The NYCB principal moves on to the Next big thing.
Mon Sep 26 2011
Photograph: Paul Kolnik
Charles Askegard is a rarity in the retiring-from-a-major-ballet-company game: He has plans, and they all have to do with dance. The New York City Ballet principal has been dancing since he was five; his farewell performance, on October 9, will close that chapter of his career. (Will his wife, writer Candace Bushnell, bring him flowers at the curtain call?) Askegard, 42, started out at American Ballet Theatre in 1987, where he remained until moving to NYCB in 1997. Known for his height (he's 6'4"), his stellar partnering and his gracious classicism, Askegard will continue dancing with statuesque ballerinas. Among his upcoming ventures, which include choreographing a Will Cotton piece that will be shown at Performa in November, he is starting his own company, Ballet Next, with the former ABT principal Michele Wiles. Why mess around? Life is short. On to the next chapter.
Why are you retiring now?
I feel like it's time for me to do something new with my life. I mean not new with my life. But I came to this decision last winter—I've been with the New York City Ballet for 14 years, and then before that I was with ABT for ten years. We work so hard at New York City Ballet, everyday. You have to be ready to perform no matter what, and I mean the hardest ballets. It catches up with you, and I was thinking, I don't know if I can continue on doing this at this level for much longer. And it just seemed like a good time for me to be finished: to go out on a good, strong note and to feel good about my career. I'll continue dancing. I'm working on a project with [former American Ballet Theatre principal] Michele Wiles. We're in the middle of preparing press statements and everything else, so I can't talk too much about it, but what we'll be doing has worked out interestingly well. We found ourselves—even though I'm older than she is—in similar situations, although that's not the reason for this. We decided to do this before. The Balanchine Trust is also something I've always wanted to work for. And teaching. I'm looking forward to all kinds of different things in dance. The primary next step would be our little company, but more on that later.
Like you said, you've been dancing for a long time. You began when you were five, in Minnesota?
Yes. With Loyce Houlton. She was the director [at Minnesota Dance Theatre]; I was doing a Nutcracker when I was six; it was a big deal back then. We would perform—which was something back in those days—for two weeks straight.
How did you get involved?
My mother had grown up dancing. When she was 18 or 19, there wasn't a company in Minnesota, so she went to college. She started my older sister [in ballet], and I saw it and loved it and got involved in a boys' class on Saturdays that was taught by a company member. We were doing all kinds of fun stuff in that class, jumping over each other and exploring movement in a very fun way, and it captured our imaginations. It was terrific. But I just loved music and movement, and my mother just started me out. She didn't even have to...
I wanted to.
Did you know that you had a talent for it right away? Or were you just playing around?
You know, I don't really know. I was pretty young. Yes, I had a talent for something; by the time I was 12, I was going away to San Francisco Ballet for the summer. And then I moved here when I was 16.
When did it start to take over your life? Did it?
Oh, totally. By the time I was 11 or 12, I'd go to the studio every day after school.
Did you get grief from guys?
Constantly. [Laughs] It was terrible. The worst was probably sixth grade to tenth grade, and then I split. I went to a private school, and the last couple of years I put two [grades] together in one so I could graduate early and move to New York. In public school, I got no grief whatsoever. Everyone was like, "Wow! That's so cool—you're a dancer." I thought it was going to be worse at public school, and it wasn't. That was bizarre.
I always think it's pretty amazing when male dancers have to grow up with that crap and do it anyway. What made you stick with ballet?
The love—it was an all-consuming thing. I just wanted to do it so badly. I loved dancing. I loved ballet more than anything. And I felt comfortable at the ballet studio; it was really my second home. School was fine. It was whatever. I'd get through it and go to ballet school, where everything was great. Also in the summers, I would come to New York, I would go to San Francisco. Those were my two favorite places, and it was terrific. I had made up my mind, and by the time I was 16, I was living here. Which now I just think is crazy. I see kids who are 15 and 16 and think, God, I was moving away from home back then. At the time I didn't think it was anything. I was saying, "Oh, mom, get over it, it's fine."
What was your dad like in terms of ballet?
He was really supportive, quietly supportive. I think he was a little bit like, Hmmm—I don't really know if this is going to work out for my son. My mom was very strong and supportive, and she was there for me a lot.
It's even weird to think that you'd send your son to San Francisco at 12, right?
I don't know how I talked them into it. I really don't. [Laughs] Actually, we drove out from Minnesota and dropped my sister in Aspen because she did Ballet West and I did San Francisco. My sister owns her own school in Spokane, Washington. And I have a younger sister who danced as well, but no longer. She's a surgeon. It was kind of a dynasty. I'm joking. But my sister is two years older than me, and my other sister is four years younger than I am, so there was eight years of all of us in Minnesota.
You're such a good partner. Did you work that out with your sisters?
Yeah. The thing about partnering is that I was the only boy, after age 13, in class. I was lucky really that we had this teacher, Eugene Collins. He was a dancer with the Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo, but at the very last stages of the company in the late '50s and early '60s. He was an incredible partner. Loyce Houlton hired him to teach at the school and at the company, and he taught me how to partner. He had a great way of doing it. He'd get a couple of the guys from the junior company of Minnesota Dance Theatre, and we'd all stand in one position and rotate. He was like, "You have to partner every girl in the room." I had to partner tall ones, short ones. I always thought that partnering a woman was such a huge part of ballet, and I loved it. Plus, the things you can do with two people? It's great. When I was 15, I danced Paquita with my older sister, and I hadn't grown much. I was like a twig. She was taller than me on pointe, and it was her senior year. So she was lead and...it wasn't the best performance in the world, but you know what? It wasn't bad either. A couple of off-balance moments. [Laughs] But she was very patient. And then with my younger sister, I would make her do crazy things. I was like, "All right—run at me and jump!" We were doing flying shoulder sits when she was seven.
Did Eugene Collins show you videos?
No. It was, like, 1981 [Laughs]. There wasn't the Internet. There weren't a whole lot of videotapes—we were still using, sometimes, reels. There were a lot more things on TV back then, but you really had to tune in because there was no way to DVR it. At the time, there was a lot of watching: watching the company members, watching rehearsals, watching classes.