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Charles Askegard

The NYCB principal moves on to the Next big thing.

Photograph: Paul Kolnik
Charles Askegard

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...

Push you?
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.

Was it a big deal for you to go to San Francisco because suddenly there were other guys in class?
It was. There were guys! I was 12, and I had seen things on TV and company members [in Minnesota], and I knew that I had to do double tours and pirouettes and things like that, but I didn't know that the other guys were already doing them. I was looking around and going, Oh my God—you have got to work really hard. That summer really opened my eyes in a big way. I realized there was lots of competition. I went there when I was 12, 13—came to the School of American Ballet when I was 14. ABT when I was 15 and then back there when I was 16. But then I moved out here to study with Maggie Black.

I didn't realize you went to ABT for the summers. Was that Baryshnikov's program?
Yes. It was terrific. It was literally 40 people, and we danced basically all day, from class in the morning to variations and pas de deux and then modern class and jazz class—it was great and intense. A lot of times, you go to SAB, and I'm not putting it down, but there are hundreds of kids.

And ABT now.
Yes. They picked people they thought were not [ready for] this year, but maybe next year. I was certainly in the next-year camp. I was still a boy. I grew until I was 21. When I joined American Ballet Theatre at 18, I was maybe 6'. And I just continued to grow for three years. I'm 6'4."

That's awkward, too, because you're always trying to find your balance, right?
Oh, it was horrible. Horrible. The strength: You lose it. You're trying to find the balance, the core strength.... Yeah. I wasn't that good when I was 18.

Well, you slipped through somehow.
[Laughs] I don't know how it happened. I'm joking.

How did you like the School of American Ballet?
It was great. I had Stanley Williams, Richard Rapp and [Andrei] Kramarevsky, and it was incredible. I don't think I fully understood Stanley's technique at the time. It was really advanced, and when I came back to it later in life I was like, Wow—this guy's a genius. Arch Higgins was the star of the class.

Why didn't you go back to SAB?
I don't really know. Okay, this is the thing. ABT would come through Minnesota for a week or two every year, and Lise Houlton, who was Loyce's daughter, was at ABT, and at the time I just felt like I wanted to dance at ABT. I wanted to do those ballets. I would super with [the company], and I looked up to them and I was just trying to figure out a way to get in: They didn't really have a school at the time. That's why I went to train at ABT, but that was the last year they had the program. I was going to go back to San Francisco, but then I'd already gotten in contact with Maggie Black. Bonnie Mathis was a principal dancer at ABT, and she was also teaching in Minnesota. She had introduced me to Maggie, and I trained with her for a while when I could; she expressed a good interest in me, and I was her lone scholarship student. She said, "I don't know where you're going to go, but I'm offering to have you train with me," and that's what I decided to do. At the time, it was unbelievable. She would have 80 or 90 people in class, know everyone's name and not only that, give everyone a correction. It was the most intense class around. There was the professional class at 9:30am and another class at 12:30pm; the later class was a more modern crowd, but the earlier one was everybody from ABT—and there were people from City Ballet and the Joffrey. It was in a loft on 21st Street. For some reason, that's what I wanted to do. I felt like it was where I could really learn to dance. It was a very odd choice to make because it was connected to nothing, no company. I guess I just got lucky.

What attracted you to her teaching?
It was about cleanliness and strength. It was helpful in strengthening my weaknesses. She made a huge difference, and having that strong technique is great. It really set me up for a good, long career. I always realized whenever I started to get hurt or feel that I was about to get injured, I had to go back and look at my technique and realize, Ah—this is why it's happening. I'm compensating, I'm pushing here too much. She had a very interesting style of teaching. It helped a lot of people and it certainly helped me.

Doesn't Baryshnikov always refer to her as "Black Magic" or something?
I think it was Mr. B, and people took it.... I don't know. It caused a lot of people to look up to her like she was a guru, and I think that was their problem: They became too focused on that one person.

I got the feeling she was doing something modern.
No. It just had to be clean. She was like, "That's just crap. Take it all out!" It was a real strong foundation, good ballet technique. It was incredible. Lots of times you'd be working on your port de bras and you'd forget that you'd have to turn out, or point your feet and then you forget about the port de bras. To put it all into one package is what she helped me do.

Where do you train now?
She quit teaching in the early '90s. I took classes with David Howard. I still am taking a class with him now, but in between, there were a lot of other teachers. When I came here to City Ballet, I realized I had to learn a whole new style of ballet, and so I went to Stanley and Willy Burmann, and they helped a lot. At ABT, we could sort of pick our own tempo. [Starts to crack up] Do you know what I mean? Like, "I need this a little slower." It was a solo for Swan Lake or Bayadre or whatever, and they're like, "Okay, you can have it slower."

