James Whiteside and Devon Teuscher in White Swan Pas de Deux, photo by Erin Baiano.
Last week I caught up with American Ballet Theater (ABT) principal, James Whiteside, between rehearsals at the Vail Dance Festival. James filled me in on his longtime love of ABT, his tap background, and his upcoming travels to Tokyo.
Kirsten: How long have you been at American Ballet Theater now?
James: This will be my fifth season with ABT.
K: How did you come to your decision to leave Boston Ballet?
J: Well I had always had my eye on ABT, ever since I was a teenager. It was the first big ballet company I saw and I was immediately obsessed.
After being in Boston for 10 years, I wanted to be inspired by new dancers, new work, new challenges, and New York City itself. So I auditioned on a day off during Nutcracker season in Boston, which is insane. Sometimes we do over 40 performances of Nutcracker, so I took the red-eye Fung Wah bus, back when that was still a thing, and I took ballet class with ABT. They offered me a soloist contract.
K: What was your transition into ABT like?
J: It was foreign and familiar all at once. The ballet world is very small, so I knew a lot of the dancers from- this, that, and the other- from guest performances, from summer programs, and stuff. But the rep at ABT is completely different from the rep at Boston. We did a lot of Balanchine, a lot of neoclassical work, a lot of contemporary work [at Boston Ballet]. ABT does big classics. Swan Lake, Sleeping Beauty, Giselle, etc. So I had to learn all of ABT’s rep in an extremely short time, and I did an obscene amount of debuts that first year. Then I was promoted to Principal in the Fall.
K: Do you feel like you’ve adjusted to New York life?
J: I’m from Fairfield, Connecticut, so I spent a lot of time in the city as a kid, going to Broadway Dance Center, seeing Broadway shows with my dance teachers. I’ve had my heart close to New York City for a long time. So it feels more like a homecoming.
K: So now your address just matches your…
J: …my soul.
K: [Laughs] Now, this isn’t your first time in Vail.
J: This is my third year in Vail. My first year I only did one ballet. Last year I did a lot, this year I’m doing a lot, and I’m coming back next year.
K: So it just progresses more and more as you keep coming back?
J: Yeah, they make you work! Damn! It’s really, really ambitious. Incredibly ambitious. In a way, it feels like our New York season: putting together a large amount of things in a short amount of time. It’s crazy, this festival has gained so much visibility in the dance world. It’s become the dance festival.
K: What keeps you coming back to the Vail Dance Festival?
J: My favorite thing about this festival is the location, the setting, the nature.
K: It really is beautiful. Has the altitude been an adjustment?
J: Oh, of course. Everything is harder here, without a doubt.
K: So what are you performing in Vail this year?
J: I have danced the White Swan Pas de Deux with fellow ABT Principal Devon Teuscher. I have also danced Michelle Dorrance’s 1-2-3-4-5-6, where I had to do a lot of tapping, so that was fun. I tapped as a teenager, so it was nice to revisit it. I did a new ballet [Farewell] by Matthew Neenan on Saturday night. I danced with an old colleague of mine, Misa Kuranaga. We danced together a lot in Boston. It was so nice to dance with her again, she’s an extraordinary dancer.
I’ll be dancing in the new Michelle Dorrance ballet- I keep calling it a ballet, but it’s a dance. [Laughs] I don’t know what it’s called, but it is epic, and ambitious and daring and I just can’t believe we’re doing it tonight. I’m a little stressed out.
K: [Laughs] That’s kind what the festival is about though, right?
J: Amen to that! It all will come together, I know it will.
K: Definitely will. So that’s a big piece…
J: Yeah, it’s about 30 minutes long. It’s a big cast from all different backgrounds. We’re tapping, we’re…not tapping.
K: [Laughs] All of the in between…
J: Yes. [Laughs]
K: So what’s up next after Vail?
J: My summer has been completely booked with festivals and galas. It’s been exceptionally fun. It’s been like a tour- I feel like I’m on a rock concert tour. I’ve been a lot of places, I’m going a lot of places.
The next stops on my “summer gig tour” are Sun Valley, Idaho, which has a similar beauty to this, actually. And Tokyo.
K: No big deal. “Oh yeah, Toyko.”
J: Oh yeah, Toyko. [Laughs]
K: Have you been before?
J: I’ve been to Toyko before, yeah. It’s just so strange and wonderful. Just so different.
K: Dream destination for me.
J: And then I have my Fall season with American Ballet Theater. I have some personal projects in the works, which if you follow me on my various socials, you’ll learn of.
K: So back up for a second, though, what are you going to be doing in Tokyo?
J: In Tokyo, I am choreographing and dancing in a Disney ballet DVD release of Beauty and the Beast.
K: What? Stop! That’s awesome.
J: Yeah, it’ll be Misa and me.
K: That’s really exciting. And what are you doing in Sun Valley?
J: In Sun Valley I’m dancing [George] Balanchine’s Rubies Pas de Deux with Tiler Peck. I’m also doing a solo I created to Louis Armstrong’s You Rascal You, which I made a short film for years ago that people really liked. The premise is that I have killed my wife’s lover. I’m really excited about it, I’m dancing around in the streets. You can view it on Youtube.*
K: Great! Are you looking forward to getting back to New York after that?
J: Yes. But I actually haven’t had a day off since June, so next week from Wednesday to Wednesday, I’ll be in Provincetown, Massachusetts.
K: Ah, I love Provincetown! So beautiful.
Thank you for chatting with me, James! Enjoy some well deserved rest in P-town.
*Editor’s note: I watched James’ You Rascal You video immediately after transcribing this interview and- oh my goodness- go watch it right now. Please.
In the second half of our chat, Lauren Lovette discusses choreographing for New York City Ballet and the Vail Dance Festival, the pitfalls and triumphs of honing new skills, and how she felt before her big premiere that evening. She tells us all about her favorite kind of dancer to work with, collaborating with designers, and what’s up next. If you are listening, please excuse the lawn mower and sounds of children playing- we were on a park bench!
If you are reading, right this way…
Kirsten: So, would this be your third time choreographing?
Lauren: Well, I made a lot of things in school, but technically this is my second big commission. Here in Vail.
K: So at New York City [Ballet] would’ve been your first.
L: Yup! It’s so typical “New York City Ballet” to be like, “Oh, you’re an apprentice, let’s give you a principal role,” or, “Oh, you’re brand new as a principal- it hasn’t been done maybe ever- but, make a ballet! On New York City Ballet!” So the pressure was a lot, but I really had fun. It happened really fast. At the moment I don’t think I was terribly proud of what I made, I think it felt unfinished to me. But the second time it came around I made some changes and it felt more like a ballet and more cohesive and I was proud of it.
K: How long did you have to make it the first time?
L: I think about three weeks? I had a cast of 17 dancers, which I don’t know why I did that to myself. I picked the music, I picked the amount of people, everything…
K: That’s so funny, I was just talking to Jeff [Cirio] about his project [Cirio Collective], and he was like, “The first time I did it I gave myself 4 days to choreograph- I don’t know why I did that to myself!”
L: [Laughs] Yeah, like why?! I think we’re just ambitious, I don’t know. But it happened, I did it. I ended up finishing the piece the day of or the day before in the stage rehearsal. It was definitely a lot of pressure.
K: Where did your inspiration come from for that?
L: I’ve been watching and being a part of new works with the company for a while, and I have a lot of friends that support and have supported the company since Balanchine’s time, so I get a lot of feedback from people who say they’re tired of the minimal music. They miss classical music, something beautiful to really listen to and to get lost in. Kind of old ballet, how it was. Less of the new, modern, contemporary stuff and more of a classical ballet. I hadn’t seen that in a while either, just dancing in the company, so I thought that would be kind of a good place to start.
