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Colorado Ballet principal dancers Jennifer Grace and Mario Labrador rehearse a pas de deux as they prepare for George Balanchine's challenging "Theme and Variations." (Kathryn Scott, Special to The Colorado Sun)

To become a matador a novillero must face his first bull, his alternativa, on the big stage of the corrida, the bull ring. For Mario Labrador, a new principal dancer with the Colorado Ballet, his alternativa comes Friday evening in the elegant but demanding “Theme and Variations.”

The ballet has challenged dancers for 75 years. The virtuoso Mikhail Baryshnikov said it was the hardest ballet he’d ever danced. Andrew Veyette, a principal with the New York City Ballet, called it a pass-fail moment.

Nor will it be any less challenging for Labrador’s partner Jennifer Grace, also a newly minted principal dancer. “Afterwards when you come off stage you look down and your legs are there but you’d never know it,” Gelsey Kirkland, who danced the ballet with Baryshnikov, once told an interviewer.

Kirkland, at the height of her career as a prima ballerina with American Ballet Theater, was asked about “Theme and Variations,” which she had first danced as a teenager. “It hasn’t gotten any easier or any better.”

So now come Grace and Labrador to the stage of the Ellie Caulkins Opera House to take up the mantle of the ballet often just called “T&V” — part of the company’s Master Works program running April 15-24.

It is something neither of them could have imagined just a few months ago.

Grace, 25, was a soloist with the Tulsa Ballet when she sent a video audition tape to Gil Boggs, the artistic director of the Colorado Ballet. No word from Denver. So, in January 2020 she turned up for the company’s open audition and won a contract as a soloist.

Colorado Ballet artistic director Gil Boggs, left, and ballet master Sandra Brown, both of whom danced “Theme and Variations,” coach principal dancers Jennifer Grace and Mario Labrador as they prepare for opening night of the difficult ballet. (Kathryn Scott, Special to The Colorado Sun)

As a kid growing up in Bozeman, Montana, Grace was a perpetual motion machine, but when she was about 8, she was transfixed by a performance of the ballet “Romeo and Juliet” on public television. “I sat through the entire thing perfectly still and after it was over, I said ‘Mom, I want to do that,’” she said.

There was one immediate stumbling block, she said. “Ballet is not the thing you do in Montana.” With her parents’ support that meant stops in Moscow and Southern California, before working her way in Tulsa from second company to corps de ballet to soloist — one step below principal.

No sooner had Grace signed with the Colorado Ballet than the pandemic hit and she spent her first year taking company ballet classes over Zoom. It wasn’t until this past July that the company’s 32 dancers assembled in one place.

Last autumn Labrador, 31, joined the company as a soloist — much to his surprise. His career began with the San Francisco Ballet, sort of. At the age of 5 or 6, his mother took him to see a cousin perform in “The Nutcracker” and she found her son dancing in the aisle.

After six years in Russia, training at the Bolshoi Ballet School in Moscow and performing with the Mikhailovsky Theatre Ballet in St. Petersburg, Labrador returned home at the age of 25 and decided he had had enough of ballet. Two years later he decided he hadn’t.

He joined a small regional company in California and after a couple of years sent an audition tape to Boggs, who set up a Zoom meeting. “I thought they’d offer me a contract maybe in the corps,” Labrador said. He was stunned when Boggs said soloist.

Both Labrador and Grace were even more amazed in October when they were both made principal dancers. “I cried,” Labrador said. Grace still giggles giddily when asked about the promotion. “It’s mind-boggling,” she said.

Their reward is “Theme and Variations” created by George Balanchine, the co-founder of the New York City Ballet and the most important choreographer of the 20th Century. Russian born and trained, Balanchine reworked the classical ballet idiom emphasizing speed and strength.

Balanchine pushed his dancers. “What are you saving for — for another time?” he urged them. “There are no other times. There is only now. Right now.”

Balanchine’s words could have been lingering in the air last week as Grace and Labrador rehearsed the key elements of “T&V” in a studio at the company’s Armstrong Center for Dance.

The ballet is danced to the last movement of Tchaikovsky’s Orchestral Suite No. 3 and the principals have a slow, grand opening, almost a welcome to the audience, and then two killer, fast-paced variations each and then a pas de deux — as they dance together — and then a high-energy coda or finale. Boggs describes the dancers in the coda as “being shot out of a cannon.”

In a bullfight the most difficult and most dangerous moment is the estocada, the matador’s final thrust. The first variation is Labrador’s estocada. “It’s the change in music that’s tricky,” Labrador said.

Colorado Ballet principal dancer Mario Labrador moves to the floor for a short rest while rehearsing with fellow principal Jennifer Grace as the two prepare for George Balanchine’s “Theme and Variations.” (Kathryn Scott, Special to The Colorado Sun)

The variation — in essence a solo though the corps de ballet is on stage — begins with slow control and shifts, with music, to series fast turns, and then, with the music, downshifts back to that slow control.

It was, however, the second variation in the rehearsal that left Labrador collapsed on the floor. “You have to start drinking more electrolytes so you can recover more quickly,” Sandra Brown, the company’s ballet master, soothingly told the prostrate dancer.

While the first variation may be the estocada, Labrador said “what’s challenging for me most in this ballet is the stamina.”

The rehearsal was overseen by Brown and Boggs, who both danced “Theme and Variations” with American Ballet Theater. The two sat coaching, taking notes, and sometimes counting steps like a human metronome.

At the end there would be a debriefing. Getting Labrador to achieve a bigger jeté jump by raising the leg. Fiddling with one of Grace’s arm placements. Trying to fine tune a locomotive running down the tracks at 100 miles an hour.

“This ballet will make them better dancers,” Boggs said.

Ballet master Sandra Brown, right, moves through a pas de deux with principal dancers Jennifer Grace and Mario Labrador as they prepare for George Balanchine’s “Theme and Variations.” (Kathryn Scott, Special to The Colorado Sun)

By the time the two dancers began working on the pas de deux, Grace, who had already done her variations, was breathing hard and raspy, like a rusty hinge opening and closing.

At one point as they were side by side, hip to hip, Grace draped her arm around Labrador’s neck and he put his arm around her waist and lifted her off the ground as their rib cages pressed together — and then pop!

One of Grace’s ribs jumped out of place. They stopped. She delicately ran her fingers over her side, found the offending rib and pressed it back in place.  “It’s OK,” she said brightly.

And what is Grace’s estocada?  “The most difficult mentally is the very first entrance,” she said. “The music starts, the curtain is closed, everyone is on stage in their positions and the curtain goes up and we have to start. It is such a simple step but it has to be precise … It is supposed to be free and flowy but you have to be on the music.”

The fact that she and Labrador are facing 21 grueling minutes might also be weighing on the mind. “It is important not to get ahead of yourself in this ballet, to stay in the moment,” Labrador said.

Or as Balanchine said, “There is only now. Right now.”

“Physically, for me, the most difficult is the entire finale,” Grace said. “You have this big music and you just want to sit down because you are so tired.”

Special to The Colorado Sun
Twitter: @bymarkjaffe