The NYCB soloist talks dance.
Mon Feb 1 2010
PRETTY IN PINK Lowery performs Brahms-Schoenberg Quartet.
Savannah Lowery has always been strong and tall—the tallest in her grade school, taller than all the boys and, finally, too tall for gymnastics, which is why, when faced with the decision to pursue that or ballet, she chose ballet. “And gymnastics was too scary,” she said. “I got to that point where you had to start doing backflips on the beam.” Born in Largo, Florida, Lowery, a soloist with New York City Ballet, is just under 5'9", a height that makes her suitable for traditionally towering ballerina parts in Balanchine ballets. At 25, Lowery is a force—a dancer who doesn’t hold back onstage, and as sunny as a Florida morning offstage. This season, look for her in The Sleeping Beauty (as Diamond), Swan Lake (the pas de quatre), Rubies and Tchaikovsky Piano Concerto No. 2. She spoke about her career at the David H. Koch Theater.
What’s Largo, Florida, like in terms of life and ballet?
Beautiful beaches, sunny weather all the time. It was a great place to grow up. I miss it. I miss the weather, I miss the beach, I miss my pool. I went to numerous ballets schools. Judith Lee Johnson’s was probably my main studio—[NYCB principal] Daniel Ulbricht and I grew up there together. I think we kind of pushed each other. I danced a little bit with a student company affiliated with the Sarasota Ballet, called Florida West. There was some really good training there and I got to do a few performances with them, which was nice. Other than that, there were numerous schools—Judy’s doesn’t even exist anymore. It’s kind of hard to even go home and take class nowadays. It was great, but I kind of outgrew it, so when eighth grade came around and the School of American Ballet had asked me to stay [for the year], I wasn’t really ready to leave home, but there really wasn’t anything for me there anymore. We thought it would be taking a step backward for me to stay. I probably cried myself to sleep for six months when I first moved to New York. [Laughs] But I wouldn’t do it any differently if I could live it over again. It was the best move I ever made. I needed time to adjust.
Was the training dramatically different?
Yes. I wasn’t used to doing my ballet classes on pointe. I remember my feet aching a lot. But we only had two classes a day; I was used to dancing about that amount of time. Academic school was really hard to balance. I felt like a hermit sometimes. I had school and ballet and then I’d do homework the rest of the evening. I felt on my own for the first time. Which was scary. [Laughs]
What clicked to make you feel comfortable?
Having a history at SAB gave me a little comfort. I built some great friendships with people who are still my friends today. I wasn’t sure if ballet was what I wanted to do at that point, but the more I got to see City Ballet, I realized it was. It just got okay. My parents came up and helped me settle in and I got to know the city a little better. I got used to the cold. [Laughs] Learned how to layer.
Who were some of the important teachers for you?
Every year, it was somebody different. Susie Pilarre took me under her wing the first year when I was in [level] C-1. I felt comfortable with her; it wasn’t so nervewracking. I could just be myself in class. And then my second year I was in D, and I worked a lot with Suki Schorer, especially for the Workshop Performances. Then with 9/11, Kay Mazzo just seemed comforting to all of the students. That was second year that I was there.
They evacuated Lincoln Center. I was actually at PCS [Professional Children’s School]. They stopped classes and walked us back to SAB and by the time we got to the dorms they told us to pack an overnight bag and we all just went to different homes. Some parents who had students took people in; teachers took people in. We were all kind of scattered throughout the city. I went to a student’s home—she lived real close, above the Food Emporium on 68th Street. I remember I grabbed my best friend and said, “Don’t leave me!” I think five of us slept on a couch. It was a little scary. I remember talking to my mom and I lost it! I was so scared. It was an experience I’ll never forget.
When did they let you back in?
The next day. It wasn’t too long, but it was eerie. I had been here a week and just moved back for my second year of school, which had been in session for a week.
How was Mazzo comforting throughout it?
She kind of took over. It was like, Okay, someone’s in control.
