Since arriving in Vail a week ago, I have been wanting to chat with Lauren Lovette. She’s a bit of a wunderkind, an enigma of what seems to be pure joy mixed with a whole lot of talent. I must admit, I was hesitant to introduce myself, not only because Lauren has been busy here in Vail- multiple performances in each program, world premiere choreography, the usual- but also because I love her dancing and was afraid of having a Wizard of Oz situation. You know, the awful let down when the curtain is lifted and someone who seems magical is just smoke and mirrors? Guys, chatting with Lauren was completely the opposite.
I was walking home from the amphitheater between rehearsals and the NOW: Premieres performance when I saw Lauren sitting on a bench by herself. My feet started walking past, but my breath stopped, and I decided to say hello. With her new piece premiering in just a few hours, I figured Lauren might wave me away with her friendly smile and leave it at that. Instead she told me to sit down and chatted me up for over an hour.
I decided to transcribe this impromptu interview in two parts, and include the audio file of our conversation, should you prefer listening to reading. Here, in part one, we discuss her introduction to dance, the surprising nature of her promotions, and how she’s opening herself up to new opportunities…
K: So, how long have you been in New York? A long time…
L: I’ve been in New York for eleven years? Maybe almost twelve?
K: Wow. So you’re, like, an official New Yorker.
L: I think I’m a New Yorker?
K: I think you’re a New Yorker.
L: I don’t know, though, because I’ve been on the Upper West Side almost the entire time I’ve been there, and I got there when I was fourteen, so I feel like in some ways I don’t know the city at all. But yeah, I’m a New Yorker.
K: You’re a New Yorker, that counts. Where are you from originally?
K: Wow, so that’s a big difference then.
L: Yeah, I’m from L.A. kind of area, Malibu Beach.
K: Was it hard to leave?
L: Yeah, yeah. It was really hard to leave. I was homeschooled my whole life, actually. SO I never left home. I was with my family all the time. And then I left for a summer program when I was thirteen, and the next year they asked me to stay and that was that. My parents said they would take it as a sign if I got a full scholarship, and my family doesn’t come from money either, so it was almost cheaper for me to leave. They paid for my room and board, my tuition, everything.
K: Kinda hard to say no…
L: It was hard to say no, so I just left. But it was a hard day. My mom, at the time, worked for American Airlines, so it wasn’t so bad. They could come in with free flights. But they haven’t been to New York in a while and I miss them.
K: Did you know about New York City Ballet as a kid? What was your childhood with dance like?
L: Not really. So, I got into dance because my cousin danced. I think I picked it up from her, I really idolized my cousin. She was four or five years older than me. My parents, since we were homeschooled, they kind of let us go and play with our cousins a lot. My family and friend like were one. [laughs]
I would hang out at [my aunt’s] dance store and that’s sort of how I got into it. I was dancing around the store and somebody saw my feet and told me I should dance. I think I gave some long explanation about how my parents couldn’t afford it or something, I don’t know.
K: How old were you?
L: I was ten. And [this woman] talked to my aunt and worked it all out that I would have free classes for a week, a month, and then a year after that.
K: And this is just someone who saw you?
L: Mhm. I have the dancer kind of bendy feet, and I think she saw my body type and was like “You look like you’ve got the long legs, you look like a dancer,” and I was Jeannette’s cousin so I think she thought I might have some talent because my cousin was really talented. I don’t know. But that was the first time anyone every told me I could be good at anything, so I was very excited about that.
K: And you obviously were already interested.
L: I was interested, yeah, I liked to move. I would always stand on my toes, even without shoes- I remember that. I would go all the way up to the tips of my bare feet. So that when I got my first pair of pointe shoes it felt good. [laughs]
K: [laughs] Yeah, you were like, “Wow, this is easier.”