I had a timeline, which was my only restriction, so I thought, “Okay, I’ll look for classical music that’s like 15 minutes long.” That turned out to be harder than I thought. I did a lot of searching and in Spotify I found this really great Schumann piece- but it was so big. And I thought, “There’s so many instruments, this is orchestral. I can’t just have like three people onstage, it doesn’t make sense!” So, that’s where the 17 people came in.
Then I found a beautiful design that Narciso Rodriguez did and I thought, “That’s clean and classic and I feel like a lot of the costumes nowadays are getting really loud distracting.” I really wanted to do just clean ballet.
L: So it all just kinda happened that way. I didn’t have an idea of what it would look like until the end. [Laughs] And it definitely came with a lot of bumps. Learning how to lead people is hard, balancing dancing and choreography is really hard. That was probably the hardest part was learning [George Balanchine’s] Stravinsky Violin Concerto and I don’t know what else I learned that season, couple of other things- [George Balanchine’s] Liebeslieder [Walzer], I think, but I was just dancing quite a bit, less than usual, but still dancing a lot, and then putting the choreography in. It was a lot.
K: How did you manage that, time-wise, energy-wise?
L: I think it’s just a muscle. I’m used to the physical muscle being exercised, but the mental one is a different game, and it takes endurance just like anything else. Being in charge of the energy of a room is difficult for me sometimes, because I’m easy to read.
K: Not a good poker face?
L: Yeah, I’m not a good poker face, at all. [Laughs] It can be a great thing because your vulnerable with the people that are in the room and that can create beautiful art, but at the same time, if you’re having a bad day, or if you’re unsure or you’re scared or if you don’t believe in yourself that day, everybody knows. That was more of the exhausting part for me. That and speaking up- trying to understand where somebody else is coming from, explaining to them what’s in your head is really hard.
K: Putting it into words…
L: Putting it into words [laughs]. The partnering was not easy. That’s a whole nother skill that I hadn’t really thought much of up until, “Oh, make a pas de deux. What is the guy doing back there? I don’t know, I haven’t thought much about it.” [Laughs] It was only good for me, but also yeah, very stressful.
K: So how are you approaching [choreographing] coming into it again?
L: Well I’m finally ready now! At least I know what to expect. I feel like that’s half of it is I just didn’t know. Now this year I know how the Fall Fashion Gala goes, I kind of know how much time it takes me to create movement to music and how much time I need depending how large the piece is. Kind of know my mental state that I need to be in before even entering the room? I know now how much I need prepared and how much I can just do on the spot. So that’s good! [Laughs]
K: That’s always a good first step! [Laughs]
L: It’s a start!
K: Would you say that you have a style of choreography that’s your own?
L: No, I don’t think I want one yet. I feel like on purpose I kinda wanted to do something very different here in Vail than what I did in the Fall for New York City Ballet, and then what I’m gonna do this Fall with New York City Ballet is gonna be even different than that. I wanna study all of the sides of myself. To do that, I try to pick different music and different concepts. Also, it’s easier to work on multiple things at the same time if they’re different.
So this piece [for the Vail Dance Festival] was flat shoes, and poetry, and more contemporary style dancing, floor work, stuff like that- which I never do. Last Fall was classical and I think this fall will be more contemporary ballet. A little edgier, a little bit braver. I wanna experiment more with partnering and with lighting. It’s just nobody teaches you how to do that stuff! Suddenly you have to make all of these decisions and you don’t know how. You’re like, “Okay, I guess I get to decide what everybody looks like!” That’s difficult, but it’s also really fun when it’s all put together at the end and you get to watch. It feels really good.
K: Do you get nervous watching?
L: Oh yeah! [Laughs]
K: Like more nervous than dancing?
L: Yes. I’m so scared for tonight because I’m in my own work now for this summer and I don’t know how to do that really. I gave all the hardest things to myself, because I didn’t want to put them on everybody else, but now I feel like I’m in charge of making it look good. It’s not a good place to be. [Laughs]
K: No, it’ll be fine! But it’s nerve-racking.
L: It’s nerve-racking!
K: But maybe it’s better that way, because you don’t have to sit in the audience and like…
L: …just sweat. [Laughs] It does feel really connected. I’m also realizing how important it is that I pick good energies to work with instead of just talented people. It really matters in a creative process who wants to be there, who’s willing to work. That brings a positive spin to your day. At least for me it’s really important, because I’m sensitive to energy in a room. That’s been really cool this summer, just working with a lot of talented women, but also just passionate and positive women. I’ve loved that. It creates a whole other layer of creativity.
K: And it’s more fun.
L: Yeah! It’s more fun.
K: So, were you able to just pick [the dancers] you wanted?
L: Actually, no. Damian [Woetzel] chose, because there was no way I would know who was dancing here. So Damian kinda told me who was available, and I told him my concept and told him kind of what I wanted. He said I have these women available and asked if I could dance in my own. [Laughs] I was like, “Okay!” I think he wanted me to be a part of this evening, but it would’ve been too much if I was in another, there would have been no way to do the scheduling. So I got put in my own work.
I’ve learned a lot about myself in that department, I think it’s been good.
K: Yeah, a good learning experience before you move on and keep doing more choreography.
L: I don’t think I’ll keep doing that. I think I like choreographing on other people more than myself, but at least I know I can do it. [Laughs]
K: And where else to experiment but here?
L: Exactly, in Vail. And we’ll see how I feel after tonight. Maybe it’ll be the most freeing feeling ever. People say that’s the case.
K: I guess we’ll find out!
L: Yeah, who knows, the sky is the limit. I can change it in the moment if I want to, I guess! I’m the choreographer, I can do whatever I want. [Laughs]
K: That’s kinda nice! So, about tonight [Now Premieres: Celebrating Women Choreographers], what’s your take on all of that? Like I don’t want to ask you like, [pretentious reporter voice] “Why do you feel it’s important that women choreograph…”
L: I know…I never know what to say to that…
K: …because of course it’s important, but it’s not any more important than…
L: Yeah, it just needs to be normalized somehow, and I don’t think having a bunch all-female choreography evenings is normalizing it. It’s still segregating it a little bit. It’s great, I think it’s better than not having women involved at all…I don’t know. I don’t htink we should be treated any differently.
K: Yeah, I agree.
L: And I definitely don’t want to be hired because I’m a girl. I want to be hired because somebody saw my work and thought it was good or they believe in what I do.
But it’s also, you know, if that’s why people are hiring me to do work, because I’m a girl, well, I’ll take it and run with it then! [Laughs] That’s fine!
L: I’ll still make it good, I’ll make it count.
K: And you’re still getting your name out there.
L: Yeah, I’m still getting my name out there and I’m still learning a lot. I think even if I didn’t get a lot of commissions for choreography, if there’s a quiet spell after all of this hype leaves, I’ll still make stuff for myself. But I try not to think about it too much. I just do what I’m told. You want me make a ballet? Sure! I’ll make a ballet. [Laughs] And I’ll do it the way I like it and I’ll have fun in the process.
I like using different people every time. Highlighting what’s special about people is the best part. Especially my coworkers because I see them all the time.
K: Right, so you know.
L: I know, we’re a huge company- almost 100 people- so it’s easy to get lost. And I feel like a lot of dancers do, and they have these amazing gifts that never get seen. You can see them sometimes in class, but if you don’t get the role, then you don’t get challenged and you don’t get seen. It doesn’t mean you can’t do it, it just means that you haven’t had the opportunity yet. So if I can offer opportunities to those who don’t get them…
K: Even better!