She was like Giuliani?
[Laughs] Exactly! On a smaller scale, yes.
In your second year at SAB, you took part in Workshop. What did you perform?
I did Divertimento No. 15. I had two roles. I did the first variation and the lead. Megan Fairchild and I shared it. We will never share a role again! [Laughs] It was nice. They gave a tall cast a shot, which was fun. They had trouble finding me a partner, I remember. There wasn’t a boy tall enough for me. I’m getting used to that now.
What was it like training for that?
I was fighting my first injuries. I had stress fractures in my metatarsals at the school and I remember Suki saying, “Don’t jump until the show! Save yourself.” I remember the drama of finding me a partner. I think they even contemplated bringing Amar [Ramasar] in, even though he was an apprentice. I actually did it with a great kid who is now at Pennsylvania Ballet. Peter Martins came in and helped us with the pas de deux; Jock Soto helped a lot. I really enjoyed it and I think that’s when I knew: Okay, I could rehearse and perform for a living. Until you actually go through it, you don’t know how you’re going to react.
I’m sure you’ve seen people who you thought were on that track not be able to handle it? Or not be happy?
Definitely. You see some amazingly talented people and they’re like, Oh, I don’t want to do this, and then you see people trying so hard and they know exactly what they want to do. I felt I was in between.
What are the good and bad points about being such a tall dancer?
Finding a partner is always a struggle. I’m tall, but when I go up on pointe with my large feet—and my arms are really long—I need a very tall man to dance with. And someone really strong. I’m strong, and I could easily knock someone over.
Have you ever done that?
No. I make them stumble sometimes. But I’m getting better—that is more of a control thing on my part. I don’t know if it’s because I’m tall and I’m biased, but seeing a tall couple onstage is one of the most beautiful things.
I’ve been watching you perform in the corps de ballet for so long! I loved the way you seemed to take care of the choreography; and then, when you performed solos, you showed amazing articulation and power.
It’s funny. I feel like I’m just now getting to that point where I can really even perform. I feel like I’m constantly learning. When I first got in, it was about learning the steps and trying to show that I was smart and could pick up things quickly, and I didn’t really think about the artistry of what I was doing onstage. And now I know practically everything! [Laughs] I don’t have to worry about that so much anymore. Now I can worry about why I’m doing this or what Mr. B or Jerry meant when they made this stuff—and to think about the artistry of what I’m doing.
Would you talk about that in relation to different roles?
Dewdrop [in The Nutcracker] is dancing and phrasing and musicality. It’s the first role that almost made me cry. I couldn’t believe I was doing it; there’s that section at the very end when you push through all the girls, and it was a moment for me. I hadn’t had that onstage before. Playing with the music is what’s fun. Once you get the technicality of it down, then you can play with, it almost do it differently every night. Everybody does it differently, which I love, and choosing and picking what you like on them, what might work on you, what you don’t like, what you shouldn’t do—it’s fun. In Rubies, you’re the all-American girl. I think about trying to really stand out and to be that strong female character.
One of my favorite parts for you is in the first movement of Brahms-Schoenberg Quartet. What was that like for you?
I really got into that for some reason. I think I was comfortable in the steps early on and I could just have fun with it. My biggest struggle is getting comfortable in something. It takes me a while to get the coordination. If I don’t have that, I can’t play, but once I do it’s easy. That fit my body.
How do you get comfortable?
Maybe it has to do with dancing like the person it was choreographed on? Kyra Nichols always helped me. I don’t know if it’s just because I know she’s done a part, but when I follow in her roles, the coordination tends to work better. I don’t know if it’s the amount of rehearsal. I have yet to figure out what the trick is. That’s one of the things I try to work on first—getting the coordination down. Right now, I’m working on pas de quatre for Swan Lake and a couple of things are a little off at the moment. [Laughs]
It’s a lot of footwork, it’s a lot of hitting fifth on pointe, which for some reason is kind of difficult for me. Merrill Ashley helped me a lot [with that] in Ramonda. It’s all very technical footing. I move big. To cover a stage? No problem. But to do the small intricate dance steps? I’ve got big feet, long legs—it takes a little more energy and effort, and I have to work harder.