And then you get here.
They're like, "Well, you never know what it's going to be out there, so if it's fast you should be able to do it fast." It was pretty early on—sometimes the conductor gets into a thing, and there are lots of times when you're just all of a sudden going, Oh my God! What's happening? I don't know if I can keep up with this. I remember one Symphony in C. We were doing the adagio, but it was like an allegro. [Snaps fingers twice] Wendy Whelan and I were like, I can't believe we're doing this this fast. I don't want to say anything bad about conductors, but sometimes Andrea Quinn would play it really fast.

She did!
And you just got out there and did it. But that was a very old-school Balanchine kind of thing. We didn't really get to talk about tempi so much, because it was in the context of a ballet a lot of times: Your solos happened within a piece of music. It wasn't a set piece. And you had to dance on the music.

How did you get into ABT?
It was this time of year in 1987. I was 18, and Misha had had a big audition in the spring, which I was sick for and couldn't attend. It was a choreographer's workshop, and there was a ballet master, David Richardson, who would take class at Maggie's, and Maggie had talked to him and said, "Chuck's 18, he's looking good, and I think he's ready for the company." Basically, David talked to Misha and said, "I have somebody who can come and audition," and I went and took class and Misha was teaching class. Kind of stressful. [Laughs] He was a major star. It was ridiculous. But I took class and it was fine, and after four days, he walks by, swats me on the ass and says, "You got the job if you vant it" and walks on by. [Laughs] I was like, did that really just happen?

He remained the director for how long?
Two years. Then Jane Hermann became the director. She kept that company going, and I don't think she gets enough credit for that. It was in dire straights and deep in debt; she was there for three years. I had a good time when she was director. Glen Tetley had come back, and Michael Somes had come in to do Symphonic Variations and Vladimir Vasiliev was around for Don Q. Then Kevin [McKenzie] became the director, and that was when the company really pared back and I think we were working six months out of the year. It was really dismal. We were like, Is this going to survive? We had no idea.

When you're hired by one director and then there's another and you make it through that and then there's another—how did that go?
It's always hard. The new director comes in and it's like starting from scratch, because you can have a position or whatever but they may not honor it as much as the other person did because they don't know why...Jane promoted me. You have to go through that whole process again. Whatever. You just keep going. [Laughs] It's the way it is. You have to take class, work hard, do your job. And excel. That was the deal.

Why did you leave ABT?
A lot of reasons, both personal and professional. I was a soloist but doing mostly principal work, and it felt like I'd plateaued. It was hard because we were getting more and more guest artists coming in for spring season, and it just felt like the opportunity to get to a principal level was less and less. Also, I wanted to do more performances. I wanted more ballet. It's hard to build on a performance when you do a Swan Lake and get another four months later. It's very difficult as a young dancer. So I left ABT, and I didn't quite know what I was going to do.

Ah—you didn't have a job?
No. I didn't know what I was going to do. I was working with Valentina Kozlova and Margo Sappington and her group, and I had reached out to a couple of people I knew. Maina Gielgud was taking over the Royal Danish at that time, and I was thinking I was going to go to Europe or something. I did a little gig with Wendy Whelan, and she's like, "Hey, I hear you left ABT. Ever think about City Ballet?" I had only been to SAB one summer. I was viewed as more of a classical dancer and not so much of a Balanchine dancer at ABT, which was kind of funny. It was perfect timing. I went up to Saratoga and auditioned for Peter [Martins]. I took class. He kind of hired me on the spot.

Did you talk about it?
Yeah, we talked for like 45 minutes. What happened is that I went up one day and he said, "I hear you may be going to the Royal Danish." He didn't want to step on their toes. I didn't have any firm plans, and when I got back to New York, my agent said, "I can't let you take the Royal Danish—you're just going to go broke." And I was like, "Okay, great, because you know what? I think I'm going to join City Ballet." So I went back up a couple of days later, and that's when Peter and I talked after class and I said, "This is where I want to dance—it's beyond my wildest dreams." I always loved to do Balanchine. Robbins was still alive, and it was just incredible. He said, "I think it's best if you come as a soloist," and I agreed. I wanted to come in and pay my dues. He said, "You're going to dance with Kyra [Nichols], with Darci [Kistler], and there is Maria Kowroski, who is young"—and basically outlined my career for the next ten years in one meeting. It was based on a lot of hard work. I said, "Peter I want to do this."