L: Yeah instead of bad I was like “Wow, so much easier!” [laughs] So I think it was meant to be in that sense, but I hadn’t really thought about New York City Ballet until later. I just had videos from the library so all I saw was Julie Kent and ABT, and I wanted to be like Julie…
But there was this girl- my whole family moved to North Carolina when I was twelve, almost thirteen- and I saw this local student there who was amazing. She always went to SAB [School of American Ballet] every summer. It was the first time I’d ever heard of it. I wanted to be like her so I thought “Okay, I’ll audition.” I didn’t get in the first time I tried, I was really sad. But then the next time I did and the whole thing just happened. So I didn’t even really know what it was I wanted, I just knew I wanted to be like Sally. [laughs] And then I got to New York and I was like “Oh, this is really hard! This is crazy and everybody’s really good and it’s cutthroat.” But I liked the work so…
K: Spoken like a true dancer.
L: Yeah, dancers love it. They love the impossible. Come on, correct me a million times!
L: I think I was asked to stay around the same time I learned about New York City Ballet. So I was almost living in New York before I knew anything about what I was doing. Which I think is kind of better sometimes, because I feel like you can get kinda lost in how you envision your life to go, and then the every day you kinda lose. So I knew I loved ballet, and I knew I loved working in the studio, and I knew I loved New York City, and it didn’t matter what happened after that, so I kinda just kept going.
K: It wasn’t as much about a goal as it was the present moment and just doing what you wanted to do.
L: It was the present moment. Then I just got a ton of free tickets to see New York City Ballet every night, which I took big advantage of. I went all the time. I liked to go by myself. I would sit by myself and imagine myself doing what they were doing.
K: So from your experience at SAB, how was it getting into the company? What was the transition like, what was the time like?
L: It was crazy. I did my workshop performance and six girls from my class got chosen into the company, and I wasn’t one of them. They asked me to come back another year and didn’t let me audition for companies. So it was this weird time where I didn’t know if I wanted to dance, or if I was any good. I wasn’t good enough for New York City Ballet- I thought- because, you know, six girls got picked over me. I thought maybe I must be really weak.
I auditioned for Chautauqua [Institution Summer Dance Intensive], so I ended up going there [for the summer]. I choreographed there, I liked the choreography thing. I thought, “Well maybe I’ll do a little bit more of that or just move back home and just be with my family.”
But I went back for another year at SAB, just to finish it. When I went back to the school year and I was with all of the younger class. It just felt like failure a little bit. But I choreographed that fall, too, for their choreographic workshop. I think in hindsight it was the best thing that could’ve happened to me, because I went to Chautauqua and got to make two different works on a real stage with costumes and live music and all of that, it was really valuable. And then back at SAB I got a little blurb in the paper and Peter Martins saw my choreography. I think in hindsight everything went as it was meant to go, but at the time, I was really depressed and sad.
And then it was actually the day before Halloween- I remember, I had my costume all ready, I was gonna be a butterfly in class- and I got this call to go to a meeting. It was me and three really tall blondes. And I thought, “What’s this all about? This is crazy we don’t look anything alike.”
K: [laughs] Strange group!
L: [laughs] Yeah I was like, “I’m really the odd one out here!” But they gave us apprenticeships for Nutcracker, because they needed girls. It was…weird. I don’t know, I was excited, but also just…every promotion I’ve always felt this way that I’ve been sort of out of my body. Like it’s happening and I always imagined it would be this big moment, and it never felt that way. It’s always been very practical.
So I got asked into the company and I thought, “Okay what does this mean? I guess I have rehearsal tomorrow,” which I did. I didn’t need my Halloween costume anymore. [laughs] I was like, “Okay! I’m in New York City Ballet!”
K: That’s crazy, so the next day you started?
L: Yeah, they don’t prepare you or warn you, really. They just kinda throw you in. So, we were called like, “second apprentices” by some of the girls for a while, because I was behind the other girls that got in. But still in the same year, so…
K: How competitive is it actually?
