Clara Blanco is a soloist with San Francisco Ballet. She is from Valladolid, Spain, and trained at the Escuela de Maria de Avila in Zaragoza. When she was 15, she won the Prix de Lausanne Young Dancers International Dance Competition scholarship prize to attend the San Francisco Ballet School, which she entered in 1999. She was invited to join the company in 2001, and was promoted to soloist in 2012.
How did you begin dancing?
I started at six and it happened randomly because I did after-school activities, and these included some dancing: I was learning and doing sevillanas and also Karate, because my mother wanted me to be involved in after-school activities. Then, a small ballet studio opened up next to my father’s business. My mother asked me if I wanted to start ballet there. I was only six, but I had a friend who had danced, and so I went and I just loved it!
Which feelings from your first inclinations to dance do you carry with you when you perform?
I always have in mind the things my second teacher Maria de Avila said to us, because she was always quite specific and detailed, and so even if I tried, I couldn’t forget what she instilled in my brain! She gave explanations for every step she taught, so that you could apply them even when there is no one helping you out. As a professional dancer these days, it is often the case that you don’t have a coach, but I am always aware that I still have what she shared with us. So whenever I’m in class, I know to go back to basics and clean up what I may have messed up the day before. She is always very present.
What accomplishments are you most proud of?
My training was very classical, and so I wasn’t exposed to modern, contemporary or Balanchine-style dancing. So, when I came here–first to San Francisco Ballet School, it was the first time that I was exposed to that kind of movement. I was in the school for two years before joining the company and becoming a professional dancer. My first exposure to Balanchine was in the school. Growing as a person makes you grow as a dancer in terms of finding yourself, knowing yourself, your work, what you are good or bad at, and how to work with what you have. As I get older I continue to notice that I’ve accumulated a lot of knowledge through living. Having a good school gave me strong technique. Having strong technique makes you feel freer because you have no second thoughts about it, and that allows you to concentrate on the character you are dancing or the feeling the choreography evokes. It also makes me feel satisfied that I am doing things right, and that I don’t have to use little devices to hide things that if you don’t have good technique you can tend to want to cover up.
In what ways do you think being an only child affected how you approach the competitive aspect of ballet?
I think I am a real perfectionist, not only a dancer, but as a person, and always had the inclination to do everything as well as possible for myself, but also for my parents, since I was their only child. So wanting to do well can make you competitive. I always competed with myself when I was a student, so there is a whole different level of exposure when you are confronted with another 100 students who are professional-track dancers. The challenge is much bigger. I always wanted to be better than I was at any given moment, not better than that other person, but better than myself. The other person wasn’t a vehicle for competing.
What has been most exciting for you?
There is a certain feeling that I experience as I get older, and each year I get that feeling at least once. It’s the breakthrough exhilaration of doing something I never thought I could do. It started with the contemporary piece Artifact Suite [by William Forsythe]. I realized I could move in a way I never thought possible; it also happened with Balanchine, though not in as drastic a way, and also, I was always told when I was little that I should express more feeling: “You have to smile, interpret who you are in those moments,” and I always felt shy about that, and never felt I’d feel free enough to be someone else, but the first time it happened and I felt I could do a role and portray the role throughout a piece or a full-length, it was in Ibsen’s House [by Val Caniparoli]. I Remember feeling very satisfied and fulfilled, and it happened again this season in Onegin. It is not something at all abstract when you portray a character. Steps may be hard and challenging, and you feel proud of that and have fun if it’s a fun ballet, but this thing of being a specific character and being that character for the length of the ballet, makes the whole ballet world make sense to me. Before, when I experienced a variation in a competition or when you win, or you don’t win, or you have good reviews or you don’t, that’s one kind of feeling. But dancing a character both fulfills and exhausts you. After Artifact, I felt dead, but it was a good dead!
Who among your colleagues have you looked to for direction?
From the moment I began training with Maria de Avila, she taught me to observe everything all the time. She would say that often you can learn more from watching than from doing, so I always did that and I think you can learn as much from the person who has been here 15 years as you can from someone who has just walked in. Sometimes the young people haven’t yet developed a certain kind of fear that can creep in as you get more experienced. They still have spontaneity, and fear holds you back. So, sometimes I find myself looking to the younger dancers to find that fearlessness in myself again. When I was younger, I did some things that now scare me to even think about doing, even though they were quite wonderful. I look to the older ones for the benefits that come with experience: for example, Muriel Maffre [former SFB Principal Dancer], because she was the opposite of what I am in terms of how we tend to be cast in certain roles. She would get the more legato roles because she is tall with long limbs. I am short, and tend to get the roles with short, quick steps. I admired her work ethic. She would process every step. I was able to learn a lot from that, and how she worked with her own body made me aware of how to work with mine.
