Birmingham native Catherine Garratt Fothergill and Brazilian Luiza Boaventura may have been born and raised worlds apart, but their shared passion for dance brought them to the Alabama Ballet, where they live parallel lives side by side. This month, the dancers each play the title role of Giselle in the iconic classic romantic ballet. It is a role that every dancer dreams of performing, an honor that even the most accomplished prima ballerina does not take lightly. Today, we are delighted to welcome these two talented, insightful, focused and kind artists, Luiza and Catherine, as our FACES of Birmingham!
What drew you to this career path? Was there an “aha” moment when you knew you wanted to be a professional ballerina?
Catherine: I can remember being that one little ballet student who was frustrated with other kids for not being serious in class. I always put ballet first, and those decisions naturally led forward, so it was something I wanted from the time I recognized it was an option. As I got older, it became less of a dream and more about choices and reality, determining if it would be possible for me and what was worth sacrificing for the possibility.
Luiza: I remember one particular moment when I was still in college, and I was taking an exam to apply for an internship. I was talking to one of my colleagues and mentioning that my dream was to be a dancer. She told me that she didn’t want to suffer through life doing something that she didn’t like and to only be happy one month a year during vacation time. That’s when I realized, “Neither do I — What I am doing here? This is not what I want!” I still graduated from law school, but then I left Brazil to pursue my dance career.
Tell us a bit about your journey from student to professional.
Catherine: I trained at the Alabama Dance Academy and the Alabama Ballet School before moving to Pennsylvania to train at Central Pennsylvania Youth Ballet at the age of 16. I also traveled each summer for different intensive programs to supplement my training, a typical dancer summer. In 2006, I joined the Louisville Ballet as a trainee before accepting an apprenticeship with the Alabama Ballet, where I later received a company contract. I am now in my 10th season with the company!
Luiza: My mom has a dance studio in Brazil, and I basically studied with her my entire life. I remember dragging her to the studio with me during the summer, so she could teach me private classes. It’s very normal in Brazil for the students to go to a dance competition during their vacation and take different classes with a variety of teachers from all over the world. After college, I came to Florida and stayed for three years. It was my first job as a professional ballet dancer. I then came to audition for Alabama Ballet, and I am now in my fourth season with the company.
Describe your typical day.
Catherine: I wake up and have coffee around 8 a.m., before heading to the Alabama Ballet studios around 9 a.m. to warm up and get ready for the day. We take maintenance class from 10 a.m. to 11:45 a.m. and rehearse for our upcoming productions from noon to 5 p.m. I teach each evening after rehearsal until 8 or 9 p.m., and then I finally head home to decompress and prepare for the next day. During productions and performance weekends, we are in the theater all week and weekend, usually heading home around 10 p.m.
Luiza: Yes, I also teach after rehearsal on Mondays and Wednesdays. On days that I do not teach, I go to the gym to workout. I usually take yoga or a Pilates class. If I still have energy, I will do cardio too. It is very important for a dancer to have cross-training to prevent injuries and keep the body strong and flexible.
Why do you love to dance?
Catherine: The ultimate question! I love the music, the grace and power and the storytelling. This is the form of expression where I feel most at home and feel I have something to offer — to explore and communicate human nature and emotion with others, and it’s where I feel the most challenge, reward and inspiration.
Luiza: I have come to realize that everybody has their own place in this life. Mine is to be a dancer. It’s what fulfills me, and it’s part of who I am. Without it I’m anxious and very unhappy.
What are your favorite roles, and why did you love them best?
Catherine: I love roles where you can lose yourself in the moment, explore and express emotion with subtlety and intensity and reach an audiences’ perception and emotional core. Giselle in Giselle, Juliet in Romeo & Juliet and The Accused in Fall River Legend are three perfect examples. Each role evolves over the course of a ballet, takes time to develop and allows for substantial artistic freedom and growth.
Luiza: One of my favorite roles is Kitri in Don Quixote. It was the very first production that I saw in my life when I went to Russia in 1998. I remembered being completely fascinated. That’s another key point in my decision to become a dancer — that’s when I started to dream! Another one that is very important to me is Juliet in Romeo & Juliet — my first lead role! — and such an amazing experience!
Describe the character of Giselle.
Luiza: I think what most defines Giselle is that she has a good heart. I’ve heard a lot of people say, “I can forgive, but not forget.” Well, for me that doesn’t really count. To be able to truly forgive someone who betrayed your trust takes a lot of courage and a lot of love. Giselle goes even further — she not only forgives the man she loves, but also saves him from death. So I would say Giselle is brave, pure and very kind! I have a lot to learn from her.
