Farewell Air Körbes

Carla Körbes (photo by Patrick Fraser)

A sportswriter’s appreciation of a Jordan-like ballerina quietly retiring at the top of her game.

The first time I saw Carla Körbes dance reminded me of the first time I saw Michael Jordan play basketball. Jordan was a rookie for the Chicago Bulls and I’d watched him for about 30 seconds. He hadn’t taken a shot, and maybe hadn’t even dribbled the ball, but his looming stardom was abundantly clear. It was the way he moved, gliding over the Kingdome floor like a hovercraft. He had a presence, an “It Factor.”

From then on, grace of movement and the It Factor were the two main criteria that I used, as a sportswriter and later an evaluator, to identify greatness in athletes.

The day Sonic Coach Bernie Bickerstaff excitedly dragged me to view the teenager his team had just drafted, I watched Shawn Kemp for a few minutes and thought, “Yup.” When I was editor-in-chief at Scout.com, I saw Kevin Durant play in an AAU tournament, and immediately asked my basketball editor why we had him ranked second, behind Greg Oden, among prospects for college.

Later, my staff and I used movement and It Factor while identifying for my website, HoopGurlz, that prep ballers Maya Moore, Breanna Stewart, Elena Delle Donne and Brittney Griner were in that special class of athletes. All now are stars in the WNBA.

When I first laid eyes on Körbes, she was a soloist with Pacific Northwest Ballet, and my romance with dance was just beginning to bud. Ballet seemed to have so much in common with my first love, basketball, which I played, coached, wrote about and scouted for decades. I saw the dancers as the same, finely tuned athletes who publicly performed choreographed movements, solo and in teams. Even the music resembled, in a way, the cacophonous atmosphere that had accompanied games, no matter the sport.

What’s more, the yardstick for athletes also could be used to measure greatness among the dancers. I couldn’t at first label what I was watching, but I noted how easily Körbes moved and how, every time she was on stage, it was as if you could not focus on anyone else. I noticed how she moved so deftly, you could not hear the hardened end of her pointe shoes knocking against the wooden floor, the way you could with other dancers. While other dancers performed somewhat impassively, Körbes always looked like whatever piece she was dancing was so painful or so joyful, she could barely stand it.

I thought about that on Sunday, as Körbes performed for the last time with PNB. It’s been a different kind of pas de deux that she’s danced with this city. Fame never seemed to be part of the program, and I doubt much of Seattle knows the kind of gem it had in its midst for 10 years.

But I sure do.

When my wife did a story about an educational program at Seattle University that included Körbes, I morphed into fanboy mode, offering to photograph the Brazilian ballerina, ostensibly so I could meet her. The next time I saw Körbes, she was injured and milling around during intermission at McCaw Hall. That would be like Russell Wilson buying a hotdog during halftime at CenturyLink Field. Yet, during a 10–15-minute conversation, no one barged in to seek a signature on a program. No one stopped to request a celebrity-infused selfie. No one even said, “Hi.”

It was astounding to witness. I’ve spoken to plenty of professional athletes in public, though uninterrupted only when their entourages fended off the packs of autograph hounds. Körbes arguably was the queen in her castle that day, and she didn’t even need a royal guard to protect her personal space.

In an attempt to reconcile such disconnect, I arranged a series of interviews with Körbes. We met each time in a public place, the exceptions being rehearsals and personal workouts. And the same scene kept playing out. And I kept pressing the sports comparison on her.

A few months later, after a couple dancers left PNB for another company, I asked Körbes when the bidding would begin for her services, as it does in sports when players reach free agency.

“It’s not like we’re professional athletes,” she chided.

Körbes then told a story about shopping at University Village, an upscale mall in Seattle. A prominent local dance critic approached her, extended a hand, and asked, “What’s your name again?”