Hasn’t Lorena Feijoo also helped you?
Lorena Feijoo [currently a principal dancer with SFB] coached me for the Nutcracker Grand Pas de Deux. Because I was in the school and joined the company when I was young, I always remember having had the feeling of needing help and looking up to the older dancers, and feeling happy and thankful even if they helped me with something small.
Have you mentored younger dancers?
I have wanted to give the younger dancers the tips I have gotten over the years. The smallest things may be very helpful to someone who is new. I want them to have the best experience possible, so I like to give them those tips in advance, I know they’ll experience what I am saying eventually, but I want to help before that time comes. It is very important because we have less coaching nowadays.
What did your promotion this season to soloist signify to you?
My promotion [in January] is finally starting to sink in! In seeing the whole picture, and what it means to me is that you should never give up. I tend to be stubborn. I work for what I want. People tell me to let go of things. Every time I begin a new project, I want to do it the best I can or I won’t try. I am very persistent in everything. So my goal has been to rise in the ranks, fighting to get that, not just the roles, but getting the recognition that should come with dancing them well. It is a little ironic that it was this year that I got promoted, when I finally made peace with myself, and while I had not given up trying, I decided that maybe it just wasn’t meant for me, even though I can’t really say I gave up. So when it happened, I was glad that my persistence paid off. The promotions and all the successes don’t always take place at the same time for dancers of a particular generation, so even though it took me so long to get the promotion, maybe for some of the others it was too late, but also, maybe because I didn’t give up, I succeeded. It meant a lot. It wasn’t easy, so it makes it all the more special; it was hard work and a long process, but unlike how it may feel for those who get promoted very early in their careers, it feels completely solid.
Can you tell us something about the role you will dance in the upcoming performances of Don Quixote?
I will be dancing Cupid. In this production, Cupid is the character that makes Don Quixote fall in love with Kitri, confusing him into thinking she is Dulcinea. During the dance he wants to touch her, and I pull him back, teasing him. Helgi [Artistic Director Helgi Tomassen] would like me to dance it as a cute, sweet, and comic role, though it is not as comic as other parts in the production. He wants it cute, but at the same time sharp, but at the same time light: Present, but something ephemeral that comes and goes, a charming little troublemaker!
San Francisco Ballet’s Don Quixote will run at the War Memorial Opera House from April 27-May 6. Click here for ticket and casting information.
Toba Singer, author of “First Position: a Century of Ballet Artists” (Praeger 2007), was Senior Program Director of the Art and Music Center of the San Francisco Public Library and its dance selector until her retirement in 2010. Raised in The Bronx, she graduated from New York City’s School of Performing Arts with a major in Drama, the University of Massachusetts with a BA in History; and the University of Maryland with an MLS. Since high school, Singer has been actively engaged in a broad range of pro-labor, social, and political campaigns. She has lived, worked, organized and written in Baltimore, Boston, The Bronx, Cambridge, Charleston, West Virginia, Jersey City, Richmond, Virginia, San Francisco, and Washington, D.C., working in steel mills, chemical refineries, garment shops and as an airlines worker; also editing, teaching and as an office worker. Singer has contributed articles to the “Charleston Gazette,” “San Francisco Chronicle,” “Dance Magazine,” “Dance Europe,” “City Paper,” “Provincetown Advocate,” “Voice of Dance,” CriticalDance.com, “InDance,” and “Dance Source Houston.”
Singer returned to the studio to study ballet after a 25-year absence, and in 2001, was invited to become a founding member of the board of Robert Moses’ KIN dance company. Singer studied ballet with Svetlana Afanasieva, Nina Anderson, Perry Brunson, Richard Gibson, Zory Karah, Celine Keller, Charles McGraw, Francoise Martinet, Augusta Moore, E. Virginia Williams, and Kahz Zmuda; and Modern Dance with Cora Cahan, Jane Dudley, Nancy Lang, Donald McKayle, Gertrude Shurr, and Zenaide Trigg. Her son James Gotesky dances with Houston Ballet. Singer lives in Oakland, California, with her husband Jim Gotesky.