Manuela Chaher Lavalle is a professional ballerina that left her home in by herself at age 16 to study dance in Russia. The Argentina native’s dancing career has taken her to Buffalo, NY and Nashville, TN and now Arkansas as she will be dancing with the Northwest Arkansas Ballet this fall after being offered a contract by artistic director Ryan Nye.
I got the chance to talk to her about how she first got started dancing, her time in studying dance in Russia at 16 years old, her advice to someone interested in pursuing a career as a ballerina and much more. Keep reading to see what she had to say!
Tell me a little bit about how you first started dancing.
My mother showed me a VHS recording of Julio Bocca when I was young to get me to calm down because I was throwing a fit. After that, I wouldn’t stop dancing on the streets and in every room in my house. My mom took me to the ballet studio near my house, but they said I was too little at the time. I made her take me back every fall until I turned six and they let me join.
Was there a moment that made you realize that dancing is what you wanted to pursue professionally and make a career out of?
I don’t think so, which is odd. But somehow, ever since I started, I knew that’s what I wanted to do. I did take some time off since my school thought ballet was too strict at such a young age. I took advantage of those years to try new things – I played the violin, did a dance class called “body expression,” took singing and piano lessons – but I always knew I was going to get back to dance. When I was 11, I returned to ballet classes with the same teacher I started with: Patricia Carraro.
You left your home in Argentina by yourself at 16 years old to pursue your dream of studying dance in Russia. I can only imagine how hard that was. Did you ever fear that it wouldn’t work out and you would regret your decision?
I’ve never thought about it. My desire was so big that I was willing to do all it took. I guess looking back, I was crazy for not thinking about that.
Russia actually “didn’t work out” (or at least as I hoped it would), but it worked out in it’s own way. It was the first time I didn’t let my stubbornness win, even though I had planned on being there for three years. Half way through it, I realized I was losing my desire for ballet and it became unbearable to stay so far away from my family and my culture. Luckily, when I got back home, I realized it wasn’t ballet – Russia just wasn’t the place for me at that time. I continued to dance in Argentina until a renowned Argentine dancer (Sergio Neglia), who founded Neglia Ballet artists with his wife (Heidi Halt) in Buffalo, NY, saw me and gave me a scholarship for his summer intensive.
I was doing some research on you and you said that your time at The Nashville Ballet had a big impact on you. What did you learn about yourself, both as a dancer and a person, in that time?
In my time at Nashville Ballet, I had two knee surgeries. Those were a challenge, not just as a dancer but as a person. Once I was told I could go back to dancing, I couldn’t listen to my body; I didn’t know how to. My whole life I’ve been told to push through – “if it hurts, it’s right” – and so I pushed through… and I tore my meniscus again only four months after my first surgery.
I’m better at it now. I listen to my pains and analyze them. I do injury prevention exercises and stop if I feel like my body needs it. I’ve also learned to speak up for myself. That’s something I owe to Nashville Ballet. They want to hear our voices, unlike some other ballet companies who are more old school. So it was refreshing to be myself and speak up with what I think and feel.
Nashville Ballet also has helped me to dance from a deeper place. Technique is forever a must, but now my main focus is the story I’m telling to the audience.
I think overall I learned to be myself, to let go of the idea of perfection and be/dance as I am.
I know that starting this fall, you will be dancing with the Northwest Arkansas Ballet. What are you most looking forward to about that opportunity?
The season hasn’t been officially announced yet, but I’m extremely excited for all the diverse works we are going to get to perform!
The NWA directors are so amazing to me and I’m excited to work for them. It’s a tricky thing in ballet because most of the time we have this old school way of operating through it, which doesn’t help to be vulnerable and let the deepest artist inside of each of us come out. That is vital for both dancers and the audience.
What does a typical day of rehearsal look like for you? How many hours a day do you rehearse?
I start with ballet class every day to work on perfecting my technique. I also warm up each muscle in the correct way for the day. After that, it depends on which ballet we are rehearsing and which role we are give, but about five hours.
What do you believe is your greatest strength as a dancer? Where do you think you can improve?
I think my perseverance is my greatest strength. I’ve been working with myself to not get in my head because it affects my performance as a dancer. It takes away the joy of doing what I love and it’s hard to find the balance between having hard standards for yourself and also accepting and trusting your best – even though it varies every day.
Aside from ballet, what other kinds of dance do you enjoy doing?
Neoclassical and contemporary mainly, but honestly, any way of expressing with my body through music. It’s an amazing outlet for me to just put music on and improvise. When I come to Argentina, I take hip-hop classes with my friends. It’s super fun even though I’m super bad at it!
Kind of going off of that, who are some of the dancers that you look up to regardless of style?
I think all young ballerinas look up the famous dancers, but now, I look up to my peers, my teachers, the choreographers and directors I’ve gotten to work with because they pursued what they love and made that their living. They all have unique stories of how they got to be where they are and that makes them unique and real; it’s just very inspiring to work with them.
What tips or advice do you have for someone interested in pursuing a career as a ballerina?
My 12 year old niece is actually taking ballet classes now and my advice to her is “don’t do it!” [laughs] Even though it’s immensely rewarding and I’ve learned so much from it, it’s not a career – it’s a lifestyle. I want her to have a career where she has free time if she wants to take a random vacation… and one with less injuries!
But, to someone that isn’t my 12 year old niece, I guess just lots of dedication. Learn from your teachers and your peers. Start early on looking into which company you would like to dance for. Find healthy outlets for when things get hard. For me, writing and yoga are crucial. Trust yourself and your process. We all have different timing and stories, so just because yours might be different, it isn’t less important. Finally, and most importantly, if you love it, it’s worth it.
What are some of goals/benchmarks you’re aiming to reach in your career in the next couple of years?
I just want to keep growing technically and artistically in a company I feel both comfortable and pushed to keep growing. I’m looking forward to doing exactly that at NWA.
Lastly, we’re called Talk Nerdy With Us because we all have an inner nerd so what is something that you’re currently nerding out about?
Well, its election season – both in Argentina and U.S. It’s always been important to me to do my own research, stay informed and vote in all the local elections. So I guess you could say that’s been my nerdy past time [laughs].
Make sure you follow Manuela on Instagram.