It’s been a season of late-career debuts at American Ballet Theater. Stella Abrera danced, heart-rendingly, her first Juliet in New York. Sarah Lane took on Nikiya in “La Bayadère.” Now, there will be a pair of debuts in the role of Kitri, the fan-flapping, fiery heroine of “Don Quixote.”
At the Metropolitan Opera House on Friday, Hee Seo performs opposite James Whiteside as Basilio; and on Saturday afternoon, Ms. Lane takes the stage with Herman Cornejo.
“I’ve been here two years longer than Hee, and now we’re finally doing our first ‘Don Q,’” said Ms. Lane, 33. She joined Ballet Theater in 2004 and was promoted to principal dancer last summer. Ms. Seo, 30, has been a principal since 2012.
“We had a lot of guest artists before, and I think that slowed down the process,” Ms. Lane said. “It’s so nice that finally we can step out of our boxes.”
The full-length “Don Quixote,” a comic, technically challenging three-act ballet, is a sparkling way for both of them to do just that. Their Kitris will likely have a different flavor and force — not only from each other’s, but also from memorable interpreters of the past, including Cynthia Harvey, Nina Ananiashvili and Paloma Herrera.
Ms. Seo and Ms. Lane are on the understated side: Ms. Seo, willowy and refined, is the epitome of elegance, while Ms. Lane, smaller, even dainty, possesses a vivid expressiveness. As for Kitri, they know what’s expected, and they’re taking her on full throttle — air bites and all.
What follows are excerpts from a recent conversation.
What is your approach to Kitri?
SARAH LANE As I get older, I want to be more womanly in my dancing. But I’ve had a difficult time connecting with the idea of being a big, womanly Kitri because it’s actually not who I am. For me, she needs to be more playful with lots of emotion. I’m definitely very emotional. I’ll try to just use it onstage instead of at home.
HEE SEO I had an image of Kitri that is very powerful and very strong with a bad temper — all you can imagine with this awesome dress. [She gestures to the tiers of ruffles in her lap.] But as I learn the ballet, I realize that she has to be bad, because she wants to get a hold of Basilio. His eyes are all over the girls. Like “Swan Lake,” I always thought the Black Swan was an evil creature, but she’s not: She’s doing her job and attracting this guy so he likes her. Kitri does the same thing in a more comical way.
How are you approaching the humor?
SEO I’m dancing with James Whiteside, and we’ve always joked that if we ever danced “Don Q” together, we were going to do a lot air bites. [She takes a bite at the air.] And really cheesy face expressions.
What inspired that?
SEO We’ve watched videos of it on YouTube, and some dancers do really weird stuff. But I think what is so great about this ballet is that you can be so in the moment. It’s an extremely hard ballet. Irina [Kolpakova, the ballet mistress] usually compares it to “Sleeping Beauty” Act I. It’s as hard as that, but not as serious.
LANE I tend to get very nervous and to not really trust myself, and I always hate it when you tense up onstage and you’re not really free and in the moment. For this ballet, it just can’t be that.
How did waiting so long to become promoted affect your dancing?
LANE I didn’t know if I would ever get these opportunities, and it came to me at a point where I was really ready to give up and move on with my life. And then it was just handed to me, so now it’s about knowing how to own it.
I didn’t know it was going to be as hard for me mentally as it has been. I was really excited to do “Giselle” and then it started going downhill from there [laughs]. Just feeling insecure or not sufficient. I’m learning how to deal with it.
What is it like to be in the company now without international dancers passing through?
SEO It’s more of a family.
LANE Everyone is more committed, whereas before there wasn’t much hope or motivation. Now people have something to work for.
You are dancing with Herman Cornejo. How is that going?
LANE We had several years of not really working together so much, so then to be reunited and dancing together — in these ballets that I’ve always wanted to do — it’s special. He won’t let me get in my head; he won’t let me be stupid. [Ms. Seo laughs.] It’s true, it’s true. Poor guy. He has a really hard job on his hands.
Do you have confidence issues?
SEO We all have issues of self-doubt. It’s important for me not to concentrate on a single step, but to see a whole variation or the whole ballet. If you think about the bigger picture rather than one small thing.
LANE That’s good advice for me.
SEO It was training myself: If things don’t work, I need to know my body well enough to fix the problem instead of going crazy.
The different acts in “Don Q” are like different worlds. Where do you feel most at home?
SEO Nowhere. [She cracks herself up.]
LANE At intermission.
What is the pressure like debuting a role at the Met?
LANE I’ve watched this ballet for 15, 16 years. It’s a very out-of-body experience. I want to do it right and I want to do it well and also enjoy it, which are two completely different things.
SEO Compared to other ballets, it’s less serious in the story, so that takes so much weight off my shoulders. Irina once said, “If you weren’t going to do fifth position, this is the ballet that you don’t have to. Act with the right style — that’s more important.”
The spirit is the most crucial part?
LANE Yes. She was getting on my case, too. She said, “Look at me! I’m 85 years old and I run better than you.”
SEO [Nodding] And she does.
LANE It’s like, wow — I really need to get some blood flowing.
Through Saturday at the Metropolitan Opera House, Manhattan; abt.org.