How Davit Karapetyan landed at the San Francisco Ballet as a principal dancer is an unusual story. Watching him it is immediately obvious that he is also unusually gifted. He is at once powerful and subtle, aggressive yet humble. He seems pensive, absorbed in deep aesthetic and emotional concerns. His raven black hair and onyx eyes contribute to his mystery. Some dancers let the audience know, in understated ways, that they are impressed with themselves. An ironic smile, a conspiratorial glance. This is not Davit's approach. On stage he can appear almost aloof but it is his reserve that draws you in. You lean forward and blink wondering if you really just saw him do that. With a calm assured confidence he performs one blazing feat of technical brilliance after another. Always exploring and pushing himself to fully embody his roles and express the nuances of his characters, he uses every moment on stage as an opportunity to grow as an artist.
When I recently met him, for the first time, I was expecting the same serious persona I have witnessed from the audience at the Opera House. Instead he is light and playful. He laughs easily, his eyes sparkle with fun and optimism, and he bursts with energy and enthusiasm. He does, of course, have a serious side especially when he speaks of about his journey to one of the pinnacles of American ballet.
He didn't want to be a dancer. Everyone else in his Armenian family, both parents and his older sister, devoted their life to either folk dance, ballet or both. So when it was time for him to audition for his place in the school, he faked awkwardness. He purposefully flubbed the audition so that he could continue to devote himself to sports. He excelled at soccer, Tai Kwan Do and diving. His parents were disappointed but they knew they couldn't force him. So they waited.
When he was 13 years-old he stopped by the studio and saw what the boys could do. Seeing them fly through the air inspired him. He wanted to do what they were doing and he suspected he could. So he asked for another audition and this time he showed them what he could really do. It turned out that he actually loved to dance and because of his family legacy and his skills as an athlete, they decided to take a chance on him. Instead of placing him in the beginning class with children much younger, they put him in class with students his age who had been studying for five or six years. He had a lot of catching up to do but he was determined.
Davit Karapetyan in Robbins' Fancy Free
Supremely confident in his own abilities, he set his sights on not only catching up to the others but excelling. The hardest part was learning the combinations. The others picked them up so fast! He could do any of the individual steps but putting them together in those endless variations felt impossible. He watched videos of the great Russian dancers and he worked until he not only caught up to the others, he flew to the top of the class.
At age 15, having only danced for two years, he packed that confidence in his dance bag and entered his first competition near his hometown of Yerevan, Armenia. At his school the students learned not only ballet but also modern dance. So he took three pieces to the competition: a contemporary piece using a chair and variations from both Sleeping Beauty and Swan Lake. The chair piece became his signature, especially after he brought home a gold medal. For his work in the classical variations he was given a special award for having achieved so much in such a short time.
He returned to school and continued his studies -- dance class until mid-afternoon and then academics. He mastered all of the usual subjects as well as a respectable command of Russian, French and German. Later he would wish that he had learned English, what he now calls "the international language of ballet."
After another two years passed and he was age 17 he and four of his buddies entered the International Ballet Competition in St. Petersburg. It was scary. The dancers whom he had so carefully studied on video were there right in the studio. They could do anything and Davit had had only basic training. He had to try not to be distracted. He had to try to relax. He and his four friends banded together, critiquing one another and creating their own small world within this daunting one.
The first test was class. The jury sat in hard chairs lined up across the front of the studio watching their every move. He told himself to try to enjoy it. Don't look at them. Just dance.
He was chosen to continue with the elite among them to the second round. In the process he even made some friends. One of them now dances with the Kirov and he recently saw him dance Sleeping Beauty in Berkeley.
For the second round he danced his favorite piece, the Giselle variation, and the pas de trois from Swan Lake. Although he wasn't asked to continue to the third round of the competition he felt that he had accomplished enough.
Once back at home he sent letters and video tapes to three of the most important schools in Europe: Zurich, Paris Opera and the Royal Ballet. He soon learned that his application was too late for the Royal to consider it. Paris declined. Zurich enthusiastically accepted him on scholarship.
On October 16, 1998, at the age of 17, his parents kissed him goodbye.
