Heather Ogden is trying very, very hard to remember the first ballet she ever danced in.
“I think it was The Wizard of Oz?” she says, more of a question than a statement. She would have been six or seven, a long way to go before becoming a principal dancer at The National Ballet of Canada. She is able to recall her part in that debut show much more easily. “I was a little blue bird,” she says. “I had these blue feathers all over my head.”
Ogden, 36, is soft spoken and unassuming in person. We meet on a warm May afternoon at the The Walter Carsen Centre for The National Ballet of Canada near Toronto’s waterfront, where she spent the morning rehearsing for an upcoming production of Swan Lake. She curls up in a chair, one legwarmer-clad ankle dangling over the edge, and talks in a quiet voice. Her blonde hair is, of course, pulled back into a tight bun. Were I to base my impressions of Ogden solely on this interaction, I might mistake her for delicate.
To truly understand what a force she is, one must see her perform. As I watch her onstage a few weeks later at the premiere of Swan Lake, she is a completely different person than the introvert I met earlier. She bursts on the scene midway through the first act with an elegant but powerful bang, playing Odette, the Swan Queen who will enchant the previously apathetic Prince Siegfried (played by Ogden’s real-life husband Guillaume Côté).
In the line for the washroom during intermission, two young women in front of me are in rapt conversation. “Can you believe this is Heather’s first performance since having her second baby?” one says to the other, with a gusto I had previously only heard reserved for rock stars.
When we return to our seats for the second act, Ogden has transformed again, this time into the mischievous and beguiling Black Swan, Odile. Her arms are liquid while her feet move as quickly and precise as bullets. At the end of the performance, when Ogden and Côté come out to take their bows, the audience is on their feet for a rapturous standing ovation that lasts minutes. We have all fallen under the Swan Queen’s spell.
Ogden was born in Toronto on Christmas Eve, 1980. At the age of six, her father, a pilot for Transport Canada, was transferred to Richmond, B.C., and the rest of the family went with him.
There, Ogden had a babysitter whom she idolized. “I wanted to be just like her,” she remembers. The babysitter studied ballet at the Richmond Academy of Dance and was performing the role of the Fairy Godmother in a production of Cinderella. Ogden went to see the show with her mother and was immediately hooked. She started taking ballet lessons right away.
“She would never stop until she got the movement right,” says Richmond Academy co-founder Annette Jakubowski, who worked closely with Ogden for more than a decade. She remembers Ogden as being dedicated and intense, constantly striving for perfection in an art where perfect is nearly impossible. “I would say to my [husband and business partner, Jozef Jakubowski], ‘I need padding put up on the corners of the room because I have this girl who just charges across the diagonal. She won’t stop until she literally hits the wall because she’s trying to get it so right.’”
Ogden also played organized sports growing up, but by the time she was in the tenth grade, it was clear that ballet was her primary passion. She would attend classes at Steveston Secondary School in the morning and then train at the academy in the afternoon, getting school credits for art and physical education in return.
Working with The National Ballet of Canada became Ogden’s ultimate goal. She was drawn to the ambitious productions, and would attend shows whenever tours came to Vancouver. “This was the number one company for me,” she says. “I idolized Karen Kain and Veronica Tennant and Evelyn Hart.” She auditioned for the company at the age of 17 and moved to Toronto after graduating high school to join the corps de ballet.
“She could be the principal dancer of any major company in the world,” Jakubowski says over the phone. “I find with a lot of Canada’s best choreographers, dancers, actors, musicians—we lose them because there’s not enough opportunity in Canada for one reason or another. But Canada is taking care of Heather. She’s home.”
This fall, Ogden is rehearsing for the female lead in two ballets. First is Hermione in The Winter’s Tale, Christopher Wheeldon’s interpretation of the Shakespeare play. “It’s an amazing role to play,” she says of Hermione, a character who is accused of being unfaithful by her husband and undergoes indescribable trauma. “She’s a strong woman and a strong character, and I felt I really related, because a lot of it is about her as a mother.”
Hermione was the first role Ogden played after giving birth to her first child, Emma. She revisited the role last year at the Lincoln Centre while three months pregnant with her second child, Leo. Ogden had avoided dancing completely during her first pregnancy, but felt comfortable enough the second time around to perform, at five months pregnant, at an installation at the Art Gallery of Ontario called The Dreamers Ever Leave You, choreographed by Robert Binet. “It was nice to be able to dance throughout,” she says of her second pregnancy. “I feel like myself when I’m dancing.”
Ogden is also rehearsing for the role of Romola in John Neumeier’s Nijinsky, once again opposite her husband. “Her perfectionism still amazes me,” says Côté, who met Ogden when they were teenagers starting out at the company. “It challenges me to become better in my own work. I love to watch her every move, on and off stage. Her work is intelligent and sincerely beautiful.”
The career of a dancer might be all encompassing, but it is not a long one, even for the strongest. Ogden is aware that she is approaching the standard age of retirement for a ballerina. “If you can dance when you’re 40, you’re lucky,” she says. “If you can go longer than that, it’s pretty exceptional.” If she has any anxieties about her future, though, she doesn’t show them. Many professional dancers eventually teach, which Ogden did a bit of herself during her pregnancies—but she also has her sights set on academia. “I’m interested in human biology,” she says. She has taken a few night classes in different subjects through Toronto’s Ryerson University, but it is medicine that intrigues her the most.
Still, Ogden does not intend on quitting her dance career anytime soon. When I ask her what ballets she still dreams of performing in, she rattles off a long list of names: Manon, Lady of the Camellias, Giselle. There are still choreographers she’d like to collaborate with, or collaborate with again. “I’m more than halfway through my career, so I’m just more aware to enjoy the moment,” she says. “I feel like it’s a good attribute to be a perfectionist, but I’m lightening up a bit. I haven’t lost that drive, but I just really want to soak it up. I want to be able to enjoy every minute.”
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