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Star turn

Ballerina Kathleen Breen Combes is back on her feet, poised to take her place on the world stage

Recovering from injury, Boston Ballet's Kathleen Breen Combes is set to dance in 'Ultimate Balanchine.' Recovering from injury, Boston Ballet's Kathleen Breen Combes is set to dance in "Ultimate Balanchine." (Essdras M. Suarez / Globe Staff)
By Joan Anderman
Globe Staff / May 2, 2010

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On March 17, Kathleen Breen Combes’s body failed her. The 28-year-old ballerina for Boston Ballet was doing a small jump around a corner during rehearsal, a step she’s done roughly a million times. But on this day, for no reason, Breen Combes’s foot gave out. The next instant she was on the ground, doing what any principal dancer with a major ballet company would do: crunching the numbers.

“In my head I was, OK. It’s two weeks until we open ‘Coppélia.’ That’s out. I have six weeks to ‘Ultimate Balanchine,’ and we’ll see. I knew instantly that it was serious.’’

A month-and-a-half and a boatload of physical therapy later, Combes is still headed for stardom. And she’ll be better for her troubles, according to Boston Ballet artistic director Mikko Nissinen, who says there are three things his charges must do exceedingly well: dance, perform, and deal with injuries. Breen Combes is just learning that last trick.

The first two she’s got down.

Since joining the company in 2003 Breen Combes has leaped through the ranks: promoted to second soloist in 2005 and then to soloist in 2007, the same year she was featured on the cover of Dance magazine. In 2009 she was named principal dancer, the highest rank, and in recent months the Long Island native has been singled out for praise in the local, national, and international press. New York Times chief dance critic Alastair Macaulay hailed her as “the archetypal Balanchine ballerina.’’ He also called her tall, a testament to the diminutive dancer’s powers of persuasion.

“I’m 5-4,’’ she says. “Maybe. Almost. And I always get cast in the tall girl roles.’’ That includes Choleric in “The Four Temperaments’’ and Terpsichore in “Apollo,’’ both part of the repertory in Boston Ballet’s upcoming “Ultimate Balanchine’’ program.

Nissinen likens the effect to that of another small dancer with abundant talent, Mikhail Baryshnikov.

“Kathleen is radiant, like a light bulb.’’ he says. “Her presence is huge.’’

Another misconception about Breen Combes is that she was trained in the Balanchine style, a notion that surely springs from her commanding performances of the legendary choreographer’s work — a fusion of classical and contemporary movement marked by a focus on musicality and de-emphasis on plot.

“It’s so funny. I was trained Russian, and French, and Cuban, but from the time I started doing Balanchine, it’s felt like home,’’ she says. Pressed to put her affinity into words, Breen Combes starts to shimmy her shoulders in a sharp, stylized rhythm. “I don’t know exactly. When people come to set his ballets and they say, ‘It goes like this,’ I’m like, ‘Oh, that’s great.’ And other people will be saying, ‘How do you do that?’ It falls into place for me. I get it. Sometimes in more classical ballets I feel restricted, but in Balanchine you can bring yourself out.’’

Even in morning pointe class, cycling through combinations on the day before she sprained her ankle, Breen Combes’s personality is quietly conspicuous. There’s a searching look in her eyes, and a curious alertness to her mouth, that hints at the boldness and warmth she brings to the stage. Breen Combes’s jump is prodigious and her legs go sky high, but that’s not what sets the women in the corps aflutter after Breen Combes dances a big role.

“They laugh at me because when the curtain comes down I’m usually crying,’’ she says. “I’m an emotional person. I love the drama. I love the feeling of giving your soul.’’

Breen Combes’s early life was colored by the darkest kind of drama. Her father died when she was 6 months old and in the tumultuous period that followed, her mother didn’t notice that her daughter wasn’t walking until Breen Combes was way beyond the age when she should have been — a result, her mother hypothesizes, of being picked up and carried everywhere by the large extended family that rallied around her. A pediatrician on Long Island, where Breen Combes grew up, warned that the girl’s leg muscles might never fully develop if she didn’t begin regular physical activity and recommended she be enrolled in a gymnastics class. Her mother, a dance lover, chose ballet instead. To this day they joke about visiting that doctor — to show him her muscles.