He loved Zurich. It was like living in a cartoon. Everything was small, and sweet, and not only that, one of his Armenian buddies was already in the company and several others had been accepted into the school. He was away from home but settled comfortably into his faraway home as well. Beyond the rigors of professional ballet training, there was one enormous challenge: they spoke English at the school.
He learned it by ear. He was determined to speak English regardless of making mistakes. He had to and he would learn this language. After all he had acquitted himself at the competition in St. Petersburg; how hard could this language be?
Three months later he entered another competition, this time in Lausanne. It is a competition intended to support the continued studies or apprenticeship of the most promising European dancers. He and a few of his Armenian friends entered the competition. Davit was happy to be able to translate some of the instructions, given in English, for his friends from home. The competition demands solo performances, both contemporary and classical, from each of the dancers. Davit felt more mature after his experience in St. Petersburg. He easily passed the first round and was not so intimidated by the close observation of the jury. He had gained valuable experience at the previous competitions and he knew to expect this scrutiny. In the second round he danced his favorite variation from Giselle and a contemporary piece. They asked him to return for the third round and eventually awarded him one of the most coveted prizes. He called his parents to tell them the great news. Now he was sure. He would have a career as a ballet dancer.
Growing up surrounded by dancers he had taken the art form and the lifestyle for granted. It seemed normal, even banal. As the awards began to mount and a serious career seemed possible, he realized that in fact he was trying to live up to his parents' dream for him. At the age of 32 his father had suffered a serious back injury that brought his ballet career to an abrupt end. Davit was not yet born when it happened but it would become a defining event in his life. He wanted to continue on where his father had left off.
After his success in Lausanne, offers from major companies rolled in. He could have gone to Boston Ballet, American Ballet Theatre or the Royal Ballet but he decided to stay in Zurich. He joined the corps but was soon promoted to demi-soloist. He liked it there, he was comfortable, and he had a posse of six Armenian friends. And, of course, the company offered a varied and challenging repertoire along with opportunities to travel the world. Davit's parents had only to travel four hours to come and see him perform. It was a good life.
However, after seven years in Zurich he craved something new. Although he had traveled with the company throughout Africa, Asia and Europe, he had yet to see the United States. He decided to make a break. He would fly to California and start auditioning for companies. San Francisco, Houston, Miami, and then New York. His parents had toured the United States when he was a child and he had held onto the images that he'd seen in the magazines they brought home. Deep inside he had held a dream of dancing with one of the major American companies. He told himself that if he couldn't get a job in the U.S. he'd return to Zurich. Why not give it a try?
In the summer of 2005 he landed in San Francisco and called the San Francisco Ballet. He'd sent them a video tape of his dancing but they had expressed concern about his height. He's not quite six feet tall and San Francisco Ballet has a few females who are nearly that tall before going en pointe. Still they invited him to take company class. Artistic Director Helgi Tomasson watched that day as recently retired principal dancer Joanna Berman taught. After class Tomasson asked him how long he'd be in town and encouraged him to come back to class every day. On the fourth day Tomasson asked him into his office and offered him a contract as a principal dancer.
So much for Houston, Miami and New York.
Returning to Zurich to pack his things he wondered what he was doing. Leaving Europe, his friends and family, everything he had known became daunting. He had only a month to pack up and say goodbye to everyone and everything. Fortunately he already knew three of the dancers in San Francisco. Nicolas Blanc had danced in Zurich for three years and he had met both Clara Blanco and Hayley Farr at competitions. He crossed his fingers and crossed the Atlantic.
Lorena Feijoo and Davit Karapetyan in Swan Lake
His first performance of the 2006 season was as Siegfried in Swan Lake with the astonishing Cuban firebrand Lorena Feijoo as Odette/Odile. He had never danced the full length version, only the solo variations which he loved. Though the results were breathtaking (see Renate Stendhal's review in the March 2006 issue of Scene4), rehearsals were tough. Lorena's experience and uncompromising commitment to expressing deep meaning in every movement and gesture meant long hours of arduous rehearsal.
