Growing up fast
NYCB's excellent Andrew Veyette comes into his own.
Thu Jan 4 2007
Photo: Paul Kolnik
Andrew Veyette was poised to be a gymnast when he discovered ballet—hence, the easy elevation of his double tour. Like many young dancers, he was forced to make a life-changing decision at the age of 12. “I really did look at myself and think, You’re going to be way too tall to be a gymnast. You can go to the Olympics, like, once. And then you’re done.” Instead, along with his two older brothers, the California-raised Veyette turned his focus to ballet, studying initially with Betty Downs and later at Yvonne Mounsey’s Westside Ballet under another influential teacher, Nader Hamed.
Now 24, Veyette is a soloist at New York City Ballet, where he has amassed an impressive repertory and come a long way since he and his brothers spent their Saturday afternoons in an empty dance studio, teaching themselves variations from videotapes. “It’s a weird thing to be into—to be plugging into ballet tapes and not football games, but that’s just how it was, I guess,” he says with a half shrug and a smile. At the New York State Theater, Veyette—who lives in Brooklyn with girlfriend Megan Fairchild, a principal dancer with the company, and their basset hound, Norman—spoke about his career.
How did you get started in ballet?
I had actually been doing gymnastics. My father was a coach, and my oldest brother and I got to take lessons for free. But I also had a brother who was doing ballet; I got interested and started doing both. Then I was told, “Pick one. You don’t have enough time for everything.”
Where were you?
That was in California. I moved from Colorado when I was eight. I have three older brothers, and my two older brothers closest to me both took ballet, up until I left home. My brother Francis is in Pennsylvania Ballet and my brother Michael doesn’t dance anymore—he’s got four boys and a girl. He’s an investment banker. He’s the smart one.
Do you remember being passionate about ballet?
I think I enjoyed dancing more. I liked gymnastics a lot; it’s funny—I was talking to somebody about this the other day who said, “So you decided what you were going to do for a living when you were 12?” I don’t think you realize that at the time, but that’s pretty much what happens. I really did look at myself and go, You’re going to be way to tall to be a gymnast. You can go to the Olympics, like, once. And you’re done. I really was just trying to pick the thing that I thought I was going to be the most successful with.
It’s decent logic for a kid.
I don’t know. I don’t remember it being a very big deal. I certainly didn’t have any idea that it was going to have the kind of overall, life-changing repercussions that it did. But that’s just how it was. The school we went to is called Dance Arts Betty Downs. She was really cool, and it was a really fun place. Every other year we would do Nutcrackers for Westside Ballet in Santa Monica. It’s kind of like the same situation we have with the company here—the kids do party scene, and the older dancers do the second-act stuff. So I started doing Nutcracker.
How long did you study with just Betty?
We kind of split it for two years, where, during the week we would take classes at Dance Arts with Betty and then on Saturdays we would go to Westside because there was a partnering class and a more advanced class. Mainly, it was for the partnering. My brothers and I ended up being a pretty critical part of that partnering class, just so the girls could have some boys to dance with. It’s a good thing to start with when you’re young.
And it shows now, particularly in your recent Nutcracker with Sterling Hyltin.
[Laughs] It was a lot of saving. I’ve gotten better at calming down, at slowing myself down when I’m onstage. If you’re in too big a hurry or try to overdance the pas de deux, it’ll tear you to pieces.
How natural were you when you started?
I would think that, if anything, that’s where I struggle. At least that’s how I sell it to myself. To me, that’s the most important thing you can do, and it’s also the most artistically fulfilling part of dancing—dancing with somebody else, that together you can both look better than you would by yourself. Jock Soto was a fantastic partnering teacher when I was at the School of American Ballet, and Nader Hamed taught us partnering classes at Westside. He was good at teaching us simple, technical, basic things that you always need to have and remember as staples. Like where you stand behind the girl. He also taught us variations. I think the first thing we started with was peasant pas de deux from Giselle. He said, “Everybody should learn that first because it’s so simple and musical and very difficult actually.” Over two years, we learned everything — Corsaire, Don Q, the Black Swan pas de deux. We did lots of tape watching. I think it’s important to teach boys at a young age how you get through a variation, how to pace yourself, what’s important, how much energy you have to put into this part so you’ll still have something left there.