When you watch someone do a role and you don’t like something about their interpretation—what are you referring to?
Sometimes they give you freedom with your port de bras and head, and sometimes you’re like, Oh, that might not have been the right choice or I don’t like that line. Certain lines look better on other dancers than they look on me so I’m starting to learn what looks best on my body. Dance is so visual and it’s all smoke and mirrors—I probably shouldn’t say that. [Laughs] I’m still learning, and watching other people really helps me; I tend to watch people who either dance like me or have similar body types and lines, and that helps even more, because if they hit a bad moment you’re like, Oh—I probably shouldn’t try that. If it doesn’t look good on them, it’s probably not going to look good on me.
How did you make the transition to be alone onstage? Was that jarring for you?
[Embarrassed] No! It’s funny because during this past Nutcracker season, I was put back into Flowers [as a demi-soloist] and I hadn’t done it in two years. And to be onstage and to be in line with that many corps girls, I felt so out of my element. I had to restrain myself, which isn’t as much fun. So I love being onstage by myself. There’s a freedom that you can’t get anywhere else. I wonder if it’s the same with a lot of pas de deux work? It’ll be interesting to see if that freedom stays. As a soloist, I mostly do roles by myself.
Have you done much partnering at all?
I haven’t. Unfortunately. I would love to, but I haven’t hit that part in my career yet. I’m looking forward to, hopefully, building up to that. I’m hoping. I’ve done a few things, mostly more modern pas de deux. I tend to be the more leotard-ballet girl. Either the sexy vixen or a leotard role. I’m hoping to grow into the softer, more elegant and regal parts, which is why Diamond in Sleeping Beauty is one of my favorite roles: I’m in a tutu. I have a blast. It’s really easy, there’s no stress and it’s my favorite costume.
The tutu is gorgeous, and I don’t know if you can see it from far away, but up-close it’s teal and there’s all this beading underneath and it’s just stunning. You feel like a princess in it. The part isn’t very tiring. I have time to rest, and I come out after everybody else—I don’t know if it’s that I’ve done a lot of harder things, so in relation to everything else, it’s fun? I just feel good.
And you really go for it when you’re dancing—is that approach natural?
Yeah, I guess. Like I said, even with the corps stuff, holding back makes me really uncomfortable. So I like to push everything, which is probably why most of my roles are the hard, go-get-them type of roles. [Laughs]
What are some parts you’d like to dance?
[Whispers] Wow. I’ve never been involved in Serenade. I never did it in the corps. Every once in a while somebody gets overlooked and I don’t know if it was just one of my injuries in the corps when my group of apprentices had learned it—I missed out. There was one point toward the end of my corps—I was senior corps, and I said, “Rosie [Rosemary Dunleavy], if you need a girl, I’ll learn it.” Of course, nothing ever happened, but I would give anything just to be a part of that ballet. I think it’s absolutely stunning.
You’d be a good Dark Angel. Or Russian, actually.
That’s it. Dark Angel—of course. It’s always the tall girl, and that would be fun, but Russian Girl has always looked so great; Tess [Reichlen] did a show of it once and I was like, Oh, it looks great on a taller girl! You never know. It’s a beautiful ballet. Mozartiana. I that I’m nowhere close to that, but it’s something to look forward to. It’s one of the most beautiful pieces of music and beautiful ballets—watching Kyra Nichols and Wendy Whelan do it when I was in the corps was the highlight of my year, always.
How did you get to know Kyra Nichols?
