Greta Hodgkinson, O. Ont, is a dancer based in Toronto. She joined The National Ballet of Canada in 1990, where she has been a Principal Dancer since 1996. Greta has performed every leading role in the classical repertoire and she is also a renowned contemporary dancer. She has had numerous roles created for her and has worked closely with such iconic choreographers as William Forsythe, Jiří Kylián, Glen Tetley, John Neumeier, Alexei Ratmansky, Christopher Wheeldon, Wayne McGregor, James Kudelka and Crystal Pite. Greta was appointed to the Order of Ontario in 2017.
Natalya: What is your earliest memory of dancing?
Greta: I think it was dancing with the Festival Ballet of Rhode Island – taking class there with the founders, Christine Hennessey, a former principal dancer with the Royal Winnipeg Ballet, and Winthrop Corey, who was a Principal Dancer with The National Ballet of Canada. I remember working with them, training with them, and doing productions with them as a kid.
Natalya: What first compelled you to dance – how did it become your most important or natural form of expression?
Greta: I was always dancing around the house as a kid. I don’t remember asking to do ballet, but I think my parents both wanted me to find an outlet for my energy.
Natalya: I recall that childlike energy. The last time I saw you was backstage during Nutcracker, probably around 1991, and you were sitting on Rex Harrington’s lap, laughing and eating wine gums.
Greta: No! Really?
Natalya: Yeah. That’s my lasting impression of you, because I was a kid in the corps for Nutcracker, and you were this ballet goddess, but so young and playful yourself, just joking around and eating candies before curtain.
Greta: That is too funny!
Natalya: Anyway, back to your earliest days. When you left Rhode Island to join Canada’s National Ballet School in Toronto, Canada, how was that experience for you as a girl?
Greta: It was really hard. I was really homesick. I wasn’t accustomed to being away from home. But I needed to be in a professional school, and there wasn’t – at the time – a fulltime boarding school in the States that had the same reputation as the National Ballet School (NBS) had for classical training. I had auditioned and been accepted for the School of American Ballet in New York, as well as for NBS, and I really wanted to go to New York. You know, I thought that was where it was at.
Natalya: Of course. And for our generation, at that time, it was where the ballet boom had exploded about 20 years prior, so New York City was just everything – Misha, Gelsey, Makarova, Bujones, Martine Van Hamel (yay, NBS!), Farrell, Arthur Mitchell, Allegra Kent… All the American Ballet Theatre and New York City Ballet dancers, and so many others.
Greta: Right, and I really wanted to be there. But they didn’t have a fulltime educational program or curriculum there – you know how it was at that time.
Natalya: The kids would go out and around the city between ballet classes for academics.
Greta: Yes, that’s how we understood it to be. The kids would complete their education by correspondence and, with my father being a professional in the education system, that wasn’t an option for me. My parents had heard such great things about NBS, that they sort of pushed me on, despite my not wanting to go. But it ended up being the best thing for me.
Natalya: Oh, my heart – the worry of a young child off into the ballet world, worrying about leaving home. But, as you said, it had incredible results for you, and for those of us who have seen you dance. What are your best memories from your time at the NBS?
Greta: Well, at first, I had never been away even overnight to camp. I was so homesick that first summer school that I didn’t want to go into the full year. But my parents really encouraged and supported me. Because, you know, I was never homesick when I was in ballet class.
Natalya: Of course. Everything else disappears.
Greta: And am thankful for that, because by the beginning of the first full year, I was in the swing of things.
Natalya: You might not know this, but, after you graduated, Mrs. Smith (our History of Art and Ballet teacher who was beloved at the school for over 35 years), who you know was often a den mother to some of us… well… she wouldn’t let anyone sit in your chair for many years.
Greta: What? No. What?
Natalya: Yes. We weren’t allowed to sit in that chair for ages.
Greta: That is hilarious. I had no idea. Did she give a reason why?
Natalya: She was just very proud of you – of how you carried yourself, looked after yourself during those early years, and of your strength and talent.
Greta: That is too funny, and so, so sweet! I’m so glad you told me that.
Natalya: I’ve only ever shared that memory with her, really, and it’s sort of tied me to you in my ballet-brain all these years. Tell me – do you remember your first experience on stage as a principal dancer? What did it feel like, that first time you were to carry a role and a classical ballet from start to finish as its lead artist? Obviously, you had been on stage for years, but in those growing roles from childhood to corps de ballet, to soloist, etc. It’s a shift when it’s a first “official” principal role.
Greta: Absolutely. That first experience was Swan Lake, and it was unusual for a first principal role to be such a demanding role – physically, classically within the repertoire, emotionally, and mentally. But Reid [Anderson, the artistic director of the National Ballet of Canada at that time], and my coach, Magdalena Popa, had a lot of faith in me. I had been working with Magdalena as my coach since I was 16 years old, and I was 21 when I debuted my first Swan Lake. She took me and helped me, and it was a huge responsibility. I think being young, and being so well coached in terms of my trajectory – Reid making sure that I had done so many preparatory roles before – it was a huge help. It’s like you said earlier, you don’t just go from being the market woman in Don Quixote to being Odette/Odile.