L: It’s just a win for me. I like to focus there more than I focus on, “Oh, what are the dance critics gonna think?” I think about the audience- you have to think about your audience- I wanted to cater to them, too. We are in show business. [Laughs]
K: So do you think you’ll go for another big cast in the Fall [at New York City Ballet]?
L: I’m gonna go with 10 people. A little less, but still pretty big. I found that last year my work got a little too busy because I wanted to showcase all of these things that I loved about the different corps de ballet dancers and everybody. You can’t highlight people as easily in a short amount of time if the cast is too big. I still have big music, so I needed at least 10 [dancers]. I feel like it’ll be a good amount. I’m excited.
K: That seems like a good amount.
L: I’m using a great designer, Monse, their new. A man and woman duo team. Their stuff is just spectacular. It’s gonna be really cool, edgy…it definitely has its own voice. All of their shots are moving, that’s what first drew me to them. Their clothes have life through movement. There’s nothing better than to put dance in that capacity. They have feminine clothing, but it still has an edge to it that’s like, “Don’t mess with me.” [Laughs] So I think it’s gonna be really beautiful. I have my initial designs and we’re tweaking it right now.
K: Do you get to pick [whatever designer] you wanna work with?
L: Mhm. Well, out of [a list of] names. It’s so crazy, it feels like fate; I knew about Monse before they ever gave us a list of people, and I had designs of their up on my phone for a few months that I was showing everyone like, “This new designer is so cool, look at their stuff, I love this dress,” and then I had no idea what names were going to be given to me to choose from. There were five or six names on there, and Monse was the last one.
L: And I thought, “That’s insane!” I don’t know how that manifested itself into my life, but it did! Tears almost came into my eyes. I got them immediately. So that’s that plan.
The same thing kind of happened with this piece in Vail, with my poet. I knew I wanted to do spoken word but I didn’t know how it was gonna come about. Listening to a bunch of different poets on Spotify, I found Andrea [Gibson] deep through the grapevine…
K: [Laughs] In the interwebs.
L: Yeah, in the interwebs of Spotify. Their stuff was just so danceable to me, and all the words hit home. So I asked Damian, “Would this be okay? Is this an artist I can use?”, and they happen to live in Boulder…
K: No way! That’s crazy!
L: …which is two hours away from Vail! I feel like you can put things out into the universe and then you know you’re doing the right thing when that window or door opens up.
So it’s sorta the same thing with my designer in the Fall. And I have some other commissions coming up after that I can’t talk about yet, but it’s continuing on.
K: Good, there’s more on the horizon.
L: Yeah, there’s more. I wanna keep trying different things, testing myself in different ways. I think my next piece after the Fall will be more mathematical and angular, because I don’t usually do that. I usually do a lot of free arms and romantic movements. I put a lot of human elements in, so there’s a lot of drama. I don’t know if there will be in my next one, I wanna test myself in another way.
K: Cool. That’s exciting.
L: I don’t know. There not all gonna be successful, but I gotta keep exercising the cogs.
K: Yeah, put it all out there! See how it goes, why not?
K: What’s up next after Vail?
L: New York City Ballet. The Fall Fashion, then we have our season, then I go into my next project immediately.
K: So do you have time off after this?
L: [Laughs] No, I go to Mexico. Sorry I forgot to mention that! I’m going to Mexico to dance [George Balanchine’s] Rubies with Jeff Cirio. That’ll be fun. After that I have about a week before I start back [at New York City Ballet]. I’ll probably be preparing since I’ve been so busy here in Vail, I haven’t had a lot of time to think about the Fall and because I know how fast it goes I wanna be ready this year.
It’ll be half rest, half mental preparations…
K: That’s good!
L: Yeah! Maybe I’ll rest my body and exercise my mind. [Laughs]
K: And stay sane somehow. So how are you feeling before [the premiere of your new piece, Angels of the Get-Through] tonight?
L: I feel good.
K: Do you feel relaxed?
L: I feel as relaxed as I ever feel before anything big? I’m not a very relaxed person, if you know me. Um, I’m kinda always- I’m high strung I guess you could say. I’m anxious a lot, especially before shows.
K: How do you calm yourself down?
L: Man, I really wish I knew! [Laughs] I’m still figuring it out. I feel like some shows are better than others. What I have loved about this summer here in Vail is the coaching has been so good, with Heather Watts and Damian Woetzel. I feel like I’ve really climbed this mountain, or crossed this barrier that’s been building up for a long time. Yeah, it felt good to just go for it. I don’t even really care what it looks like to the audience, as long as I know that I went for it.
It’s more of a personal thing for me, being on stage. Rehearsal I always give like a performance for some reason [laughs], it just feels like it. As soon as it’s show time, I usually hold back, because I want it to be perfect or I just doubt myself in the moment. When the lights go on or I know people are watching me it just takes me out of that element where I can just give the art. I had a bunch of “Aha!” moments here in Vail where I just did it. And it felt really good to just do it! And I want to carry that over into my performing back in New York City.
I don’t know how I got into the performing arts. [Laughs] I don’t know how my personality ended up here, but it did. And when I do it- when I just do it- I don’t know a greater feeling. I think that’s what keeps me in the game.
K: You just gotta keep doing that more.
L: Yeah! It’s the facing of the fear that’s kind of what I’m addicted to now. And for choreography I love it so much more because they do it, and I enjoy it. And I’m like, so supportive. I’m like, “You’re all beautiful!” I like that side of the game, but for now, I’m in the game. And I don’t wanna waste that time.
K: You have to enjoy it. Life is too short- not even the career’s too short- but life is too short.
L: Mhm, exactly. I’m lucky! I feel lucky that I am forced out of my shell all the time. It’s very uncomfortable and I feel tired a lot. [Laughs]
K: [Laughs] It’s exhausting!
L: It’s exhausting! But I’m happy about it because, I mean, home-schooled me, who’s afraid of swimming, and climbing, and any game that they don’t know, and reading in public, and talking to people in public- I talked for a baby voice for a while [laughs]- I don’t know. I just feel like I was born into this world afraid of most things and I’m lucky that this is what I do and it forces me out there. Because now I can do podcasts and interviews and I feel okay.
K: Yeah! You sound great.
L: I can go in front of a camera, and I hated that my whole life. Now it’s fine, you know, I do a lot of photoshoots. I don’t know, being on stage…comes and goes. [Laughs] Still figuring it out! But more wins than losses now. And it’s just good. I don’t know of any other way that I would get those growths as a person, other than ballet. So, I’m very grateful.
From here, Lauren and I launched into a long discussion about her recent decision to adopt a vegan diet. She has so much to share, but I think I will let you tune in to The Whole Dancer‘s upcoming workshop with Lauren for the inside scoop ;) A huge thank you to Lauren Lovette for taking the time to talk with me.
Seventeen-year-old Fort Worth Texas native, Roman Mejia, is having an eventful summer: graduation from The School of American Ballet in June, performing in the Vail Dance Festival in August, and the start of an apprenticeship with the New York City Ballet later this month. I caught up with this charismatic newbie to see how he’s coping…
Kirsten: You’ve just recently graduated from The School of American Ballet (SAB). Was that bittersweet?
Roman: Yes, sort of, but I’m really excited because I’m starting with New York City Ballet soon, so I’m still in New York.
K: And you’re doing exactly what you wanted to be doing. That’s so great! You’re sort of the newcomer at this year’s Vail Dance Festival. How did you get involved?
