photo by Suzanne Grandis, courtesy of Richmond Ballet
Shira Lanyi in Richmond Ballet's 2006 production of "Don Quixote."
Richmond Ballet’s production of Don Quixote is a homecoming for Shira Lanyi, a longtime company member who returned from Tel Aviv, where she’s been performing with the Israel Ballet, to take on the role of “Queen of the Dryads.” Richmonders may recall her from her performances as Cinderella, Juliet in Romeo and Juliet, Odette/Odile in Swan Lake and the title role in Giselle.
Lanyi had been back in town for just a few days when we talked about her time in Israel, her upcoming role and the devastating loss of her mother, Ricki Grunwald Lanyi, on Jan. 6.
A Richmond native, Shira Lanyi had moved to Israel last summer to be closer to her mother, who was diagnosed with brain cancer about a year ago.
“I knew my mom was dying,” Lanyi says. Though reluctant to leave the Richmond Ballet, she says, “I had to.”
After she told Stoner Winslett, the ballet’s artistic director, about her mother’s passing, Winslett asked Lanyi to give her a call. “I have a crazy idea,” Lanyi recalls Winslett saying. That conversation led to Lanyi’s acceptance of the Don Quixote role.
“This is a complete dream come true,” she says. “It’s really nice for me as a comfort — all my friends and family are here.”
She’s performed in Don Quixote before — with Richmond Ballet in 2006 as an apprentice as
well as with the Israel Ballet, in which she performed in the lead role of Kitri. But this is her first time as Queen of the Dryads. She appears in the middle of Act II.
“I love it,” Lanyi says. “The scene is very classical. … It’s blue lighting and white tutus and very serene,” in the midst of an otherwise comedic ballet. Lanyi is the leader of a group of maidens that appear in “knight errant” Don Quixote’s dream, in which Kitri becomes his idealized beauty, Dulcinea.
Of rejoining Richmond Ballet for this production, Lanyi says, “It felt like I never left. It’s like putting on a pair of shoes that fit perfectly.”
Being in Israel, she notes, has been something of a culture shock, with instructors and ballet masters all speaking in Hebrew. In addition, the Israel Ballet is a touring company, performing once a week in theaters around the country.
“I was very quickly immersed into the language,” Lanyi says. And in contrast to the relatively genteel Southern environment of Richmond, “it’s the Middle East, so you’re dealing with people who have a lot of personality and are not afraid to tell you what they think … manners aren’t necessarily of the utmost importance.”
Still, she adds, “I’ve met some very wonderful people in the process.”
While her long-term plans are uncertain, she’ll return to complete her season with the Israel Ballet.
“After my mom passed away, my world kind of turned upside down,” she says. “My life has many directions it could go.”
Meanwhile, she’ll feel her mother’s presence as she performs this weekend.
Lanyi, who began taking dance classes with the School of Richmond Ballet at age 8, describes her mother as being strong-willed. “The answer ‘no’ didn’t exist to her. She could do anything and she felt that her kids could do anything.”
That didn’t mean it would be easy, however.
“I was not necessarily naturally talented,” Lanyi says. “I didn’t have the body for dance as a young child. I was crying, frustrated. But I kept going back. … I wanted to get it right. I finally got it right.”
The last time Lanyi performed with Richmond Ballet, in Lift the Fallen in May 2014, her mother was there to watch, even though at the time, she was receiving cancer treatment as part of a clinical trial through the University of California-Los Angeles Health System.
“My mom loved watching me dance,” Lanyi says, and enjoyed her daughter’s success as a dancer. “As long as I was happy dancing, she was happy I was doing it.”