L: I mean it’s not Black Swan, but it is hard. There were nine of us, nine girls as apprentices that year. So every time the schedule comes out, you look at it and you’re like, “Is my name on there?” We had every height of girl you could be, every kind of dancer. Girls that were better at long, slow, adagio things, quick movers, just every kind of dancer.
Apprenticeship is already hard: you don’t know your surroundings, you’re at the bottom, you think everyone is talking about you- they’re not- but you think that they are. You’re very self-conscious, and then you’re trying to guess what your boss wants. It was stressful and hard and some of the older girls would say, “Oh, you’re not allowed to wear warmups,” or “Oh, you’re not allowed to sit down”, which isn’t necessarily true. [laughs]
K: [Laughing]Power trip…
K: You find out later on…you’re like mmmm? Like you’re not going around saying that to people now…
L: No, not now. So I mean, the company changes every year based on how the older dancers treat the younger ones. I’m always really nice to the younger dancers if I can be, just to make them feel welcome. But that first year was hard. I think I had a head on most of the time, like some kind of costume with a giant face covering my face? [laughs]
K: That’s what I was gonna say when you were talking earlier about, you know, trying to guess what the director wants and it’s like you’re not able to really be yourself as much.
L: No, you’re trying to be something that you don’t know yet.
K: Yeah, exactly. It must be nice to now be able to be free.
L: Yeah, it is. And that’s how I felt when I got my corps contract. It was the best. You can only do so many ballets as an apprentice or else they have to hire you, full on. And they usually don’t have the money for that, so they limit what you do. You understudy a lot, but you usually don’t get put in. When I got my corps contract I thought, “Now I can dance any ballet. I can dance all day long. There’s nothing to stop me. I can do anything!” It was very freeing, just to have the validation, and the job security. [laughs] Like, okay, it’s not just a year- even though our contracts are still yearly it’s better than an apprentice contract.
All nine of us got in that year, which didn’t help with the whole “What does my boss want?” question. We were still all so different! But yeah, it was really exciting. We were all living in the same house in Saratoga, so it’s a good thing that we all got in, or else it would’ve been very sad.
K: Are a lot of you still in the company?
L: No, actually, I’d say maybe half of us are gone now.
K: Oh no, that’s sad!
L: I think maybe happier, though? A lot friends went to school. Dancers are some of the smartest people ever. Some went to Barnard some went to Harvard, Princeton, one is training for NASA. It’s crazy, dancers can do anything.
K: It’s so true.
L: So, yeah, I was still searching in the corps, for who I was. Not really sure if I liked being a ballerina, not sure if I loved the job. And then I got my soloist contract, and that was when it really felt right, because I don’t like staying in line [laughs] I’m not good at it. I’m not good at looking like other people. I try really hard, but it’s just not my gift. As soon as I was free of that, I felt like a whole nother dimension of my dancing could shine through and I could just be myself. It was a very validating moment in my career.
K: Did you see it coming at all?
L: No. I mean, I was doing a lot, I remember I had three debuts in Sleeping Beauty in a week, and I was learning two new ballets, [George Balanchine’s] Dances at a Gathering and [Peter Martins’] Zakousky for the Moves Tour, our small company tour. I was just flooded with work, I remember.
K: You weren’t really thinking about whether or not you were gonna get promoted.
L: No. I was just worried about what was in front of me. I barely had enough rehearsals for what I was doing. I think I learned Zakousky in two days. I liked it, but I was also really tired at the time. I find that before every promotion, you’re kind of put through the fire a bit.
K: And you’re kind of doing the work of both…
L: Yeah, you’re doing all of your corps ballets and you’re doing special highlighted things, it’s just a tough time. I think that’s when you know, I always tell younger dancers, I’m like, “If you feel like you’re gonna die, if you feel like you’re being worked to the bone and you’re not sure how you’re gonna do another day, you’re probably on the verge of something really great.” You just can’t give up, and you can’t let the attitude go bad. I remember when I got my soloist contract, my boss said he liked my attitude the most. He said he watched me from his office. So even when we don’t know he’s watching, he has a video camera of the stage. He said I always did every rehearsal full out, and he liked my spirit and my energy at work. So, that was a nice thing to hear from my boss.
