The Art of Dance: Richmond Ballet’s Lauren Fagone Speaks with GayRVA
Lauren Fagone is a tiny woman with milky skin and stark contrasting red hair. Her arms, her hands, her nose, her eyes; all petite and delicate. But behind those eyes is a fire that burns as red as her curly locks. Fagone is a ballet dancer at the Richmond Ballet.
Born in Kennet Square, PA, she started dancing when she was 4-years-old. She remembers seeing a ballerina on Sesame Street and from then on she danced around the house until her parents put her in dance class. She continued her training all through high school. She apprenticed with the North Carolina Dance Theater, wrapping up her GED at a local community college. She attended Indiana University where she continued her dance training. After college, she auditioned at with the Richmond Ballet and has been there for over 12 years. Fagone sat down with GayRVA earlier this week and spoke about her training, the art of dance, and the challenges she faces day-to-day working in one of the premiere ballet’s in the country.
B: Is there a drastic difference in the training as you grow up and have been in different regions? Does it vary greatly and do you take different things from each experience? Was your high school teacher significantly different from your college teacher?
L: I think the difference is based on how intense you are, and how driven and how dedicated. There are schools in every city for people who take dance for enjoyment and once you decide that you want to make this your career, the pressure is placed on you to go out and seek out a school that has formal technique and training, and teachers who have had professional experience who can pass on the knowledge and the wisdom that they’ve gained. At Indiana University, I had the great fortune of being instructed by Violette Verdy and Leslie Peck. Both of those teachers were integral in informing my appreciation for the history of dance as well. It definitely depends, I have been a guest teacher at the school of Richmond Ballet and their students are so hungry for information and knowledge. It feels great because I’ve had a career and a lot of experience to then teach them and help them understand what it’s like to be a dancer. How passionate you have to be in order to contend with all the difficulties and obstacles.
B: I imagine there are very modern schools and very historic schools. Do you feel more comfortable working in either?
L: My background and my training is classical with a tendency towards the Balanchine technique. I also really admired the dancers who are older than me who are well rounded, versatile, and have all of these diverse abilities and styles under their belt. I really hoped that my artistry could encompass all of those different genres. I personally feel most comfortable in more contemporary works and especially anytime I have a chance to work with a new choreographer and there’s some sort of collaboration between the choreographer and dancer. I really enjoy that process and relish the movement, but I think in order to become a professional dancer, you definitely need classical training. That is the foundation for everything that you do and so being able to rely on your foundation and classical technique will help you in any studio and in front of any choreographer. I think you need a good background, a lot of different training, and different teachers. It opens your eyes and changes your perspective, and hearing different comments from different teachers is very definitely beneficial. Everyone will have something different to say, maybe it’s a way of doing stuff that you have never thought about before, and all of the sudden it’s very freeing.
B: Was there a moment when you realized that you didn’t want to just dance and then do something else– that you were a “dancer”? What was that moment?
L: Probably like many other people, my parents have saved a lot of my book reports from grade school and middle school. I think in middle school I wanted to be a veterinarian, but also a dancer (a ballerina and a veterinarian). Slowly and surely the veterinarian part dwindled. Even towards the end of elementary school if anyone asked me, I was confident and I said that I was going to be a ballerina. In high school, it’s difficult if you’re not going to an arts based school. I was also somewhat of a nerd, and so it was ballet and academics. I didn’t have much of a social life in high school but I didn’t mind it, I had something else that filled any void that could’ve been left. I had a good group of friends at ballet and I thought it was great.
B: As an art form, do you think dance and ballet compares much to painting, sculpting, and other creative forms?
L: I definitely think there’s a correlation there. As a dancer, my canvas would be the stage and I’m always trying to evoke a feeling or convey an experience. I’m trying to paint the audience into whatever I’m doing or my movement. Coming up is Leap Week and an exhibit with the Hang 5 artists. This union of ballet and brushes has been great. Anytime you have collaboration between artists, I think it’s richly rewarding for the artist and for the community. It strengthens the audience for both the Richmond ballet and the clientele who invest in the works by the Hang Five artists. I think both groups of artist can benefit from something like Leap Week.
Painting of Fagone by David Tanner, one of the Hang 5 Artists
B: What’s an average day for the dancer at the Richmond Ballet?