When she was 7, Breen Combes auditioned to be in a Fort Worth Ballet (now Texas Ballet Theater) production of “Cinderella’’ in New York and was cast as one of the Summer Fairy Attendants.

“I didn’t do anything but walk behind this gorgeous set of wings, but from that moment on I was like, This is it. This is what I want to do.’’

Breen Combes grappled with doubt just once, when she was 17. On her final evaluation from the Harid Conservatory — an elite boarding school for dancers in Boca Raton, Fla., which she had attended from age 13 — her teachers wrote that Breen Combes’s body was unsuitable for classical ballet.

“I wasn’t as thin as I should have been, or they deemed I should be. They said my academics were fantastic and I should really consider going to college,’’ she recalls. “I’d been working my whole life for this. It was a knife through the heart.’’

Breen Combes decided to move back home, which was then in Pennsylvania, for a year, taking college courses in the mornings and studying at Central Pennsylvania Youth Ballet in the afternoons. Before the year was out, her mind was made up, and Breen Combes began auditioning for professional companies. In 2000, Washington Ballet artistic director Septime Webre offered her a spot as an apprentice.

He remembers her audition well.

“Kathleen was filled with this amazing coltish energy,’’ Webre says. “She had a steely technique but also this sense of daring and an unbridled joy in dancing.’’ Webre promoted Breen Combs to the corps after one year of apprenticeship instead of the usual two, and she stayed on until 2003, when her desire to join a larger company that performed full-length ballets led her to audition for Boston Ballet. “Great things are happening and will continue to happen for Kathleen. She is a dancer to watch,’’ Webre says.

Two weeks before “Ultimate Balanchine’’ is set to open, Breen Combes is lying on a table in the miniature medical center located on the top floor of Boston Ballet’s South End headquarters, pulling off her down booties and tugging up three layers of leggings and warmers so that she can receive ultrasound treatment to her ankle. She’s a good patient, according to physical therapist Heather Southwick, who routinely entertains visits from dancers begging for permission to wear their Jimmy Choos to a party.

“I’ll give Kathleen very specific guidelines for what she can and can’t do,’’ says Southwick, who like all the Boston Ballet PTs is a former dancer. “She’s been progressing beautifully but there are stages to recovery, and sometimes those stages have to be more accelerated than one would like. She has to get back dancing.’’

Later in the day, on the way to an “Apollo’’ rehearsal, Breen Combes exchanges a brief hello with her fiance, Yury Yanowsky. The pair will wed this summer in the Canary Islands, becoming the third married couple among 12 principal dancers in the company.

“We live in a bubble and our schedules are hectic, and to find someone who understands that you get home at 6:30 and all you want to do is sit on the couch and ice your foot for the rest of the night — it’s so much easier,’’ says Breen Combes. She concedes that there is a downside to merging her personal and professional lives, and it plays out in the rehearsal studio. “Say I’m dancing with Pavel [Gurevich] and something goes wrong. I say very nicely, Pavel, do you think you could put me on my leg here? With Yury, I scream, My leg!’’

Breen Combes has been given the green light to perform in “Ultimate Balanchine,’’ but she must be vigilant about caring for her ankle. An unfamiliar feeling now tugs at the edges of her psyche: fear. At the Apollo rehearsal, Breen Combes dances parts of the choreography and marks the more demanding moves: pacing her character’s trajectory, moving her arms in a shadow dance, waiting until her body is ready to reclaim its rightful place in the air.

Joan Anderman can be reached at anderman@globe.com.

ULTIMATE BALANCHINE

Opens Thursday and runs through May 16 at the Opera House. Tickets are $25-$135 at 617-695-6955 and www.bostonballet.org