words BLAISE WELLER | photography DEOGRACIAS LERMA | photography assistiant SARAH COCHRAN

Footlights stream blinding light. Curtains and oddly shaped props cast shadows, adding to the darkness, the unsettling fissures and separation of light. Spotlights appear, swing and move, brandishing more blinding light. The lights careen, make appear, then disappear, revealing what is out there beyond the edge—the end of the stage, like a cliff dropping off, where sharper pinpoints of light, waves of brass, taut wire and strings, white papers and sticks, reach toward and slam against the stage. Beyond the waves? The Boston Opera House seats just over twenty-nine hundred. At Cincinnati’s Aronoff Center, it’s thirty-three hundred, an ocean of expectant orbs, waiting in anticipation, concentrating on the one form.

The stage creaks, then gives way under toe as do the odd reflections that come and go. Imagine your body having to do the same as that light. Having to show light, then darkness. Having to translate that living wave of music, distinguish from it, transform it into light and darkness.

p01_article_ss_portraitLet there be light. Form for the sake of brightness: Serena Sovdsnes (pronounced /suvs-nĕss/). Hailing from the Boston Ballet, she is the most recent addition to the Cincinnati Ballet, and at five feet eight, one of the tallest ballerinas in her new company. At first glance, you might think you were viewing a beautiful Russian ballerina. Ariel-red hair complements her porcelain, almost-glowing skin, impossibly large, almond-shaped eyes, made more pronounced by long, thickly mascaraed eyelashes, swooping into cat eyes. “I get that [Russian] a lot, but I’m [also] Scandinavian. My father’s mother was Russian, so it makes sense.” In stage presence, Serena seems to match the Russian ballerinas. But with her long, elegant arms and incredibly graceful hand movement, her long stature, Serena most closely resembles the grace of Miyako Yoshida.

For most of us, stepping onto a stage, into such a world, just the thought of it would be equivalent to boarding an 1800s wooden ship to go hunting on the high seas for years, after the most dangerous, elusive, white whale—something required of great art, something of mythology. But for Serena: “Once I walk out on stage, I feel the energy of the audience and I feel like I am home. The music is going and I feel calm. It’s where I feel most comfortable, most alive.”

Serena has been groomed to shine. A large part of her education was acquired through the ballet world and dance competitions. An only child, she began dancing at three. From the age of five she was homeschooled. At eight, she was en pointe, just one of her many dance accomplishments of which she is tremendously proud. Balancing that pride is her dedication and an eagerness to please. “If I don’t enjoy it, or at least look like I’m enjoying it, then they’re not going to enjoy it. And for me that’s the most important part.”

Like most artists, it did not always come easy for Serena. As a child and still today, built into her very frame, that eagerness conflicts with being incredibly shy. “Every weekend, I would go to a different city with a different stage, a different set of judges, and I really think that helped me a lot with nerves.”

What became evident in our interviews away from the stage is that Serena seems to be at the precipice, at the beginning of transformation. It is the ‘Almost’ that is taking place. She is intelligently somewhat guarded. The shyness is still present, and though polite, and though we still see moments of a girl coming through—a contradiction to the woman we see en pointe—she is stepping outside of the wings, in the process of defining herself.

She tells me with shining eyes and a sardonic touch in her voice, lifting her head, sitting erect, that she has just redone her bedroom with black-and-white prints of Audrey Hepburn and Marilyn Monroe, her favorites, the walls in light pink and peach accents. At eighteen, she has yet to find time to apply for her temps, depending upon her mother to get back and forth to practices and performances. She smiles again, looking me directly in the eyes. “I’m looking forward to that, more independence.” Then she looks away, nodding her head, pulling her drink closer to her, playing with the straw.

p01_article_ss_duoOne should not be fooled by anything girlish when it comes to Serena’s dedication, her hard work, her attention to detail, and her obsession with her looks. Or rather, her presentation, and something more than just a casual interest in modeling—a hopeful future. After each set of shots, she checks her makeup and hair, making small changes after viewing the shots, offering her own input on what she liked and did not, correcting her stance, or adding what she feels will make the shot better. One doesn’t need to look far for signs of her intentions for this possible next career.

Yet for all of her accomplishments, her driven nature, the privileged training she’s received, or her obsession with fashion and modeling, another contradiction presents itself—you would be hard-pressed to find a pretentious bone in her body. Her graciousness, her humble nature, and that guarded shyness deeply complicate this still-becoming being. It is a breath of fresh air, side by side with her beauty and physical ability. She is human.

Being watched going through choreography, Serena nervously laughs at the room full of Polly staff and continues to laugh throughout warmup. “My heart will race before I go on stage. I’ll feel it beating in my ears. The slower variation is nerve-racking because you have to be so controlled and you’re in the wings waiting to go on and you’re like, ‘oh, my gosh, I hope this goes well,’” she laughs. Among the multiple pictures and videos she has posted on Instagram, Serena also posts her slips and falls. “I put them on there so that others will see. I want my fans to know we are not perfect.”

Engrained in her is something beyond our already over-the-top Cincinnati work ethic. For the Polly shoot, she wipes blood from her foot with a napkin and continues. Her work day consists of getting up at 6:45 a.m. After makeup, dance practice for the Cincinnati Ballet begins at nine, then rehearsals, sometimes not finishing until 6:00 p.m. After ballet practice, she gives group lessons three days a week and private lessons on Saturdays.

Apprentices of her age are not unusual as the demands on the body guarantee a short career. Yet it takes more than adult-like dedication, closer to obsession, to make it into any second company, yet alone the prized position after apprenticeship. When pressed, she offers a rare insight into what this might be like—the life of a ballet dancer. “Some stages, like Boston, feel like you’re dancing on cement.” The surfaces are sprung floor made of marley. “They are sprung, but they hurt your shins and your knees and all of your joints really badly.” For each season in Boston, there were forty-four performances of The Nutcracker. Serena danced in all forty-four. “I was supposed to have a couple nights off, but people got injured so I had to fill in for them. And that’s just performances. That’s not including dress rehearsals, tech rehearsals, and [practice] rehearsals. The stage was very slippery in Boston, very slippery. It was crazy especially during Nutcracker time when we’re doing the snow scene and you have the snow falling.”

After our second interview was completed, Serena off to her next rehearsal, I was left to myself, sitting alone at a downtown coffee shop, performing the writer’s obsession—drafting, listening to and transcribing our conversations, searching for the truest utterances, working to shed light on who this person is—the choreography of story. I sat there crafting, trying to open myself to the difficult task of translation, when the kindhearted cashier at the coffee shop, stocking the sugars and stir sticks, wiping the tables, making everything perfect, stops at my table and offers an unbiased trope, a defining ray for me. “Who was that?” she asks. “She was so kind and nice.”

The fact that Cincinnati has the ability to both develop and attract such a driven brightness says something about us, about the ballet. Was it understanding ability, possibility, potential? Or pure genius on the part of Victoria Morgan, Artistic Director and CEO of the Cincinnati Ballet. In any case, if you are attracted to displays of light, or the becoming part of a story, of elegance, drive, obsession for perfection, beauty—although there is much more than beauty and drive here—it is a story unfolding, just beginning, a light that is ‘becoming’, you will want to find out for yourself. My bet is you will not be disappointed.