Clara Miller and Isabella LaFreniere talk about the School of American Ballet
School of American Ballet students Clara Miller and Isabella LaFreniere talk about dancing Balanchine at this year's Workshop Performances
Thu May 23 2013
Photograph: Paul Kolnik
School of American Ballet students Isabella LaFreniere and Clara Miller tackle the lead role in George Balanchine's Walpurgisnacht Ballet, while simultaneously (and sometimes successfully) studying for high school. The performance is part of the girls' first School of American Ballet Workshop Performance, and the piece is a challenge: Originally created for the Paris Opera Ballet's production of Gounod's Faust, it concludes with a wild finale in which dancers unleash their buns. In anticipation of the production—which takes place at the Peter Jay Sharp Theater June 1 and 4—the ballet students talked about their upcoming performances and life at the New York City Ballet-affilated school.
At this year’s School of American Ballet Workshop Performances, two 17-year-olds let down their hair. In the wild finale of Walpurgisnacht Ballet, which George Balanchine reworked from his Paris Opera Ballet production of Faust, 24 women whip across the stage with their tresses free, to Gounod’s score. SAB students—and, as it happens, close friends—Clara Miller and Isabella LaFreniere take the lead in alternate performances at the Peter Jay Sharp Theater on June 1 and 4. They’re night and day: Think Janie Taylor (Miller) and Kyra Nichols (LaFreniere). After a recent rehearsal, they spoke about the role and their experience at the New York City Ballet–affiliated school.
Time Out New York: How long have you been rehearsing this ballet?
Isabella LaFreniere: Since the middle of March.
Time Out New York: Had you ever seen it performed at that point?
Isabella LaFreniere: I hadn’t seen it, but I watched videos of it at the library. There’s one of Kyra Nichols doing it.
Clara Miller: I saw it in Saratoga when I came for the summer course, and I think I saw Sara Mearns do the lead. I don’t remember a lot about it; I just remember the hair being down and thinking it was really cool. And that her hair was really pretty. [Laughs]
Time Out New York: What do you think of the ballet—not even being in it, but watching it?
Isabella LaFreniere: I love watching it—it goes from a high climax to a low climax, and you go from the waltz and into the finale and everyone’s hair is down, and it’s so crazy. I think it’s really fun to watch and even more fun to dance.
Clara Miller: The motions are really expressive, and it’s a really beautiful ballet. I like the music a lot, so that helps.
Time Out New York: What was the process to learn it?
Isabella LaFreniere: We first watched videos of Suzanne Farrell and Kyra Nichols doing it, and we learned the steps and tried it ourselves and then Susie [Susan Pilarre, who staged the ballet] added our own little touches to it. Clara and I even do different arms with our partners just to make it feel more comfortable and so that we’re not exactly copying. We’re showing our own little interpretation of it.
Clara Miller: I can’t do one step that Isabella does because my arms just get all whacked out of proportion, so today I asked Susie if I could change it, and she was like, “Oh yeah—definitely change it if you can’t do it.” It’s in the variation when you’re going back in the attitudes—instead of doing two back attitudes, I changed the second one to a front attitude. That was in one of the versions I saw; it’s easier for me to stay on balance.
Time Out New York: What tweaks have you made?
Isabella LaFreniere: In the beginning, in the pas de deux, we do a port de bras back with our leg front and then we switch to arabesque really quickly. In the beginning, we were trying to do what the video was doing—when we did the port de bras back and came up in arabesque, my partner’s [Mayim Stiller] hand was on my back, but that didn’t work out. He kept pushing me forward and I was falling off balance every time. So every time we do port de bras back now, I just go into arabesque and he catches my arm right away instead of going from my back to my arm. And I think you still stay on your back, don’t you?
Clara Miller: Yes. It’s just one of those things.
Time Out New York: Do you spend time talking about this part together?
Isabella LaFreniere: Well, we’re friends outside of ballet. We’re really close. We spend time in the dorms, and we go to the same school [Professional Children’s School, where they are juniors].
