The ABT dancer is on the brink of stardom.
Wed Sep 30 2009
Photograph: Gene Schiavone
Simone Messmer has always been a standout in the corps of American Ballet Theatre, but last season at the Met, the 25-year-old dancer was magnificent, performing Olga in Alexei Ratmansky’s On the Dnieper, Myrta in Giselle, and lead parts in Paul Taylor’s Airs and James Kudelka’s Dsir. This week Messmer appears with the company in its fall season, which is split between Bard College and Avery Fisher Hall. Born in Minneapolis, Messmer—quick-witted and fast-talking in person, though she possesses an almost eerie emotional depth onstage—is one of ABT’s most prized members. (Technique? Check. Acting? Check. Versatility? She is three dancers rolled into one—at least.) Remarkably, Messmer, who joined the company in 2003, is still a member of the corps de ballet. She spoke between rehearsals at ABT’s studios.
Simone Messmer has always been a standout in the corps of American Ballet Theatre, but last season at the Met, the 25-year-old dancer was magnificent, performing Olga in Alexei Ratmansky’s On the Dnieper, Myrta in Giselle, and lead parts in Paul Taylor’s Airs and James Kudelka’s Dsir. This week Messmer appears with the company in its fall season, which is split between Bard College and Avery Fisher Hall. Born in Minneapolis, Messmer—quick-witted and fast-talking in person, though she possesses an almost eerie emotional depth onstage—is one of ABT’s most prized members (Technique? Check. Acting? Check. Versatility? She is three dancers rolled into one—at least.) Remarkably, Messmer, who joined the company in 2003, is still a member of the corps de ballet. She spoke between rehearsals at ABT’s studios.
Why did you start dancing?
I was three and I wouldn’t sit down. My mom danced a bit—not professionally or anything, but through college—and then I remember seeing Pacific Northwest Ballet’s Nutcracker on TV and I was glued. Then I found my sister’s petticoat, which looked like a long tutu, and I used to dress up and make my whole family sit on a couch. I would turn on the classical music station and they were not allowed to get up. But I also swam competitively and it was a real struggle choosing, because I had to choose young. I was nine.
Where were you?
Minneapolis, Minnesota. They used to make us write goals for swimming and I wrote goals for ballet too: I wanted to join ABT when I was 16. And I wanted to guest with other companies and be a principal by the time I was 25. Well, that won’t happen. [Laughs] It’s funny—my mom says, “You knew before I knew.”
What were your swimming goals?
?I wanted to go to the Junior Olympics when I was 15 because my sister did. School didn’t really interest me; swimming meant going to college and I could never picture myself in that world. I could always picture myself in different situations, but never in that one. I put it out of my head. I say that I decided, but I think it was decided for me. It was just always who I was. When you’re nine, you have a lot of opinions coming at you; I just sort of cleared it out and when I looked at it, ballet was what I wanted to do and that was it. My mom wasn’t too thrilled. It’s not that she wasn’t supportive, but how much faith do you put in what a nine-year-old wants?
How was your training?
I went to a really bad school early on. Just bad. I came home one day and showed my mom first position; I was rolling in. My mom was like, “Hmmm. We’re going to change schools.” There was one other girl, so our moms got together and picked one out of the phone book and it ended up being Bonnie Mathis’s school in Minnesota, which was Ballet Arts Minnesota. Since then, it’s combined with Minnesota Dance Theatre, but it used to be Marcia Chapman and Bonnie Mathis running the school. I started there when I was nine and did that until I was done with middle school and then I went to my first summer program, the Harid Conservatory [in Boca Raton, Florida]; they offered to have me stay there, and my mom was adamantly against it. She said, “I don’t think so.” I was like, “You have to send me!” [Laughs] We couldn’t afford much at the time so my mom wrote down a number and was like, “They’re not going to say yes,” and they did. So she couldn’t say no. Also my grandmother, who was an opera singer, pushed a lot. I think she said, “You’ve got to just let her do it.” So I did my freshman and sophomore years of high school there. I was young for my grade. I went when I was 13 or 14 and I did two years there and it really wasn’t an atmosphere... The dancing was great, but living there was not the best place for me or anybody.
I guess boarding school that young is probably not a good idea. I think I was a strong kid and it didn’t destroy me—I’ve seen other people who have gone through worse things, but it just wasn’t an atmosphere I felt I could grow in anymore and, at 15, you don’t like feeling like that because where do you go? I went back to Minnesota for six months and did the ABT summer program because I figured that was the way to get seen and to join the Studio Company [now ABT II]. That was my goal. I did the summer program and they weren’t sure. They had already filled the spots but [then-director] John Meehan liked me.
This was in the summer of 2001. They moved up one girl from the Studio Company into the main company, and I moved out here in October of 2001.
How did you like Meehan?
So much. He is perfect for that age group of dancers; he’s so nurturing. He was exactly what I needed at the time. I was also really lucky: I had a great group of people.
Who were some of the other dancers?
