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With 'Don Quixote,' Jennifer Gelfand's career at Boston Ballet ends where it began

"Don Quixote" has defined the boundaries of Jennifer Gelfand's career. She first appeared in the Rudolf Nureyev production with Boston Ballet in 1982, as a 10-year-old playing the doll version of the heroine, Kitri.

Seven years later came the most publicized episode in her career. She was sitting in the audience of a "Don Q" performance starring Laura Young and Fernando Bujones. Young injured herself partway through and couldn't continue. Gelfand, who had just signed with the Ballet and was scheduled to dance later in the run, suddenly had to suit up and go on. She hadn't performed the choreography before. She'd never been partnered by a star the caliber of Bujones. But she did the job. "She was fearless," Young says. "She always has been."

"She stepped on that stage and left her signature," recalls Bujones. "It was stupendous."

And Gelfand did the job brilliantly. Her triple fouettes -- turns on one pointe that end with the working leg whipping out to the side -- left audiences in near-hysteria and left her typecast as a virtuosa in technique if not yet in expression.

Two weeks later, Young gave her farewell performance, also in "Don Quixote."

"Jen was warmed up and ready to go that time," Young recalls, "in case I couldn't finish. She was onstage, dressed as an urchin in a crowd scene. It was a nice little safety net." Fortunately, it proved an unnecessary one.

"Don Quixote" opens the Ballet's 40th season on Thursday. This time, it will be Gelfand's farewell with the company. (She dances twice, on Oct. 30 and Nov. 1.) At 31, after spending virtually her entire life as a dancer with the troupe, she's leaving to concentrate on her role as a real estate sales associate in the South End. "From the very beginning," Bujones recalls, "she told me, `I'll be in dance only as long as it's fun." Her two careers have overlapped since 1999, when she got her realtor's license. She's sold homes to more than a dozen fellow company members -- and to artistic director Mikko Nissinen.

Nissinen, who took over the company last year, is part of the reason Gelfand is retiring. "Mikko has a vision of what he wants," she says in the company's South End studios. When she announced she was leaving last spring, she said he'd passed her over when casting big parts. "I wasn't going to stay around and be miserable trying to find out what he wants," she says now.

"Jennifer Gelfand has been an important part of Boston Ballet for many years, and her repertoire includes roles in a wide range of major ballets," a noncommittal Nissinen says. "We wish her all the best."

Reflecting on her profession, Gelfand says, "Ballet is not an easy career. It's brutal. It chews you up and spits you out. Ballet does teach you patience and perseverance, though, and for me those qualities carry over into real estate. I remember buying my first house. It's an emotional experience, and draining. I want my clients to feel that it is a piece of cake." She's had clients who have bought a house along with a subscription to Boston Ballet.

A spectrum of roles

Calling ballet "brutal" is as openly critical as Gelfand gets. Compared with the histrionics of other Boston ballerinas who have blasted the company while making their exits, she is discretion itself. "I can't complain," she says. "I've done all these wonderful roles. I feel I've had an incredibly well-rounded career." She's danced in works by George Balanchine, Auguste Bournonville, Kenneth MacMillan, Paul Taylor, John Cranko, and a host of other members of the choreographic pantheon. She is known as a hard worker -- and a reliable one. "I've never missed a performance, and I've never had surgery," she says. Not many dancers can make that claim.

She's had to fight to perform some of the greatest roles in the repertory, though, including Odette/Odile in "Swan Lake." Gelfand's short -- just over 5 feet -- and Odettes are generally long and leggy, to take advantage of the choreography's signature arabesque. Typecasting has meant it's hard for Gelfand to get away from parts described as "spitfire" and "spunky."

Her favorite of the several roles she premiered is Twyla Tharp's "Waterbaby Bagatelles," which Gelfand calls "a complete joy. Twyla is a genius. She knows what she wants and she's clear about it." This is another case of Gelfand's discretion: Tharp is known as demanding, to put it mildly. Gelfand, who grew up in Newton and Cambridge, started studying with Boston Ballet at age 6. Young was its reigning ballerina. In "The Nutcracker," "Jen danced Clara to my Sugarplum," Young says. "It was a joy to see her have her career here. I was a little bit of a mentor, but basically she didn't need one."

Although she studied in Boston, it's not a local teacher Gelfand credits with being her biggest influence, but David Howard, a New York instructor whose students included Baryshnikov. Howard "was instrumental in my career," she says. "He had so many stars taking his classes that you learned just from looking. And it was never about making a pretty picture. It was about moving."

In a Globe interview done when she was just 15 -- the year after she'd won the gold medal at the International Ballet Competition at Jackson, Miss. -- Gelfand spoke of her desire to dance with one of the big New York companies, maybe American Ballet Theatre. That never happened. She danced briefly with the Joffrey II Dancers and spent a year with the Birmingham Royal Ballet, the sister of the London-based company. Rejoining Boston after that 1995-96 year in England, "she displayed a new level of artistry, a new understanding of what it is to be a ballerina," Young recalls.

Gelfand has done guest and gala appearances galore, around the globe, often with Bujones. "She has a technique that always excited audiences," he says, "whether it was Rio or Tokyo." She's got a guest gig coming up -- not in one of the world's great capitals, but in Portsmouth, N.H., where she'll perform in Portsmouth Ballet's "The Nutcracker" in December. Given her star status, this comes as a surprise. The way she explains it is that she just loves dancing. "When you go to these smaller regional companies, it's such fun. It's not about perfection, or impressing a director."

New possibilities

To keep making guest appearances, she'll have to stay in shape, which she says she'll do at Boston Ballet -- not in the daily company class, but in classes open to all. As for teaching herself, "I've taught over the years, but it's not something I'm passionate about. I feel you should wake up in the morning and feel passionate about whatever you're going to do that day.

"Right now I just need a breather, time to figure out the future. I certainly haven't ruled out going to school," she says. She was accepted at Harvard in 1989, when she started with Boston Ballet. One optimistic newspaper caption from that era read "18-year-old Jennifer Gelfand becomes a soloist with Boston Ballet and a Harvard freshman this fall." But she deferred college to focus on her dancing.

In a recent "Don Quixote" rehearsal, surrounded by dancers a decade younger, she performed unstintingly: Those triple fouettes were still there and still perfect, even at the end of a long day of dancing.

"I came in with a wonderful ballet and I've come full circle," she says at the end of a recent rehearsal. "I've always loved `Don Quixote' because it's so joyous and light. It's a good way to go."

As she exits the studio, she threads her way through a gaggle of little girls who have been watching her. "How does she turn like that?" one asks another. There's no answer.

As she exits the Ballet's building after the rehearsal, Gelfand has a question for her interviewer. "Where do you live?"

"Pretty near where you grew up," to which she responds: "Thinking of relocating?"

Boston Ballet performs "Don Quixote" at the Wang Theatre this Thursday through Sunday, and again Oct. 30 through Nov. 2. Jennifer Gelfand and Christopher Budzynsi dance the leads on Oct. 30 and the evening of Nov. 1.

Five freedoms
Jennifer Gelfand identifies parts of her post-dance life that she’s looking forward to.

“Enjoying Christmas without worrying about having a performance the next day.”
“Taking a day off when I’m tired.”
“Waking up without too many aches and pains.”
“No more blisters on my toes from pointe shoes.”

Globe Staff Graphic / Michael Prager

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