Sophomore pursues passion for dance at San Francisco Ballet

May 21, 2015 — by Spring Ma

Sophomore Sophie Cichanowicz discovered a passion for ballet after playing the lead role in "The Nutcracker" and pursues her dream.

Sophomore Sophie Cichanowicz fluttered across the stage in her pink embroidered Aurora costume, in time with the steady beat of the orchestral soundtrack of “The Sleeping Beauty.” Cichanowicz seamlessly transitioned from moves such as piqué turns to bourrées in her ménage, or performance circling around the stage.

As the pit orchestra slowed and the lighting dimmed, Cichanowicz stepped up to the spindle in front of her, pretending to prick her finger.

Then, she fell still.

Lungs burning, feet cramping and tutu itching, Cichanowicz ignored her discomfort and focused on remaining as still as possible, convincingly falling asleep for three minutes, as her character would. Finally, the curtains closed after “what felt like forever” and the audience applauded, in anticipation of the next scene of Los Gatos Ballet’s 2014 rendition of Tchaikovsky’s “The Sleeping Beauty.”

“Performing as Aurora was the largest role I’ve ever had, so I was pretty nervous at first, but then it all went away,” Cichanowicz said. “I think I’ve learned how to deal with the nerves and work through them, which is really crucial when you’re constantly dancing under pressure.”

When Cichanowicz received her first pair of ballet shoes at age 3, she had no idea how far her dance career would take her, let alone how many hours she would willingly sacrifice for it. Cichanowicz said that over the years, dance has grown to become not only a sport she does “just for fun,” but one that has taken over her “entire life.”

After dabbling in tap and jazz in addition to ballet at a young age, 11-year-old Cichanowicz followed her older sister, Class of ’13 alumna Kendall Cichanowicz, to Los Gatos Ballet, an all-ballet studio. There, she said that she began to “take [her] training more seriously, but hadn’t thought about having a career in it yet.”

Nevertheless, Cichanowicz realized her passion for ballet when she was cast for her first main role as Clara in Los Gatos Ballet’s rendition of Tchaikovsky’s “The Nutcracker” in 2011. Shortly after, she was cast as Aurora in “The Sleeping Beauty.”  

Ever since, Cichanowicz said she has not once doubted her choice to pursue dance, as both performances were challenging yet eye-opening for her. After the exhausting show practices that would keep her in the studio every Saturday, Cichanowicz learned to dance her first pas de deux, or partner dance, and performed her first solo on stage for “The Nutcracker.”

As she began to pursue dance more seriously, Cichanowicz found herself spending more and more hours in the dance studio during the school year and summer break.

“When my teacher at LGB told me I had a good chance at becoming a professional, this inspired me to work even harder, knowing that I could possibly achieve my dream if I devoted my entire life to it,” Cichanowicz said.

In addition to attending other summer programs at Pacific Northwest Ballet in Seattle, Cichanowicz has spent the majority of her past three summers at San Francisco Ballet’s (SFB) summer courses. SFB is one of the world’s leading dance companies and America’s oldest professional dance company, described as part of a “triumvirate of great classical companies defining the American style on the world stage today” by “The Guardian.”

At the three-week programs, Cichanowicz danced six days a week, practicing four to five hours each day. While refining her technique at SFB and watching their professionals, such as Sofianne Sylve, Maria Kochetkova and Mathilde Froustey, practice, Cichanowicz fell in love with the company.

“It became one of my ultimate goals to train at SFB year-round,” Cichanowicz said. “I knew I wanted to dance professionally, and switching to a professional school would bring me one step closer to my goal.”

Her dream eventually came true. During the program, students were given the opportunity to apply for SFB’s year-round program. Cichanowicz was invited to join the company three times, declining the first two invitations at her mother’s request and eagerly accepting the third in 2014, along with 11 other girls in her level.

Fulfilling Cichanowicz’s dream has been a full family effort; almost every week day her mother, Sandy Cichanowicz, picks her up straight from school in order to beat the traffic. From there, they begin the one-hour commute to San Francisco, which has become designated homework time for Sophie.

Upon arrival an hour before class, Sophie does her daily routine of warm-ups, such as rolling out her sore muscles, stretching in her splits and taping her toes in preparation for pointe shoes. Ballet class comes first, followed by technique class and pointe class. Then, the cycle repeats with the commute home at 7:30 p.m., and more homework time in the evening before going to bed around 11:30 p.m.  

Despite their tight schedule and long hours spent in the car, both Sophie and her mother willingly make the sacrifices.

“Everyone who has a dream needs someone to say 'Go for it!'" her mother said. "As long as Sophie is happy and this is what she wants to do, I will support her and will help her navigate her way to wherever this journey takes her."

Their dedication and persistence have begun to pay off. This year, Sophie has performed in SFB’s “The Nutcracker,” “Don Quixote” and their opening season gala, performing roles such as Dragonfly and Little Cupid.

In January, popular art blog “The Young Artist Feature” posted an interview with Sophie about her dance life. Sophie was also recently featured on photographer Oliver Henry Endahl’s dance photography page, Ballet Zaida, which boasts over 558,000 likes on Facebook.

Endahl, who discovered Sophie through her Instagram account, contacted Sophie in January expressing his interest in working with her. Endahl’s photos of Cichanowicz feature the San Francisco skyline and other famous attractions, such as the Moraga Stairs, in the background.

“I heard of [Endahl] a while back, because he is really famous in the ballet world and very fun to work with,” Sophie said.

Sophie, grateful for the chance to perform her art every day, continues to pursue ballet at SFB.  This summer, she plans to attend a six-week summer intensive program at Houston Ballet Academy in Texas and continue classes at SFB.

In the future, she hopes to perform lead roles in her favorite classical ballets while also dancing in contemporary styles with a professional company such as SFB, Pacific Northwest Ballet or The Royal Ballet. When asked about her favorite part about dance, Sophie admitted it was impossible to choose, replying she is  “just in love with it as a whole.”

“Whether I’m performing, rehearsing, or just working on my technique every day in class, ballet makes me happy, and there is nothing else I would want to spend my life doing,” Sophie said.

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