Interview: Next generation of ballet stars: Chase Finlay
As one of NYCB's up-and-coming company men, Chase Finlay is one to watch.
Thu Feb 17 2011
Photograph: Paul Kolnik
How did you hit on ballet? Are you a New Yorker?
I'm originally from Fairfield, Connecticut, and how I started ballet is kind of a typical story: I went to see The Nutcracker, which my older sister was in. I was probably 6. The first act, I was kind of bored out of my mind, but the second act came around and the character Chinese comes out of the box and starts doing all these split jumps, and then the Candy Cane did all these jumps, and I just turned to my mom and said, "I have to do this." I was always interested in sports more than anything else, and I think that's what appealed to me most: the jumps and tricks and athletic aspect.
What sports did you play?
I was a lacrosse player.
When did you start studying ballet?
At about eight years old. I asked my mom for a couple of years, but was too young, and finally started at the ballet school in Stamford, Connecticut. Then I met Darla Hoover there and started training in the city at Ballet Academy East.
She has a son who is also my age and is one of my best friends. I feel like she was really good at relating to younger boys—she knew how to take care of them and handle them and get through to them in a way that most other teachers don't know. And also she grew up with Marcia Dale Weary in central Pennsylvania and just has great technical skills, but I don't know—she just makes it fun.
Did your friends at school give you grief about ballet?
Yeah. They'd always be like, "Oh, you're going into the city for ballet class." But it got to a certain point when I started to invite my friends to come see me dance, and they finally got a visual to see how hard it actually was and to see that I'm out there with girls all the time [Laughs]. So it got to a certain point where I took it upon myself to show them that it's pretty awesome.
When did you decide that you wanted to pursue ballet as a profession?
From my first year of ballet. I've known that I wanted to do this forever. [Laughs] For me, there's not a better feeling than being on stage in front of people performing. That's what I love most about it.
Did you have idols?
Yeah, of course. Baryshnikov obviously. Fernando Bujones was one of my favorites. Peter Martins, Peter Boal, Damian Woetzel, Ethan Steifel, Nikolai Hbbe. I got to see Damian and Peter Boal and Ethan many times. Nikolai—many times. So definitely there were some dancers that I got to see tapes of, but for the most part it was New York City Ballet and American Ballet Theatre. I had lots of teachers at Ballet Academy East that were trained and danced here at City Ballet, so just through them I had lots of opportunities to see tapes, and I also had an equal amount of teachers at American Ballet Theatre, so I got a nice little mix of both.
Why were you drawn to NYCB?
When I was younger I was always interested in American Ballet Theatre, but once I got older and started to come to see City Ballet, just to explore options, I saw how technical Balanchine's dances were, and at the same time, they were lyrical and fit to the music so well; and the formations that he made on stage—it just appealed to me.
I remember your workshop performance in Concerto Barocco. You're a really good partner as well—is that instinctual?
Maybe a little bit, but that was one thing that Darla was also really huge on. She worked on dance more, but she was so aware of the fact that male dancers can be great dancers but don't necessarily make it unless they're great partners also. So from when I was young she just had me partnering with girls that were twice my height [Laughs] and working on it and figuring out all the little tricks by myself. I also had Peter Frame at Ballet Academy East, who was a fantastic partner. So between them and Richard Cook, who was at Central Pennsylvania Youth Ballet, I think I had lots of great partnering teachers when I was young, and then I just figured it out by myself along the way.
It was a blast. One, to do a piece of Christopher Wheeldon's—I love his choreography—but also to partner with Sara Mearns. That was kind of out of this world [Laughs]. The thought process that she puts into her dancing and how much time she devotes to rehearsals just makes me work the same way. It makes me step up to the level that she's at, and we kind of fed off each other. Also, in Polyphonia I was the only nonprincipal, so it just makes you see all of the amazing dancers around you and want to step up your dancing that much more.
You're being thrown into a lot of important parts. How do you keep your head on straight during this time?
Well, I'm kind of nonstop from 10:30 until the show, so I don't really have much time to think about that so much. But when I go home I just try to clear my head and try to stay responsible. Keep my head down.
Do you go to anyone for advice?
Well, Darla. We have dinner every so often, and it's great to just go to her and have her be someone to talk to. Also, my parents are super supportive; and my friends too. There are certain things you can't always talk to your friends about, but for the most part, if you're feeling down or something, you just have a friend over and watch a movie and talk about it—that's probably the best way for me.
Were you injured? What happened?
Are you talking about last year, during Mirage? It was Peter Martins's new ballet, and two days before the show, we were doing the complete [rehearsal] in costume on stage and my back just went into complete spasms.
Oh my God.
I know. It was very scary. I didn't have an understudy at that point. The only option he had was to teach it to someone he trusted, and that person happened to be Robert Fairchild. Since he was a principal dancer, he would obviously give him a show; he wouldn't just be the understudy. But I did get to dance it, and it comes back the last week of our winter season, and I'll be doing all of them. That's, knock on wood, been the only injury that I've had. I broke my foot when I was 12 or 13, but it healed in six months.
How do you train on top of ballet?
I do Pilates—I try to get it in at least twice a week, and then on top of that, the gym. Right now, since I'm doing so much partnering, I don't need to do much weight lifting. But during a rehearsal period, it's lots of freeweight lifting, Pilates and cardio work—elliptical, stationary bike, all that. Swimming.
What are some ballets you'd want to perform?
It's always been my dream to perform Apollo. It's just such a strong male role, and it's just always appealed to me. I've seen videos of Peter Martins, but the first time I ever saw it live was Nikolai's retirement performance; that was one of the most incredible performances I've ever seen, and it was also another reason why I loved it so much. That was one of the last things I saw before I came to study at the [NYCB-affiliated] School of American Ballet, so that was really one of the defining moments in choosing between Balanchine and classical. And Romeo has always been a dream to perform
How did you get into the company? Is there a story?
We actually found out kind of early. They didn't tell us definitely, but they said, "Don't audition. Stick around. They want you to do these roles in workshop and then we'll talk after that." Workshop came around and they invited us all into the office in front of Kay Mazzo, Sean Lavery and Jock Soto and they told us right before the show, and it was probably the best show I've ever had. [Laughs]
That was when you became an apprentice. What about when you got your corps contract?
None of us knew. We all went to Saratoga without knowing what was going to happen, and at that point the economy was kind of a mess, so we were all biting our nails and so nervous. The last day after the show Peter called us in one by one; he just told me that he was happy with how I was dancing and, again, to keep my head on straight and to keep working and doing what I'm doing.
That was an awkward time, right? A bunch of dancers had gotten laid off?
You were probably all like, What's going on?
Exactly. It was a lot to take in. I'm glad it worked out.
How do you know when everything's going right?
I guess when they're casting you in more and more. We do get a certain amount of feedback from the ballet masters, and if they seem pleased, I guess you're doing things right. It's hard sometimes to read them. [Laughs] But for the most part it's that: If they seem pleased and don't have too many corrections for you, I guess you're doing all right.