The first time I met Körbes for an interview, I also nearly shuffled right past her. She was seated in a coffee shop, her nose in Jennifer Egan’s creepy bestseller, The Keep. “I can’t wait to find out what happens,” Körbes said, setting the book down. She pushed aside a buzzing smart phone. She doesn’t like to text. “Autocorrect in Portuguese is the worst,” she said in her wry, delicately accented way.

By then, I was accustomed to seeing celebrities in unexpected circumstances. The late Maurice Lucas, reading the Wall Street Journal on a bus. Shaquille O’Neal canon-balling into a public swimming pool. Ted Turner cooking breakfast with a herd of bison milling around his front yard. What I wasn’t used to was the feeling that, if I had asked the barista in that coffee shop if he knew where Carla Körbes was sitting, he’d have responded with a puzzled shrug.

After all, Körbes back then was ascending big time. I traveled extensively, and often scheduled my travels around ballet. A Columbia University graduate, I went to New York several times a year, meaning many performances by New York City Ballet and American Ballet Theatre. Chicago — check. Miami — si! Washington, D.C. — check. Boston, Los Angeles, San Francisco and Toronto — check, check, check and check, eh. I’ve seen every major company on this and a couple other continents.

As a sportswriter and lifetime sports fan, it drove me crazy that dancers weren’t announced in their roles before each piece. You know: “Starring as Odette … Carla Körbes … “ I know it’s impractical to have last names on tutus, but how about at least names on a reader board at the bottom of the stage? No matter. I took each casting sheet, found the company mug shots and learned which dancers were which. On more than one occasion, I’ve had someone at the Koch Theater in Lincoln Center whisper, “Do you know who just danced that solo?” Why, yes, I certainly did.

So I started developing favorites: Wendy Whelan and Sara Mearns at NYCB, Paloma Hererra and Misty Copeland at ABT, Jeanette and Patricia Delgado in Miami, Sarah Van Patten in San Francisco. As much as I angled for the thrill of watching each perform, I knew if I ever were grounded and stuck at home, I still would have access to Körbes, who I came to regard as the best of them all. In the summer of 2012, she moved Alastair Macaulay, the famously cantankerous New York Times dance critic, to gush, “There’s no question that she is one of the finest ballerinas appearing in America today; some think her the finest, and last weekend I felt in no mood to contradict them.” I felt like he’d trolled my mind for that comment.

I’ve seen enough ballet now that I can articulate what makes Carla Körbes so great, though I don’t know if it’s how a dance critic would express it. She was so delicate and precise in “Coppelia,” so sultry in “Serious Pleasures,” and so versatile — even erupting in song — in “Westside Story.” She has undeniable presence and her lyricism is so unmatched, PNB musical director Emil de Cou said Körbes is “like another instrument in the orchestra … a visual melody.”

A long-limbed 5’7 ½, Körbes has flowing, golden hair, expressive arms and face, and almost preternatural balance, allowing her to hold her exquisite lines longer and with more ease than most.

I can’t remember the name of the piece, but I have frozen in my mind a scene during which Körbes performed a series of arabesques, not once clutching her partner for balance, the way I saw another dancer do it. She once kicked off her sandals, I thought to reveal a foot injury. “No,” she said, giggling, “it’s my natural deformity.” Her feet are arched, exactly in the way that would be considered perfect form, en pointe. It’s as if the gods conspired to conceive this prima ballerina.

Yet, I also know nothing came “naturally,” the way it looks and the way the average consumer assumes it does. Körbes has been driven to excel. She has sacrificed much — her body, her proximity to family back in Brazil, her free time. Her luminous, alabaster skin and fit form don’t come from lounging in the sun with a Caipirnha (Brazilian cocktail). She admitted that she once spent every morning of a Hawaiian vacation at a barre, a handrail dancers use for exercise and stretching. “If I take two weeks off, when I come back I feel like an alien,” she explained. “I feel like my feet don’t fit the rest of my body. I feel dizzy.”

