“I work mostly with soloists and principals on the specifics of how they are doing the steps, what the shape should look like, and the intent of steps. It’s a lot of finessing as well as technical work.”
Svea Eklof’s international ballet career was influenced by several esteemed choreographers and coaches, from George Balanchine at the Geneva Ballet to Galina Yordanova at the Royal Winnipeg Ballet. (You can read the full story of Svea’s professional performance life here.) Shortly after retiring in 1989, Svea began a new chapter of her career as a principal ballet coach for Canada’s Ballet Jörgen. In this role, Svea blends the lessons she learned from her cherished ballet mentors with her unique insight and energy as she supports the development of a new generation of professional dancers.
The opportunity to coach unfolded during Svea’s early retirement years in Toronto. During this time, she was working on a large-scale production of Aïda, choreographed by Brydon Paige, who had then retired as Artistic Director of the Alberta Ballet. The opera premiered to an audience of 40,000, with Svea thrust into the main role after the lead female dancer was sent for an emergency appendectomy. Among the 1,000 dancers cast in the opera was Bengt Jörgen, co-founder and Artistic Director of Canada’s Ballet Jörgen. “That’s how I met Bengt,” says Svea. “He asked me to coach a couple that he wanted to do White Swan Pas-de-Deux. Since I had done Swan Lakebefore, I went in and began to ballet mistress for him.”
Svea’s role developed into the Principal Coach for all of Canada’s Ballet Jörgen’s classical and neoclassical works. “I’m building the dancer in the role and getting them into a deeper level of the work,” Svea explains. “Coaching is different from the responsibilities of a ballet mistress, which are to get everyone together, get the right spacing, and make sure that everyone is listening to the music; but a coach’s work is more refined. I work mostly with soloists and principals on the specifics of how they are doing the steps, what the shape should look like, and the intent of steps. It’s a lot of finessing as well as technical work. When you’re more solid technically, then you have the confidence to dig deeper inside yourself to make the role yours.”
“Svea can see exactly what I should fix and can always tell me why something doesn’t work. There is always a physical reason.”
This meticulous attention to technique is tremendously valued by dancers, as expressed by CBJ company member, Momoka Matsui: “Svea can see exactly what I should fix and can always tell me why something doesn’t work. There is always a physical reason. Once she gives me an explanation, I can fix other techniques too. I can see my improvement very clearly working with her.”
Svea further helps dancers understand and develop their performance characters. CBJ Principal Dancer, Saniya Abilmajineva, shares how Svea’s coaching has developed her artistry: “We have worked together on every single role that I have danced for nine years. We usually start with a conversation when we begin preparing a new role: What’s the story? Who am I in this ballet? What would I feel if I were actually in a certain situation? We do this so I can create my own character that doesn’t resemble anyone else. This makes me feel natural during performances, like I’m living a different life on stage.”
Beyond the technical and artistic instruction, there is a strong relational component to coaching work. “A coach first gets to know the dancer,” Svea explains. “I see what kind of learner they are and get to know their physical background, training background, and emotional background. A coach must first of all earn the dancer’s trust. The dancer must believe that what I say will help them.”
“A coach must first of all earn the dancer’s trust. The dancer must believe that what I say will help them.”
Svea’s own experience gives her an awareness of the resistance dancers can potentially have to coaching. “Retraining is hard on your ego,” she admits while looking back on the first time she was coached by Sonja Tyven at the North Carolina Dance Theater. By this time, Svea had already danced a range of principal roles in several companies, including Ballet Classico de Mexico, Geneva’s Ballet du Grand Théâtre, and Nederlands Dans Theater. “Then I came back to North Carolina,” says Svea. “I didn’t think I had anything new to learn. Then Sonja said, ‘Come, we’re going to go into the studio and work for a couple hours each day.’ Lo and behold, I was learning to do plié relevé all over again! My ego was just decimated. I asked her, ‘Have I been doing it so badly?’ She said, ‘No, of course not, darling; but there were parts that weren’t good enough, so now you’re at a plateau and struggling to get to the next level.’”
Svea overcame her initial resistance and gained a deep appreciation for her coaches’ conscientious direction. “I had phenomenal coaches who really stayed the course with me,” says Svea as she reflects on the influences of her coaches, Job Sanders, Duncan Noble, Sonja Tyven, Alexandra Danilova, and Galina Yordanova. “I am eternally grateful for them and my other coaches. Their voices still guide me, and I always hope to pass on their great lessons when I coach.”
“We’re getting people who have more and better facility, almost younger, all the time. There’s a big philosophical question: Is more, better?”
Learning from Svea’s professional history has been meaningful to CBJ company dancers. Junior Gaspar Caballero shares: “Svea incorporates a lot of her artistic experience when she coaches. I find myself learning about the life of an artist. It’s an inspiration for me.” It is evident that Svea is forging the deep bonds of trust that her extraordinary coaches had developed with her. “I am so thankful to Svea,” expresses Saniya, warmly. “She’s a wonderful person, amazing coach, and one of my best friends.”
While Svea draws on the breadth of her past experience in her coaching, she also possesses a keen awareness of recent developments in ballet that coaches must now consider: “We’re getting people who have more and better facility, almost younger, all the time. There’s a big philosophical question: ‘Is more, better?’ There’s this discussion about overuse of flexibility and extension. Is there a place for it? Does it suit the ballet? I think unless it fits musically, or fits into the actual repertoire, it’s misplaced. Not everyone agrees with how I feel about it. This is something dance educators and coaches are always discussing.”
As Svea continues to inspire dancers to higher levels of artistic and technical excellence, she offers these words of coaching advice: “Exaggerate corrections because what you think in your head isn’t exaggerated by the time it gets in the body. I’d also like to see dancers more curious and not afraid to look at many examples of dancing. Don’t be afraid to try a new way of doing something. It might not work the first 25 times. Persevere. Keep trying.”
In addition to coaching CBJ principals and soloists, Svea works with George Brown Dance graduates in CBJ’s Mentorship Program. Applications for this post-diploma opportunity are open to graduates of GBD’s two-year Dance Performance Program. Register for an audition with GBD and learn more about your pathway to mentorship with Svea and others at Canada’s Ballet Jörgen.
Written by Victoria Campbell Windle, CBJ Communications Contributor.
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