When strangers meet Ballet San Antonio’s principal dancer, Sarah Aujon, they usually ask one of two questions, depending on their age. Kids want to know whether standing on the tips of her toes hurts her feet while adults invariably bring up the movie The Black Swan, which starred Natalie Portman as a disturbed, obsessive ballerina. The answer to the first question is “no,” but it’s not so easy to deal with the second. “It’s good that the movie brought increased awareness of ballet,” says the petite blonde ballerina. “Suddenly there were all these ballet shows on TV, but the movie was not realistic. We are not all crazy. True, I can be a little obsessive sometimes. When I go home, I think about ballet and watch it on YouTube. I live and breathe ballet. It’s such an integral part of my life that I don’t really know myself without it. I know it’s my destiny.”
That destiny has fortunately brought her back to San Antonio after years of studying and performing elsewhere. As the only female principal until very recently, Aujon has appeared in every BSA production in the last four years, dancing the role of Swanilda in Coppelia, Mina Harker in Dracula, the Sugar Plum Fairy in the annual Nutcracker, and a variety of parts in the now-defunct spring showcase of contemporary choreography called Off Center. Regardless of the role, she embodies those seemingly contradictory traits of accomplished ballerinas: the appearance of utter fragility and grace combined with the invisible strength that’s needed to execute the athletically demanding ballet moves. This fall she will be on stage again as Jonathan Harker’s wife whenBSA reprises its well-received and beautifully produced Dracula Oct. 25-27 at the Lila Cockrell Theater.
An original production choreographed by BSA artistic director Gabriel Zertuche, the show premiered last fall to packed houses and marked a new level of artistic achievement for San Antonio’s only professional ballet company. But it was also expensive to produce. A few months later, when the second go-round ofCoppelia failed to sell as expected, the board was forced to re-evaluate BSA’s financial picture. What followed was months of uncertainty, temporary downsizing and soul-searching, ultimately resulting in a number of changes and eventual rebounding (more about that later). For Aujon and the other dancers, it means rehearsals for the 2012 Dracula will begin Sept. 10 and for The Nutcracker soon after that. Recalling last year’s creative process, she points out that though staging a brandnew story ballet was certainly daunting, it was also a unique opportunity to have a choreographer actually set his ideas on her and her colleagues, including favorite partner Ian Morris, who portrayed Dracula. “In rehearsals Gabe (Zertuche) was setting things on us, and there were many failures just trying to figure out how to get various configurations out of Gabe’s head and into our bodies,” she observes with a little chuckle. “We were still tweaking details of choreography a week before opening. And because the show requires so much acting, it wasn’t all about steps and technique; we also had to figure out who these characters were.” Morris got into it 100 percent, she notes. “It was almost as if he wasn’t acting. He was so much into his character, and he’s so brawny that I returned home one night with bruises and a nosebleed. He was scary, but it was worth it. Dracula was such fun for both the company and the audiences.”
Morris is, in fact, her favorite partner, whom she trusts to support her and make her look good in difficult lifts and jumps that can be dangerous if the partners are not in perfect sync. While they were rehearsing for last spring’s Off Center, for instance, his back went out while he was holding her aloft above his head. Despite the pain, he completed the phrase and brought her safely down before he collapsed in pain on the floor. The number they were rehearsing was the gorgeous short Nokturn that they had choreographed together the previous year. For the 2012 version of Dracula Aujon will also partner with BSA’s new ballet master and principal dancer, Raul Salamanca, who will step into the role of Jonathan Harker.
FROM BLANCO TO FRANCE AND BACK
Aujon started taking ballet lessons at the age of 3 and pretty much never looked back. Her piano-teacher mother, Vickie Pautz, regularly drove her to San Antonio for classes from their home in Blanco, and even home-schooled Sarah and her sister (now a professional violinist) for years. At 11, the budding dancer enrolled in the Ballet San Antonio Academy led by BSA founder and former artistic director Mayra Worthen, where she stayed for six years. After an unhappy year in Houston during which the 17-year-old started doubting her commitment to dane, she was recruited by the University of Oklahoma on full scholarship. “At that point I decided I wanted to be a professional dancer,” recalls Aujon. “I had great teachers in college, and my motivation was renewed. I finished in three years,” While on tour in France with the college company, she met her future husband, Roman Aujon, which motivated her to move to France. She eventually landed a job with the Ballet de l’Opera National de Bordeaux. That was her first paid professional contract and the first time she thought, “I’ve made it!” She was exposed to “wonderful repertory” and great choreographers such as Jiri Kylian and the iconic late Maurice Béjart, with whom she once held hands during the final curtain call.
Another memorable experience was the opportunity to dance in a faithful restaging of Nijinsky’s The Rite of Spring, a seminal and revolutionary work of the 20th century. But it was also a stressful time. When the company was not performing at home, it was touring abroad or taking part in summer festivals. “That whole time was like a blur,” says the ballerina. “I got tired and started feeling homesick. In 2008 I contacted Mayra, and she hired me right away. She was so generous.” Generous and savvy, for Aujon has been a great asset to BSA ever since. Zertuche, who has been with the company for six years before becoming artistic director last January, says Sarah is the best female dancer to join the ensemble in his memory. “She’s a joy to work with,” he notes, “fearless, never afraid to try new things, while technically getting stronger and stronger. But beyond technique, she’s also an expressive dancer.” To keep herself in tiptop shape while maintaining that porcelain-doll look, Aujon practices Pilates on a daily basis, “never, never put(s) junk food into (her) body,” and never allows herself to slack off, even during her summers off. Keeping in shape not only makes her ready to tackle each new season, but it also prevents injuries.
Though she’s been happy at BSA, she acknowledges that last season’s turmoil, which resulted in the company severing its ties with Worthen and moving to a temporary new location, has been painful and distracting. But now it’s time to look forward in preparation to moving into a permanent home in the new Tobin Center for the Performing Arts. In a big step to enhance its artistic profile, BSA recently hired two outstanding ballet artists, Dede Barfield and Salamanca, to serve as ballet mistress and ballet master, respectively, and rehired most of the dancers who were let go a few months earlier. The leadership has also decided to focus on full-length story ballets in the classical style, which is just fine with Aujon.
“I am a classical girl,” she says, smiling. “I’ll choose structured story ballets any day over contemporary work. When I first heard we were going to do Coppelia (in 2010), I was so excited. That was a highlight for me — a classical ballet with humor. I loved it.”