R: Well, I was walking into rehearsal at the State Theater in New York and Tiler Peck stopped me and asked if I knew who Damian Woetzel was, and I told her of course I know who Damian Woetzel is. [laughs] She said, “Well, we do this little festival in the summer and Damian would love for you to be a part of it.”
K: This “little festival”, haha, I love it. And here you are. So what are you performing?
K: And how long have you been rehearsing all of that?
R: Well, the new Dorrance piece is being created here in Vail. I started the new Neenan ballet while I was still in New York a few months before SAB ended for me. After graduation I really started working on Tarantella.
K: So this is sort of the first thing you’re doing since leaving SAB?
R: This is actually the first gig I’ve ever done.
K: Ah, that’s exciting! A pretty impressive gig. What do you think of it so far?
R: I love it.
K: How has it been adjusting to the altitude and the reduced oxygen levels?
R: I was in Texas before coming here, and rehearsing Tarantella there felt so good. [laughs] Then when I came up here it was kind of a shock. And dancing outside is also a completely different story. It gets so cold at night.
K: Yikes. Can you tell me a bit about the new Neenan work you’re doing?
R: There are a lot of us in it. I dance with Lauren [Lovette] and Joe [Gordon] in the first and third movements, and then it’s James Whiteside, Misa Kuranaga and Carla Körbes in the second movement. Lauren and Joe are usually dancing together and I’m just a little ball of energy going around. The last movement is the hardest for us. Lauren starts it off, then Joe and I come on and we stay on until the end. It’s really challenging but the music is great so it keeps us going. It’s really fun to dance with Lauren and Joe.
K: Sounds really cool. What in particular excites you about Vail Dance Festival?
R: Coming from a school and having just graduated, coming here and being in class with all of these artists that I watch on YouTube is so inspiring. It’s incredible.
K: It really is. Well, congratulations and merde for the rest of your performances!
*Editor’s note: This is a retroactive post- Roman has since performed the pieces mentioned above with absolutely stellar success. To see my reviews of Roman’s performances, head here, here, and here.
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.
The first time I saw Whitney Jensen, we were twelve. Waiting in the wings backstage at YAGP, she was one of those girls whose port de bras continued into her normal human life, resulting in a resting posture that was elegant as all heck. She was this gorgeous, leggy thing, with a head of glossy platinum hair that looked right at home beneath a palatial tiara. Everything about her sparkling black tutu radiated professionalism, and mine was, well…pale green. Fast forward several summers- I was invited to train with Jensen’s coach/Master of Elegance ,Valentina Kozlova, and was pleasantly surprised to learn that Whitney’s grace was every bit as present in her personality as it was in her performance. From New York to Boston to Oslo, Whitney seems to bring a sweet spirit, confidence, and special flair with her where ever she goes. Read on to find out about her competitive roots, time off, and what it’s like to date a dancer…
“Player”, Norwegian National Ballet, photo by Erik Berg
Hello dear! Let’s bring it back. What is your earliest dance memory?
My earliest dance memory would be when I was probably 3 years old. My mom owned her own Dance Studio and my older sisters were taking classes every day. I remember being in the studio watching them in class thinking I wanted to be just like them.
So you started training right away?
When I was about 5 my mom closed her studio and I started taking classes at The Dance Club. When I was 8 I wanted to focus more on ballet so I also began taking extra ballet classes at Utah Regional Ballet. When I was 11 I studied at Ballet West for one year.
And that’s when you moved to New York City to study ballet more intensively, yes?
My move to New York City began gradually. Once I began training with Valentina, I was still living and going to school in Park City, Utah. I would travel to New York City on the weekends for a few private lessons and return home to Utah on Monday evenings. After a while this got very exhausting and was difficult for me to keep up with school work. I then began independent studies on my own and my trips to New York turned into weeks instead of days. By the end of the year I remember asking my parents if I could just stay in New York. They were hesitant, but since I had two older sisters living in New York at the time, my parents agreed that I could stay in the city.
performing the Black Swan variation, age 12
It must have been quite the experience, moving from Utah to NY at such a young age!
Living with my second oldest sister in New York City as a 12 year old is still one of my most favorite times. I learned to be independent, accountable, diligent and disciplined. I definitely grew up quickly. The following year my sister decided she would pursue her dreams in California and I felt prepared to live on my own. I don’t quite know why my parents allowed this, but I do think they had trust in me. I was focused and knew what I wanted. I also knew if I wasn’t obedient and doing what I should be that I would probably be sent back to Utah and wouldn’t be able to continue the training I needed.
Sounds like you were very driven. Was that a result of your relationship with Valentina?
My coach Valentina was someone I looked up to and wanted to be when I was training. Every little thing about her inspired me to become a professional ballerina. She knew me better than any of my other teachers. She knew all of my weaknesses and strengths and helped me to identify those on my own and how to work with what I have. Most importantly, she challenged me to be better than the previous day.
Her attention to upper body and port de bras is what sets her apart from most coaches, and I was a sponge. I mimicked her in the mirror until I looked exactly like her. I think that is why our relationship as coach and student worked so well. I trusted her and saw my improvements immediately. One piece of advice that I always keep in my mind when I work every day is the importance of the back. It completely changes your appearance from someone who looks timid, to someone who is commanding and confident.
I always credit my lack of performance nerves to attending competitions as a student. Do you feel that competing had a similar effect for you?
Competitions definitely contributed to my lack of performance nerves. Don’t get me wrong, I still have butterflies but I have managed them due to the amount of pressure that competitions provide. I was 6 when I first started competing, and my mom is the one to credit for helping me conquer nerves. She would always tell me, “Don’t be nervous, you are here to share your gift. Think of it like they are taking a break from the competition and you are the guest artist!” Since she said that to me, I would tell myself the same thing in my head right before I would go onstage. I would imagine the announcer saying “We will take a short break and Whitney Jensen will perform as our guest.” For some reason that took the pressure off of me to feel I had to be technically perfect and I could just perform and tell a story.
with her mother at Radio City Music Hall, where she performed as Clara
That’s brilliant! What a smart mama. So your first professional contract was with Boston Ballet. After climbing the ranks rather quickly, you made the decision to leave the company in 2015. What spawned this dramatic life change?
My decision to leave Boston Ballet the year after I was promoted to Principal was not something that I decided impulsively. I had been thinking about it for a few years. I guess I felt that I needed to be challenged in a different way. Personally, I wanted to be seen through a new pair of eyes perhaps. To reinvent myself and not be stuck in a box.
After leaving Boston Ballet, you went back home for a while. What was this time like for you?
I moved home to Utah to gain a sense of clarity. I wasn’t 100% sure I wanted to be in a company at that time. I needed a break. Since I was 12, I had been told what to do to make it as a professional. I just followed along and did as I was told. It wasn’t until I left Boston Ballet that I felt I had made a decision on my own. It was the scariest most exhilarating feeling! I had no idea what would happen but I knew without a doubt I would be okay and things would work out. I was probably the most calm I had ever been since moving to Boston.
in Jerome Robbins’ Afternoon of a Faun with Sabi Varga at Boston Ballet, photo by Rosalie O’Connor
It sounds like that time may have been exactly what you needed, because last year you landed a contract with The Norwegian National Ballet is Oslo, Norway. Congrats, lady! That’s a pretty big leap, what brought you all that way?
During my 6 month break I knew I couldn’t stop dancing so I relocated back to New York and lived with my oldest sister and her amazing family. I needed to have the time to be near family and make my own schedule. I took class every day at Steps and rented space to work on my own. Somehow I manage to work hardest on my own. I would say this is because of how Valentina coached me. She emphasized how crucial it is to know yourself and push yourself because its not for anyone’s benefit but your own. My favorite moments as a professional dancer are working in a studio by myself.