So, yeah, a couple years ago, the season was done for Körbes, but something was gnawing at her. She had a short, 3 1/2 –minute performance of the solo ballet, “The Dying Swan (Le Cygne),” at Vail in August — three months later. So she enlisted some one-on-one time with PNB coach Elaine Bauer, a former principal at Boston Ballet.

The sun was streaming through the ceiling-to-floor windows in a studio at PNB’s Phelps Center in the center of Seattle. It was warm, and Körbes was decked in her armor — back brace, warmer on right leg, leotard with a hole under the left arm. It was important to her that I witness the kind of tribal knowledge that sustains ballet, passed on dancer to dancer, generation by generation. I started sweating, just watching.

Körbes, sounding like a sneaker commercial: “Just do it?”

Bauer: “Do you want to walk into it first?”

Körbes: “I’ll just do it.”

She does.

Körbes: “Yuck.”

Bauer: “It’ll never feel comfortable.”

Körbes grits her teeth. The lack of perfection is so unbearable.

The best dancers are utterly self-aware of even minute missteps, seeing them as lesser representations of what in their own minds constitutes an ideal. Körbes chased her ideals with single-mindedness and over two continents, along a trail blazed by Peter Boal, with whom she danced at her ballet school in Porto Alegre, Brazil, when she was 14.

What she remembers most about her first encounter with Boal was that she had never smelled anyone so delightful. “It was probably some cheap hairspray we didn’t have in Brazil,” she cracked. Yet she followed the scent, first from Brazil to New York, where Boal was a star at City Ballet. In 2005, she followed it again to Seattle, where Boal took over as artistic director at Pacific Northwest Ballet. In between, Körbes assumed the role of fast-tracking star at NYCB, rising in the ranks to soloist. “Amazingly confident,” the venerable critic Anna Kisselgoff raved back then in the New York Times.

Körbes is from a small city in Brazil called São Leopoldo. It’s more than 5,000 miles from there to Manhattan, where, on Boal’s recommendation, she attended the School of American Ballet, which is affiliated with New York City Ballet. Körbes was 19 when she made her debut in a leading role at City Ballet. She was told at noon that she had to replace an injured dancer for that night’s performance of “Episodes,” a two-part ballet by Martha Graham and George Balanchine. Körbes rehearsed all afternoon to a lone piano. When the curtain rose hours later, an orchestra was playing the music, and she didn’t recognize it.

The beginning went fine, because she danced with Charles Askegard, the famously reliable and gallant partner who termed the evening “unforgettable.” He also said the passage included music from Bach, which meant some welcomed repetition. Körbes then had about a minute solo.

Askegard: “All of a sudden, she started doing her own choreography.”

Körbes: “I’m in the home of (George) Balanchine, and I’m butchering — I mean, butchering — his work. … I thought I was going to be fired. But they were really nice about it in the end because it was like a mission impossible.”

Ultimately, it came down to too many impossible missions. So, while performing artists compulsively migrate to New York City to crown a career, Körbes scrambled away to blossom.

Part of leaving New York was to follow Boal, who had a knack of coaxing out her best. Still, a large part of leaving also was to escape what Körbes bemoaned as an insidious cycle that City Ballet loosed upon her — lose weight, dance a lot, get hurt, and worry she wasn’t thin enough anymore.

“I kept wondering if my thighs were too fat,” Körbes said.

During her last year at City Ballet, Körbes said, “I totally lost confidence in who I was, as a dancer and as a person. I felt like the coaches were being mean to me. Maybe they were like that to other dancers, but it felt personal to me. I’m a sensitive person and thinking about everything so much affected me. The mind has a big effect on the body, so I also didn’t feel healthy. I thought, ‘I need to get out of here.’ “

Körbes took her demons and insecurities, along with her toy fox terrier Bella, to Seattle and thrived at PNB. She believes she hit her stride as a dancer at the end of 2011, as the lead in the classic Romantic ballet, “Giselle.” The role requires elevated but restrained technique and bold acting. Körbes attacked it confidently in a re-staging of the piece by Boal — probably no coincidence.

