An interview with Carla Körbes, who will retire from Pacific Northwest Ballet at the end of this season.

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When Pacific Northwest Ballet’s Carla Körbes was 11, growing up in a small town in Brazil, she and her mother drove to the city of Porto Alegre to see a production of “Swan Lake,” presented by the local ballet academy. “I saw them dance, and I was in love,” Körbes, now a Pacific Northwest Ballet (PNB) principal dancer, recalled softly, repeating the words. “I was in love.”

PNB principal dancer Carla Korbes. (Photo by Patrick Fraser)
PNB principal dancer Carla Korbes. (Photo by Patrick Fraser)

From that performance on, her life changed. Körbes asked her mother if she could attend that school, rather than the ballet classes she was taking in her hometown. “She wasn’t pleased, because it was far away,” remembered Körbes. “She couldn’t drive me every day, so I took the bus, three buses, to get to ballet class.” Within a few years, Körbes was studying at New York’s legendary School of American Ballet. She joined New York City Ballet (NYCB) as an apprentice in 1999; six years later, she arrived at PNB, where she has been a principal since 2006.

Ballet preview

‘Swan Lake’

April 10-19, Pacific Northwest Ballet, McCaw Hall, 321 Mercer St., Seattle; $30-$189 (pnb.org or 206-441-2424). Carla Körbes is scheduled to perform at 7:30 p.m. April 10, 1 p.m. April 12 and 1 p.m. April 18 (subject to change; call for updates). Tickets are also on sale for “Season Encore,” a tribute to Körbes at which she will perform, on June 7.

In 10 seasons at PNB, Körbes has established herself as that rarity: a dancer truly capable of creating magic onstage. Though a marvelously skilled technician with beautiful lines and delicate grace, Körbes shines as a storyteller, a dramatic presence who loses herself in a character — and invites us to lose ourselves with her. We believe that she is a swan, a ghost (“Giselle”), a young lover (“Roméo et Juliette”), an innocent young girl (“Cinderella”) — and marvel at how, every time, she seems to be dancing a role anew, perpetually dazzled by the joy of movement.

But that magic will soon come to an end: Körbes, now 33, will retire after this season; an early end to a career that’s been marked by too-frequent injury. (If lucky, a ballerina’s career can last into her 40s; such as that of PNB’s Louise Nadeau or Kaori Nakamura.)

“It’s time,” Körbes said, chatting in a PNB conference room earlier this spring, accompanied by her tiny dog Bella. Once she realized that “most of the time I’m hurting, and that might prevent me from dancing 120 percent,” Körbes said, she knew the decision was made. “I’m not OK dancing 90 percent,” she said.

“Swan Lake,” so instrumental in Körbes’ decision to be a dancer, will be one of her last PNB appearances. Though she’ll dance in the company’s final repertory program this season (“Carmina Burana” and “Concerto DSCH,” May 29-June 7), and will make her PNB farewell in a “Season Encore” tribute evening on June 7, the dual role of Odette/Odile will be her classical farewell. Odette is a woman trapped in the body of a white swan, her arms perpetually undulating in birdlike movement; Odile, her nemesis, disguises as Odette and dances a fiery pas de deux at a ball — containing the famous, and fiendish, 32 fouetté turns.

PNB principal dancer Carla Korbes in “Diamonds” (Photo by Angela Sterling)
PNB principal dancer Carla Korbes in “Diamonds” (Photo by Angela Sterling)

It is, said Körbes, not quite the most difficult role in her repertoire. (She finds “Don Q,” with all its jumping, harder.) “ ‘Swan Lake,’ for me, has a better progression,” she said. “But it’s terribly tiring, because of the arms. You’re always moving. You’re never just breathing. By the time you’re dying, which is fourth act, you’re actually dying, which is lovely … By the end of ‘Swan Lake,’ you know how there’s all the corps on stage and she keeps running in the back, doing arms? You can’t feel your arms. You’re just like, ow.”

Looking back over her “Swan Lake” history, Körbes notes that the ballet spans her entire career. She was a swan in the corps de ballet in Brazil at age 12, then again at NYCB as a new company member. Her first Odette/Odile was here at PNB in 2007, where she credits ballet coach Elaine Bauer with helping her connect with the role. “Without her, I don’t think it would have happened,” remembered Körbes. “She just had so much belief in me.”

And her most recent PNB “Swan Lake,” danced in 2013 with Karel Cruz, brought her to a new level of partnering. “We were looking at each other, thinking — you rarely feel like this, that something has come together that way,” she said of those performances. “Both those two shows didn’t go perfectly, technically. But there was a connection between the two of us that we both felt.”

PNB principal Seth Orza, a frequent partner who’s known Körbes since they were students at the School of American Ballet, described what it’s like to dance with her. “She brings something almost magical to the stage,” he said. “You just look at her and she changes. From the person that she is, she becomes … something different when she’s on stage. She gets wrapped up in whatever ballet she’s doing and she’s just transformed.”

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Körbes’ post-PNB life is still, for the most part, in the planning stages. She’s getting married later this month to photographer Patrick Fraser; the two are still deciding, she said, whether they will live in New York or Los Angeles. She’s got another dance commitment: the Vail International Dance Festival this summer in Colorado, an annual event that’s a favorite of hers. After that, as far as dance engagements are concerned, “I’m waiting to hear from my body,” Körbes said. “I’ve gotten asked to do gigs, and so far I’m holding on it.” Outside of dance, she’s long been interested in the healing arts and may well explore that in retirement.

But for now, she’s focused on a season of last dances. “My first performance of the year [‘Diamonds’] I felt all this pressure — oh my god, this might be the last ‘Diamonds’ I ever do. … And then the second night I said forget it, this is not how this year is going to go. And now, it’s actually really fun, to know that I worked really hard to get here, and now I get to experience it one more time.”