Arts·Swan Song

Jurgita Dronina spent 3 years filming for Swan Song — but her own ballet story goes back decades

The lifelong dancer reflects on her journey from Lithuania's premiere ballet academy to becoming principal dancer for the National Ballet of Canada.

The dancer reflects on her journey from Lithuania's premiere ballet academy to the National Ballet of Canada

Jurgita Dronina backstage, in her black swan ballet costume, doing stretches.
(Swan Song)

When Jurgita Dronina was approached by filmmakers Chelsea McMullan and Sean O'Neill with the idea of making a documentary about the National Ballet of Canada's production of Swan Lake, she had one stipulation.

"I told them, 'We have to have an understanding and an agreement that this will be true. And real. Not another cliché. Otherwise, I don't want to do it,'" recalls Dronina, 37, a principal dancer with the company, in a Zoom interview.

The trio were sitting outside on Dronina's balcony during the pandemic, she remembers, and she was five months pregnant with her second child. It was a strange start to what would end up becoming a three-year journey — one that would chronicle celebrated dancer-turned-artistic-director Karen Kain's last year with the National Ballet of Canada and her debut as a director. 

The resulting four-part documentary series, Swan Song, depicts the behind-the-scenes chaos that often precedes a monumental production. And with one of the biggest opening nights in the National Ballet's seven-decades-long history at stake, the pressure was high.. The show follows Kain, Dronina and a diverse group of dancers from the rehearsal room to centre stage, taking pauses in between to capture intimate moments at home or in the dressing room. 

"I didn't know where it would go, really. I just embraced the journey," says Dronina. During filming, the crew became an almost daily presence. "You know, they [would] just be there. They did not even bother us, like with cameras and mics or interviews. It just became such a daily routine. That's [why] you, the audience, truly could see — really see. It's not staged. It's spontaneous, off guard."

A ballerina with her arms over her head and she's wearing a black swan ballet costume.
(Photo by Christopher Sherman/Swan Song)

A highly sought-after international artist, Dronina was born in Saratov, a Russian territory in the former Soviet Union. In the lead-up to the fall of the communist state, Dronina's family fled to Lithuania, where her mother's family lived. Her mother packed their bags overnight, and Dronina, her mother and older sister boarded a train. She was four at the time.

In the docu-series, Dronina recounts this early chapter of her life with equanimous poise. There's almost a matter-of-fact quality to the way she describes how this turbulent period affected her father, and the devastating aftermath on her family. Ballet offered an escape and a refuge that offered more than just room and board.

Students at her school in Lithuania were picked at a young age to study ballet, Dronina explains. An instructor from the National M. K. Čiurlionis School of Art in Vilnius, Lithuania, came to her school and saw potential in her as she performed some basic steps and acting exercises in a dance class. She was offered a chance to audition for Lithuania's premiere ballet academy and got in. 

Given the distance between the new school and her home, it made sense for her to live in the school dorms of the institution that went from Grades 5 through 12 (plus an extra year to earn the professional designation of ballet artist). 

"That's how I started living, [starting] from Grade 5 — alone. With other students. It's a building of five storeys, and [on] each floor there were either musicians or singers or artists," says Dronina. "It wasn't only ballet. We were surrounded by other kids who had the same determination, the same drive, to study at that school. That was super fun and very inspiring. I just felt like I was in my own world. I've always felt I belong[ed] there."

Clearly, Dronina also belonged on the ballet stage, as is evident in a recording of an early performance that is included in the docu-series. In it, a teenage Dronina, in a black costume, dances a modern ballet choreography. The performance is riveting. The video shows attendees bursting into rapturous applause. There's a naif charm to Dronina's toothy grin as she chews gum while answering an interviewer's questions. 

"That was my first international appearance … an international festival in Tbilisi, Georgia. It was the first time I left Lithuania," says Dronina, smiling as she watches her younger self onstage. The piece was special, she explains, because it was created by the same instructor who had first spotted her potential. The teacher wanted to choreograph a solo that was different from the usual repertoire, such as Sleeping Beauty

Once she finished dancing, the audience clapped so long that she had to do an encore. "I did not expect this. I didn't understand why I [was] being [fêted]. I just went and danced.… Now, I understand how everything was so aligned. I just work hard, dance and train, and grab every opportunity that comes my way."

Swan Song series trailer

5 months ago
Duration 2:08
Swan Song is an immersive new CBC documentary series that brings viewers inside The National Ballet of Canada as the company mounts a legacy-defining new production of Swan Lake, directed by ballet icon Karen Kain as she bids farewell to the company she’s become synonymous with.

Those opportunities have included dancing with the Royal Swedish Ballet, the Dutch National Ballet and as a guest principal dancer with the Hong Kong Ballet. In 2015, Dronina joined the National Ballet of Canada as a principal dancer. She was a new mother based out of Amsterdam at the time and was thinking about her family's future. She was keen on working with a mentor who could be inspiring. Since her husband was originally from Montreal, and given Kain's prominence among her peers in the ballet world, Dronina reached out to Kain. 

"When you think of Karen Kain, especially for female dancers — the work-life balance, that's what she is supporting. I was very clear when we met as well. I have a child; my oldest child was two-and-a-half back then. The reaction that I sought from her, [I got]. The respect, the support towards being a ballerina and having a family. It just felt like, yes, this is the place. I can have children here. I can continue dancing. And have this incredible leader-mentor as my boss, who will guide me for the rest of my career."

Swan Song highlights the collaboration between Kain and Dronina as the National Ballet of Canada remounts the Tchaikovsky classic. After the production was shut down for two years during the pandemic, cameras captured the scramble to put on the grand show in June 2022 — including a creative tussle between Kain, a celebrated ballerina and national figure, and Dronina, an international star. Given the edited nature of a documentary, the series might suggest a more heightened sense of drama than was actually present, says Dronina. 

The disagreements are part of a fruitful process. Questioning choices on movement, musicality or placement on the stage all are part of creating together. 

"We would spend hours like that, you know," she explains further. "It was a very honest, open and creative atmosphere for us. Of course, if you take three months of context into three seconds — I've gotten questions like, why are you arguing? I'm like, 'No. We were discussing and finding a solution of why and how to do things.' We find the best version. Otherwise, I would do what I have done [before] in nine versions of it.

"There's always drama. But that's normal. That's in anything new you risk."

Working on the production with Kain was a unique experience, Dronina adds. As a guest artist, you come in and learn the version that the company is putting on. In this instance, working for her own ballet company, she got a chance to take part in an endeavour to strip apart and reconstruct what is widely considered the ultimate classical ballet.

"That experience is so rare because it's such a big undertaking. Swan Lake. It's the epitome of ballets. So Karen's bravery to tackle Swan Lake as a first [directorial venture] and for me to be trusted to deliver this. It's a product of love," she says. "It's a gift that happens once in a lifetime. Plus working on that with Karen, it was magical every day."

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Aparita Bhandari is an arts and life reporter in Toronto. She has been published in Canadian media including CBC, the Toronto Star, The Globe and Mail and Walrus magazine. Her areas of interest and expertise lie in the intersections of gender, culture and ethnicity. She is the producer and co-host of the Hindi language podcast, KhabardaarPodcast.com.

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