Charles Askegard

The NYCB principal moves on to the Next big thing.

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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.

Really?
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.
[Laughs]

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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