I danced a lot behind her as a corps member. A lot. And I remember when I started learning PC2 [Tchaikovsky Piano Concerto No. 2]. She had done the solo girl, and she took me aside one day and started helping me. For some reason, we just really clicked. She helped me use my strength and soften it up. Especially for PC2: It’s a very demanding role, but you can’t pound everything. She was trying to take some of the laboring out of my dancing—ballet is supposed to be effortless. I guess what she would say was not to punch everything. To use my head more. I rarely use my head. I don’t know if it’s a habit of looking in the mirror all the time? So she would tell me where to look. She would say, “Use your eyes. You’re not just staring at a sea of black. It’s not just an audience out there; make sure you’re actually looking at something. It gives your face and head better—
Yes. And always, if I was off on a turn, she would help me get back on my leg. Even on her last day! I remember she was still helping me. I was like, You should be taking in every moment, and she still had time to take me aside to tell me, “Okay, you need to do this, this and this.” God. It was about PC2. I’ll never forget it. I felt honored that she had time on that day to acknowledge me.
You became an apprentice in 2001 and joined the corps the next year. It was a long time—seven years—to be in the corps de ballet.
Mmm hmmm. It was.
How did you cope with that?
There were a lot of ups and downs. I’m so grateful for it. I felt like I got comfortable onstage dancing in the corps. And I did, I think, almost every corps ballet there is! Except Serenade. In the beginning, you’re so happy to be onstage—it’s Oh my gosh, I can’t believe I’m in New York City Ballet dancing with these amazing people that I’ve grown up watching. You’re starstruck and so excited to be in anything. And that lasts for a long time and then you start getting comfortable and knowing people and feel like you’ve started to find your place in the company and you’re like, Okay—maybe I should go forward with this or get a little more ambitious. Rubies was my first part. I was like, Okay, this is what I like and this is what I want to do. I liked working one-on-one with people, getting coached, getting a little more attention. I don’t know. You go up and down. You have injuries that always set you back and it’s hard to overcome and trying to get back from an injury always plays a psychological mind game with you. So you’re battling that. You’re battling the competition, which is in every ballet company everywhere. It never ends. And you just have your good days and your bad days and you try to push through. And all of a sudden, something clicks and that’s kind of how it was for me when I got to learn Dewdrop. It was like, Okay, this feels good. You get on a roll, and I think I was lucky: Peter [Martins] saw it and I got promoted.
How did he promote you?
I premiered Dewdrop on a Saturday matinee and it was great. My parents were here, we had a great time. I got really good feedback. And then, I believe Sara Mearns had hurt her neck. She was supposed to do Dewdrop the following day. She pulled out so they were like, “You’re going to do it again tomorrow.” I was like, Okay, nice. Debbie Koolish, Peter’s secretary, came up to me and said, “Would you come to Peter’s office?” Of course, you’re hoping. In my head, I was like, Okay, this is sometimes how he does it. Maybe this is the good meeting, but I’m not going to say anything to anybody, I don’t want to jinx it! So I had to wait an hour or something and I went to his office and he said, “You’re beautiful and I want to promote you,” and it was probably the happiest moment of my life. To this day. And then I had to go home and write an 11-page history paper for a final. [Laughs]
What injuries have you had?
Numerous stress fractures in my shins. I think I go back and forth between each leg. I don’t know if it’s all the jumping I do? I have chronic tight calves and they just pull away from the bone. I have yet to find a remedy for it. Then I’ve dislocated my kneecap twice. Once, I was rehearsing Rubies in Orange County. I did a kick and my knee cap just went, and I fell to the floor and that was it. It put me out for three months. My knee swelled up. I didn’t need surgery or anything like that, so I was lucky. It was pretty minor compared to what I could have done. So that was my biggest injury. Then last summer, I tore the insertion of my plantar fascia, and that’s why I didn’t go on tour with the company to Japan. I had been fighting it since April. I’ve probably been dancing in pain—April, May, June and July. [Laughs] Oops. Yeah. We just couldn’t diagnose it. I had heel pain. I couldn’t walk heel-toe; I couldn’t put any weight onto my heel. They said, “It’s not your plantar fascia.” [We thought] maybe it’s a heel fracture; I’m prone to them. So it took a while and finally in the summer we got the right tests and it showed that I tore the insertion of my plantar fascia, which, I guess, is really hard to do. Leave it to me.
