With superstars the likes of Mikhail Baryshnikov, Cynthia Gregory, Patrick Bissell and Martine Van Hamel performing the most coveted roles in classical ballet for the American Ballet Theatre, the crackerjack dancers of the corps de ballet are often eclipsed.

But when the star-studded ABT appears at the San Diego Civic Theatre beginning Tuesday, many local balletomanes will be keeping an eye on one member of the corps who would probably blend into the background elsewhere on the troupe's busy touring circuit.

Her name is Dana Stackpole, and she fashioned her dream of becoming a ballerina right here in San Diego.

"I began studying with Jackie Hepner when I was in seventh grade," said Stackpole in a telephone interview from Los Angeles recently. "That's when I began to be serious about a career. I moved to New York to study with the School of the American Ballet, and in 1981, I was accepted in ABT II (the now-defunct training troupe). By the end of 1983, I was asked to join the main company."

Attracting the attention of Baryshnikov (artistic director of the American Ballet Theatre as well as its most celebrated dancer) was not as easy as it sounds. But Baryshnikov, who "kept tabs on all of us," as the 20-year-old dancer recalled, spotted Stackpole and two other dancers during a rehearsal and whisked them into the ranks of the main company. Years of honing technical skills and developing performing brio had begun to pay off for the aspiring ballerina.

After 2 1/2 years in the ranks, Stackpole is still starry-eyed about stepping on the same stage with world-renowned artists.

"It's very exciting. I just love it," she said, "and I feel very fortunate. I'm sure people go to smaller companies and get bigger roles sooner, but you can't imagine what it's like to work with the best dancers in the world. You learn a lot.

"My first year I just watched, and I found my standards got higher. I expect more from other people, when I watch dancers perform now, and I expect a lot more from myself."

But there's a down side to working with the cream of the crop, and Stackpole has had to face up to the disadvantages.

"You lose a lot of technique (not being cast in leading roles). It's still very tough in the chorus, but you're not alone onstage. You have to fit in, and that requires a different style than a soloist. Oh, you can do a few little things (to express your individuality as a dancer), but basically it's not as fulfilling. You never get to do anything flashy in the chorus.

"When I dance in 'Giselle' (in the first act as one of the jubilant peasants and later as an icy cool "wili"), you can hardly tell me from the rest. But if you look, I'm the first girl in front on stage left," on the audience's right.

"When I danced in San Diego," she said, "I almost think I was stronger (technically), but I couldn't have made it in the chorus. I didn't have the stamina. It's very hard, physically. I was out three months this year with an injury (a stress fracture). This is my first tour since then, and I'm still gaining my strength. But the company has been very patient with me, and we have a physical therapist that travels with us."

During her forced vacation, Stackpole came to grips with her mortality as a dancer, she said. "It really scared me to think I might never dance again. I thought about other careers then, but I realized how much I loved dancing. Now I take much better care of myself."

Her recent layoff notwithstanding, Stackpole is slated to dance in every performance of the ABT at the Civic Theatre. Performances run through March 29.

Baryshnikov will dance on opening night at the Civic Theatre, appearing as the deceitful Albrecht in his own Kirov Ballet-style staging of "Giselle," the quintessential romantic ballet. Alessandra Ferri will dance Giselle.

"Giselle" will be performed twice on Wednesday (2 p.m. and 8 p.m.) and then on Thursday evening with rotating casts that include Harvey, Bissell, Leslie Browne, Ross Stretton, Susan Jaffee, Tcherkassky, Kevin McKenzie and Nora Kimball.

Also slated for San Diego is another full-length ballet, "Don Quixote" ("Kitri's Wedding"), the Petipa/Gorsky classic. Gregory and Stretton will dance the leading roles on Friday evening, Cheryl Yeager and Danilo Radojevic will do the honors at the March 29 matinee, and Van Hamel and McKenzie will team up for the company's final concert on that evening.

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