An Interview with Lara O’Brien, Principal Dancer at the Carolina Ballet

If anyone knows how to hustle, it’s business owner, mother and principal dancer at Carolina Ballet, Lara O’Brien. Here, she shares a bit about life with and after Carolina Ballet.
As told to Addie Ladner

Armes Photography / Courtesy Lara O’Brien

You’ve been with the Carolina Ballet for 19 years! I feel like that’s a long time.

I’m so proud of that. It’s a healthy career. I joined the company at 19. It’s gone by so fast but has  also been a huge chunk of time. I’ve really been able to enjoy it, contribute to the community, and the company. I’ve had a few injuries here and there, but it’s generally been a healthy and rewarding career. 

How has being a principal dancer helped you in other areas in your life? Surely, you’ve fostered some life skills with this as your profession.

Commitment, courage, focus, dedication, to name a few. Becoming a principal dancer took a mental mastery more than anything else – quieting doubtful thoughts, doing the work, taking risks, getting out on stage. These skills serve me everywhere in life. 

You announced earlier in the year that this is your last season dancing with the Carolina Ballet, what’s next? 

Being able to grow Tutu School and get more involved with it. I love creating that experience for  kids to enjoy the movement of music. I’m leaving open a piece of the pie that I don’t know and don’t want to know. New life adventures are pulling me right now and I’d rather leave on a strong note when I’m feeling good and making an impact rather than wait until I’m burnt out or hurt. It’s a bittersweet feeling. 

Monica Galletto / Courtesy Lara O’Brien

If you had so use three words to describe your career as a professional ballet dancer what would they be? 

Satisfying, challenging, blessed.

What would you consider to be some career highlights at Carolina Ballet, some performances that stick out to you? 

The ballet that I will be dancing for my retirement is Macbeth. If I had to pick one, it is the highlight. I chose that to be my final performance. I was the original Lady Macbeth back in 2016. The project was so enlivening. It was a complete collaboration with music commissioned and composed with our choreographer. I love to act and it’s an intense character. My first principal role was as the ugly duckling in Ugly Duckling. It was super charming and such a fun character, a very innocent duck trying to find her way into the world. Those two performances bookend my career you could say. 

How did you come to dance with Carolina Ballet? You said your first principal role was in Ugly Duckling? Did you audition for that? 

I was training as a teenager in NYC and Robert Weiss saw me in a ballet class and offered that I join Carolina Ballet the following season. I began as an apprentice and worked my way through the ranks over several years. Over the first two years, I danced several corps de ballet roles and even soloist roles. At the end of my second year with the company, Lynne Taylor Corbett chose me to dance the Principal role in The Ugly Duckling.

I don’t think many people realize how unique and internationally recognized Carolina Ballet is. Could you speak to that a bit?

I feel like I could have answered Carolina Ballet as a hidden gem! We’ve created more new work throughout the history of the company, more than any other company other than The New York City ballet, which is one of the top companies in the world. They work with a huge budget. We work with a smaller budget, fewer dancers, and do a lot. It’s incredible. We have talented dancers and innovative choreography. We work with composers. It’s a hard sell sometimes. People think ballet is out of reach or it’s expensive. We try to find ways to make it more accessible and intriguing to the community by offering a vast repertoire. We do classics, modern, neoclassical, we’ve done ballet to hip hop music. 

I understand that this is in large part thanks to Robert Weiss, who took this job after seeing an ad for it many years ago. What’s it been like working under him?

Working under Ricky has been a dream. His credentials speak for themselves, but he is a visionary and created a ballet company that the community can be so proud of. For over 20+ years Ricky consistently brought fantastic dancers, choreographers, collaborations, and ideas to the company. My gratitude for him is deep. He guided my development and fostered what I had to offer as a dancer. He’s very much involved but has now passed the Artistic Directorship to Zalman Raffael to carry the company into its next chapter. It’s an exciting time to watch the company grow and continue to evolve. 

The Nutcracker opens this week and you are the Sugar Plum fairy! How are you feeling approaching your last performances in such a classic beloved role/ballet? 

I’m truly so excited! It’s wonderful because excitement hasn’t necessarily been the emotion every year. Nutcracker can be one of the most grueling times of the year for dancers. However, I’ve danced this ballet almost every year since I was 8 years old, performing every female role in it, and it feels like a gift to be a part of it one last time.