Why was Soto such a good teacher?
I just think he’s a really brilliant partner. He didn’t like to necessarily have to do the hands-on, so when we were in the school, he would have one of us come forward with a girl and teach it on you from start to finish. If we were doing something with lots of promenades, a lot of guys grip the girl’s wrist with all five fingers. He would say, “You should be able to do the whole thing with two fingers.” And that’s what we would practice— just two fingers, promenades, penches, everything. I think that what I learned is that if you squeeze too hard or you’re pushing too hard when you’re trying to dance a pas de deux, then you have no sensitivity to where the girl is. But if you can soften up, lighten up, slow yourself down, you’ll always be able to feel where her balance is. I know when I got to the school, I just really wanted to hold on to everything and kind of force my girl through, instead of just allowing her to dance.
Your performance with Sterling Hyltin in The Nutcracker last month was quite amazing. You looked so natural together—it was instantly right.
Photo: Paul Kolnik
She was really great. Peter [Martins] has put us together a couple of times. We were talking about it the other day. We both have such high energy; I think that putting us together is a way of making sure that we will remind each other to slow down, to be calm, to be classical about it. She really trusted me and was patient with me, and that’s all I can ask for: people to be patient with me. I apologize a lot when I’m dancing with a girl. I get yelled at for apologizing too much. I was actually very nervous to do that show, because I had been injured up until recently.
You were supposed to dance Christopher Wheeldon’s Carousel at the gala, right?
Yeah. I hurt myself on the Saturday before the gala. So I had two weeks off and came back just in time to do Spanish [in The Nutcracker]. I was nervous, and Sterling was really calm—and it was her debut! I remember being really grateful that she was as coolheaded as she was because if she had been nervous, I don’t know if I would have been able to keep it together.
How were you injured?
We’re working on Romeo and Juliet, and we were just doing random stuff—drag, jet, battu, drag—and I did almost the exact same thing that I did last year at this time. I was doing a jet, and I just rolled my ankle. It wasn’t a really severe injury; it was just bad timing. I was disappointed about missing the gala, because I was really looking forward to doing Carousel. I was very happy for Seth [Orza]. But it comes back. Hopefully I’ll get a chance.
What was the learning process like for Carousel?
It was pretty cool. [The female lead, Kathryn Morgan,] was really cool. It’s interesting to work with someone who is so young, to watch somebody learn how to do a pas de deux from scratch. That’s excellent for me to experience, too. That’s a cool ballet. I was in the corps when [Wheeldon] choreographed it. I don’t know if I understudied it the last time it came around, but Chris has me understudy Damian [Woetzel] every now and then. I learned An American in Paris. I love doing Damian’s parts: Seeing the way he did things by looking at a tape is a good lesson on how to dance a ballet. [Woetzel is] very light.
Do you think of yourself as a romantic dancer? You’re good in those types of roles, but I know that looking comfortable isn’t always the same as feeling comfortable.
I enjoy doing them, but I don’t think highly enough of myself to be able to say, “Yeah, I’m good at that.” Pas de deux are really so fun because when you do them well—I guess you can get used to going onstage and jumping and turning, and sometimes you’re great and sometimes you’re okay, but you pretty much look the same most of the time when you’re dancing by yourself. In a pas de deux, you always have the chance to create something different. It always looks different depending on who you’re dancing with. The best is when the boy disappears, and you don’t even notice the guy standing behind the girl. You just see her moving around the stage and different shapes. I think that’s such a neat trick.
And that doesn’t bother you as a dancer?
No! Whenever I’ve been in the audience, those are always the most beautiful moments in the performance. It’s funny, because when I was a little kid I would fast-forward through the pas de deux right to the variation.
What tapes did you watch?
We had a Kultur tape—it was The Best of the Kirov or something. You get what you can from the public library. We had recorded the Balanchine Celebration from PBS; I taught myself Stars and Stripes when I was 12 in the studio. My teacher at Dance Arts would give my brothers and me the keys to the studio on Saturdays, and I’d go in there and put tapes on and teach myself tricks and variations. Things that were completely the wrong direction — anybody would have said, “You don’t need to learn that yet!” But that stuff was fun for us. It’s a weird thing to be into, to be plugging in to ballet tapes and not football games, but that’s just how it was, I guess. [Laughs]
Why did you go to the School of American Ballet?
