Lilyan Vigo Ellis knew she’d have to retire from dancing one day and knew how she wanted her professional career to end: “It was my dream to end with either being Carmen or Juliet.”
So when Carolina Ballet artistic director Ricky Weiss made “Carmen” the company’s final performance of the season, Ellis decided it would be her finale as well.
The full-length story ballet about the doomed love affair between Carmen and Don Jose allows her to shine in a sexy, sassy role that includes tavern dancing and bullring action. And Carmen, Ellis said, is strong and fearless. “I love playing around with her character.”
That doesn’t mean the decision to hang up her pointe shoes after 21 years – 19 of those with the Carolina Ballet – was easy. “I’m religious and I prayed and prayed about it,” she said.
Weiss said Ellis is “going out on top. Carmen is a hard part. She can still do it. That’s a nice way to retire when you can still do it all.”
Ellis said that as a principal dancer she had danced all the roles she wanted to dance. Now she wants to devote herself to the role of mom.
She and her husband, Jarrod Ellis, have two boys, Patrick, 7, and Brandon, 2.
Once the boys were born, she said, “I’d had a full day before I got to the studio” for 10 a.m. practice time. “I was the only mom there until recently. Somehow, you do it.”
When they were babies, they’d be at the performances, waiting to be breastfed at intermission. Now that Patrick is older there are soccer and basketball games on the weekend.
Ellis grew up in Miami. Her father is Cuban and her mother is from Venezuela. Spanish was spoken in their home and Ellis said she didn’t know proficient English until she was 9.
Her mother, who had wanted to be a ballerina, made sure her daughters had ballet lessons.
Ellis’ started before she was 3-years-old. Her older sister’s ballet teacher saw the little girl standing on tippy-toes and looking like a Russian doll and told her mother, “Sign her up.”
At 14, Ellis left home to attend Harid Conservatory in Boca Raton, Florida, a boarding school for ballet training. For high school, she went to the University of North Carolina School of the Arts in Winston-Salem, where she met her future husband. Her professional career began with what is now the Orlando Ballet.
She was 18 when she auditioned for the Carolina Ballet, and still had braces on her teeth.
“Lily had a sparkling technique even at such a young age,” Weiss said. “She was attractive as well – beautiful face, beautiful body.”
Yet, he added, “You can’t just be pretty. You can’t just have beautiful technique. You can’t just have a beautiful body. You have to have something that only God gives – it’s a theatrical sense, it’s an emotional resonance.”
One of her first roles in that first season was as a principal dancer in the production of “Messiah.” By the end of the season, she was starring as Juliet in “Romeo and Juliet.”
Still, she told her mother not to worry about her being so far away. Raleigh was small; the company might not last a year.
Two years ago, her mother moved to the Triangle. “She’s learned more English in the last two years than in her life,” Ellis said.
As a founding member of the Carolina Ballet, Ellis has had her share of successes and a few mishaps.
“I have fallen on stage. I have forgotten the choreography. I have been forgotten on stage.” (Her partner somehow forgot his cue, leaving Ellis to dance with three other couples.) She has missed entrances, herself, and she has been on stage during a tornado.
Her career has brought just two significant injuries. A compressed fracture in her lower back caused her to stop dancing for five months. But a mild hip fracture during “Swan Lake” a year-and-a-half ago slowed her down not at all.
“I’ve always just trusted my body to do what it’s meant to do,” she said.
Her plan is to stay in the area – “It’s home,” she says – and teach.
She says she’s going to be a huge supporter of the Carolina Ballet, whose dancers she calls her extended family. But she doesn’t plan to return to the stage.
“I’m going to miss all of it.” But “I feel once I’m done. I’m done.”
The Carolina Ballet has given Ellis her Sugar Plum Fairy tutu from “The Nutcracker.” Already, she has put it – and her pointe shoes – on to dance for hospitalized children at WakeMed. She hopes to develop a regular visitation program at the hospital.
“Standing and turning on my tippy-toes was a huge success,” she said. “I just tried to bring smiles ... I call it dancing for smiles.”
Her advice to parents whose children are interested in ballet?
“If they love it, it’s all worth it.”
What: “Carmen” performed by the Carolina Ballet
When: 8 p.m. Thursday-Friday, May 18-20 with matinees at 2 p.m. Saturday and Sunday, May 20-21
Where: Raleigh Memorial Auditorium, Duke Energy Center for the Performing Arts, 2 E. South St., Raleigh.
Tickets: Start at $30, plus tax
Info: www.carolinaballet.com or 919-719-0900 or 919-680-2787