JUST LIKE ROMEO AND JULIET – PART ONE OF INTERVIEW WITH CINCINNATI BALLET’S SARAH HAIRSTON AND PATRIC PALKENS

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Cincinnati Ballet’s “Romeo & Juliet,” with live music by Prokofiev from the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra under Carmen DeLeone’s baton and choreography from CEO & Artistic Director Victoria Morgan, opens Valentine’s Day (February 14) at The Aronoff Center. February first, I was at the ballet center to watch a rehearsal of the ballet. As I watched Victoria Morgan rehearse dancers Sarah Hairston (Juliet) and Patric Palkens (Romeo) I was struck by how communicative and considerate they were towards each other as they honed the details of Morgan’s choreography. I could see their partnership was going to be special.

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Five days later I talked to the two during their lunch hour. I discovered that Sarah, who is now a principal dancer and Patric, a younger soloist understudy performing this plum role because of an injury, seemed not only physically matched for their onstage characterization, but also in their thoughtful determination as professionals to craft their performances.

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Not only that, they knew how to have a good time with each other. Following is part one of a transcription of our conversation, slightly edited.

After I met them in the lobby of the Ballet Center, Patric said he was starving, so as he rushed off to get some food, promising to return soon, I talked with Sarah.

VALINKAT: How many different couples are there performing in the run of this ballet?

Sarah Hairston: There were three couples learning it and only two are performing it. Originally, three couples were learning it. Patric was learning it third cast.

VK: When do you two dance?

SH: The Friday morning school show and the Saturday matinee.

VK: You’ve been with Cincinnati Ballet since 2001, and by 2010 you’d moved up to principal, the top rank! The company has done “Romeo & Juliet” twice during that time. What roles did you play previously?

SH: I’ve been a Harlot every single time. So this was definitely a big change. A move up in the world!

VK: Have you partnered with Patric before?

SH: I have. I danced Carmen last year with him. But that’s it, that’s all that we’ve done.

VK: It’s said that sometimes corps dancers have to work harder than leads. But in this ballet, I doubt that is true!

SH: I think that one of the biggest challenges in this ballet is the partnering, for sure. There is a ton of partnering. Juliet really doesn’t dance by herself very much. She has one variation or two, but mostly, she is being partnered.

But maybe even a bigger challenge is the acting. I think Juliet is one of those roles in which as a dancer you are playing such a young girl, but emotionally [because of the dramatic range of the character], it is difficult find a dancer who is a good match for the role.

That’s because it takes such an element of maturity to be able to tap into that kind of emotion, that kind of acting. I know because ten years ago watching Kristi Capps and Tricia Sundbeck do this role, I remember thinking “wow, I would love to do that one day, but I know I’m not ready now.”

In 2008, last time we did the ballet, I was only a little older, but that was when I said to myself . . .  I really want to do this role. And I was so excited when it was put into the rep this year.

But I feel like now, with the position that I’m in and the age that I’m at, there is a maturity that has developed in my dancing and acting. It’s been over the past couple of years, especially after being promoted to principal dancer that now I’m ready for it. Whereas maybe just five years ago, when I wanted it so badly, I wasn’t.

So, for me, it takes a mature dancer to play this immature girl.

VK: Does Juliet transform in the ballet? Does she mature in unexpected ways? Do you chart that or do you just play it as it comes along?

SH: You know, especially in roles like this, I really try to in the beginning when I start learning, I think a lot about it. “Here’s a landmark where I should do this. Here’s a landmark where I should do that.” But then once it gets closer to performance, I really try not to play out what I am going to do. I want it just to happen.

I think to myself, I’ve already done the planning. It is all “in there.” So, when we run the ballet, I just try to let the emotions I feel at the moment happen.

But I’m also the kind of person – my personality is really – I have high emotions, you know? I’m kind of all over the place. That’s just who I am!

So it’s easy for me to take myself on that journey. For some dancers, it might not be that easy, maybe they really have to think what they have to do at a certain moment, or they are supposed to feel at a certain moment. And then they set themselves up for it.

I don’t feel like I have to do that as much. It’s very easy for me to put myself into a story. So, right now I am at that point since we are so close to production week.

The hardest thing right now is that we are running scenes out of context. But when you don’t have a buildup for a scene, I still really try to make myself go there. I say to myself “okay, this is the scene, this is the moment –“ I don’t think about what I’m gonna do, I just try to go with what I feel.

VK: That’s so interesting. As far as stamina, how does this role compare to other principal roles you have done?

SH: You know, I thought that this one was gonna be so – such a killer.

But if I hadn’t had ballets like “The Sleeping Beauty” under my belt or – or even our old Nutcracker, Val Caniparoli’s “The Nutcracker,” because the character of Marie danced the entire ballet, rather than a child and a grown up dancer – if I didn’t have things like that under my belt, this probably would be a very hard ballet, stamina-wise.

But, so far, I think it’s even harder for the guy because is doing all the partnering [read “lifting”]. The longest scene in Romeo & Juliet is the Balcony pas de Deux. It’s about six or seven minutes long. For me, not as bad as I thought.

But poor Patric, he’s lifting me and heaving me all over the place, so it’s definitely harder for him [she giggles].

But, I told him I know is it hard for him, but luckily I’m not really that tired, so I can help you. [she giggles again]. But he’s like . . . [she makes a little growl].

VK: I love Prokofiev’s Balcony music. It sweeps and swoops all over the place with just wonderful themes. I love when it gets to a certain spot and seems to be winding down . . . but then . . . it keeps going!

SH: I know! And at that point, you are really only halfway through!

PART TWO OF THIS INTERVIEW WITH PATRIC PALKENS AND SARAH COMING SOON! 

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