassing that I didn’t have a job. I couldn’t get away from that moment fast enough.” Shortly after, Svea found herself yet again in Patricia Neary’s path while visiting Het Nationale. “I peeked in at a class and Pat was taking the class. She was a force to be contended with. This tall woman, almost six feet. She was like a tornado coming across that floor. I was standing there in a little summer dress. The second time she came across, she walked right up to me, looked at my legs and said, ‘I want you to take class with me tomorrow.’”
“I was getting a chance to do things I never imagined I’d get near.”
Svea hesitantly agreed, convinced that her short stature would be an obstacle to employment with the Geneva Ballet. “I thought, there is no way I am getting in with this company. I knew the dancers Pat had taken from the School of American Ballet. I knew their size. I was like, ‘What am I doing? This is a recipe to just feel even worse about myself.’”
With no expectations, Svea breezily completed the class. “I was so relaxed because I didn’t think there was any chance to get the job,” she recalls. She learned sections of Symphony in Cand Tarantella, which she picked up quickly and executed with ease. After a half hour, Patricia Neary handed her a principal contract and announced, “I will see you in Geneva.”
“I was astounded,” remembers Svea. “Then Pat explained to me that she was bringing in this boy from Berlin, Bobby Blankshine. I knew who he was. He was the wonderkid of Joffrey Ballet. He had been on the front of Timemagazine. He was very small. Pat told me she just didn’t have a small enough girl with good legs and feet to match up with him. I understood. I needed to make Bobby look right.”
Gleaning a lesson from this unexpected success, Svea counsels: “You never know how it’s going to happen. Some people walk through the front entrance and get a place in a company. I came in through the fire escape and back door. My main point is to get in however you need to get in, and then make yourself indispensable.”
As a principal dancer with Geneva’s Ballet du Grand Théâtre, Svea worked closely with the legendary George Balanchine. “It was amazing,” she recollects. “He would see you and what roles you’d look good in. It’s not about doing every part, but doing the right parts.” Special performances for Svea included Balanchine’s Tarentella Pas De Deux, and the role of Solo Girl in Agon. “I didn’t even expect to be in Agon, but Mr. Balanchine saw that I had a little quirkiness about me that was right for that part. I was getting a chance to do things I never imagined I’d get near.”
In addition to neoclassical Balanchine repertoire, Svea spent two years performing the innovative contemporary choreography of Jiří Kylián at Nederlands Dans Theater. “I was still not sure who I was. I loved Jiří Kylián’s works, but this was not the repertoire that turned on my body. It was interesting for me psychologically, but when it didn’t satisfy me physically, I was very confused. I thought, ‘What a huge mistake.’ Then I discovered, it wasn’t a mistake. I needed to learn this.”
“…My forte was not having only one specific forte at all…”
Svea returned to the Geneva Ballet and was shortly after invited by the North Carolina Dance Theater to perform the title role in Giselle. “Mr. Balanchine gave me permission to go for two weeks to North Carolina. Suddenly, I was in a very romantic classical work that also fired on my body in a way that the contemporary stuff had not. I didn’t think I could do the classics. I was just finding out really who I was.”
At the end of the two weeks, Svea and her partner at the time, Michel Rahn, learned the unexpected news that Patricia Neary had given away their future contracts with the Geneva Ballet. “Pat got very nervous seeing that we had both gone to North Carolina,” Svea explains. “People get nervous about losing their dancers.”
Svea and Michel used the opportunity to return to the North Carolina Dance Theater, where they spent three years and performed memorable ballets including Norbert Vesak’s, TheGrey Goose of Silence, before joining the Alberta Ballet in 1978.
Svea enjoyed a long career as a principal ballerina in Canada. She received great exposure performing the title role in The Firebirdat a gala for the Alberta Ballet, organized by Artistic Director, Brydon Paige. Svea recalls the esteemed members of the audience: “He invited all the founding directors: Celia Franca from the National Ballet of Canada, Gweneth Lloyd and Betty Farrally from the Royal Winnipeg Ballet, Ruth Carse from the Alberta Ballet, and Ludmilla Chiriaeff from Les Grands Ballets Canadiens.” The current artistic directors of the time were also present, including Arnold Spohr of the Royal Winnipeg Ballet. He would later offer Svea a contract, which she accepted with Brydon Paige’s support.
Her first few years in the Royal Winnipeg Ballet marked a dramatic change for Svea. “When I started, I was third cast. I had to prove I could dance to other members of the company before Mr. Spohr could push me to first place. It wasn’t easy, necessarily. I was used to being a principal ballerina. It was two years of putting in my dues.”
Svea rose to the challenge and danced some of her most memorable performances in her six-and-a-half years with the Royal Winnipeg Ballet, including Swan Lake, Don Quixote, and her beloved, Giselle, before retiring in 1989.
Reflecting now on her professional dance journey, Svea shares: “I’m looking back and I’m going, ‘Job Sanders was right. My forte was not having only one specific forte at all.’ I was insulted when he said it at the beginning, but then I saw the wisdom in it.”
Svea has not slowed down since retiring from her performance career. Look for the continuation of Svea’s story in next month’s newsletter, where she will offer her perspective on ballet coaching, changes to the ballet scene, and important lessons for pre-professional dancers to learn today.
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