However, I was missing the company life. The structure of being in a company is important but I mainly missed being on stage more often. Guesting here and there just wasn’t enough for me. I had tried to audition in Oslo a few years back but there were no availabilities. I understood that European companies are different because they deal with permanent contracts as opposed to yearly ones, so it’s more a game of timing than anything else. I was encouraged to send my cv and performance video to Oslo by a friend of mine who was in the company. Once I sent the email I felt calm, but honestly had no expectations. Within a few days I received an email back from the director Ingrid herself, and within 2 months I was on my way to Oslo. It all just fell into place.
Was it a difficult transition?
The transition was difficult, but like anything foreign it was exciting.
What is the company like?
The company is refreshing. The dancers are kind people and welcomed me individually on my first day. I have to say that I had never seen that before and was incredibly impressed.
off duty in Norway
How lovely! So how is life in Norway now?
As this is my first time living abroad there are of course challenges. The time difference between my family and loved ones is probably my biggest challenge still. I am between 6 and 8 hours ahead of everyone! Except my brother who now lives in Paris! Thank goodness my best friend is close! European dance life is just different. I would say the biggest difference is you really have to motivate yourself. Also, people aren’t into social media as much over here. It’s definitely refreshing.
Speaking of social media (ha)…I think I saw on Instagram that you recently performed Micaela in Liam Scarlett’s Carmen, is that right? I just did Micaela here (in Viktor’s version). I found it to be such a wonderfully complex character, so sweet and softly sad. What was your experience with this dancing this role?
Performing Micaela in Liam Scarlett’s Carmen was enjoyable. I had a great partner who is one of my friends and we laughed a lot. As a character, it was a bit harder for me to relate to Micaela. I wanted her to be a bit stronger and maybe not always be at Don Jose’s beck and call, but I did have a great time performing the pas de deux, which has some beautiful music.
rehearsing Liam Scarlett’s Carmen at The Norwegian National Ballet, photo by Erik Berg
I know what you mean. In Viktor’s version, Micaela also gets to sort of narrate the story, and that gives her character a lot of strength, which creates a nice balance. You also just performed Alexander Eckman’s Swan Lake (in PARIS!). It must have been such a crazy experience- dancing in water?!
Alexander Ekman’s A Swan Lake is one of a kind. Obviously! We are in water! It is exhausting! Some challenges were of course being in water for hours. The water gets cold, your body gets stiff. Being on your knees and gripping your legs when you slide required us to be really grounded. It is definitely one of the most tiring shows I have ever done! Then again, I would remind myself “This is your day at work! You are in water with some amazing music, fun movement, inspiring dancers and you get to be apart of it!” Being in Paris was also just a highlight on it’s own.
preparing for Alexander Eckman’s Swan Lake in Paris, photo by Anne-Sylvie Bonnet
Ah, it’s the best city. In your off time (because you just have so much free time, right?), you work with a group of dancers who perform as the Cirio Collective. Can you tell us a bit about this?
Cirio Collective was started by Jeffrey Cirio and his sister Lia Cirio. At the time all the dancers asked to be apart of Collective were with Boston Ballet. The first summer we worked in Martha’s Vineyard and Cape Cod and grew extremely close. Almost like a family. For two weeks we would work in a studio helping Jeff create an entirely new piece to then perform at the end of the two weeks.
What is coming up next for you all?
This year will be my 3rd summer with Cirio Collective and the company has grown in dancers, musicians, choreographers and even clothing designers!! We are going to be back at Martha’s Vineyard and the Cape as usual but with an added week in New York City for a few performances at the Joyce Theater! I think everyone is super excited to share this unique group and ideas that Jeff and Lia want collective to be about. It’s important to recognize that Cirio Collective is not just another summer dance company. I think Jeff and Lia’s goal is to be different. Create pieces in 5 days with a specific goal. Collaborate with different kinds of artists. It’s different and I think art is meant to be viewed in different ways. Hopefully New York audiences will embrace that.
rehearsing with Cirio Collective co-founder, Jeffrey Cirio, photo by Jordan Jennings
The Joyce Theater! That’s very cool. And your relationship with Jeffrey goes beyond Cirio Collective (wink)…
Dating Jeffrey Cirio (Principal with ABT) is really great since we understand each other. Being long distance is definitely our biggest challenge but I know that what makes it work for us right now is that we are best friends. Of course we want to be in the same place but right now we work hard to make it work. And at the end of the day (literally) I get to talk to my best friend:)
So in terms of going “beyond the barre”, where do you see yourself in 10 years?
I have been thinking a lot lately about what I want to do when I am done dancing, or for my “next life” There are a few things that really interest me. Fashion is definitely on the top of my list a long with real estate. It is so random but I feel like I could be good at either of those! I mean, I guess I also always saw myself coaching as well. The ballet world is changing quickly and it is important to keep some very important traditions and legacies alive. I feel I have a responsibility to continue the knowledge I was given from Valentina. But I really don’t know yet! In ten years I see myself married with a few children living somewhere warm near the beach…happy.
Well that sounds heavenly. Okay, lighting round!
Favorite Ballet? Romeo and Juliet
Dream Role? Juliet
Dream Partner? Would have been Baryshnikov ;)
Classical or Contemporary? I have to have both!
Favorite Restaurant in New York? Sanctuary T. Boston? Tatte. Oslo? I don’t know yet!
Most memorable mishap? I fell in every program except one my 3rd season in Boston!
The first time I met Shelby Elsbree was on a rooftop sipping rosé. Throughout our short friendship she has been an unexpected source of light in my life, sharing tea and wisdom when I’ve needed those comforts most. Currently in her first year at Columbia University, it appears the former Boston Ballet dancer embraces every new adventure with just as much spirit as the last…
Hello beauty! Let’s start at the beginning, shall we? Tell us about studying at The School of American Ballet (SAB) in New York City. Was it always a dream of yours?
I moved to SAB when I was 13 years old, after having attended their summer intensive program in 2004. In all honesty I hadn’t known about the school prior to auditioning, coming from a small ballet studio in Sarasota, Fl. Needless to say, training at SAB was a dream I didn’t even know I had until it became a fast reality…and I never looked back. My time in those beautiful studios, going to high school in New York City, skipping across the plaza to watch my dream company perform every other night…it was surreal in every sense of the word. Balanchine training is neo-classical, sporty and fast-footed. Having come from a Vaganova background, I relished in the opportunity to grow in this dynamic way. Experiencing this new language of technique was invigorating, aesthetically inspiring and inevitably challenging. I soaked up every minute.
After graduating from SAB, you moved to Denmark to dance with the Royal Danish Ballet. What was your first impression of Copenhagen?
My very first impression of Copenhagen was that of a European Disney world. The city sparkles. It’s so colorful on the outside, flourished with copper domes and dreamy, historical stories. Scandinavia is known for their simplicity in design; Every apartment is white, streamlined and clutter-free. Simple and beautiful, much like Danish culture itself. Danes also speak perfect English, which certainly eased any culture shock an 18 year old living alone in a foreign country might experience.
Wow, sounds incredible. In terms of ballet, did you have to make any adjustments in your technique when you moved to Denmark?
I did have to make a huge technique adjustment when I moved to Denmark. I held on to my straight legged turns and general movement aesthetic, but I certainly had to become more sensitive to stylistic changes of Bournonville repertoire.