What makes you excited to play Giselle?
Catherine: Everything! This is one of my favorite ballets. Giselle takes the dancer and audience on a journey, expressing pure joy of dance and life, innocent love and devastation, overwhelming forgiveness and ultimate sacrifice. I love her progression from youthful ignorance to a deeper understanding of life and love. The music and choreography are beautiful and iconic, and there is also a lot of symbolism and meaning behind the movement. The dancer has a responsibility to maintain the integrity of the character, to learn from those who have performed and interpreted Giselle before and to find a connection to Giselle’s story through your own experiences to make the acting realistic and the story fluid, thus allowing the ballet to fulfill its true impact on its viewers.
Luiza: Giselle is such a deep character and you can approach it in so many different ways that I feel it’s going be one of the biggest challenges in my artistic career. At the end of Act 1, we have the famous “mad scene,” where Giselle finds out that the man she loves has been pretending to be a different person and is engaged to another woman. That is the scene I look forward to the most. It’s very intense and also sets the mood for the second act.
What is most challenging about your job?
Catherine: The challenges dancers face are always shifting. They can be mental, physical, financial or any combination. I am constantly reminding myself that this career does not last forever and these experiences cannot be relived. Tackling a role like Giselle for the first time is an extremely memorable process for me, and I find it difficult to know that in a few short weeks we will be moving on to something new!
Luiza: Overcoming my own limits that I thought weren’t possible. It takes time; it is a very slow process. In my case, it took more than 10 years, but it’s really rewarding when you see yourself changing with the hard work that you put in every day.
Catherine: One of my favorite performances was a show with a very small audience, but one where I got to hear from an audience member about the joy our performance brought him.
If you could go back 10 years, what advice would you give yourself?
Catherine: Don’t sweat the small stuff. Trust your instincts. Give 200%. Spend more time with family and investing in close friendships, because you will appreciate them more each year that passes.
Luiza: Ten years ago was when I decided to stop dancing. I would say to myself: Don’t give up on your dream, even if it looks impossible. There’s a place for everyone, and you will find yours.
Do you have a mentor or role model, and if so, why do you admire them or what have they taught you?
Luiza: My sister is the most important person in my life. She inspires and motivates me. She is a true artist with great talent and a good heart. She finished her masters in St. Petersburg, Russia. She is now doing her doctorate degree in one of the best music colleges in Brazil. Without her I wouldn’t be in America. She was the one who said, “Do you want to be a dancer? Come here, I know what you need to do!” We spent the whole day online, searching and sending emails to a lot of ballet companies.
Catherine: My husband and dancing partner, Michael. He is my sounding board, my encyclopedia and my support. He inspires me with his knowledge and creativity. He taught me to love and to believe in myself, and he reminds me to be a better person and wife.
What do you do when you’re not working?
Luiza: I like to spend time with my husband, who recently retired from his dancing career, so now we are not together all the time like before. We usually go out to dinner or to the movie theater. My favorite thing is when there’s a good soccer game to watch. I love watching soccer games with him.
Favorite thing to do on a Saturday night?
Catherine: Maybe a relaxing night at home or seeing family and friends, reading a good book, having a date night with my husband or getting out around Birmingham — but definitely anything stress-free!
What is your best piece of advice?
Catherine: Take the time to discover what is truly at your core, what is important to you. Give and share what you love with the world and be gracious.
Luiza: I really think that if you can’t find the good in people, you cannot find the good in yourself, so look to others with kind eyes. There’s a million different angles to the same situation. Try to look from a good angle. It might sound silly, but it’s an extremely hard thing to do, especially in my profession where we are trained to find what is wrong or to find the mistakes. I work on that everyday.
Name three frivolous or lighthearted things you can’t live without.
Catherine: Coffee with cream, sweet treats and Clarins face cream
Luiza: Since coming to America, I’ve been introduced to peanut butter and coffee with different flavors! Can’t live without it now! I also need a lot of Epsom salt.
Thank you, Catherine and Luiza! To learn more about the Alabama Ballet, visit alabamaballet.org. The Alabama Ballet performs Giselle February 17 – 19, 2017, at the Samford Arts Wright Center. To purchase tickets, visit alabamaballet.org/giselle.
Thank you to Eric and Jamie Gay of Eric & Jamie Photography for the fabulous photos of Catherine and Luiza at the Alabama Ballet studios.