I heard about it through Yvonne [Mounsey]. She said, “That’s the place to go if you can get there.” I didn’t get in the first year I auditioned, but that’s always where I wanted to go. I knew when I saw the Balanchine Celebration in 1993 that I wanted to dance in this company. I looked at the rep and the opportunities that you were going to get—we do so many ballets here. I knew that I would have a chance regardless of who else was in the company. It seemed like if you didn’t have everything laid out in front of you at ABT, you might not necessarily get the opportunity to come up from underneath the way you can here. And the No. 1 issue for me was that I was never convinced that I was going to get so far. I thought, If I’m going to dance in the corps of a company, I want to dance in the corps here, because you get to dance. And you get respect.
What was your first big role?
I’ve done so many things. I know which one got me my job: They threw me on in Harmonielehre the day after it premiered or something like that. I was an apprentice, and I got my contract that night because of that.
How did that happen?
There was an injury and I got a call: “How fast can you get here?” Ten minutes later I was in a studio. I did the performance that night and Peter said, “You’re going to get your corps contract and you’re going to go to Saratoga with us.” I was assuming it was going to be at the end of spring season—that’s what Rosie [Dunleavy] had said, and Peter was like, “No, no, tonight you get it. Tomorrow you get a paycheck.” That was really nice.
How did you know the part?
We’d been called to rehearsals. It was a little scary. I didn’t want somebody to not show up and have to step in and not know what I was doing, so it put the fear of God into me. Get it done so you don’t look stupid.
You performed a memorable Stars and Stripes with Ashley Bouder at SAB’s Workshop Performances. What was that like?
I performed it a lot before Workshop, because we did that ballet at lectures. Peter says that he remembers that more than Workshop. That’s a nice part for me. [Laughs] That’s going to bite me in the ass. I like jumping off of one foot, and that’s pretty much what you have to do the whole time you’re out there.
Is it harder to partner a dancer who is as strong as Bouder?
You know, at this point I think it’s kind of a wash, because there are certain people you’ll dance with and you have to help them through, and there are people like Ashley, who you have to control. My job in Workshop was a lot less about helping her and a lot more about controlling the situation, because she put just a crapload of energy into everything she did. It was so exciting, but very different than dancing with some of the other people I’ve danced with. It was almost like, “Hold on!” She’s going to go, and you better be ready. She made life pretty easy. We worked on that pas de deux a lot. I was making bad decisions with my arms and with my head, and all of that stuff was cleaned up by Suki [Schorer]. And Peter came in for a couple of rehearsals and told us to do some things to make the pas de deux more exciting. There’s that penche you do where you do the promenade and grab the other hand, and he really wanted me to leave her, leave her—and then swing her around. They were all really nice, because they let me do my own version. [Laughs] We went back and forth a couple of times about versions and in the end, they let me do what I had learned when I was 12. I did, what we call the “Woetzel Pretzel,” and Peter didn’t want me to do it at first because he thought it looked too much like Damian. I was like, “Honestly, that’s the best trick I’ve got for right there. Anything else is going to be a little bit of a roll of the dice.”
Would you describe the “Woetzel Pretzel”?
It’s like a jazz step, where you swing the wrong leg into arabesque. It’s just a weird trick. And Damian called it the Lawn Mower because he said, “If you do it wrong it looks like somebody threw a lawn mower in the air.” And it can. That trick can look really vicious if it’s not done cleanly. I ran around asking everybody for every piece of advice I could get. I think most people do.
How were you promoted to soloist?
Peter called a bunch of us in. I had a lot of opportunities the year leading up to that. I did second pas de trois in Agon and then by the time we got to Saratoga I was doing the first one, and then I got to do Harlequinade in Saratoga. Peter’s always been real nice to me. Every time I’ve ever talked with him, and I’ve had a couple of meetings over the years, he’s always been very encouraging. I’ve always felt like there was a career to be had if I handled my end of it. He was very clear of what he expected me to do.
Which was what?
