Fiendish Conversation

Carla Körbes Says Goodbye to Pacific Northwest Ballet

The star dancer discusses what led to her early retirement, her favorite ballets, and disconnecting from the real world while on stage.

By Seth Sommerfeld June 3, 2015

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Carla Körbes gets to dance one of her favorite ballets—George Balanchine's Diamonds—one last time at PNB's Season Encore.

Carla Körbes isn’t merely Pacific Northwest Ballet’s premier dancer, she’s a transcendent talent; Seattle's best performer in any medium. Since joining PNB in 2005, the Brazilian ballerina has employed her weightless fluidity of movement to command the stage in the way a superstar athlete dominates a game. The breathtaking nature of her abilities only makes her impending retirement at the age of 33 that much tougher to swallow. Körbes will take her final bow as the focal point of PNB’s Season Encore performance this Sunday, June 7 at McCaw Hall (the performance will also be live streamed online starting at 6:30 on Considering Körbes's once-in-a-generation grace, the company should probably raise her pointe shoes to the rafters after that last curtain falls.

For our latest Fiendish Conversation, we (once again) talked to Körbes about the physical toll of dancing, her favorite roles over the years, and time slowing down when she's on stage.

So what thoughts are running through your head as you enter your final days at PNB?

We spend our whole lives doing this and we have an expectation that your career is going to go a certain way. I don’t know…growing up you'd hear about dancers going until they were 40, 45… so I always thought that I was going to stop dancing at 40. But then I made this decision, which has kind of been in my mind the past two years. Slowly I decided, “Okay, I think this is my last year.”

What I have really appreciated about this time is that every day I go to work, it feels like the right choice. It doesn’t feel, “Oh no, what have I done!” It feels bittersweet. This has been my love my whole life, but it’s the right time to move on. It’s a strange feeling.

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Körbes at rehearsal.

Was the decision to call it a career made based mostly on the physical toll or was part of it the mental burden as well?

For me, I’m always going to be a dancer, no matter what. Even in the next thing I do in my life—which I’m not sure what it really is—I’m going to have dance some way or another. For me, it was being really aware of how my body is breaking down and what ballet is doing to me and my life. I never wanted to be one of those people that…I don’t think people realize like how much you invest in this. And, for me, to do it a little bit under to what I normally do, I’m not comfortable with it.

I was telling my boss, Peter Boal, that I always wanted to be that dancer that is keen to try anything; to go in the studio and be 100 percent. My dad always used to say, “You can’t just be good, you have to be the best.” Not meaning comparing to others, but comparing to yourself. And I was like, “I can’t do my best anymore all of the time.” But also I think this is the right time to take dancing to a new place in my life.

So to make a parallel to professional sports, you’d rather retire a year or two early then hang around too long and risk further injury or just be a bench player.

Right. I don’t want to coast either. Because I have never done this for the money. Not that we make lots of money. [Laughs] But I have always done it because I don’t see myself doing anything else that I love this much. So I can’t coast. I can’t go to work and just march through my day to get through the week.

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Carla Körbes and Karel Cruz in Swan Lake.

I guess that’s the hard element to factor in as an audience member. I saw you dance Swan Lake in April, and it was stunning. It further bummed me out about your retirement. But it’s hard for those watching from the seats to see the struggle you're going through if you’re actually dancing at 80 percent or 90 percent. We’re mesmerized, but you’re dancing at less than your ideal physical condition.

Yeah. You can’t do that in ballet. Both [Swan Lake’s male lead] Karel [Cruz] and I were unsure if we could get to that high place that we got to last time Swan Lake came around. Once we did, we had chills. We looked at each other and were like, “Oh my god! We can do this? This is amazing!” People have no idea how hard we worked to get to that point. I poured my whole soul into that one. [Laughs]

What were the injuries that pushed you toward retirement?

I injured my back in 2008, and since then I’ve had to baby it. A lot of dancers have back issues. After that injury, I’m always…that’s my spot where if it starts hurting, I feel tired, I feel upset, I feel fearful. We always have to really look into it and make sure I’m warm enough. But it’s not bad all of the time. There are periods of time when it’s great, and then it gets flared up.

But then I had that knee surgery, and it didn’t really go how I thought it was going to go. I thought it was going to be a simple procedure and [the surgeon] did a lot more to my knee than he said he was going to do. My expectation was six to eight weeks off, and I was off for 11 months. And when I came back from that, I was just so disappointed. I was like, "Ahhhhh! I don’t want to dance in pain all the time.” Of course, now my knee is great, which I love...well, great compared to before.

Was there a certain point in your career where you realized you were an elite dancer?

No, because as a dancer it’s drilled in you that you have to be better all of the time. So there was not a moment where I felt like “I made it, I’m going to be the lead in a ballet.” I never saw my career like that.

Over the course of your career, do you have any favorite ballets to dance?

I never get tired of doing Swan Lake, ever. Except it’s really, really, really hard. [Laughs] But that’s one of the ballets where it’s a dream to do it. There’s really no other way of putting it.

And then ballets like Diamonds I could just do that forever. All those Balanchine ballets, I never get tired of doing them.

Looking back on your career, are there any specific movements that really stick with you?

[Sighs] Yeah, I have three shows that have always stuck out when I think about my career. The first one was Midsummer Night’s Dream. I danced as Titania. I was in New York City Ballet, I was really young, I hadn’t done any major, major roles. I had done principal roles, but not the lead in the ballet. I got called, and five days later I was doing opening night of it because Darci Kistler got injured. I just remember my mom flew up to New York last minute, and we had this little note that said, “Carla Körbes replaces Darci Kistler.” It was so silly, but…I dunno…it was just one of those special moments of coming out and growing a career.

The second show was the first time I got to do Swan Lake. It wasn’t polished, it wasn’t perfect, but it was kind of like the ballerina dream come true.

And then I have one last show that I just keep going back to that I wish I could match it, but you can’t. Because live art, you can’t do it. [Laughs] I did Diamonds in Las Vegas with PNB. It was two and a half years ago and it was the most fun show I’ve had in a long, long time.

How has Seattle influenced your dancing?

I think it gave me time. It added more tranquil qualities to the way I make art. Because living in New York for 10 years, and working there, in the pace that we worked there, everything was so rushed. Just like New York. Everything was just like, “You are going to do this in two days. Go!” And Seattle is calmer. I felt that calmness in my dancing. I had two days off, which I didn’t have in New York. Everything just helped slow me down a little bit and go a little deeper into the artistry of dance. I am going to miss Seattle and my friends.

Going back to the sports analogies, there's one thing I was always curious about. Top professional athletes often speak about time seemingly slowing down when they play, where they are almost experiencing a different reality than those around them. Do you experience any sensation like that on stage? When you’re dancing does it feel like time slows down and you can see things more clearly than the rest of us?

Yeah, it does feel like that. It feels a little bit like a vortex; a space where it’s an altered reality, but it feels real. But it’s like a little bubble that bursts the minute you walk home. And you go, “Oh. Wait. What happened?” Or you wake up in the morning and you’re just like, “Wait…” It’s a weird feeling. It’s a different world; it’s like time traveling to a different place.

PNB Season Encore
June 7 at 6:30, McCaw Hall, $35–$200

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