Natalya: Ha! Yes, of course, the steadiness of training. And in the focus of your youth, as you said, you almost lack self consciousness.
Greta: Yes, because you’re so young that you’re focused but you’re naïve. I had grown up wanting this. By the time it came to the show, I actually injured myself in the rehearsal process, and had to delay my debut.
Natalya: The nightmare of all nightmares.
Greta: By a couple of months! But I ended up doing it, and I felt very… you know, the usual nerves… but, it was extraordinary how I rose to the occasion in a kind of natural depth.
Natalya: It was Bruhn’s Swan Lake, yes?
Greta: Yes. It was Erik Bruhn’s Swan Lake… beautiful… and I was promoted on stage after the show. It was a milestone in my career that I’ll never forget.
Natalya: What has your experience – your evolution, if you will – as an artist been over the past 28 years (29 seasons) with the National Ballet of Canada? I’m thinking here about how you, as all dancers do in their own way, start to layer emotion more freely into their roles as the physical becomes less of something they have to concentrate so heavily on. And then there’s the prime physical moment midway through the career, and then the fight with the body as we mature. How has that been for you?
Greta: I’ve been very lucky, physically. I have had a couple of injuries, but nothing that’s ever taken me off for any real length of time. If I were to look back, I think now it’s coming to a place where I’m able to accept my strengths as well as my limitations. That took a really long time. We’re all, in this artform, striving to be perfect, which is impossible. Even those who we see as having the perfect body, the perfect feet, and so on… it’s still not perfect. It took a long time to see that I had something to offer. It took going away and guesting with other companies, working with other dancers, other coaches, to see that kind of validation. And I really trust the people that I work with here [at NBOC], but sometimes you need to go away.
Natalya: It helps, too, to remember that our artform is seen as fluffy or one dimensional by the general public, but, in fact, it is an intense, gruelling athleticism that changes in style and demand from country to country, from company to company, from dancer to dancer.
Greta: Yes. I think it was important for me to go away and it really helped me grow as an artist. It took me a long time to get to a place where I’m confident that I’m sharing my art, and I’m enjoying every moment.
Natalya: It’s hard to get there with the mirror always there in training.
Greta: I still fall into it occasionally – oh, that wasn’t how I wanted to execute that step. But am I there? Am I in the moment? Am I genuine? If I am, then I am happy.
Natalya: It’s so important, and can only come with that kind of maturity. You have spoken with great love and importance of your Armenian ancestry. How and why does your family history inform your work as an artist?
Greta: In every way. I wouldn’t be here if it weren’t for my family putting feet to my back and saying, ‘Go!’ I’m everything I am as a being and as an artist because of them. The extreme love I have felt has been instrumental in my being able to develop. My grandmother was born in Armenia and fled during the genocide. I didn’t personally go through that, but it’s in my genes. It’s part of who I am. Those struggles… My grandmother didn’t really like to talk about it; it was very painful for her. We always encouraged her to share her story, because she was the last one – in that generation. Those stories lived and died with her.
Natalya: So, you always want to keep that in your heart. It’s with you no matter what you do.
Greta: Yes, and I have Armenian friends, and I want to support the community and Armenian artists in any way that I can. With the diaspora, I feel like it’s quite true that if you find another Armenian anywhere in the world…
Natalya: It’s a big deal.
Greta: It really is. We all are affected. We’re still in the generation who has grandparents who have gone through what my grandmother went through. It’s still tangible. My son and my daughter don’t know or have that experience.
Natalya: But you want to tell them about that when they’re older.
Greta: Exactly. Absolutely, for sure.
Natalya: Looking forward, we’re seeing a change in what has previously been deemed the “path” of a female dancer. I’m thinking here of how it’s been, okay, get into company at age 17; dance until you hopefully hit principal by 23; knees and ankles and back go out by 36; start doing modern dance and bow out gracefully until you’re guest starring in the occasional Canadian television miniseries. Now we have Alessandra Ferri, as just one fine example, coming out of “retirement” to do Juliet.
Greta: At age 53!
Natalya: HEL-LO? And in this new time for women, in particular, what do you feel is next for you, beyond the cliché or the mapped-out path that has been often a product of ageism in dance?
Greta: For me, it is about creating – working with creators, working with innovators, working with people who are pushing the artform forward. It’s not that I don’t love doing all those old classical roles that I’ve done forever. But I love being in the studio and actually creating. Also, given the scope of my career, I feel that I have a responsibility to give back. I want to give back to this art that has given me so much.