Keep getting better. I think you just have to treat yourself like you’re valuable. It’s really easy to focus on the wrong things instead of just worrying about what you’re doing and realizing that every step you do and every rehearsal you have is important. Not just for yourself, but for the whole company, and if you have that attitude then you’re working the right way.
Did you ever go through a period of psyching yourself out?
Yeah. I was really stressed during the first couple of years I was in the company. I think I came a long way and got here and then was like, I need a minute. Or at least that’s what I thought to myself, and I think I lost a lot of confidence. If you don’t have that, you don’t have anything at all. So it took me a little to get my confidence back where I felt like I deserved to be featured and in front of other people. I looked around at the people who were in the company when I got in and I was just like, There’s no way I can dance in front of these people. It took me a while to really get over myself and to realize, That’s your job. It’s to be as good as possible and to try to sell it, which includes believing you’re a good dancer and worth watching. If you’re shy about how you dance or timid about how you approach your job, you won’t do your job right.
What turned it around? Was it a role?
It was me. I just had to keep working. I made a few mistakes where I really put my foot in it and I just had to come back in and reestablish that I cared about dancing here, and that that was my priority. I think there was a certain amount of high expectation from the artistic staff, and I didn’t behave accordingly. When you’re 18 years old you can make a million excuses and get as mad as you want about whose fault it is, but at the end of the day it’s yours. It’s your responsibility to be professional.
I’m remembering something just this second: Did you once not show up for a performance?
I was late for [Richard Tanner’s] Soire. At the time, I lived on the East Side and I got into a cab at 7pm. Me, being stupid at 17 years old, thinking I’d get to the theater at 7:15pm and have 20 minutes to put on makeup and 20 minutes to warm up. Now I know that if you have the first ballet and you’re the principal, you’ve got to be in the building at 6pm. I had some nasty traffic and everything had stopped at Fifth Avenue, so at 7:30pm I got out of the cab and started running across the park. I had just enough time to put my makeup and costume on and get onstage. And they were really unhappy with me, and they should have been. I would have been terribly pissed off if a kid had done that in my company.
Do you mentor younger dancers, if only in an unofficial way?
I think we all try to help each other. There have been kids who have gotten into the company who have had a hard time picking up choreography or steps; it’s so easy to get so pissed and flustered and frustrated that you try to move ahead of yourself, and it’s like, “Hey, kid, just calm down. The slower you approach this the faster it’s going to go into your body.” There were those seasons when we were doing 63 ballets—and we were all talking to each other onstage.
Do you learn quickly?
Yeah. I’ll say that with confidence. Probably 90 percent of why I have a job is that I pick things up quickly. If I have half an hour, they know I’ll know what I’m doing. I’ve done that a couple of times. There used to be a Golden Dance Belt that would be given out to the guy who got thrown on the most every year. But I never got it. [Laughs] I was always very bitter about that.
What was the scariest thing you got thrown on in?
Harlequinade was terrifying because I only had 24 hours with the material. That was Alexandra Ansanelli’s last performance in Saratoga. Susie Hendl was walking from wing to wing with me, hollering what entrance came next and what I needed to count before I entered. She went from wing to wing with me helping me with every single entrance. She was awesome.
I think that your progression has been slow. What do you think?
[Laughs] I think it has been just right. The stuff that has really made a difference I haven’t learned until recently, so I think I needed every step along the way. It’s so valuable to have all of the time onstage, and I did things: I did a demisoloist part or soloist part as I went through the years and I always got better as I went along. Like I said, there are things that have always been in my dancing. I’ve always been able to jump; I can do a double tour. That’s there. But the right attitude and the right upper body and carriage and personality is so important. You can’t just put somebody out there because they’re a talented person; it has to be a complete package, especially with the way tickets are priced. You can’t put a $40 dancer out there when it’s $80 a ticket. I wouldn’t think that I was ready any sooner than when it happened. So maybe I could have physically done some things that I do now, but I wouldn’t have done them the right way. I might not have been the kind of partner I am now--I can handle pas de deux now and that was certainly not something that was going to be my identity when I first got in. I would rather do them the right way. I’m not even fully convinced that I would have ever been this good if it had not gone the way it had.