Melissa Thomas, Craig Salstein, Jared Matthews. Every one was very concentrated and very individual and it was a really nice atmosphere because we were committed. Most of us apprenticed for that Met season in 2002. I got my corps contract in January of 2003. We were all young at the time, like, 17. Since then, I think they take dancers older. It definitely depends on the person but I think as a general rule, because of all the touring we do, it’s a smart move.
Do you think you got in when you were too young?
I don’t think our group was. We were really in it for the ballet. We weren’t in it for the social reasons. So maybe it had something to do with the entire group, but we all had our distinct goals and encouraged each other. We didn’t do the tours that ABT II does now. It wasn’t as big of a deal; I think people stay in ABT II longer now. It’s more of its own troupe, and we were just nurtured to get into the company. We learned everything we needed to be prepared for main company life.
How different is it?
First of all there are 12 people, so you are dancing and you are dancing good stuff every time. And you get into the company and you’re standing there and it’s overwhelming because everyone’s looking at you and you’re new and you don’t know the steps and you’re going to mess it up and you’ve really got to keep the focus. That first season I think we were all in tears almost every day. [Laughs] “I messed up! They’re going to fire me!” That was rough. Then, you become part of the everyday life here. You become part of the family.
How did you become part of the family?
Slowly. Very slowly. I am a very private person. I don’t like to bring my social life to work so a lot of people didn’t know me too well and I was okay with that. I was very fine with that. But there’s a level after so many years; whether you’re friends with somebody or not, you have history. You live on tour with each other. They know what you eat for breakfast and when you go to bed and who you hang out with and those are things that you can’t just ignore. We’re a big, dysfunctional family and it works out nicely most of the time.
Why keep your private life separate?
I tend to have a whole other set of friends. I think it’s important. Everyone here is a brilliant dancer. There’s very little that distinguishes an apprentice to a corps member to a soloist to a principal technically. I think there’s a difference between a dancer and an artist and I think you have to be aware of that and also that in a big company situation you can get comfortable with where you fall into line. I think you have to want to not do that. You have to make a conscious effort to become the person, the artist, the whatever-you-want-to-be, and I think having an outside life is important. We live in New York. We get to travel the world. We get opportunities most people would die for and we get paid for it and I think not taking that for all its worth is a waste. I’ve experienced more than a lot of people will in a lifetime in a few years—some bad, some good, some with consequence and some not, but it makes me better onstage. So I don’t regret a thing. And I think as much as I’m private, I have the respect of people here—my coworkers and my peers and that’s enough for me. We have a great relationship about work and I do the best I can. It’s really important to have an outside life, to keep everything balanced. You get in the bubble and sometimes you can’t see what’s happening right in front of you. You need somebody to shake you and say, “What are you doing?” And I have that and I make sure that I have that because I know myself. [Laughs] I would definitely lock myself into whatever I’m thinking at the time, whether it’s realistic or logical or not. Nobody’s perfect.
I noticed you years ago, but it was great to see how everybody paid attention to you last season.
I didn’t expect any of it, to tell you the truth. I had really wanted to do Myrta for a long time, but wanting to do something and actually getting the opportunity to do it are two very different things. And everything else on top of that? I can’t even describe it. It was just nice to have the opportunity to show a glimpse of what I know that I’m capable of. It’s a double-edged sword because now that I’ve had the chance to do things like that, there’s so much more; I haven’t even scratched the surface. I’m not the only dancer here. [Laughs] But I was grateful for last season. It was tough to get through. That level of pressure has never really been put upon me.
Because of the types of roles or the amount of dancing?
I think I put the pressure on myself because of the roles and because I never go onstage lightly, whether I’m doing a corps part or not. If you don’t do your art form to the best of your ability, what are you doing? It’s a level of integrity. I don’t want to lose that.
Would you talk about working with Alexei Ratmansky in On the Dnieper?
It was one of the best experiences I’ve ever had. We actually had a conversation about the character and we bantered back and forth and he wanted my opinion. That’s so great. Maybe it happens more than I think, but it’s just rare to get those chances when you’re not used to them. So I really tried to take it for all it was worth and it was great. On the Dnieper was being choreographed while I was in the room and there were three of us scheduled to do it.
You played Olga?
Yes. Paloma Herrera and Diana Vishneva would rehearse, and I would see them sit back and think—you could see that they were changing little things here and there. I didn’t really know if I could do that. I finally got into a room and Alexei said, “That doesn’t work for you; this works better.” I would try it and see what felt natural and we would discuss it and that is something so great—because it was a character role. It wasn’t just a variation. It wasn’t just a technical feat onstage. The character comes first and you’re dancing to speak for the character and every step should be part of the conversation, so I think it’s really important to have that be personalized. I felt a level of respect in the room, which was really nice.
Had you seen Ratmansky’s pieces for New York City Ballet?
