Art & Design
Backstage is abuzz at the Ellie Caulkins Opera House on the day before Thanksgiving. The Nutcracker opens on Saturday, and the full casts—yes, there are three—are rehearsing. The principals, soloists and the many young dancers from Colorado Ballet Academy are working, and waiting. The youngsters playing revelers in the party scene are trying to be nonchalant, masking their excitement while sneaking peeks at the Colorado Ballet stars in their midst. “The stage is much smaller when you’re dancing than it looks from the audience,” one in-the-know girl informs me.
Sharon Wehner bounds out of her dressing room, wearing a broad smile and extending her hand in a firm handshake. With her slight frame and youthful countenance, she could be a member of the corps de ballet, or even an academy student rather than a principal dancer. Only, she isn’t wearing every ballet accessory imaginable like the little girls milling about.
After 22 years with Colorado Ballet, most of those as a principal dancer, Wehner is poised for retirement at the end of the 2017-2018 season. It’s a big deal in the dance world when a principal retires, all the more so one of such long tenure.
“Sharon chose this place to spend her career. She’s small in stature, but she carries herself as a much larger presence. She works hard at developing a character, and she approaches her work with a diligence that others can look up to,” says Gil Boggs, artistic director. “I tell young dancers to watch Sharon and how she approaches each day. There’s a great deal to be learned from her presence.”
“A principal dancer sets the tone for the company. All of the dancers look to her for her work ethic and commitment,” says Aubrey Klinger Fearns, principal dancer and rehearsal director at Davis Contemporary Dance Company. She recalls taking classes with Wehner. “We’re all professional dancers, but when Sharon walks in, the seas part. Her technique is perfect and her presence is calm. She is a lesson in beauty and elegance.”
Wehner acknowledges but underplays her role. “I’m just doing my thing. I just try to be the best me,” she says. “There is an awareness of how you are an example not only for the company dancers, but also for the children that are in the school and in performances like The Nutcracker. It’s not just how you show up on stage, but how you show up backstage. If I can be an example, it’s of how you can work through difficult things. It’s a balance.”
Originally from San Jose, Calif., Wehner joined Colorado Ballet in 1995 and was promoted to principal dancer in 1999. During the last 22 years, she has performed many lead roles with the company. In addition to Colorado Ballet, Wehner has also performed with The Washington Ballet, Oakland Ballet and Amy Seiwert’s Imagery. She has been a guest artist at the Vail Dance Festival, the Aoyama Ballet Festival in Japan and the National Ballet of Japan’s Golden Ballet Co-star.
“It doesn’t seem all that long ago that I was 19, and a junior company member making $300 a week. I didn’t have the experiences of my friends, I didn’t party. Dance was everything. You have to grow up quickly. When you join a professional company, in a way, every single day is an audition. You’re judged on the way you carry yourself and the way you handle correction.”
Ballet class is part of a dancer’s life, no matter her position in the company. Soloists, principals and members of the corps de ballet, work on piques and plies just as the youngest members of Colorado Ballet Academy classes do. There are no shortcuts when it comes to honing one’s craft. “Class is where you assess, where you say I need a little more of this, or less of that. It’s about conditioning, like an athlete needs conditioning,” Wehner explains.
Younger members of the company are at the barre alongside the principals, watching Wehner. “Yeah, I kind of wish they weren’t,” she laughs. “Class is not a performance for me. For me, it’s a very personal experience, especially if I’m working through an injury. Then, I have to be especially mindful of what my body needs that day. Maybe my leg doesn’t go as high that day, but I’m working correctly and with integrity for where my body is at.”
For all her poise and elegance, Wehner is as tough as any athlete. “I broke my foot onstage once. I was powering through something I had been dealing with for months. Probably shouldn’t have.” Despite hearing her bone snap, Wehner kept dancing. “Sometimes, it’s easier to power through than to admit you’re human.”
Dancing the role of Juliet for the first time was a dream come true for Wehner. Now, she’s preparing to give life to the young heroine a final time in Colorado Ballet’s performance of Derek Deane’s 1998 take on Shakespeare’s classic tale. “This is my first time dancing Derek Deane’s “Romeo and Juliet.” It’s brand new to me. But, I know this character. I’ve embodied it a couple times in different productions. My body recognizes the music, and I have a sense for the timing. I have an understanding of Juliet.”
Juliet is a complex character. “Deane doesn’t want a very young, innocent-minded Juliet. He wants to see her grow as a strong character, but she always comes across as a beautiful Juliet,” Boggs says.
Deane’s Romeo and Juliet was written to be performed in the round, in London’s 5,000-seat Royal Albert Hall. “Deane adapted this work to a proscenium theatre like the Ellie,” Boggs says. “I love Deane’s choreography, the emotion, the swordplay. The way he uses Sergey Prokofiev’s music. I love the way the dancers move to it.”
Wehner’s character is a teenage girl, discovering love and an awakening of her own desire. “It’s one of my favorite roles because I get to follow her arc of becoming a woman, falling in love, defying her family. It all happens so fast for Juliet, she doesn’t have time to think. It’s all about passion. When I first did this role, I had a more romantic view of love. Now I have more life experience. Juliet has no frame of reference. Her one truth is her love for Romeo.”
Does Wehner ever wish you could share what you’ve learned with Juliet? “Never, I would not want to change her character! What she feels in the story—that’s real for her,” the ballerina says. “I don’t think she knows what love is in the beginning of her journey. For her, it’s ‘what is this? I haven’t felt this before.’ The way her character develops is part of what makes it so profound, and special to depict as an artist.”
Sharon Wehner has performed in hundreds of ballet classics such as The Nutcracker. Is she ever tempted to phone it in? “No! For one thing, my roles are too technically challenging. And a dance career is too short to ever just phone it in. It’s just too short.”
“Sharon has this conversation with the company every year,” Boggs says. “There is always that little girl who is seeing the Sugar Plum Fairy for the first time.”
Wehner is characteristically modest about her career. “I feel very fortunate with my career, to have been able to do what I love with a company that I love for so long. So many little girls want to be ballerinas. I often teach the company’s audition class. I see 200 young men and women wanting a position where there might be one or two available. I think about how so few make it.”
Taking the power of dance from the stage and into the community is important to Wehner. She enjoys teaching dance to all ages and abilities, and is a certified Yoga Instructor and a certified GYROKINESIS® trainer. She speaks passionately of her work with Dance for Parkinson’s Disease. “Dance can be very healing. It’s not about performance for these folks nor is it for me. It’s connecting on a soul level, with music, with movement, with themselves and their bodies, through dance. I am so lucky. I tell my body what to do, and for the most part, my body does it. Dance becomes very empowering for them.”
Wehner’s departure leaves a hole, certainly, within Colorado Ballet. But as Wehner herself stresses, it opens opportunities for others. “We are never going to replace Sharon, and I don’t want to,” says Boggs. “We strive to develop young dancers, to bring young dancers along as the future stars of the company.”
Armstrong Center for Dance
1075 Santa Fe Dr., Denver
Attitude on Santa Fe, Feb. 2-3, Colorado Ballet Black Box Theater
Romeo and Juliet, Feb. 16-25
Ballet Director's Choice, March 30 through April 1
When it comes to all things ballet, frequent Colorado Expression contributor Kimberly Field is nine years old. If she had a tutu, she’d be wearing it right now.
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