By Katia Ostapets
Photography by Tara West
A wife, mother, world traveler and principal dancer for The National Ballet of Canada — Greta Hodgkinson finds time for it all. The Warwick, Rhode Island, native has made Toronto her home, and as one of the most distinguished dancers at the National Ballet of Canada, she has performed all over the world and danced countless parts that many ballet dancers dream of.
FAJO met Hodgkinson a day after her rehearsal for the upcoming Carmen show, to speak about dance, costumes, family and what it all means to her.
KATIA OSTAPETS: How did you get into dance? Did something inspire you?
GRETA HODGKINSON: My Mom started me in dance when I was four, so I don’t remember being particularly inspired, I was just always dancing. I did a lot of activities as a child: tap, ballet, jazz, gymnastics, ice-skating. Ballet was the one that really stuck.
Have you ever thought of doing something else?
No, never. I’ve always really needed to express myself and be in the arts. At one point, law really interested me. It caught my attention, but it was not something I thought I would ever do.
Why did you decide to come to Toronto for school?
At the time, it was one of the only ballet and academic boarding schools in North America. My parents really liked that idea. The only other option would have been to go to New York, but I was 11 and I was not going to move there by myself. Even though my parents wanted to support my dream to be a dancer, they also wanted me to get an education. It was the best place for me.
What was it like growing up in a boarding school?
I loved it! Before I went to the [dance boarding] school, I felt like an oddity because I was so serious about ballet. I would go home from school and go straight to ballet. None of the other kids in my class understood why I wouldn’t do other things.
But when I came to the [boarding] school, everyone was like me. Everyone was so dedicated and there was an atmosphere of passion for dance, which was exactly what I needed. This was exactly where I belonged.
I got a job right out of school. I skipped a grade, so I was 16 when I graduated. I remember calling my parents saying, “Mom, I got a job! I’m 16 and I have a full-time job!” I felt really grown up.
What accomplishments are you most proud of?
I am proud of the fact that I have worked hard to achieve the things that I set out to [accomplish]. I’ve had a really blessed career so far, with so many opportunities that a lot of the dancers don’t have in their whole careers. Luck for sure comes into play, but most of that was hard work and determination. Also, I’m really proud that I have a son, and that I’m balancing my career and my personal life.
What was it like starting a family while being a dancer?
When I joined the company, there were only one or two other dancers who had children. It was really unusual. Now, there are about 15 children between all of us. People who have a [different] job can keep working up until their due date and take their maternity leave after. Obviously, for me it wasn’t like that.
Being a principle dancer, I am dancing full out. So I had to stop early, at six weeks. On the flip side, people take a year off after they have a child. For a dancer, if you want to get back to the level [of doing] Sleeping Beauty there is no way I could take a year off, [and neither did I want to]. So I came back after eight weeks.
Your husband is also a dancer at The National Ballet of Canada. Do you prefer dancing with him?
There’s something really nice about it. It’s difficult in the rehearsal process, because I’m a perfectionist and I can be really difficult. So it’s sometimes hard, but there’s always a really nice quality on-stage, which makes up for it. He’s such a fabulous partner and I trust him.
What is it like being married to another dancer?
Our rehearsals are quite different, [so even when] we’re in the same building, I might not see him all day. But it’s nice having someone who understands what I go through. It’s not like any other job. It’s 24-7 — there’s no way around it.
You have travelled the world. What was your favourite destination?
When I’m travelling for work, I don’t have a lot of time to visit. The place I’ve probably seen the most of, because [of how much work] I’ve done there, is Italy.
How do you compare the dance culture in Europe to North America?
It’s totally different. [In St. Petersburg and] in Paris, they start very young and the training is really rigorous. More so I feel in Russia. The Mariinsky is a huge company and they are all amazing. They won’t accept you unless you have the perfect body with the perfect turnout, and they can afford to do that because they have so many to choose from.
It’s different in North America; here they are much more forgiving. You obviously have to have a certain amount of talent and turnout, but there are so many body shapes and so many incredible dancers, [who are] all different.
If you’re a ballerina [in Russia], you’re revered and commend an enormous amount of respect. You are creating art. In Europe, art and culture [are] so much a part of their DNA. There’s a real [sense of] tradition there that’s not quite the same here. When I was performing at the Mariinsky, just walking through the doors of that opera house, you feel the history of ballet on your shoulders.
What do you wear on your day off?
Jeans. On my day off, I take my son to gymnastics or do other activities with him, so [I’d wear] jeans and the most comfortable pair of shoes I have, like my Cole Haan slip-ons.
We also go to a lot of receptions and events, so we’re constantly dressing up. It’s really fun, but in my downtime [I like to wear] comfortable clothes.
What has been your favourite costume so far?
One of my favourite costumes was the dress from Other Dances, the Jerome Robbins piece that I did for my 20th anniversary [with the National Ballet of Canada]. It was really special work and part of the reason why I loved the costume so much. It was a really beautiful blue dress in flowy chiffon that made you feel really pretty. It was [amazing] to move in; when you turned, it would take on a beautiful shape. I’ve been so lucky and there have been so many [gorgeous] costumes, but I think that one holds a particular meaning for me.
Tutus or flowy dresses?
There’s something about a tutu that makes you feel like a ballerina. It’s like nothing else, and I’ve worn some gorgeous ones. But there’s a certain rigidity to it that doesn’t lend itself to the kind of movement that another dress would.
You answer most of your fan mail. Have there been any memorable letters? What do people write to you?
Some people ask for advice, a lot just say they saw me in something and that it moved them. Many younger kids say they’ve bought my pointe shoes at the show and [now] have them up on their wall.
[Once], I got a really beautiful letter from a woman who was describing a performance I had done. It had moved her to write this letter about what had happened in her life and how it affected her. I was really moved at the end of it. [It’s amazing] how you can affect someone like that, through your work. Few people get to experience that, so I feel very lucky.
Carmen runs from June 5 to June 16. For more information, please click here.