The lead role of Odette/Odile in the ballet “Swan Lake” is a doozy.
Louisville Ballet dancer Erica De La O has danced it before, and it never gets easier.
“It’s a big one,” she said. “It’s a lot of work.”
The role involves difficult choreography, immense artistry and almost-Herculean stamina. And despite her previous experience with the part, De La O said, this time around will “be the biggest challenge of my career, and it has been on every angle.”
That’s because De La O’s life is very different from when she joined the Louisville Ballet in 2003.
For one, she says her body is not the same — things have started to hurt more.
She also has a toddler now. There’s less time for all of the extra things that come with a dancer’s life, like getting to the studio early to warm up or cross-training outside of rehearsals.
“Post-baby, post-COVID and stuff, it really did change me,” De La O said.
De La O will take her final bow with the dance company Saturday evening, making this appearance her swan song for Louisville audiences.
As she approaches her retirement from a 20-plus-year performing career, De La O said she’s feeling many emotions.
“Sad, excited, good… It also feels a little surreal because you’re still like in dancer mode, where you still have to do pliés and tendus and get the work done.”
‘A dancer dies twice’
“It’s a heartbreaking moment to let it all go,” Louisville Ballet artistic director Robert Curran said of the inevitable moment when a dancer decides to or has to retire.
Curran quotes famous modern dancer and choreographer Martha Graham.
“Martha Graham said that a dancer always dies twice, once when they retire from dancing, and then when they leave the body,” Curran said.
Graham also reportedly said, “the first death is the more painful.”
Curran knows first-hand how hard it is to stop dancing. He made the decision to retire from the stage at 35, after more than three decades of dedicating his life to the art form.
Some dancers dread it, he said.
“You think about the risks that you take, or the partnerships that you build, or the stories that you tell, and the amount of times you kind of tear your soul out in front of the audience,” Curran said. “And then, you can’t do it anymore.”
Since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, the ballet has had several retirements: Emily Reinking O’Dell, Hailey Bowles and Luke Yee at the end of the 2019-2020 and John Aaron Brewer and Erin Langston Evans at the end of the 2020-2021 season.
From a garage in California to the Louisville stage
Born and raised in the East Los Angeles area, De La O said she’s “the product of the Martha Junior Baldwin Ballet” in Montebello, California.
“And she turned out to be my godmother,” De La O said. “I call her my fairy godmother because she was just this retired woman who taught classes for 25 cents out of her garage to the community.”
De La O went on to train at Le Studio Pasadena Dance Theatre.
She loved to dance, but the idea of ballet as a profession was a new concept for her and her family. She said she didn’t quite know how to make a career out of it.
“It was always like, I wonder if there’s a space for me in dance,” De La O said. “I wonder if they’d be interested in me, or I wonder if I can do this.”
She’s amazed with how her career came together after thinking it might not be possible for her, and said every season with the Louisville Ballet has been “like cat years.”
“Every season is just like a lifetime of events and experiences and lessons,” she said. “So many people pour so much information into you and guide you.”
Fellow dancer Brandon Ragland has been a big part of those experiences.
He’s De La O’s Prince Siegfried in Louisville Ballet’s “Swan Lake,” and for him, the performance marks their dancing partnership coming full circle.
“Erica was one of the first people I worked on a pas de deux with,” said Ragland, who’s in his 12th season with the ballet company.
Pas de deux, or dance of two, is often a duet involving partnered moves, like lifts and supported turns. It requires great skill and trust: a truly special dancer relationship.
“She’s such an artist, and she embodies whatever the intent, whatever the character is,” Ragland said of his dancing partner. “So it’s amazing to go on that journey with her because she kind of wraps you in it, and you become a part of this, like, wonderful artistry.”
De La O said the most difficult good-bye is leaving the city of Louisville.
“Louisville, this city has been so gracious to my husband and I,” De La O said, starting to get emotional. “I dreamed of being a ballerina, and this city has a lot of people that understand the value in art. And through that, they gave this kid a job and an opportunity to fulfill that dream.”
Beyond the stage
The thing with “dancer deaths,” though, is they’re also rebirths.
De La O and her husband, former Louisville Ballet dancer Kristopher Wojtera, are taking over a dance school and pre-professional company in Illinois called Salt Creek Ballet.
“I’ve been interested in taking on a leadership role in our profession, or finding a way to contribute in some way in our profession, and this is the one that presented itself,” said De La O, who will be Salt Creek Ballet’s artistic director.
She said making the choice to step away from performing is tough, but she’s “grateful my teachers helped me understand this part and I saw them transition so gracefully.”
“So it’ll be OK.”
Louisville Ballet’s contemporary take on the classical ballet “Swan Lake” runs at the Brown Theatre Nov. 11 – 13, 2021.