Greta Hodgkinson plans a new future after leaving role at National Ballet of Canada

Giselle is one of Greta Hodgkinson's favourite roles. Photo: Karolina Kuras

Greta Hodgkinson is a planner. She thinks ahead. She even started talking about stepping down from her role as a principal dancer with the National Ballet of Canada a few years before her target departure date.

And yet this organized artist is stepping into some uncertainty as an independent artist who will work project to project.

It’s liberating. And it’s exciting.

An example of the kind of work she’ll be doing down the road is the Anymotion Productions creation of Crypto, which is choreographed by her longtime colleague at the National, Guillaume Côté.

Greta Hodgkinson. Photo: Karolina Kuras.

Their relationship goes way back. They have danced together many times. And Côté, who is also a principal dancer and an associate choreographer with the National, has been developing projects with her for many years.

“I commissioned him to do a solo for me way back when. We had danced together so many times and had done so many ballets together, it was kind of interesting to have the relationship change a bit.

“He started choreographing young and I always thought he had quite a bit of talent. So when I was looking to have a solo created, something I could do at galas, I asked him if he would do that.”

It has been a fruitful relationship.

“I loved his vocabulary,” she told ARTSFILE in an interview during a recent residency at the National Arts Centre, where Crypto was being polished for performances in March. The project is support by the NAC’s National Creation Fund and by NAC Dance.

“This is what interests me now at this point in my career.” She wants to create new work and to work with people in a multi-disciplinary way. “I think that’s the most exciting for me.”

Because of the funding support, Crypto has had the luxury of time to develop. It’s been workshopped at residencies in Montreal and at the Banff Centre. This is necessay because the show is very tech heavy, with lots of video and audio recordings.

“This is a luxury that you don’t often have,” she said.

But when it comes to the project, “it’s important that I work with people I feel have a really unique voice. It’s not so much about reinventing the wheel — it’s all been done before. It’s really about how the choreographer is constructing things in such a way that you are able to express an idea or a story in a new way that makes you think. I feel Guillaume has that.

“I feel like I am expressing things in a new way when I’m working with him.”

Her last performance with the National Ballet will be Marguerite and Armand in March. Then “I am going to retire from being a full-time principal with the company. I hope and intend to continue a relationship with the company in many different ways.

“For example, my knowledge of the traditions of the company — gained over 30 years — can be really useful.

“It’s not an end. I have other projects down the line that will keep me dancing for a little bit. I’m not hanging up my shoes just yet. It is a departure and will be a whole new thing for me.”

The National Ballet is her first and only company.

She’s originally from Providence, Rhode Island. Her family heard about the National Ballet School and Company through a friend.

“The reputation was wonderful for classical training and my parents sent me to audition. I had never heard of the school or the company. My focus was on New York — that was just where I wanted to be. That was the dance centre in North America.

“At the same time, when I got to the school I realized it was an incredible and serious place.”

She stayed in Toronto because of the repertoire the company performed.

“It was so diverse. I thought to myself ‘That’s what I want to do. I want to do Swan Lake and I also wanted to do a (William) Forsythe thing. It was so great. You got everything. Why would I look anywhere else?”

Why indeed. She landed in Toronto at the end of the legendary Betty Oliphant‘s career. And she was there when the current director of the school Mavis Staines took over.

Guillaume Côté and Greta Hodgkinson. Photo: Karolina Kuras

Now she is leaving at roughly the same time as the current artistic director Karen Kain is departing.

“I started talking to Karen about this a little while ago knowing that artistic directors plan five years out.

“After I did my last Swan Lake I started thinking about things. How did I see it ending? I knew that it would take time. I knew Karen would understand and that’s why I started the conversation a few years ago.

“She was taken aback. She said ‘You’re not ready to retire yet.’ I said I wanted to start thinking about it.”

Hodgkinson told Kain she wanted to control her departure and she wanted Kain’s support.

“It needed to happen with her as a mentor and colleague. I’ve known her in so many different situations. When I joined company she was still dancing. I knew I wanted that. We started talking and agreed to set a date. Hodgkinson did though leave room for the possibility she would change her mind and stay on.

As the time approached, she realized she would be dancing some of her favourite ballets in this season such as Marguerite and Armand and Giselle.

“This wasn’t going to get any better.” So, she says, she’s going out on top.

She wanted to do these ballets while she was healthy and able to do them.

“Now I have other opportunities, so I thought it was time. I’m sure it will be emotional and bittersweet, but I take a lot of solace in feeling it’s the right thing at the right time.”

Giselle, which is one of the earliest classic ballets, is a work for which she has always had an affinity.

“I really relate to her. I feel it encompasses everything. It’s a wonderful story with all those themes of love, betrayal and tragedy. Those things are so strong. It’s technically challenging and you have to be such a wonderful actress to do it. In the second act, it’s so ethereal, I just love it.”

Physically, Hodgkinson is in good shape. There are the minor injuries that nag at any one who has danced for 30 years but, she says, “I feel I am still strong, that I can still do things. But recovery not the same now and I can’t push every day as I could when I was 20. I don’t need to, of course, but I know how to pace myself.”

The future beckons but she will not turn to choreography, she says.

“I much prefer to be a muse than a choreographer. I never had a hunger for it. I feel working with Guillaume is collaborative. I’m contributing. I get more joy being the vehicle for realizing a vision.”

The ballet world is small and Hodgkinson knows the players. There are people she wants to work with. “Those feelers are out. It’s hard don’t know how I’ll feel after March. I am a planner but I am trying to be as open as possible to new experiences.

“My kids are still young. I want to do more things with them but I’m not a do nothing stay-at-home person.”

While she returns home to Providence every year, Hodgkinson is a committed Canadian citizen. She’s married to a man from Montreal.

Crypto will tour smaller centres in Quebec along with major centres such as Montreal, Toronto and eventually Ottawa. She says she will be building upon what the National Ballet gave her. “From the very beginning I was doing contemporary and creative work from other choreographers. That had huge impact on my career. I wouldn’t be the dancer I am today without that.

Crypto itself centres around a couple in an unhappy marriage. They are looking outside to fix what’s within. It’s a modern fairy tale. It is kind of dark. They hear about mythical creature they get the creature, perform a weird surgery on it and in the end they destroy the creature and their marriage still isn’t saved.

It is a piece that will raise a lot of disturbing questions.

“The main thing I love about ballet is that you are telling a story. It’s nice to inhabit a character. She’s not me and I have to find a way to bring my experiences to it.

She also like the freedom that a new work can give. “In Swan Lake you follow the story, in Crypto there is room to move around, to follow different paths, to make the ending whatever we want.”

Sounds like a plan.

Share Post
Written by

Peter Robb began his connection with the arts community in Ottawa in the mid-1980s when he was the administrator and public relations director of the Great Canadian Theatre Company. After a long career in journalism with the Ottawa Citizen where he served in a number of different posts he returned to the arts when he became the Citizen's arts editor.