You were probably only able to dance, but you couldn’t walk, right?
Yes! I was limping home. [Laughs] And I would really take it easy in class and mark my rehearsals because if I had a show that night, I could do the performance but that was all the strength I had: to do one thing throughout the day. But it’s like being a professional athlete—you learn how to deal with bumps and bruises along the way. Unfortunately, I wasn’t as smart as I should have been. I learned my lesson because I could have healed this much quicker. I was out the whole summer. I was supposed to be in the Opus Jazz movie. I couldn’t do it. That was hard. I missed a gig that Daniel [Ulbricht] had put together for our hometown and then I didn’t go to Tokyo.
What did you learn?
When something hurts, find out what’s wrong before it’s too late. Don’t try to ignore it and just dance through it. When something’s chronic and bothering you for a long time, it’s just better to know. Had I gotten the test earlier and we had found something they could have been like, “Take two weeks off—you’ll be fine.” As opposed to dancing in pain through the end of Saratoga and then I’m out for four months.
Were you here?
No, I went home to Florida after Saratoga. I usually do. At least once a year, I let my body relax for a couple of weeks and try to put everything back together. Recharge my batteries. Get a suntan. And it’s good just to be home; my mom and dad take care of me, and going to Florida is like going on vacation. So I spent a month at home and I actually didn’t know how serious it was. I came back to try and get in shape for the Opus Jazz film and my foot wasn’t any better. They gave me amazing heel cushions to put in my shoes and I wore sneakers for a couple months, and I couldn’t do anything. I had to really limit my walking, I had to try and stay off of it as much as I can, which is hard because I have a dog and I moved in October. If I stood on it for an hour it would start throbbing. Especially in the summer it was hard. I love to play tennis and to be outdoors. I watched a lot of movies and sat in the park with my dog. You learn. I read a lot. I have still yet to master that being injured and what do you do with yourself thing. [Laughs] It’s difficult. Dancers get really restless.
Do a lot of dancers in the company play tennis?
Yes. We usually try to get clay, because it’s a little softer, but the courts on Riverside are beautiful and it’s right by the river. Peter plays. I played when I was little and about three years ago, I picked up my racket again, which was interesting. Saratoga’s great because the courts are right next door. We finish a rehearsal and then play some tennis. It’s good cardio, it’s good cross-training, it’s not too hard on your body—and it’s good for my upper body.
What other conditioning do you do?
I swim. I take jazz class a lot. [Laughs] I have really gotten into the Bikram lately, which I really like in the winter—coming from Florida, it’s always hot and sweaty and I don’t get that so much in the winter. It feels good to sweat it out in the winter. And it’s really hard to stand still in a position and balance. You would think a dancer would be really good at it? But it helps with the flexibility. Everything’s [done with your feet] in parallel. It works for me. And Bikram actually shattered both of his kneecaps and developed this to rehab his knees. Bad knees. I thought, If that helped him, I’ll try it.
Have you always studied jazz?
Yes, alongside ballet. Stopped when I was at SAB. [Smiles] You’re supposed to be a ballerina. But once I got promoted to a soloist, I struggled with going from being onstage every single night—in three ballets—to only having one or two shows a week. I had a lot of free time on my hands and I wasn’t rehearsing as much. It was like, Uh. What’s going on? I need something. I could have taken another ballet class but it’s kind of like beating a dead horse. I love jazz. I’ve found some great teachers and taking their classes is inspiring and I feel so free and able to let go and do something different. I’m not in pointe shoes, which kind of feels good.
Are you thinking about how you’ll approach roles in Rubies and PC2 this time around?