K: That’s a great thing to hear. That’s super validating. All the work that you’re doing, all of the integrity…
K: Yeah, totally matters.
L: I tell other dancers that too when they start to get down I say, “Don’t. Enjoy the work, keep it up, You’re on the verge of something great. If you let it sour you, right at the cusp of something, then it’s not good.”
K: So did you feel sort of the same thing when you got your principal contract? That “through the fire”, or…
L: You know, it was weird. My principal contract happened in a way…I don’t know how to describe it. It was not what I pictured it to be. I’d had a lot of big moments, I had just done La Sylphide, my first full length ballet, and I felt like a ballerina, but my foot was in a lot of pain.
So I was dancing with an extra bone in my foot for like seven years I think it was, or six years- knowing about it. I was getting to this point where I felt like I wasn’t able to push the way I wanted to.
K: Because of the pain?
L: Yeah, I was in a lot of pain, I didn’t feel like a principal. I was taking it easy a lot, really going for it on stage but not warming up well because it hurt so bad. So I was really going through a lot at that time and a lot of personal stuff, too, in my life. I wasn’t really thinking about getting promoted, I was thinking about healing. I did La Sylphide and I was thinking if there was ever a moment where I might get promoted it would probably be after that, like, “Your big show! Maybe!” [laughs] But I didn’t get promoted, and I had my surgery scheduled right after that big performance, so I thought, “Alright, well, I’m not gonna get a promotion, that’s cool. That’s fine, it’s not the right time. I’m gonna go into this surgery, hopefully I’m gonna come back okay.” I had never had an injury before that put me out for a long period of time.
So I did this performance, got surgery on my foot and then two weeks later while still in a boot, I got a call to have a meeting with Peter. I thought, “Oh no, maybe it’s about the injury”, and then nobody was in the office. So I found somebody who said, “Oh yeah, go down to the stage.” The final performance of the season had just wrapped up and I hobbled across the stage in my boot, and my boss was just standing there in the wings talking to someone else. He turned around and went, [in her best Peter Martins voice] “Oh!”, slapped my on the back, “Uh, I’m promoting you!” And I thought, “What? I’m in a boot!” And he said, “You’re not surprised!” And then he left! He said, “Get a drink on me”, and then he just left and I thought, “That’s the weirdest thing, like is that real? I thought this would be a big moment like maybe he’d tell me all the great things about my dancing or what I’ve done or how proud is or just something…but instead it was like I’m doing this thing, you’re not surprised…bye! Go heal for six months. [laughs]
So it kinda did some weird things to me mentally, I didn’t know how a principal should be. I didn’t really see it in myself yet, and I knew I’d have to come back after all this time offstage and with a new title, be that thing, which I was already unsure about. So it worked out in the end…
K: Yeah, I mean, it definitely worked out!
L: It was just a different way around the issue. It never happens the same for anybody, so, that was just mine.
K: So when was that?
L: That was 2015. And then for about a year my foot was still hurting me after the surgery. I struggle with stage freight a lot and anxiety, so I was having a hard time. And then more personal stuff in my life was happening, so it was just tough.
And then around Christmas, my boss came up to me and asked me to choreograph, asked me to make a ballet. He said, [again in her best Peter Matins], “New Lovette: 2016. What do you think?”, and I just stared at him like, “Okay! Sure!” [laughs]
It was genius. It was exactly what I needed, that I didn’t even know I needed. Something to get me out of my head.
Stay tuned to hear the rest of our conversation, in which Lauren discusses choreographing, her experience in Vail and finding inspiration, coming soon.