He loves the variety of the San Francisco Ballet repertoire. As much as he loves contemporary works, he also appreciates every opportunity to dance the great classical roles such as those in Swan Lake, Giselle and Don Quixote. San Francisco also offers him the chance to shine in works by George Balanchine. This year he performed both Divertimento No. 15, one of his least favorite, and Symphony in C, one of his most favorite, with technical precision and sure confidence. He is a powerful, muscular dancer yet his lines are always graceful and picture perfect.
His first two seasons in San Francisco have created quite a stir. It is rare to see an artist of his caliber burst onto the stage fully formed. His power and technical mastery are reminiscent of the great Russian dancers Mikhail Baryshnikov and Rudolf Nureyev. As much as he admires both of them, and especially Nureyev for revolutionizing the art form in the West, he is committed to developing himself as a fully unique and original artist.
In addition to constantly developing his skill and artistry as a performer he also enjoys creating his own works of choreography. An Armenian friend performed one of his original works at the Varna Competition and won a gold medal. His growth as an artist is his obsession. While exploring the depth of his characters and honing his skills as a performer he also looks forward to having more opportunities to create his own work.
Next year San Francisco Ballet will celebrate its 75th anniversary by commissioning ten world premieres by artists including Mark Morris, Julia Adam and James Kudelka. Davit will undoubtedly be featured in at least several of the new works as well as roles in works by Jerome Robbins, George Balanchine and Helgi Tomasson.
Having just finished the 2007 season, as much as he is looking forward to next season's feast of creativity, he is mostly looking forward to a good rest. Being a principal dancer with San Francisco Ballet is grueling. He rehearses one or more pieces for up to six hours a day and then performs a different piece at night. This year several dancers became injured so those who remained healthy had to take over their roles. Staying healthy requires constant vigilance and discipline which he takes very seriously. He has a simple strategy of eating well, getting plenty of rest and regular bodywork, and taking class every day.
Davit Karapetyan in Tomasson/Possokhov's Don Quixote
Naturally because of his cheerful and charming personality and his dedication to an unwavering work ethic, he has made a lot of close friends at the San Francisco Ballet. In fact, he is living happily with principal dancer Vanessa Zahorian. The rigors of company life make socializing very difficult so finding companionship or even better, love, with a fellow dancer is especially appealing. At least they understand the tremendous demands on time, body and spirit that each are enduring.
A recent Saturday night illustrates the high-pressure lifestyle. It was the last night of the regular season and everyone was exhausted. Davit and Vanessa had danced their critically acclaimed Don Quixote the night before and they were scheduled to dance it again on Sunday before jumping back into rehearsals on Monday for a tour in Iceland. Gonzalo Garcia had announced that he would leave the company and he was to dance his final performance as Basilio with Tina LeBlanc's Kitri. At the end of Act I Tina tore a crucial ligament in her knee and had to be carried from the stage. As the curtain dropped the artistic staff called another principal couple, who happen to be married, Molly Smolen and Tiit Helimits. They were enjoying a pre-dinner cocktail at a restaurant nearby and had to pay the check and dash to the theatre to perform Act II. So that Gonzalo could take a final bow, and because he had not rehearsed the role with Molly, a call was placed to Davit and Vanessa's apartment. Vanessa had just finished eating a plate of home cooked pasta and was falling into a well deserved carbohydrate-induced coma. In a sleepy voice she answered the phone. At that moment Davit walked in after a long day of physical therapy. He rushed back out again, retrieved the car from its North Beach garage, and drove Vanessa to the Opera House as she applied her make-up en route. She ran into the theatre, warmed up as well as should could, and flew onto the stage as if it had all been planned. At curtain time she bowed with Gonzalo, Tiit and Molly took their bows, and Gonzalo carried Tina out for her final applause. Davit watched it all from backstage feeling grateful that he hadn't been called to join the cast.
The end of the ballet season is always sad for the audience. As the dancers work behind the scenes learning new choreography, the audience waits from May until January when the curtain finally goes up on the new season. Until then . . .
Cover Photo - Davit Karapetyan in Fifth Season
All Photos @ Erik Tomasson