Rubies—only because I have such a history with it—I try to get more involved in it each time I do it. It’s funny: I look back at tapes of my first show, and I look like a deer in the headlights. It’s like, Okay, don’t want to do that. [Laughs] I’ll try to vamp it up a little bit. It’s such a lush role. I’m trying to work on being more commanding onstage. With PC2, I’ll have to build up my stamina again. It’s a really hard role, so I’ll start with that and as I get more used to it—I want to try to be soft and delicate, which isn’t always so natural for me. That’s what I’ll work on. [Pauses] And pointing my big feet.
I love big feet on ballet dancers!
I do too. You just have to be aware of them.
[Laughs] They get floppy.
What kind of pointe shoes do you wear?
Freeds. I’m still in the process of figuring out what I wear. I’m actually in the process of maybe trying something else. We’ll see. I have to get it all approved. They really like Freeds [here], but with this past injury my therapist thinks I should try something else. It won’t happen right away. I don’t like to just put something on and perform in them—I’ll probably do it over the summer when I can really analyze it and not have to worry about dancing perfectly in them right away.
What do you like in a pointe shoe?
I like to be able to roll through my foot. Not something that’s wobbly when you stand on it. The shank is what I’m still working on; I don’t know if I like it cut or if I like the full shank or if I need to break it in at a certain point. I’m still working on it. I tend to have a lower arch and so it naturally breaks the show at a line that I don’t particularly like so I’m working on trying to find something that supports me but makes a better line, and I have yet to find an answer.
What do you get corrections about?
I always joke that on my gravestone it will be: “Shoulders down.” [Laughs] Peter is constantly tapping me on my shoulders. I don’t even think he says it anymore. I think I needed a longer neck. I tend to hold my tension there, I know that. I’ve been told that I was too sexy, which is weird. It’s not my personality [Her hands cover her chest automatically]. But I’m never told to hold back. It’s always, “More.” Peter likes it when you can move.
He likes your dancing.
I think so, yes. But other than corrections, he’s never approached me about my dancing as a whole. When I got promoted, he talked about my personality and said that one of the things that he noticed during [the creation of] Romeo + Juliet was that I always had a good attitude. I was in the village scene—not that exciting. It was exciting because it was a new production. It is one of the hardest dances that you do in the corps. You skip for literally three minutes in the second dance. He said that he appreciated how I was willing to give him 100 percent all the time. That was nice.
Now that you say that, I remember a rehearsal that I watched years ago—it was with Christopher Wheeldon for Carnival of the Animals—and I could sense that he felt the same way about having you in the room.
I don’t know if he took a shine to me, but we clicked when I was young and in the corps. Which was nice, because I was always in his ballets and I love his work. You kind of find those people that you click with right off the bat.
Who else has that happened with for you?
Susan Stroman. It was amazing to work with her on Double Feature and then getting to do Blossom Got Kissed after that. It was probably my first somewhat pas de deux on stage! [Laughs] And maybe that’s where I got a love of acting. She really helped me learn how to convey a message onstage. Chris and Susan were the two that I connected with the most.
You stayed with the company even when you weren’t getting soloist opportunities. Did you ever think about leaving?
I think that thought goes through everybody’s head at least once. You have a down moment and you’re struggling and you begin to think, What’s it like on the other side? But the ballets we do here, the opportunities you get here, you’re not going to find anywhere else. And that’s what constantly keeps you here. The history and the traditions that this company are about is unlike anywhere else and I think that’s what keeps me here: What it’s been about, what it’s about and what it will be about. You feel you’re a part of something bigger than yourself. Unfortunately I never knew Mr. B. He died before I was born, but to hear the stories, to hear other people talk about him—I don’t know if it’s just the nostalgia. It’s comforting, it’s a little daunting. I think we’re worried about keeping his legacy alive. It’s our generation now that never knew him; it’s a little like, good God, what am I going to tell the next generation? I don’t have any stories of Mr. B; I have stories from other people, but it’s not firsthand. But this place is—it’s a feeling. It’s unlike anywhere else.
NYCB continues at the David H. Koch Theater through Feb 28.