Clara Miller: We came the same year. We’ve followed the same course in our studies.
Isabella La Ferniere: Academic and ballet.
Clara Miller: We were in the same geometry class. [Laughs]
Time Out New York: If geometry can’t bring you together, I don’t know what can. So you’re friends, and you have the same role: Do you obsess over it together?
Isabella LaFreniere: Not really. We go in the studio and work on it. But once it’s over, we’ll be like, “That felt good today” or “That was really hard—I felt like I was really tired.”
Clara Miller: We’re not, like, 24/7 talking about it. [Laughs] We can just relate to each other having experiences with it.
Isabella LaFreniere: I’ll be like, “Clara, in this step, did you feel this or that?” And she understands. Sometimes we try to figure out weird problems together. We help each other.
Time Out New York: Can you give me an example?
Isabella LaFreniere: I know there are a lot of things in the pas de deux.
Clara Miller: Yes. Even today when we were rehearsing, there’s a promenade at the very end where the guy takes the girl around, and you’re on one leg, and I was kind of throwing off Lorris [Eichinger], my partner, because I was—
Isabella LaFreniere: You were going into arabesque too soon.
Clara Miller: Yes. Susie was like, “Isabella, what do you do?” Isabella goes around in passé longer and then goes into arabesque. So I tried that, and it was really helpful.
Time Out New York: What do you like about each other’s performance?
Clara Miller: I can tell you what I like! You’re just so strong. You don’t ever have a moment where you look like you’re going to fall or look unsure of yourself—
Isabella LaFreniere: It sure feels like it.
Clara Miller: It may feel like it, but from Day One, I’ve been saying, “You are really nailing this.” It looks very natural.
Isabella LaFreniere: Clara, I love your energy every single time. Especially in the variations. And your hops on pointe are really good. I roll my ankles sometimes. [Laughs] Your hops are very consistent.
Clara Miller: I always look at Susie because I do one on pointe and then my shoe slips, and I’m kind of almost on pointe—so I look at Susie to see if she noticed. [Laughs]
Isabella LaFreniere: You can’t tell. I’m always like, she has those hops on pointe. My shoes are always so dead by that point. The pas de deux has so much standing on pointe. It’s a lot of promenades; you just sink into it. It kills your shoes. Even Jet Glue can’t save them.
Clara Miller: Definitely. They get so soft, and you know that you’re going to have to do the rest of the ballet, and there’s nothing you can do. You don’t have any other pairs that you can sew for rehearsal to have ready to put on. So you kind of get used to doing it in dead shoes. There’s this one bourrée back section in the pas de deux, and it’s always such a struggle to get the next foot moving because your shoe is going into the ground, and you feel like you’re melting. It’s just how the shoes are: They’re supposed to mold to your feet and when you get them to that point, they don’t last very long at that stage.
Time Out New York: Take me through the ballet. I know the first solo is a challenge, right?
Isabella LaFreniere: We’re always very tired by the end of it, but we always feel so accomplished once we’re finished. But going into it, you’re kind of like, “Oh, no. Oh, no.” It’s like starting up for a race, and then you hear that music and you’re just like, “I’ve got to do it!” Once it’s over, you’re relieved. Depending on how it went, though. If it didn’t go so hot, sometimes you’re like, Man.
Clara Miller: There’s a two-count introduction, and then you come out, and in that split second it always slows down. In my head I’m just saying to myself, “Okay, I can either run away or do this variation. I’ve got to do this variation.” It’s like a fight-or-flight tendency. But every time, I’m like, I could run. I could run out of the studio right now.
Isabella LaFreniere: It’s really stamina-intense. And we watch the videos of Kyra and Suzanne, and they finish it and it looks like nothing.
Clara Miller: They look so calm. Today, I was heaving so hard. Susie was trying to correct me on this one step, and I just stood there heaving, looking at her, waiting for my breath to slow down, and it never did. Eventually she said, “Clara, we’ll do this later.”
Isabella LaFreniere: You have those days.