This was a heady stretch for Körbes, and PNB’s global profile rose by extension. She continued a run of headlining at the Vail International Dance Festival, where she will be its artist in residence this summer. She also danced at the Guggenheim, and in 2013 was treated like a conquering hero while accompanying PNB to New York.

Before all that, Körbes had danced with her friend Wendy Whelan, one of the greatest contemporary ballerinas, at City Ballet and also on the side with the Peter Boal Company chamber ensemble, which also was in New York.

Whelan is acutely aware of how high Körbes soared in Seattle. “Oh my God,” she exclaimed, before ticking off a number of Körbes’ performances she’d seen since her friend left New York. “We’ve all watched her from afar,” says Whelan. “That’s really bizarre if they haven’t followed her as closely [in Seattle].” Indeed, The New York Times has written more extensively about Körbes than The Seattle Times.

During much of her rise, Körbes suffered through a string of injuries, a crumbling relationship and homesickness that often left her dispirited. “Sometimes I get so melancholy,” she said. She’d relocate her spirit during frequent calls home, though she mostly spared her mother the emotional roller-coaster she’d just disembarked. “It drives her crazy,” Körbes explained. Plus, she reasoned, her artistic bent and Brazilian background made her naturally “dramatic.”

It mostly was the frequent injuries that threatened to break her. A vast majority of them were ignored, not because of some testosterone-fueled footballer machismo or fear of losing a job to a replacement. It was as much the guilt of imposing an increased workload on a fellow dancer as it was the pure pleasure of performing. Often, no one but her physical therapist knew about the injuries and Körbes mostly masked the pain with the adrenalin rush, grinned and bore it, then limped home.

Every ping or jolt of pain brought nightmares of the “one” that would put her down, like the time early in her days at NYCB. During rehearsal for the “Nutcracker,” Körbes snapped her Lisfranc ligament, which holds together the intersection of the metatarsal and tarsal bones, and she suffered a massive dislocation of the bones in her mid-foot. The catastrophic injury kept her sidelined for nearly two years; many of her fellow dancers were shocked she overcame it. Since then, any suspicion of a major injury could trigger almost preemptive weeping — “a fear response,” Körbes said. Her worst fears were realized during the last rep of PNB’s 2012–13 season. Damage to her patella was revealed during surgery to repair a torn meniscus, and she did not dance again until nearly the end of the following season.

“It’s amazing how much pain takes away from dance,” Körbes said. “When you’re injured, life is so weird. Physical therapy. Strengthening. Go to the gym. Go for a swim. Sometimes ballet, mentally and physically, can be so difficult that you get to a certain point in your career where you go, ‘Is it worth it?’”

In the middle of one emotionally rough stretch, Körbes declared, rather portentously, “In a year or two, I should quit.”

Körbes has reached that point, retiring at 33, younger than most. Whelan quit City Ballet last year at 47; Kaori Nakamura, the last PNB principal ballerina to retire, left at 44. Körbes used to imagine she’d dance until a similar age. But now, she gets to depart with her health, following a triumphant season, and her marriage in May to photographer Patrick Fraser. In sports, this would be hailed as leaving at the top of her game.

Not long ago, on a glorious Indian summer day in Seattle, a flock of football fans landed upon the deck at a homey coffee joint in Fremont. The obviously inebriated leader of the Monday Night pre-funk whooped, “Seahawks!” He brushed past a bemused blonde nursing an Americano at a wicker table. “Seahawks,” she replied, not matching the volume or enthusiasm.

“Thanks for indulging him,” the drunk guy’s girlfriend said.

Körbes, the blonde, later recalled attending her first and only Seahawk game. She was driving out of the stadium parking lot when a drunken fan doused her car with beer. Körbes rolled down her window, steeled for battle, but her date urged, “Don’t.” So she drove away and never returned.

Carla Körbes knows when it’s time to move on.

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