Theater & dance

Boston Ballet’s Derek Dunn, on his toes

Pat Greenhouse/Globe Staff
Derek Dunn dances at a rehearsal of Balanchine’s version of “Coppélia,” being presented by Boston Ballet this month.

Boston Ballet’s Derek Dunn is a star on the rise. Impressive for his technical brilliance as well as his expressivity and deep musicality, Dunn joined the company in 2017 as a soloist, and he quickly began stepping into the spotlight. This season he was promoted to principal dancer, and he’s leaping into the major role of Frantz in Balanchine’s acclaimed version of the lighthearted classic “Coppélia,” which runs March 21-31 at the Citizens Bank Opera House. He’s poised to dance the prestigious opening-night performance of the ballet, a comic tale of mistaken identity involving a mad inventor, his lifelike doll, an amorous young man, and the man’s fiance.

Inspired by his older sister, Dunn, now 24, started dancing at age 6 in his hometown of Glen Burnie, Md., and he fell in love with ballet from the start. His teacher encouraged him to enter an international ballet competition when he was 12, and the young dancer found it both eye-opening and motivating. In high school, he boarded at the Rock School for Dance Education in Philadelphia to refine his technique, and by senior year he had a job with Houston Ballet, where he spent five years.

One of Dance Magazine’s “25 to Watch” in 2014, Dunn landed on the cover of Pointe Magazine two years later. One of the things that drew him to Boston Ballet was its landmark partnership with choreographer William Forsythe, and he spoke with the Globe just after the company’s opening weekend of “Full on Forsythe.”

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Q. You danced in all three pieces of the Forsythe program, right? How did it go?

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A. To be honest, this week leading up to the premiere has probably been one of the most intense workloads I’ve ever had. But it’s so gratifying every time we get onstage. The way Forsythe works is so special. To experience him firsthand, you get more of a sense of what he wants — dynamics, musicality, changing from super fast to stretching things out. He likes the element of surprise and encourages you to change it up, so it’s almost like doing a new show every time, little details that make it slightly different to keep it fresh.

Q. But you’re also in the middle of rehearsing your debut in the role of Frantz in “Coppélia.” That’s a big shift of gears, isn’t it, with very different technical and dramatic challenges?

A. Yes, but one of the things that’s so nice about Forsythe is that even with the changes and exaggerations, the steps are still classical, so I can still rely on my ballet technique foundation. But it’s different from “Coppélia,” which is strictly classical in lines and shapes. I’m trying to focus on one day at a time, taking ballet class every day. Forsythe’s work has very fast feet, shifting the body weight back and forth. “Coppélia” is more grand allegro, big jumps and more air time. They use different muscle groups, so I have to make sure I keep using them in class so I’m prepared. I have to trust that my body will be ready.

Also, I have to think about the story line. “Coppélia” uses mime, which is very different. I’m excited to get into the role of Frantz. He’s boyish, a little naïve. He probably knows what he’s doing is sneaky, being in love with one girl, but being curious about another. He turns into a man by the end, realizes what’s at stake, [that] what he has is great. It’ll be fun to play around with.

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Q. Why do you think this ballet is so popular?

A. It’s relatable, which is funny ’cause not many people fall in love with a doll in a window. But it’s about young love, and anybody can relate to that and the little dramas that come with it. It’s a happy, funny story. And I love that the music (by Léo Delibes) really matches the story perfectly, and the way Balanchine phrases and uses mime is done really well and accentuates the humor. Balanchine creates steps that highlight the dancers’ abilities, and everything flows.

Q. You’re also learning the iconic solo “Vestris” by Soviet-era Balanchine contemporary Leonid Yakobson for the program “Rhapsody” (May 16-June 9). The solo was originally created for a young Mikhail Baryshnikov. His are rather big shoes to fill.

A. Baryshnikov is still a huge role model, not just for his technique but his presence onstage. But I’m not going into this trying to be him. The dancing is really fun and the steps are beautiful, but the main point behind the solo is acting and bringing out different characters.

Q. You’ve been promoted to principal dancer after only a year and had some amazing opportunities. Did you expect that?

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A. Not at all. When I left Houston, I’d just been promoted to soloist, so when I came here I was a new soloist and just wanted to make sure they liked me. I had a lot to prove. I didn’t expect to rise this quickly. When [artistic director] Mikko [Nissinen] told me about the promotion, I said, “Are you sure?” I feel I have so much to learn, but I think I’ll always feel that way. There’s always something to work on and experience. I’m so grateful. I feel like this is just the beginning. . . . My job as an artist is to tell a story and make people feel something. I want to take whatever role I get and take it to that level of expression, turn it into art.

‘There’s always something to work on and experience. I’m so grateful. I feel like this is just the beginning.’

Q. What might people be surprised to learn about you?

A. I used to be a state champion swimmer. I’d swim two to three days a week, dance two to three days a week. I loved racing, but practicing was like pulling teeth. I never felt that way about dancing.

Q. What would you do if you couldn’t dance?

A. That’s the big scary question, isn’t it? I’d love to stay in the field and coach pre-professional students. But if it couldn’t be dancing, I’d really have to do some exploration to find out what interests me. It’s a scary thought, but kind of interesting. I’d find out some things about myself I don’t know. But I’ll cross that bridge when I come to it.

Coppélia

Presented by Boston Ballet. At the Citizens Bank Opera House, March 21-31. 617-695-6955, www.bostonballet.org

Interview has been edited and condensed. Karen Campbell can be reached at karencampbell4@rcn.com.