L: We work 5 or 6 days a week, either 10:00-5:30 or 10:00-6:30. Our day starts with an hour and a half technique class, again going back to the foundation of classical ballet, which sets us up for the rest of what we’re doing and our rehearsals for the day. However, most of the dancers arrive somewhere between 9:00-9:15, maybe earlier if we’re going to physical therapy and doing exercises in physical therapy before our day. After that it’s rehearsal all day long. I think on Friday, we rehearsed 7 different ballets in the course of one day. Dancers are incredibly smart individuals as well and it’s been great picking up choreography really quickly, interpreting it, and giving it back. Learning combinations and counting music seem so simple and yet there’s artistry even in the intellectual part of ballet. Seven different ballets in one day requires focus, concentration, agility, sympathy, compassion, consideration, respect, and admiration for all your colleagues and coworkers. I mean it’s fun, you’re not doing the same thing day in and day out. Every day is new, you have to start over from the ground up, go back to your technique, and focus on yourself as a dancer. Artistic director, Stoner Winslett, mentioned how it’s always a little up after every show, which is the truth. Every day you have to go in with that mentality. How can I work on something to make it better? How can I improve myself as a person, as a dancer, and how I contribute to the company where I’m dancing?
B: You mentioned the physical therapy; does your body go through a lot of stress? Do you guys compare scars or anything?
L: Yes. Yes we do. As I’ve gotten older, I not necessarily have been reliant on physical therapy after an injury but as preventative care. Also being older I know my body extremely well, so the moment something isn’t feeling perfect I go down and they tell me what I could do. I’m responsible for keeping my paint brush healthy so I take it upon myself to do my exercises, and ice at night.
B: I imagine that there’s a lot of ice baths
L: Yes, my freezer is full of nothing but ice packs
B: We’ve got Leap Week coming up. Are there any specific events or parts that you’re particularly excited for?
L: I think the Hang Five art exhibit will be really exciting. I know that the artists are really thrilled about this whole opportunity and this melding of artistry and beauty. I am excited about every event where we get to interact with people from the community that maybe don’t know about the ballet or have some preconceived notion that it’s not accessible for the general public. I always love to meet people and break down that barrier. People are always more willing to come out to a show or see something if they have a personal investment. So If I meet someone and they enjoyed talking to me, they may see an advertisement for the ballet and say “hey we should think about going to see a show”.
Fagone dancing via Richmond Ballet
B: When you were younger you wanted to be a dancer, and now you are a dancer. Were there any surprises along the way? At any point, did you ever think “wow, this is where I’m at now, I’m really invested, I didn’t think it would be this way, or this is better than I thought it was”?
L: The road to having a job or getting a job will be different for every dancer. It wasn’t the easiest path for me and I felt like I had to fight every step of the way to prove my worth and to prove that I was valuable and could be an asset to a company. For me, the reward was so much sweeter because I very much cherish this part of my life. When I’m 85, I’m going to tell my grand kids that I was a professional ballerina. I think there’s nothing else like it and I can’t imagine doing anything other than being a dancer for the moment. I think it was a surprise, initially, that I had a job and that it can be so all-consuming. It’s an investment of every part of yourself, not just physical, mental, or emotion. It’s psychological. It’s who you are. It encompassing everything about you, and requires you to be so vulnerable as well but there’s courage in vulnerability. For the most part I think dancers are pretty fierce creatures.
B: Are there any moments in your 11 years that really stood out as landmark achievements for you?
L: I think that the Liebesleider Walzer was one my most amazing experiences overall. It was a George Balanchine Ballet and so few companies have the rights to perform this work. It is a little bit older but just absolutely breathtaking. It’s only for couples and there is live music and there are live singers on stage. It was just heaven to dance and to be part of the entire process, so that’s way up there.
Carmina Burana: I love that ballet, I hear that we are bringing it back and I’m very excited about that. That was an incredible journey in terms of learning it and having the dancers on whom it was originally created come back and give us their insight and help coach us.
Performing in London in the same building as the royal ballet. We were in the Linbury Theater and we heard the call for the principles of the royal ballet to come and perform. That’s pretty stellar and up there in terms of experiences and something that I will treasure forever.
B: My preconceived notions of ballet are probably movie driven, so I imagine it’s real cut throat and you have to take those victories where you can.
L: In a lot of companies there is a lot of competition and dancers are highly competitive. Typically, that’s in a larger company where ranks are defined. Here we are a all-star and no star company. Everyone has their moment in the spotlight and we’re a family so you know that you’re friends are in the wings cheering you on and supporting you. Then you have your moment where that’s your job, to be the ones to bolster the confidence of your fellow dancers and coworkers, it’s great and that is also rare in the dance world. I think we have tried to cultivate and foster those relationships within the organization, on all 3 floors too and not just the dancers. It’s really nice to come to work and know that my peers support me and I admire and respect everyone in the company. It’s also thrilling to work in a place where I am continually in awe of my coworkers.
Fagone is participating in the Richmond Ballet’s Leap Week events, a 7-day dance experiences that welcomes ordinary folks into the ballet, as well as puts the ballet and its dancers out in the community. Read more about Leap Week here.
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