IN DIALOGUE WITH LAUREN BONFIGLIO, Dancer for American Ballet Theatre
Lauren Bonfiglio is a New York-based dancer in the Corps de ballet at American Ballet Theatre (ABT). Born in Red Bank, New Jersey, Lauren developed an attraction to the world of dance at an early age, committing to the art form with a level of passion and determination that helped her to quickly blossom as a dancer and excel as a professional. She became a member of American Ballet Theatre’s Studio Company in 2013 at the age of 16, and two years later earned a spot in the company’s Corps de ballet. Throughout the course of her career, she has performed in ballets including Raymond Luken’s Jerusalem Divertissement, Alexei Ratmansky’s Carnival of the Animals and The Nutcracker, Don Quixote and The Sleeping Beauty. We joined Lauren to discuss her passions and traditions, the dedication that has guided her through her career path, and her thoughts on the meaning of dance.
INTERVIEW BY GABRIELLA LACOMBE ~ PHOTOS BY MINA ALYESHMERNI
You began taking dance lessons when you were three years old. What motivated you to eventually pursue a full-time career as a dancer?
From an early age, I enjoyed taking lessons in both ballet and gymnastics. When I was eight years old, I found myself having to make a choice between the two, as they both required more training hours per week. The decision became clear to me when I saw American Ballet Theatre perform Swan Lake at the Metropolitan Opera House. That night, ABT became my dream company. I often remind myself of the little ballerina I was then, watching the beautiful swans dancing to the magnificent Tchaikovsky score on the grand Met Opera Stage. To think that I would become one of those beautiful swans still amazes me.
I was dancing at my home studio in New Jersey until I was 12, at that point training 24 hours a week. I wanted to be dancing and improving so much that I happily sacrificed birthday parties, sleepovers, and vacations so that I could be in the studio working with my teachers, learning new ballets, and listening to beautiful music. I was invited to attend ABT's Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis School (JKO) when I was 12, commuting back and forth to NYC five days a week to train. From the JKO school, I was promoted into the Studio Company--the second company of ABT--at age 16. At age 17, I became an apprentice with the main company. And, at age 18, I was promoted to the Corps de ballet.
I've been trained with a focus in ballet, but took modern and tap classes as they all help in making a versatile dancer. The love of the ballet art form and the exploration of movement and storytelling is what has kept me going.
What performance is particularly special to you?
It’s hard to pick one because there are so many special moments I’ve had in multiple different ballets, but performances that are particularly special to me are from when we do the ballet Giselle. In Act 2, the women are Willis, which are ghosts of young women who have died before their wedding day. There are 20 of us on stage with our ‘Queen Myrta’ all in long, white tulle tutus in a dark forest. We rise from our graves at night, and if men walk into our forest, we haunt them and dance them to their death. Giselle, the newest addition to the Willis, is a girl who has died of a weak and broken heart because of Albrecht, a man she loved and who she thought was being truthful and honest with her. Giselle ends up protecting Albrecht when he enters her grave, saving his life from the Willis, and letting him go free.
I deeply love this ballet. The story, the music, the choreography, and the acting are all brilliant. I also love getting to sneak a peek at Giselle and Albrecht in their heart-wrenching pas de deuxs and physically challenging variations while the Willis stand in a perfect line on the side. I usually end up crying a few times during the run of Giselle performances from being so moved by the storytelling of the ballet.
What was the last experience you had, of any kind, that was very meaningful to you?
I spent three weeks of my summer break in upstate New York at a dance residency called ‘Kaatsbaan,’ which means “a playing field” in Dutch. Kaatsbaan provides artists with a unique space to explore growth: imagine expansive ballet studios with large windows, surrounded by lush greenery. I was taking part in a program for professional dancers led by colleague and Principal of American Ballet Theatre, Stella Abrera. This program, ‘Pro-Studio Stella Abrera,’ was an opportunity for professionals to brush up on ballet technique through individualized attention, which is rare as a professional, as well as explore what it’s like to embody the choreography and characters of principal roles. Like any profession, it’s easy to get comfortable in your routine, how much you expect of yourself, and where you see yourself going. I realized that I needed some kind of reignition of inspiration. I still loved working and performing, but I didn’t have the right tools to help me flourish.
