Sven Toorvald’s life and his PBS documentary, The Ballerina Interviews, give an interesting behind-the-scenes look at the ballet world. Filmmaking is Sven’s passion. First and foremost, however, Sven is a danseur.
Ballet “mesmerized” Sven at age fifteen. He signed up for classes at a local studio after seeing the film, The Turning Point starring Mikhail Baryshnikov. (The former pride and principal dancer of the Kirov Ballet who defected to the USA in 1974.) The pretty girls in Sven’s class “helped” to foster his fascination with ballet. But more than gorgeous girls in leotards, Sven treasured the athleticism of ballet.
For example, he enjoyed the thrill of performing the various kinds of high-flying leaps found in ballet. (Balanchine protégé, Edward Villella’s penchant for jumping a la Peter Pan also thrust him into a love affair with ballet.)
In addition to the athleticism, Sven delighted in the art of the dance. He decided to train full-time. As a result, the danseur auditioned for and won scholarships for schooling at topnotch dance studios in LA. Sven’s philosophy is that, “You can have anything you want if you’re willing to work for it.” He lifts one eyebrow and states, “But you’ve got to be willing to work for it.”
And he did! As a scholarship student at the Stanley Holden Studio, before beginning the strenuous exercise routines at the barre, Sven was required to clean the lavatories. Then, from morning to midafternoon, Sven learned to spin, jump and lift ballerinas.
At the Roland Dupree Dance Studio, he acquired additional ballet agility and strengthened his jazz and modern dance skills. Sven kept similar scholarship hours. (But no toilet cleaning!) He adds, “A lot of scholarship students work the front desk. Some scholarships are partial – you pay to take classes.” Sven smiles, “Of course, you still have to audition to get in.”
To increase the chances of winning scholarships, Sven’s suggestion is to “Always advance your level. Put your best ballet foot forward.” (For higher jumps, he advises, “Squeeze and engage the gluteus maximus – or minimus!”)
Scholarship or not, students who are serious about careers as professional ballerinas and danseurs feel the pressure of perfecting their ballet proficiency. All the dancers in Sven’s documentary declare that competition is severe. The ladies agreed that out of one hundred ballet students, only two or three make the cut into a professional company.
Perhaps that explains The Ballerina Interviews’ 15-year-old Cathy Seither’s sacrifice of a high school social life. (Homework is squeezed in at lunch.) “I’m dancing seven days a week,” says Cathy. “Ballet is not like sports. You have to be focused. You can’t throw yourself everywhere And you have to make it look effortless!”
Sven was fortunate. Spotting his talent, an older ballerina at Roland Dupree’s recommended the young danseur for an apprenticeship at the Houston Ballet. Sven was accepted without an audition. One year later, Sven was admitted as a paid professional into the company’s corps de ballet.
At the Houston Ballet, Sven had the honor of learning the steps for ballet classics (such as Cinderella, Sleeping Beauty and Swan Lake) from celebrated choreographer/danseur, Ben Stevenson. (The renowned Sadler’s Wells Royal Ballet danseur and recipient of the Royal Academy of Ballet’s Adeline Genee Gold Medal.)
Sven also went on to dance with other ballet legends like Valentina Kozlova. (A big box-office draw at the Bolshoi Ballet. She defected from Russia to America in 1979 and joined the New York City Ballet as a principal dancer.) Sven danced and toured with her in The Daring Project.
Sven confesses that ballerinas have a tougher time than danseurs in the ballet world. There are always more ladies clamoring for positions in professional companies. Plus, once ballerinas are accepted into a prestigious company, they still have to exert tremendous effort to be considered for starring roles.
Former New York City Ballet principal dancer, Judith Fugate was picked to do a pas de deux with Mikhail Baryshnikov. However, she suffered from injuries. In The Ballerina Interviews, Judith confesses, “I danced on torn Achilles and tendons for a year.” Ballerinas “can’t go on stage with knee pads!” (In his research at the University of Washington, Professor Ronald Smith found that injuries were as frequent and damaging for ballet dancers as football players.)
Besides the strained muscles and stress of competition, ballerinas struggle with weight problems. In Sven’s documentary, former New York City Ballet principal dancer, Jenifer Ringer confesses that despite her star status, “I was taken off stage due to weight problems It was difficult to want to dance but being kept off stage.” (When the frozen yogurt loving Bolshoi prima ballerina, Anastasia Volochkova was fired for excess weight, she sued. Anastasia won the case.)
Slim Sven who declines sweets and dines by six each evening is sure to circumvent such weighty situations. But will he leave the stage and ballet behind if he wins an Emmy or Oscar for The Ballerina Interviews? With an impish grin, Sven answers, “I’ll always keep teaching and dancing for fun!”
Currently, Sven may be dancing at a movie theatre near you in Disney’s Haunted Mansion. (Or you can catch him on DVD in Woody Allen’s Mighty Aphrodite.) He teaches at the Westside Academy of Dance in Santa Monica, California.
Copies of the danseur/filmmaker’s Ballerina Interviews can be obtained by calling Sven at the school at 310-828-2018.
Sven Toorvald and Martine Harley photographed in The Nutcracker by photographer Steve Mason.
Kim Knode © February 4, 2004
Kim Knode’s interview articles focusing on artists, celebrities and dance champions have been published in various print and on-line publications.