Denise Dabrowski casts a giant shadow on San Diego dance. A ballerina in the true sense, this charismatic performer has dominated the local dance scene since 1978 when she debuted as SugarPlum with the California Ballet Company.
Her sister Anne is an accomplished dancer in her own right. However, like other home-grown dancers, the younger Dabrowski was eclipsed by the fluid line, brilliant technique and dramatic range of Denise. She managed to dance her way up through the ranks of the California Ballet, but never received the adoration or critical acclaim reserved for her sister.
It wasn't until she joined the Hartford Ballet three years ago that Anne Dabrowski began to dance her way out of her sister's shadow.
"I was getting frustrated with the dance scene here," Dabrowski said during a recent visit to San Diego. "I love San Diego, and I didn't want to leave my home, but I wanted to dance more than just once in a while. I was never interested in the glamour, or in being a star. I was interested in the working process."
Driven by that desire to dance regularly, Dabrowski accepted an offer from Michael Uthoff, director of the Connecticut company.
"I knew Michael from when he worked in San Diego," she said, "and I knew that, with the Hartford Ballet, I would work 35 weeks a year. I just felt I couldn't waste my time waiting for San Diego to get its act together so I could make a living as a dancer here. Time is too short for a dancer. I like working, and, as it turned out, I was ready for a change."
How much did the strain of playing second fiddle to her sister contribute to her exodus?
"I didn't enjoy being Denise's little sister, and I know a lot of people didn't take my dancing as seriously as Denise's," she acknowledged. "But I never felt in competition with her. I even had an older sister who danced with the California Ballet before Denise. We're very different--in our strengths and in our specialties--but we're both valid."
Anne Dabrowski, whose fair coloring is in marked contrast to her sister's, lacks the long line and delicate frame that makes Denise the quintessential ballerina, but she shares her sister's technical assurance and flair for modern movement.
"One of the things I really like about the Hartford is the chance to dance a mixed repertory," she said. "I like variety. We still do the classics like 'Nutcracker' and 'Coppelia,' but we also do contemporary ballets, and we work with a lot of new choreographers."
The Hartford Ballet eschews ranks such as principal, soloist and corps dancer, but there is a hierarchy within the organization based on seniority. And, with three years of service, Dabrowski has come a long way in the roles she gets.
"I get a couple of opportunities to do principal roles," she said. "In 'Carmina Burana,' I dance the lead. It's a very modern work and very dramatic, and that's my forte. A lot of the dancers in our company are just ballet-trained, so I have an advantage there. I'm incredibly lucky that I've had such strong technical training."
In addition to Maxine Mahon, director of the California Ballet, Dabrowski credits Marius Zirra, its former ballet master, for the well-honed skills and artistry that separate a full-fledged dancer from a mere technician.
"I've had a very good balance with Maxine Mahon, Marius Zirra and Paul Koverman, and I had many performance opportunities with the California Ballet. I started in the corps when I was just 13, and it was a wonderful opportunity. I don't know how I looked back then--probably awful."
Perhaps so, but the dedicated dancer has blossomed into a rising star, as her boss at the Hartford confirmed in a telephone interview.
"Anne has an incredible movement ability and an extremely expressive body," Uthoff said. "She has very unique qualities, and she's incredibly professional.
"Anne doesn't fit the mold, but after years of working together, she and I have jockeyed into a position where we are really using her effectively. She is one of the most respected dancers in the company."
Uthoff, who has also worked with Denise, shuns comparison between the sisters, but acknowledged that leaving the company that Denise has made her own was a wise move for Anne.
"I think she's really coming into her own," he said. "My father was a head honcho, and I know people always try to measure you against a famous father or sister. Getting away from that certainly helps."
Denise agreed that "I got more publicity and attention than Anne did," but added, "I don't know how that affected her."
One thing all agree on is that Anne has found herself at the Hartford and will continue to make strides as a dancer, free from comparisons with her celebrated sibling.
Among the fringe benefits the younger Dabrowski enjoys at the Hartford is the chance to tour with the troupe. She is particularly excited about her recent trip to China.
"It was fabulous--better than I ever expected," she said. "We were in China three weeks, dancing in six different cities. We brought only repertory, no full-length ballets, so they really saw a good cross-section of our work."
The troupe played to packed houses throughout China, from the urbanites of Shanghai and Beijing, cities with ballet companies of their own, to the unsophisticated audiences in rural areas of the country.
"They were all very warm to us, and I think they really enjoyed it, but some of the people in the smaller cities come strictly for entertainment," she said. "They talk and eat during the performances, and it takes getting used to, but that's their custom.
"Some of our audiences were very sophisticated. They've seen a lot of dance. In fact, the Paris Opera Ballet had just been there before us, and they were expecting the Royal Ballet next."
Next year's touring slate is not quite as spectacular, but it will take the troupe to Hawaii in the fall.
What are the chances of getting this Dabrowski back to San Diego?
"Eventually, after my career, I might be back," she said, "but I'm happy with my job. I miss San Diego, but it was good for me to find my own place."