As professional dancers and athletes, even minor injuries can set us back, taking time to recover to slowly build back our technique and stamina. I overcame two injuries, one in my lower back and the other in my foot. I was certain that I could get myself back to where I had envisioned. During my experience at Kaatsbaan, I received one-on-one studio time with Stella to be coached in soloist work, and she had me work on a piece that was more technical--requiring turns and jumps--as well as a dream role from Giselle, requiring a character portrayal. This combination helped diminish that vulnerable feeling of being judged and being self-critical. By the end of the three weeks, I noticed that small improvements had been made and most importantly, I was hungry to spend more time in the studio. I felt refreshed and inspired to return to rehearsals for ABT’s Fall Season, which turned out to be one of my favorite seasons of rehearsals and performances yet.
It’s clear that you love what you do, and I think that's something we're all looking to achieve in our own lives. But, it’s common to experience a dwindling in excitement, motivation, or just general burn out. In your opinion, how have you been able to sustain (if not grow) that love over the years?
I think that because dance has been a major part of my life, I’ve experienced it so differently as I’ve grown up and matured, so it’s never felt like a “job.” I stay motivated by always enriching my craft; there’s always something to learn. I like to watch my colleagues in daily technique class and rehearsals, other ballet companies when they tour to New York, see other types of dance performances, read articles in magazines, and watch ballet documentaries online. Secondly, being open to criticism from teachers or coaches is an important quality to have in any profession. Don’t be afraid to reach out to a mentor or someone you trust if you need advice.
With all of this, it’s important to take a step back from work. To maintain a healthy relationship with ballet, I like to take time off to heal my body from our rigorous schedule, explore my other interests, spend time with family and friends, and take a break from the city and social media.
To some, the idea of ballet might conjure ideas of perfection, exclusivity, and perhaps even inflexibility when it comes to who participates in ballet, what ballets are performed and who ballet is 'for.' What is the reality of ballet today?
Ballet today is for everyone and is more popular than ever. From an education standpoint, ballet classes are offered in academic schools, recreation centers, and ballet studios. Students of ballet can be any age and learn discipline, become more fit, and be exposed to classical music at the same time. When ballet is introduced to people at a young age, they’re more likely to attend a performance as an adult. In my company, ABT, we tour around the U.S., often times to places that do not have a ballet company. This makes ballet more accessible and inclusive.
Ballet companies have repertoire that can be enjoyed by everyone. There are storybook ballets, Shakespearean ballets, and modern or contemporary ballets that are sure to satisfy someone’s interest. The reality of ballet today is that it is a beautiful, accessible, and entertaining art form that can be experienced by many.
In the world of ballet, women are celebrated, often being the focal point of a ballet. It’s empowering to breathe and move as one with my fellow female corps de ballet girls in ballets like La Bayadere, Swan Lake, Giselle, and The Sleeping Beauty, just to name a few. As of more recently, the “ideal” look of a ballerina’s body has changed. A curvier and more athletic look is accepted portraying strength, beauty and feminism.
What is something you are yearning to experience or learn?
I’d like to be better at experiencing just living and working in the moment. I feel like, as a whole, we’re always looking forward to the next season, the next holiday, or vacation, and time just flies by. We envision these things because they are goals that get us through all the tedious work and hours we put into our career. As a dancer, I think we’re always looking forward to the next ballet we will be working on, or the next tour we will be traveling to, so I’m trying to be present during performances and enjoy all the time spent in rehearsals. A dancer’s career isn’t too long compared to other professional careers, so cherishing all of the aspects of the life of a dancer is major.