Still Dancing — And Fabulously — After All These Years
BY DEIRDRE KELLY
When a dancer like Aleksandar Antonijević leaps soundlessly through the air with the coil of panther, his powerful thighs beating like eagles’ wings, Balanchine’s fabled declaration that ballet is woman is easily drowned out by all the virile excitement erupting like fireworks up on the stage.
It’s not just that the 6-foot tall, brown-eyed dancer with a smile that could melt butter is devastatingly handsome. Or that the body belonging to this human torpedo with the agility of a tightrope walker rivals that of Michelangelo’s David.
It’s more that at age 43, Antonijević [pronounced Anton-ee-yay-vich] is something of a rarity: a mature artist dancing as fast as he can in a profession where the average age of retirement is 29.
“Ballet is a career measured in dog years,” says the National Ballet of Canada principal dancer who this year is celebrating 20 years with the Toronto-based company.
“I am 43 but in ballet terms I am double that age. Except right now I am dancing the best I have ever danced. I truly feel blessed to have lasted this long.”
Longevity in an art nourished by the suppleness of youth is hardly a given.
Even when endowed, as Antonijević is, with the proper physique (read: elongated torso supported by powerful legs and arms that whisper as they hold hundred pound ballerinas aloft in the sky), a dancer can be felled by injuries or, just as devastatingly, sidelined by a choreographer for whom the God-given physical package is not to his or her liking.
Survival in ballet often has as much to do with luck as with talent as the Serbian-born Antonijević knows only too well.
His life partner of the past 13 years, the Australian-born Geon van der Wyst, had his own dancing career cut prematurely short in 2004, at age 32, after having to undergo three knee surgeries to repair damage caused by performing ballet. Van der Wyst is today a Toronto real-estate agent who found the art-filled house the couple shares with their two dogs.
“It’s traumatic to lose the one thing you love doing most in the world,” Antonijević says. “I admire the grace and strength he showed in transitioning into his next career. It’s not easy.”
By comparison, Antonijevic has enjoyed a long and relatively injury-free career. The only surgery he has ever had, he says, was for a broken ankle sustained during a recent summer vacation in Croatia. Still, he is aware that dancing can’t go on forever and has already started planning for his next role as an art and fashion photographer.
Antonijević’s visually arresting behind-the-scenes portraits of the ballet world he knows so well will be showcased at Berenson Fine Art in Toronto in May as part of the annual Contact festival of photography.
He first entered that rarified world of classical dance at age of 10, and credits his endurance in ballet to the careful and rigorous Russian-based training he received early on in Novi Sad, close to the Serbian town where he was born in 1969, the first of three children whose parents are recently deceased.
The tousle-haired boy had natural-born talent, recalls his first ballet teacher Ksenija Dinjaski.
But he didn’t know what he was doing.
“When he first came to me he had no musculature, I had to re-organize everything,” says the internationally known dance pedagogue of her very own Billy Elliot.
“I could see past the ligaments to the talent,” she continues on a recent visit to Toronto to admire the stellar progress of her prize pupil. “I could see that he would be the greatest dancer we have ever produced, and I was right.”
Today, Antonijević is as much in demand as ever, hand-picked by an impressive line-up of internationally acclaimed ballet choreographers creating or re-staging works for the National Ballet.
They include the American-born director of the Hamburg Ballet, John Neumeier, who has selected Antonijević to dance his acclaimed ballet, Nijinsky at Toronto’s Four Seasons Centre of the performing Arts in March, and the Russian-born Alexei Ratmansky, artist-in-residence at American Ballet Theatre, who personally requested that Antonijević reprise the role of Romeo for performances for his version of Romeo and Juliet which the National Ballet will perform in April in London, England.
Back in Toronto in June, Antonijević is then scheduled to end the season dancing the male lead role of Don José in Davide Bombana’s version of Bizet’s Carmen as well as Nr.24, a world premiere created for him by fellow principal dancer (and burgeoning choreographer) Guillaume Côté.
“It blows my mind that choreographers still want me,” exclaims Antonijević, a dancer for whom age remains a theatrical illusion.
“People come in saying they want young and beautiful dancers and I think I should go to the back of the room. But then they call my name and I can’t believe it. Of course I am very grateful. It’s a gift to continue dancing such challenging works. I won’t quit until my body tells me to.”
Aleksandar Antonijević’s first gallery show, INFORMants, opens on May 2, 2013 at the Berenson Fine Art Gallery, 212 Avenue Road, Toronto. For more information, see Scotiabank CONTACT Photography Festival.