Holding court

ABT's divine Ashley Tuttle finds inspiration in Balanchine-and basketball.

Ashley Tuttle is one of American Ballet Theatre's most influential heroes, yet she is also unsung. At 29, she's a true classicist with regal dramatic flair that doesn't force audiences into admiring submission, but rather mesmerizes them. This season and last, Tuttle's rich characterizations in Swan Lake, Romeo and Juliet and La Sylphide have given balletomanes reason to embrace her, not only for her technical proficiency, but also for her devotion to the idea of raising her art to another level.

Born in Columbia, South Carolina, Tuttle studied ballet at the Calvert-Brodie School before moving to New York at 15 to attend the School of American Ballet; she joined ABT in 1987, was promoted to soloist in 1992 and then to principal in 1997. Twyla Tharp plucked her from the corps in 1988, and like many other choreographers impressed by Tuttle's elegant aura and small stature, was inspired to cast her in new ballets. This week, as ABT wraps up its spring season, there are a couple of highlights for Tuttle: George Balanchine's challenging Theme and Variations and a reprise of Tharp's recent The Brahms-Haydn Variations. Recently, she sat in her dressing room at the Met and considered her career. "I think I'm a bit of a late bloomer," she admits. "Each year, I get new roles that maybe somebody my age would have already done. It's nice to be given that gift when you're older. The more you live, the more you can express."

How do you approach Theme and Variations?
I think of it as Balanchine's Sleeping Beauty. The first solo features a lot of spins and turns, so it's Aurora, young and vibrant. In the second solo, I come out with all the girls. It's a little more grand, like I've come of age. And then I find my prince, and then we do a pas de deux. I first performed Theme years ago with Guillaume Graffin; the way I approached it was, Oh, it's just like any other ballet—I'm not going to get scared. And then, as I stood in fifth position and the curtain went up, tears started rolling down my face. I was so terrified. [Laughs] Guillaume looked over and was like, Oh, no—what am I going to have to deal with? That experience taught me to accept that it is scary. You have to respect Balanchine. I wish we did more of his work at ABT.

You were a student at the New York City Ballet--affiliated School of American Ballet when Mikhail Baryshnikov asked you to join ABT. Did you ever consider NYCB?
I lived with a woman who kept a bunch of dancers in her house. One was an apprentice in ABT, and she got a notice for an audition , so I went. At the time, I was in level B2 at SAB; the best division to be in was C2, because those students were cast in the workshop performances. Misha called me back the next day—all the C-level girls from SAB were automatically called. [Winces] The next thing I knew, all of SAB is at this audition. ABT asked me to take company class, which I did; then I had to be an usher for the SAB workshop performances. As I was handing out programs, Misha appeared in the doorway. He said, "So, do you want to join my company or what?" I was panicked—I didn't know what to do! I was like, "Well, I don't know—I'll talk to you later." Which seems silly—here's Baryshnikov offering you a job, but I didn't know which company I wanted to be in. At that point, I talked to people at SAB—they said they would skip me to C2 the next year, but it wasn't like they were saying, "Please stay." So at that point, I thought I should follow my heart—I've always liked the idea of telling a story in a ballet.

Have you thought about how long you'll dance?
No. I go through stages where I think, I don't know if I'm good enough, but this season I feel things are changing. I have stage fright, which has developed only in the last couple of years. To deal with that, I focus more on characters, and I feel that is opening up things for me. For Romeo and Juliet, I was really scared; people say, "Visualize something." I thought, I'm going to visualize being open and free and in the moment, so no matter what happens, I'll be ready. Then, after the show, Kevin [McKenzie] said, "You were so open." I thought, Okay, good. That makes me want to dance. [Pauses] I think I might have hit a wall before this. I felt a lot of pressure when I got promoted. You also perform less. I'm still trying to adjust.

What do you do outside of the studio to improve?
I watch videos of other dancers. I listen to a lot of music, not necessarily ballet music. That can always enhance your musicality. Recently, I saw Savion Glover perform. He's amazing. It made me see how you can play with rhythm in any kind of dancing. And I watch a lot of basketball, too. I'm a big Knicks fan.

Same here!
[Applauds] You can get beautiful movement out of a task. In basketball, the players are trying to get to the basket, but in the meantime, they make beautiful shapes. A lot of it is like Twyla's work, where raw movement can be really beautiful. [Sighs] I love the Knicks.

Who is your favorite?
I think Charlie Ward is really great. I don't think he gets enough attention. He totally controls the place; he's like a quarterback. And Sprewell is the type of dancer I like to watch. He's spontaneous. He reminds me of my boyfriend, John [Selya, former ABT dancer]. And I relate to Allan Houston because I can tell he gets nervous. Patrick Ewing, I have to respect. And Camby—he's like a puppy. He reminds me of [ABT soloist] Sandy Brown. I don't know if you know this, but in the studio Sandy goes for everything. She's always falling down and knocking things over. Like Camby, she'll do whatever she has to do, even if she can't walk the next day.

Does it bother you that you've never been as touted as Susan Jaffe or Julie Kent?
This is my theory: I'm not going to be a superstar. I wasn't the child principal like Gelsey Kirkland. I accept that. I've always wanted to touch someone—that's my goal. The flowers and everything else are nice perks, but our real job is to dance. So I don't really mind the lack of attention. It's not my path.

Check out our past coverage of Ashley Tuttle:
Ashley Tuttle The former ABT principal reunites with Twyla Tharp.
Turning points The good-bye girl.

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