When a great athlete retires from the game, we always hope they go out on a high note. Ballet dancers are no exception; they are as much athletes as they are artists. And like many a pro quarterback who doesn’t know when it’s time to quit, many dancers conclude their careers after their skills have been diminished due to age and injury.
Happily, this is not the case with local legend Arantxa Ochoa. A performer with the Pennsylvania Ballet since 1996 and principal dancer for the last 12 years, Ochoa is transitioning from the stage to classroom. Since September, Ochoa has been leading the faculty of the School of Pennsylvania Ballet; in January, the recently opened school is scheduled to move into the Ballet’s new home at the Louise Reed Center for Dance on North Broad Street. While beginning her tenure as a teacher, Ochoa is simultaneously bringing down the final curtain on her on-stage career this weekend with a farewell performance as the title character in the company’s magnificent production of Giselle at the Academy of Music. (Performers are subject to change, but Ochoa is scheduled to perform Oct. 28.)
“I had already made the decision to retire [before the company announced its 2012-13 season], and then I found out that Giselle was going to happen, and I thought how perfect that was,” says Ochoa. “When you are a little girl dreaming of becoming a ballet dancer, you dream of playing Giselle. From the music to the story to the steps, there is so much in the role, and there is a lot of opportunity for acting, which I enjoy.”
Her acting ability is one of the elements that separates Ochoa from other dancers. Roy Kaiser, Pennsylvania Ballet’s artistic director, refers to her as a “full artist.” “Arantxa is a wonderful technician,” he says, “but she also has the ability to fully immerse herself in a role, and there is a presence about her on stage that is completely engaging.”
Ochoa, who is married to former principal dancer Alexander Iziliaev, now Pennsylvania Ballet’s photographer and videographer, says she enjoys the acting challenges that come with “story ballets” like Giselle, a far cry from the shorter works that the Pennsylvania Ballet also stages. “I love the two- and three-act ballets like Romeo and Juliet and Sleeping Beauty. I love to act. People want to see the steps, but I love to develop a character that I can fully express on stage.”
Her decision to retire from it now, she confesses, is hard to put into words. “It’s the right time. Other performers always say that you will know when the time comes. I never thought that I would, but then something clicks, and you just know it’s time to move on and try other things.” And while she’s had her share of injuries—including breaking her fifth metatarsal—she says that the physical demands of ballet are only one factor in her decision to retire. “It’s a little bit of everything. It is your mind, as well as your body. I’ve had a wonderful career. And it is just the right time.”
What will she miss most? Ochoa mentions the audience first, but says she’ll also miss the arduous rehearsals. Despite the grueling hours—9:30 a.m. to 6 p.m. Monday through Friday with performances on the weekend—she admits, “I will miss the work you do with your partner before you go on stage.” It is this work ethic that Ochoa stresses with her students. “I think people don’t realize how much hard work is involved because they just see the beautiful part. There are a lot of things that a dancer needs, but I tell my students that hard work is most important,” she says.
Perhaps the most gratifying thing about Ochoa’s retirement, says Kaiser, is that she’s still in her prime as a performer. “It’s always sad to see a dancer’s performing career end, but in Arantxa’s case, she’s doing it of her own choice. She’s not retiring because of an injury or something else,” he explains. “It’s her decision, which is always a very positive thing for a dancer.”
And, as Ochoa’s performance in Giselle proves, she’s still at the top of her game.
Featuring Adolphe Adam’s lushly romantic score, the Pennsylvania Ballet’s production is visually stunning (John Hoey’s lighting design is wondrous) and emotionally affecting. In the title role, Ochoa’s dancing is precise and elegant, and she truly captivates in a performance that is both subtle and breathtakingly passionate.
As Kaiser observes, “there is a natural evolution in a ballet company. Will one dancer step in and fill (Ochoa’s) shoes? No. But a number of dancers will step in and bring their qualities to the repertoire we perform.”
Through Oct. 28. $30-$125. Academy of Music, Broad and Locust sts. 215.893.1999. paballet.org
Gabriel García Márquez, 1927-2014
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