Those straight-legged pirouettes are giving me grief in Allegro these days! But speaking of stylistic changes, you originated the title role in Alexei Ratmansky’s The Golden Cockerel. What was that like?
Alexei is one of a kind. Working with him on Golden Cockerel pushed me to my every limit as a dancer and an artist. The story originates in old Russian folklore and the privilege of re-telling it through such an innovative narrative was unlike anything I’ve experienced before. Definitely a career highlight!
Did you bring any aspect of Danish culture back with you when you moved to Boston? What was that transition like?
When I moved back to America, I promised myself that I would bring as much Danish culture as I could possibly carry back with me. The reverse culture shock was actually extremely entertaining. I vowed to maintain a clutter-free apartment, invested in mid-century furniture and sprinkled tea-light candles everywhere to bring back the “hygge” elements of life Danes are famous for creating. The work load was certainly more intense in Boston, longer rehearsal hours, more performances. I was closer to my family though, and their proximity of support and love certainly helped with the adjustment.
I’ve always loved the concept of “hygge”. A cozy life is very important to me! Ha. Do you feel that you have been affected as an artist by the different environments in which you have worked?
I have no doubts that my journey as an artist, a dancer, a person have all been affected by the diverse settings I’ve had the privilege of working in. Training in New York City instilled within me a tireless work ethic I maintain today, it ingrained an insatiable curiosity and a contagious energy that I’m proud to share. Beginning my career in Copenhagen provided me with the most humbling, fulfilling platform from which my entire perspective as a dancer, and more importantly a person, grew. My career in Boston Ballet gave me the opportunity to sew my New York roots into a more balanced, Scandinavian approach towards hard work. The styles, cultures, and histories of these ballet companies merged in the most complimentary way for me as a professional dancer, and in the most fulfilling way for me as a person.
You are a talented photographer and also write a really lovely blog, Tutus & Tea. How did you become interested in these sort of “extra curricular activities”, and where did you find the time to pursue them while juggling such a busy work schedule?
Thank you! My journey creating Tutus&Tea is one I’m forever grateful for. It all started one summer when my sister teased me for “not having a creative hobby (pilates/yoga doesn’t count!)”. At the time she and my father were getting really into SLR cameras and there was one sitting on the counter. I picked it up, began researching, and invested in what would become one of my most favorite hobbies, photography. This was the summer before my first full season with Royal Danish Ballet, and when I returned to Copenhagen, my camera came with me.
Tutus&Tea came to me one sleepless night when I was contemplating the whole “blog trend.” What started as a creative outlet for me to chronicle my days of dancing, eating, traveling abroad turned into an enthusiastic pursuit of passions of stage that in turn, fueled my artistic perspectives on dance in exciting new ways.
As for time, there never seems to be enough of it right? I guess we all make time for things that bring us joy, and for me, Tutus&Tea was surely one of those things.
That is so true. So let’s talk about what life looks like right now. You recently retired from ballet and moved to New York City to attend Columbia University. What provoked this change and how did you know the timing was right?
So timing is one of these funny things to honestly reflect on. I’ve come to believe that we’ll never really know if timing is ever right. When I considered the idea of “transitioning,” I actually wrote down my thought trains in a rather lengthy post on my blog that ended up being more of a letter to myself. Professional careers in dance are finite. They are precious, yet sacrificial. They are glamorous, yet exhausting. I told myself I would make Ballet a career as long as I felt fulfilled, as long as I truly enjoyed it. Otherwise it’s just too hard.
Columbia University has a unique undergrad program that was created for “non-traditional” students who have been separated from their education for some interesting reason. Think military veterans, professional athletes, parents, and a whole lot of dancers…Writing my application essay alone was an opportunity to converse with myself honestly- to reflect on my career and what it has brought me, to question my present career commitment, and to entertain ideas of change. It was cathartic and it was necessary.
How is it going so far? Here you can just tell us a bit about what life is like lately, what you’re majoring in, any interested courses you’re enjoying or struggling with, etc.
It’s a whirlwind! I am currently enrolled full time, entertaining the idea of a major in Cultural Anthropology and potentially Journalism. I’m taking four classes, my favorite of which is Philosophy of Art where we are mostly learning how to question questions…so compelling! I’m struggling with the insane amounts of reading, and the challenge of prioritizing copious amounts of homework over enticing invitations that living in this city presents. I am LOVING being intellectually challenged and inspired on a daily basis. I am loving the change so far, and giving back to my body and mind in ways that I haven’t been able to for the last 16 years of my life focused primarily on dance.
That’s wonderful! I’m so happy for you. What advice do you have for dancers who are interested in pursuing other interests outside the studio?
I would strongly suggest that all dancers should find and pursue passions outside of the studio. Not only will this provide healthy perspective and space away from your days on stage, it will sculpt your perspective and approach towards your dancing that absolutely benefit your dancing!
Find something that inspires or interests you beyond dance and take the time to indulge it. Pursue friendships and relationships outside of the theater and relish opportunities to balance your life outside of the ballet world.
Okay time for a little lightning Round:
Go-to breakfast? Gooooood coffee with cream, always. If there’s not a worthy blueberry muffin nearby, I do love a greek yogurt, granola, banana, honey situation.
Favorite ballet? Always a hard one. Tie between Serenade, Dances at a Gathering, West Side Story and Jewels…but let’s be honest, it depends on the day ;)
Career highlight? I think I have too many career highlights to choose just one (insert monkey hidden face emoji) but on the top of my mind might be my first performance as Blue Girl in Dances at a Gathering, my premiere of Flemming Flindt’s The Lesson, Flower Festival in Genzano for Erik Bruhn, and Serenade for the Night of Stars in Boston….
Favorite restaurant in Boston? Wholy Grain and Tatte for Breakfast, Flour for lunch, Metropolis and Barcelona for Dinner
Favorite Danish meal/food? Mmmm….. I have to go with desserts. Aebleskiver and Gløgg during Christmas time are the best. They’re a type of pancake “holes” filled with warm, lemon zest flavored pancake filling that you role in powdered sugar and jam, accompanied by strong, mulled wine. It’s a magical combination.
Guilty pleasure? Ice cream always. And I don’t feel guilty about it. :)
As the opening of our performance season approaches, rehearsals are ramping up. In a rare moment of downtime, I corresponded with Balanchine répétiteur Elyse Borne to get her take on working with FBP and Mr. B…
Hello! Let’s just dive in: What makes Allegro Brillante different from other Balanchine ballets? Why is it special?
Allegro is not exactly different but incorporates the speed, clarity, technical difficulty, musicality, and neoclassical style so closely identified with Balanchine.
Your schedule is so busy! You’re always traveling somewhere new to set another ballet. Where else have you staged Allegro in the past?
I have actually staged Allegro for FBP before! I’ve also done it in San Francisco, Vancouver, Washington D.C., Atlanta, Singapore etc…..
That’s right, this wasn’t your first visit to Providence. What was your experience like working with the dancers of FBP this time around?
I had a great time with your dancers. They learned the choreography at breakneck speed and expressed a real interest in executing the ballet correctly.
“I love walking into a studio where no one knows the steps and seeing it all come to life in just a few hours.”
If you could describe Allegro Brillante in 3 words, what would they be?
I would describe Allegro as fun, gut-buster, and energized!
What is your favorite part of the staging process?
I love walking into a studio where no one knows the steps and seeing it all come to life in just a few hours.
After retiring from NYCB, you were ballet mistress at Miami City Ballet for eight years and then San Fransisco Ballet for six. You’ve been in the ballet world for your entire career, but now staging ballets, you have such a unique job. How did you become a répétiteur?