How long did it take you to become a Balanchine dancer?
It took about two years. It was all so new, and there were a lot of things that had to be changed and learned, and it wasn't just the dancing technique: It was the partnering technique as well. I got here and Kyra Nichols was always like, "Don't touch me! Just, just catch me at the end of the turn!" Darci was like that too. Darci would piqu on eight when she was supposed to piqu on one, but just stay. Stay there. God. [Laughs] The first time I went onstage with them, I had a heart attack. It's not how ballerinas danced at ABT—or pretty much anywhere else. And I had danced with a lot of people. They were big risk-takers. It was just so exciting. I had never danced with Kyra Nichols before and I think Philip Neal had hurt his hip. I hadn't done Nutcracker yet, and Peter came up to me and said, "Can you dance Nutcracker tonight with Kyra?" I said, "Sure." He was like, "You'll probably need a rehearsal, right?" We did a 15-minute rehearsal in the main hall, and she's like, "Okay, that's great. I'll see you out there." [Laughs] I remember it going really well.

For a little comparison, how long would you have rehearsed at ABT?
Well, it's different though. It was full-length versions. It's hard to compare, but I'll tell you this: Nina Ananiashvili didn't like to rehearse so much. She liked to keep it fresh. I did Manon with her, and she came in four days before. She barely knew it, but she went out there and did an amazing performance.

It's ridiculous, but I didn't consider how such risk-taking would affect the partner.
Massively. And that took a long time. The tendency is to want to hold the girl and make sure that everything is okay, but to back off from all of that and give her a little bit of what she needs—that took a long time.

And then save her.
If she needs it.

Well, I've seen a lot of saves by you.
[Laughs] I don't know. Only if they need it, and they don't need it that often. It keeps you on your toes.

What have been some of your favorite ballets to dance here?
Diamonds is one. I've been doing it since I joined the company. I performed that with Darci when I first joined, so I'm doing the pas de deux from that. In Memory of..., which I did pretty much from the beginning. I worked on that a lot with Jerome Robbins. It's grown on me more and more over the years; it's one of my favorite things to dance.

Who are you dancing with?
Wendy Whelan.

Talk about working with Robbins on In Memory.
That was an incredible experience. I was taught it by Victor Castelli, and I think I had two or three partners to begin with, like Helene Alexopoulos and Wendy, and then I got into the studio with Kyra and Jerry, and it was intense. The beginning had to be the way he wanted it. The first thing the death character does is gives his hand, and the woman has to take it. I think we did that for about 30 minutes. In ballet, when you give your hand to the woman, it's usually done with some sort of flourish. No. It was nothing like that. It was stripped down, and I'll never forget it: He was like, "You have to say, 'Take it!'" There's no doubt. You give the hand, and she's like, "I'm going to take your hand." That was kind of how the rest of the pas de deux went, and we worked for weeks on it. Some ballets you just dance, and other ballets you can't: You have to spend those hours and weeks. It reminded me, on a different level, of working with Agnes de Mille at ABT. She was wheelchair bound, but she still managed to get so much out of the dancers just by how articulate she was with coaching and acting. That's how it was with Jerry. And after we'd gotten it to a certain point, we'd run the whole thing, talk about it, fix it again, and he's say, "Well, let's do it again." There would be eight minutes left, and he'd say, "Well let's do it again." We had to do it over and over and over.

And you didn't say no.
Oh! There was no no. And there was no wasted time. He died shortly after, and that was that. It was tragic. But it was unbelievable. He was mythical almost. There was so much going on in his head. I remember there was some Jerome Robbins festival, and we came over here [from ABT] to do the men's section from Les Noces. We'd been rehearsing it for months, and he looked at us and said, "That's not it." He demonstrated it and all of a sudden everything that we'd been working on just sort of fell into place. He was able to just show it. And we were working on it with disciples of his. He was an incredible dancer and choreographer: He understood it all.

You're dancing Diamonds with Maria Kowroski. Could you talk about your dancing relationship?
Basically from day one, we were put together during Nutcracker, and we did a lot of other things together. Firebird and Diamonds. Some modern work, some of Peter's ballets. She's incredible to partner. She's so long and her legs are hyper-extended—she's absolutely beautiful, but she's a little tricky to partner. She's tall but she's also one of these girls who's super light. And for me, it's been one of the most rewarding partnerships I've had in my career if not the most.

Yeah. We've been able to dance together for 14 years, and even though I'm older than she is, NYCB was new for me, so we kind of matured together. Something like Nutcracker or Diamonds, when you perform it a lot, it becomes something more. We have our way of doing it, and it's special. It's not about comfort, but I know how she moves, and there's a lot of trust between us. So that's been great.

What else are you dancing for your farewell show?
Diamonds and Episodes—I'm going to do the Bach section with Maria—and then In Memory of... and fourth movement Western [Symphony] with Sara Mearns. Peter and I talked about the program. He said, "I'd like to show your range," so we'll put in Episodes. I've done a fair amount of black-and-white ballets here, and I love that section. It's beautiful. But I really wanted to do In Memory of... and Diamonds.

