An Interview with Karen Gabay
Prima Ballerina, San Jose Cleveland Ballet
November 4, 1999

By Quelddy Mora

(Photo by Bob Shomler, copyright 1996)



Quelddy Mora: Let's talk about Karen as a little girl. What got you started in ballet? Who is your biggest supporter/fan?
Karen Gabay:
I started when I was eight years old in San Diego, where I was born and raised. All my friends were taking ballet so I joined in as well. In time they all dropped out and I was the only one who persevered! My family has always been supportive. I am the youngest of 5 children, so my older sisters would drive me to ballet all the time. But I would have to say that my mom is probably my biggest fan.

Which teacher inspired you most?
That's a hard question. I began to study under the direction of Maxine Mahon and Marius Zirra at the California Ballet in San Diego. After you train with the same teachers for a long time you become accustomed. But maybe because she was still a dancer, Donna Silva (Joffrey Ballet), really made an impression on me when I was young because she really looked like a ballerina.

It is remarkable for a principal dancer to be at their prime for such a long time. What is the source of your energy? How do you stay away from injuries?
Fortunately my body has adapted very well to the physical demands of ballet. I think I have been rather lucky when it comes to injuries. I am also very conscious about what I can or can't do, and how much stress my knees or my body can take. I take class every day. I watch my diet, and also I don't do drugs or drink. I think knowing my limitations has enabled me to keep going for a long time. The source of my strength is my love of dance; I just really love to dance! The beauty of the music will keep me going even if I feel very tired.

San Jose Cleveland ballet is a multicultural company. What or who is the catalyst to this diversity?
Dance is an international language; there is 'something' about being a dancer that lets you relate to other dancers, no matter their background. You can easily spot a dancer at an airport, for instance, they just 'have that look'. Dennis is definitely the catalyst. He has worked with dancers from all over the world, we have had a strong Latin presence, and lately, the Asian contingency has grown. Dennis knows how to approach all these different dancers and somehow guide them into the same direction.

When you joined SJCB you – and the company – were very young. What kind of relationship have you developed with Dennis Nahat over two decades?
When I joined the company, I was very young and impressionable. Dennis is very demanding, and as a choreographer what he wants, he'll get from you or you'll keep going at it forever! Again, I was so willing to adapt to the ideas that he was trying to project that we developed a great relationship and a very strong bond. Not a father/daughter relationship, but he is more like my mentor, that person I always looked up to. Since then, we have both aged 20 years, and I have always shared his passion and his creative vision. I am very fond of Dennis.

Getting up in the morning and coming to class is almost ritual. Has your approach to daily class changed through the years?
Daily class is something my body craves, I guess because I have been doing it for so long it feels strange if I don't. Through the years, I have acquired a better understanding of technique and sometimes I feel like I wish I had when I was younger! It would have been so much easier! I have learned to better apply many concepts to my daily training and also to be looser and more relaxed

How did you prepare for your first Giselle, Odette and Juliet? Did any particular ballerina influence you?
I read many books written by ballerinas, I relied on pictures and videos. I don't believe any particular dancer influenced me, I took the best of every one of them as complimentary interpretation, I adapted what I thought was best to the way I move.

How did International Competitions benefit you?
International Competitions serve as platforms that allow the dancers to be seen by many different directors. In this sense, they are good. But there is a personality that goes with them. In my case, I was intimidated because everybody looked so good. Definitely how you judge a piece of art personally I don't think does justice to the dancer.

Children look very relaxed when they are performing around you. They really look like they are having the time of their lives.
Part of the rapport with the SJCB School children is that I teach, and I taught that particular group (A Midsummer Night's Dream, 1999) 3 or 4 classes last summer. They used to see me as a teacher, and I believe they enjoyed the fact that I was there on stage and that Dennis could yell at me just like he could to them. It makes all the difference in the world when children are involved, and I am thankful I had the same opportunity to perform when I was still studying. A Midsummer Night's Dream is a great production because of this.

Has there ever been a turning point in your career that could have taken you in a different direction?
Yes, but it was actually at a personal level. My ex-husband is also a dancer with the company, and we were married for 7 years. When we broke off, I wasn't sure if I wanted to continue dancing. I knew it would be difficult to dance together, but we managed to keep a professional relationship.

Tell us a little about Russian Blue. What inspired you to create this piece?
The music was my inspiration. Lev Polyakin, a violinist with the Cleveland Orchestra, had produced a recording with beautiful music from Duke Ellington, John Lennon, Paul McCartney and others. We have been working together for about 3 years, and I think this rendition is great, and very jazzy.

Do you share your passion for ballet with any other activity?
Not really. Ballet is very consuming and my life revolves around it.


Other facts about Ms. Gabay:
- Favorite composer: Debussy
- Favorite dancers: Makarova/Nureyev
- Favorite role: Juliet
- Most demanding role: Odette/Odile
- Favorite color: Red

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Edited by Azlan Ezaddin

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