I always had a propensity for learning quickly so this was a natural inclination. I gained a lot of knowledge being a ballet mistress and still face challenges with relish when I have to learn a ballet I’ve never staged. I feel honored and privileged to be allowed to stage Balanchine and Robbins.
What is it about the Balanchine style that you enjoy so much?
I think I must have grown up with Balanchine style in my blood. It is so natural for me. Dancing at NYCB was a dream come true.
You premiered in The Nutcracker with Mikhail Baryshnikov. What was that like? Do you have any favorite memories of working with Mr. Balanchine or at NYCB?
My scariest and favorite experience at NYCB was doing the Sugar Plum Fairy with Baryshnikov. Alone everyday for 5 days in a studio with the 2 of them, Balanchine and Misha. Awestruck and nervous and excited all at once. My memories go on and on. I think I will have to write a book! I was so lucky to work with such a genius.
…and we would love to read your book. Thank you, Elyse!
When I saw this, I cracked up and just knew I had to reach out to Min, the genius behind the C&V brand. We instantly connected (thanks social media and shared interests), and sweet Min sent over a tee from the Spring collection (Blood, Sweat & Pirouettes could not be a more accurate description of the Swan Lake preparation process- and yes, I do sweat glitter) as well as the Svetlana Zakharova/Carl Sagan mash-up inspired by the former’s Odette (because Carl Sagan as Odette would probably be more of a turtleneck situation). I snuggled up with my super soft new duds and chatted with the lovely Min about the dancewear brand that bolstered her in the wake of very personal despair…
Hi Min! Let’s get right to it. Tell us how Cloud & Victory began.
I had become anorexic and clinically depressed when I was in law school from pushing myself too hard, and had taken a year off to recover. A new ballet school opened near my home, and I decided to take some ballet classes. Ballet was really helpful to my recovery, and when I returned to university to finish my degree I decided to design and sell some fun ballet tops to cope with the trauma of going back to school – clothes I would want to wear. After graduation, I was still too ill and weak to take a full time job, so I decided to focus on the clothing thing for a few months while I got better. Even though it was supposed to be temporary, I took it very seriously! I knew that I wanted to offer a socially-responsible product, with clothing that was high-quality and ethically made. I did a lot of research and put a lot of work into it. The word got out very gradually, but the response was very positive, both from professional dancers and students, so I kept going and going. And I haven’t stopped!
It’s hard work but I love C&V and am grateful to have the chance to do what I’m doing. I’m also very lucky to have my family’s support – even though they initially didn’t have a clue about ballet and were pretty skeptical of this funny online thing I was doing! Cloud & Victory is actually a combination of my parents’ Chinese names.
Your story is really quite beautiful. What has been the most special moment for you in creating this brand?
Oh gosh, so many! Shooting with my friends, like Joy Womack, Keenan Kampa and Miko Fogarty. A forthcoming collaboration with Gaynor Minden. Going backstage after an ABT performance and realising that a bunch of dancers knew about C&V. Diana Vishneva contributing her pointe shoes to a fundraiser I organized for Nepal earthquake victims. A woman e-mailing me to tell me that an interview I did with Royal Danish Ballet’s Carling Talcott about our experiences with anorexia encouraged her to seek help for her eating disorder. All the people I’ve had the privilege of meeting, collaborating with and befriending through C&V – I treasure all these moments and relationships. They keep me going when I feel discouraged or burnt out.
The biggest one that stands out for me right now was going to Russia to shoot with Joy – I had my photographer and backup photographer cancel on me just days before the trip, Russia had just invaded Ukraine so there was a lot of uncertainty, and I was one of the few crazy foreigners going into the country instead of trying to get out. This short Chinese person, wandering into Russia. But thankfully it all worked out.
“I had never imagined when I started C&V that I would ever end up in this place, this ballet mecca, and pull off this crazy, incredible experience.”
I got to collaborate with Joy again and watch her perform, which was such a treat. I met and took pictures of some lovely girls from Vaganova school, some of whom I’m still in touch with – I couldn’t believe that all the way in Russia, there were dancers who liked C&V and wanted to work with me!
On my last night I watched the Mariinsky perform. It was amazing – my first ever Ratmansky! After the show, I was waiting by the canal between the old and new Mariinsky buildings for my friend Xander. I remember looking up at the night sky and crying: it was so surreal. I had never imagined when I started C&V that I would ever end up in this place, this ballet mecca, and pull off this crazy, incredible experience. And then Xander popped up next to me and I had to hastily tidy myself up without him noticing. Luckily it was dark!
Most of the Russians I met were really nice and helpful as well, I’ve heard from my Russian friends that this isn’t always the case!
Wow, squad goals is right! You have had some pretty incredible experiences so far. What’s your ultimate pipe dream?
Well, of course every business owner wishes for their brand to be successful. I suppose my biggest goal would be for C&V to be in a position where thorough it I can contribute consistently and meaningfully to the world we live in, and to foster a ballet community where we can help and empower each other. It sounds terribly cheesy, but it’s true! Oh, and to be less stressed. Less tired, more inspired – that’s the dream!
AMEN TO THAT.
Thank you so much Min, for generously sharing your humor, your story, and your glorious designs! Head over here to shop and learn more about Cloud & Victory on their blog. xx
One of the topics I spend a lot of time complaining about discussing here on Setting The Barre is the mental strength required in professional ballet. Dancers are faced with a bevy of intellectual choices every day, the results of which will effect them physically and emotionally- both long and short term. As time goes on and ballet evolves, more and more is being expected of young dancers, from seemingly unattainable technique to tear-provoking artistry. But, with the increasing of the years (I see you, 2016), comes an increase in resources available to us in the ballet world. Can you imagine a ballet career supported by a community of artists all experiencing a similar lifestyle, led by an informed and caring coach? Jessica Spinner, creator of The Whole Dancer, can, and today she’s here to share that vision with us…
The Whole Dancer coach and creator, Jessica Spinner, in her dancing days
Kirsten: Hi Jess! Thanks so much for taking the time to share your exciting new program with us. First could you tell us a bit about yourself and your dance background?
Jess: I started dancing late, around age 12, at The American Theatre Dance Workshop, the official school of the Eglevsky Ballet. I spent summers at the Kirov Academy, Boston Ballet, NCSA, ABT in New York, and Orlando Ballet on scholarship. I went on to study Dance and Arts Administration at Butler University. Upon graduation, I started dancing with the Louisville Ballet, but after a few years, missed being on the east coast so much I moved to Boston and started freelancing. During my time in Boston, a severe Sesamoid injury ultimately ended my professional dancing career.
K: So you transitioned. What inspired you to start this unique community for dancers?
J: I started Health Coaching in 2013 as a generalist. It was really wonderful helping women of varying backgrounds find health and balance, but something was missing.
There was this inkling in the back of my mind that I should be working with dancers because I so deeply understood what they deal each day. Looking back, my years dancing were profoundly imbalanced and unhealthy and I did not deal well with the pressure I was putting on myself or feeling from artistic directors.
I decided to reach out to friends who are still in the dance world or those who have recently retired just to make absolutely sure I was not alone in struggling with major insecurities as a dancer. The overwhelming response was that my colleagues could have benefitted so greatly from a coaching program. And so, The Whole Dancer was founded.
TWD member Amber Ray, professional level student at the John Cranko Schule in Stuttgart, Germany
K: What exactly is The Whole Dancer program?
J: The Whole Dancer is an 8–week group program created to help dancers learn skills outside the studio (that can be applied inside the studio) to help them have healthier, more balanced careers. The information is divided into 6 modules including vision and goal setting, eating well, cross–training, personal assessment, self love/care and career development.