When did you first dance Diamonds?
It was January of 1998 with Darci. She had electricity coursing through her. It was like this other being, and it was unbelievable. We'd rehearsed it and we'd done things together, but Diamonds was new to me. When we got out onstage—and I'm not saying she didn't do the steps—she was completely different from rehearsals. All of a sudden it was ten notches higher. I'll never forget that.

Do you teach?
I do. I'm on guest faculty at SAB. I teach partnering. I teach sometimes for Valentina Kozlova. I like to work with younger dancers—sometimes younger dancers here at the company. It's nice to get younger ballerinas, to help them a little bit.

Like who?
Sara Mearns. Tess [Reichlen]. I feel like it's sort of my duty. When I was younger at ABT, I danced with Susan Jaffe and Christine Dunham and they were like, "You've got to do this here." The learning happens a lot faster than when there are two young people trying to figure it out. Nobody knows what to do or what to say really, and you're like, "Well, that felt okay, I guess." So I like working with younger dancers.

Did you feel more appreciated at NYCB than ABT?
That's a tough question, but yeah. I was younger there. Things affect you differently at different times of your life, and you know what? When I look back, I can see that I was appreciated. It didn't work out the way I dreamt it would or hoped it would. Also, I'm really glad that I did leave because I had this other incredible experience. And it was like a second career—do you know what I mean? I didn't really want to just continue on doing those few ballets for the next ten years. [Laughs] As great as they are. But even the people who did those things the best—like Nureyev and Misha. They were always doing new...that's why Misha came over here. It was to do new works, and I'm not comparing myself to them, I'm just saying I needed to do different things.

Everyone does.

Needs to different things! Not compares themselves to Baryshiknov and Nureyev.
I've heard people do it! I'm like, You're not...oh my God. They just did. [Laughs] I'm also really glad that I was at ABT. ABT, at the time, had no tall ballerinas. I think the tallest ballerina I danced with was Julie Kent, who is like 5'5", and I really had to fight to be able to do those roles they didn't have to put a guy who was 6'4" on. I was like, I've gotta do seven pirouettes, I've gotta do double assembl. I've got to do these things. And the person who helped me a lot with that was Ross Stretton. He was a tall dancer, and for a year or two, everyday we would work on variations after class. He was a big mentor. I wasn't cast for any of those parts, and he would take a half an hour everyday. I'd leave class early and we'd grab a studio. I'd do Swan Lake everyday.

Did you ask him to?
Yes. I knew him from Maggie Black and he was the assistant to Kevin. I remember I talked to him. I was frustrated and he said, "If you want to do the stuff you have to get into the studio."

You will continue training now, right?
Oh yeah. I have performances lined up—I'm actually going to Grand Rapids to dance Serenade with Maria. I'm doing Sleeping Beauty with Connecticut Ballet. And I'm doing a little choreography. I'm working with Will Cotton, who is an artist, on something for Performa. He's commissioned a score from John Zorn. Typically, he's a visual artist. He paints. So he's doing a performance art piece and designing costumes and sets, and I'm going to do the choreography, and it's going to be based on cotton candy. Will loves that kind of stuff. There's always a girl on a cotton-candy cloud.

Are you in it?
No. I'm going to have three girls from City Ballet: Georgina Pazcoguin, Ana Sophia Scheller and Savannah Lowery. I just got the music last week.

I realize you don't want to talk about specifics yet, but what kind of artistic director do you want to be?
I can answer that. I want to be a good one. [Laughs] No. Michele and I get along really well. We talk a lot and we're very open, and I guess that's how I want to be. I'd like to be inclusive, but not to a fault. Certainly, to listen to others; I'd like for everyone to enjoy what they're doing, and that doesn't mean we're not going to work hard. Ballet is hard. There should be good times. You should be having fun. Otherwise, who's going to want to watch you, anyway? Practicality is another thing. There is a certain practicality to ballet that gets overlooked. We're artistic, and I get that, but you do a tendu the same way every time, because if you don't, one time you'll do eight pirouettes and the next time you'd do a half. And also there are a lot of ways to present ballet. I think we get caught up a little bit in one way: proscenium stage. And it's not to say that we'll be doing crazy things, but everything's changing.

I also think that things are more fluid in terms of crossing disciplines. Has being married to Candace Bushnell opened you up to different worlds?
Certainly. I was aware of things outside of ballet, but that expanded more. Meeting more writers, TV people, directors—and then they have friends and you meet more people. You may not know the answer, but you have to go out and try things. Whatever they may be.

Charles Askegard's farewell performance is Oct 9 at David H. Koch Theater. Ballet Next (balletnext.com) will be announcing its schedule shortly.

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