I have found that these are areas where dancers could use more guidance and they don’t often get it in the school or company setting. Unless they have a dedicated mentor or coach with a dance background, dancers must navigate a lot of stress alone.
TWD member Abby Zinsser, professional level student at Richmond Ballet
K: Being enrolled in the fall session of TWD, I really loved listening to your webinars. The discussions felt so relatable and specific to the needs of a ballet dancer. Which aspect of the program has been the most rewarding in your opinion?
J: So much of TWD Program has been so rewarding – I would say my favorite thing has been getting to know each dancer personally. Hearing from them that a worksheet or call opened their eyes to something new and how helpful it was fills my heart with joy. Staying in touch with TWD Program participants and celebrating their successes together or coaching them through rejections gives me a great sense of purpose.
Teaming up with other dancers and hearing how supportive they are of The Whole Dancer’s objectives is also incredibly inspiring. I have had the pleasure of collaborating with Shelby Elsbree of Boston Ballet, former Colorado ballet dancer Casey Dalton, and Lauren King, Soloist with NYCBallet- to name a few.
TWD mentor and Boston Ballet dancer Shelby Elsbree, shot by Kenneth B Edwards
K: I’m such a big Shelby fan. A lovely person both inside and out, her contributions have been so spot on. What else can dancers expect to get out of this program?
J: Through The Whole Dancer Program, dancers can expect to find greater confidence and assuredness in their abilities and futures.
They will learn skills that will be valuable throughout their careers and even into life after dance. I hope for participants to feel supported not only by me as their coach and Shelby as a mentor, but also by the strong community of their fellow dancers participating in the program.
TWD member Amber Ray
K: That’s pretty exciting! How can dancers get involved?
J: Sign up for The Whole Dancer Program! Or, for dancers who are already at a balanced, established and happy place in their dance careers and would like to share how they got there with a younger generation, reach out. If you would like to share what you’ve learned in a blog post or webinar I would LOVE to collaborate.
K: So, what’s next for The Whole Dancer?
J: On January 5 there will be a no – cost webinar on “Fearless Auditioning”. Whether dancers are going out for summer program auditions or company spots I hope to touch on some important ways to make this a successful and fun audition season!
The next 8-week session of The Whole Dancer Program begins on January 20. Enrollment is ongoing through January 17, 2016. The program can also be purchased as a gift for your dancer friends through December 23!
The second round of The Whole Dancer Program features a couple of new options for additional one–on–one coaching support. The BASIC program includes all community information and group seminar calls. The PRO option includes basic features plus feedback on all worksheets and the ELITE option includes basic and pro features as well as 2 one on one coaching calls. This option is a great way to have additional support in implementing the feedback you receive and finding major success in a short amount of time.
One of the elements of the January 16’ session that I am most jazzed about is the participation of Shelby Elsbree. Miss Elsbree will serve as an additional coach and mentor during the career module. Every time I’ve worked with Shelby, her insights have been profound and I am thrilled to team up with her for this upcoming program.
The Whole Dancer is constantly evolving and my ultimate goal is to serve the needs of dancers to the best of my ability. Future offerings will always reflect the feedback I receive from program participants and one on one coaching clients.
Thanks again, Jess! If you’d like more information on The Whole Dancer, head on over to the website here.
Last winter, somewhere in the midst of record-breaking snowfall, a friend introduced me to RubiaWear leg warmers. Flattering silhouette, ultra thin fabric, soft knit, subtle stripes. Always game for a little investigation, I decided to give them a go.
When my first pair arrived in the mail, immediately I was hooked. For the remainder of the season, not one morning passed where I watched my reflection without the warm hug of my trusty Rubias. Today Boston Ballet’s Ashley Ellis, the genius behind RubiaWear, sheds a bit of light on what life has been like since creating the collection of warmers worn ’round the world…
So Ashley, how did you become inspired to start making leg warmers?
It should be noted that I am in Boston now, and well, winter here is notorious for being long with extreme conditions, so this was surely extra incentive for creating a line of ‘warm ups’!
Apart from this, I really enjoy making all sorts of things, am always busy with projects, I find it to be a nice outlet for me. Whether I’m sewing, fixing things around the house, painting, baking, or what ever else sparks my curiosity. Needless to say that when I sew I am often drawn to making things to wear in the studio because this is where I spend so much of my time.
In the months before I opened the line I had made some legwarmers for myself, simply because I had lost the ones I’d had before (by that mysterious fairy that steals dancewear left in the studio over night). I played a bit with different styles that I found to be most flattering. Then, a few friends started to ask me to make them some. As more people showed interest I thought it would be fun to make more and come up with a design to offer to my colleagues. I explored this idea step by step, and with each new detail I wanted to create a product that looked professional but maintained a unique quality. In the end I thought I might as well make it an official line and how fun it would be to offer not just to my friends, but also to anyone who would be interested.
Your tendency towards constantly finding little projects is so relatable. So, what made you decide to turn it into a business?
It wasn’t really a predetermined plan of mine, it just sort of happened. Not to say it was easy- it took a lot time, work, and educating myself on how to get it all going, but I was having fun with it so I kept going.
I knew that my colleagues were fans of the warmers but I had no idea whether or not people outside of my direct contact would be interested in buying them so I just decided to give it a shot. I did feel that if I was going to offer RubiaWear to the dance world at large I wanted the product to be of a high quality and offer an attractive platform from which I was able to sell it. Essentially, something that I myself as a dancer would want to buy and wear everyday.
Since starting with the official line of RubiaWear things have been escalating nicely which has been a very exciting ride so far. It’s been difficult to keep up with at times, and I wish I could move faster and offer more growth sooner, but this will come with time. I plan to introduce new designs, premade products to get things to customers faster.
Being a dancer is still my passion and full time concentration, so at times there are moments when I have to step back and admit that there are things that still have to wait and feel fortunate that things have escalated at the pace that they have.
I’ve always wondered, where does the name RubiaWear come from?
While dancing in Spain for three years with the Corella Ballet de España I picked up the nickname Rubia, which essentially means Blondie, and it kind of stuck. I wanted to have a part of myself in the name but didn’t really want to use my own name. So, RubiaWear has a sort of disguised part of me in it. I chose the logo and its colors because I thought suited the ‘blonde’ theme. I like that there is meaning behind it but it doesn’t have to be completely obvious.
I just love your children’s line, Rubita, and my goodness, the Rubita MINI series- don’t even get me started. Cuteness overload! Where did the inspiration to start making miniatures come from?
Well, besides the fact that the Rubita sizes are so adorable? Haha. I just thought that there are so many young dance students out there who should also keep their little legs warm in between classes and to and from the studio. These ballerinas in training should also have the option to wear dancewear that is unique and showcases their sense of style, even if they do have to wear a uniform for class. I plan to offer children’s sizes whenever I can with future products as well.
What has been the most surprising/exciting/fulfilling aspect of running RubiaWear so far?
I’ve really enjoyed the learning aspect that starting RubiaWear has offered. I’ve had to learn a lot, not just about how to make warmers but how to run a business.
I’d say one of the most rewarding things has been seeing people all over the world getting excited about the product. I enjoy being in contact with the customers. I’ve received a lot of positive feedback and it gets me more excited and confident about moving forward into the future.
I have to mention that I’m grateful for how encouraging and supportive people, near and far, have been of this venture.
THANK YOU to the inspiring and beautifully articulate Ms. Ashley Ellis for sharing her story! To shop the collection (which I highly recommend), head right this way. To catch Ashley on stage, head over here.