I had. A lot of my friends were in his ballets and really enjoyed working with him. I find him to be very genuine. He has a vision of exactly what he wants and that is something that I have total respect for. My knowledge is limited. He’s only done one piece here, but I think depending on what he does he will choose the dancers to become that role—whatever he sees in his head—and I think he’s very open. He has fresh eyes and that’s always great. I wish I could be in his head sometimes. He has such an eye. I thought Dnieper was beautiful. There was nothing left to brush over; everything was exactly how he wanted it and it’s great to see that someone comes in with a vision and gets it done and gives it a chance. There’s a risk involved. I like that. You can only be safe for so long, right?
By vision, do you mean a point of view?
Yes. You never know what goes on in a choreographer’s head. Alexei knows what steps he wants, and no matter who you are, will just say, “No. That wasn’t it.” There’s no, “Oh, that’ll work.” There’s none of that. [Laughs] And it makes you a better dancer. And he really uses the technical level we have here to its fullest, which is really nice in new choreography. He uses the ballet technique in such a different way but actually uses and pushes it and that’s great because we are highly trained classical dancers. It’s nice to be able to extend our knowledge that way and still use our technique.
What about Myrta? Did you learn that part a while ago?
I was on standby during the Met season of 2008.
Does that mean you’re in costume waiting in the wings?
No. Maybe a week before Giselle went up, there was a little concern about injuries and Kevin [McKenzie] said, “Go and learn it.” I was in the studio on a Sunday teaching it to myself and making sure that I was ready.
You actually taught it to yourself?
Oh, yeah. Got a video. Learned it. I mean, I knew most of it—let’s be honest. I was rehearsing like a crazy person with Georgina Parkinson and I got a stage rehearsal just in case and didn’t end up going on. My first show was in Canada last February with Marcelo Gomes and Paloma Herrera. I was so nervous in the run-through that I didn’t really enjoy it at all, and I was like, I know that I know where I need to be mentally to do this. In the show, during the first bourres across with the veil, there was just this level of calm. I was right where I needed to be; it was such a freeing experience to feel like you own the stage. That beginning variation sets the whole tone and it’s so beautiful when it’s done well.
What did you learn from the first performance to take to the second?
There were just spots that were treacherous technically. It’s stamina. I was talking to Kevin the other day and he said, “Every role has its different stamina” and he’s right. I think there was a level of nerves that come in where you maybe forget to breathe or forget to really pli into something and it becomes a little above the ground. You’re not really feeling it and I think by the second show, with David Hallberg and Maria Riccetto, I really knew what I needed to do to make it the character first; everything else was a continuous circle. There was nothing abrupt about it, there was nothing stuck—whether or not you make a mistake is beside the point. There was no break in the mood and I think that’s really the most important part about that role.
While you were super authoritative, you were never too sharp or brittle.
Yeah. I spent a long time thinking about Myrta. A lot of people make her out to be sort of this bitchy queen. She’s not. She just has no understanding of what Giselle’s feeling. It’s out of her realm of understanding and she thinks what she does is justice. She’s trying to help and she doesn’t get what Giselle’s doing. And then you become a little aggressive and a little abrupt because when you don’t understand something you don’t know what to do. I think that’s the whole thing. She never really understands it.
And that’s how you think about her?
Absolutely. And just because this happened, she’ll never feel guilty. No, no, no, no. That’s her role. She’s saving these girls. She’s giving them a place to go.
What did you work on with Georgina Parkinson?
Well, George has been rehearsing me since day one, from the first time I started doing variations. I think most of it was about the carriage of the upper body. My port de bras changed so much over the years and I was always really taught to learn all of these different techniques—so then you could pull them out whenever you needed them, but I think now my port de bras is something so individual. And it can be individual here—everyone was trained differently so it’s okay, but I think it was a struggle of mine. I didn’t know where I was comfortable and it was finding that comfort level because if you don’t look authoritative and comfortable on top, it really destroys a character.
And most people are only looking at the top half.
Exactly. Especially in a long tutu. So that was my biggest struggle and that was what we worked most on. And character, obviously, and musicality. I watched countless videos and I watched everyone here do it. And you look at it and you take a step back and then you find your own.
Who has inspired you? Not even necessarily here, but other dancers on tape?
I guess when I was younger I always wanted to do Giselle. [Laughs] As a little girl, you never think of yourself as a Myrta. But it’s a role that no matter who you are you are, you get really nervous about doing. It’s a very difficult role and I watch all the women here that do it and it’s been the same people since I’ve gotten into the company. They’re so different, the way they do it, and there are different things about all of them that I like but none of them are right for me as a whole. It’s who you are as a woman and as a person, too, and that is really a vulnerable place. If you don’t bring that, no one’s going to buy it. So everyone has her own way of doing it. I think Veronika Part’s upper body is beautiful. Gillian Murphy’s strength during the first variation is unwavering, every time. None of it’s right for me, but there are things that you learn and take from everybody that you see do it, so I think the hardest part was to take a step back and not have them in your head of what you’ve seen for five or six years and make a blank slate for yourself. I think that comfort level is the hardest thing, from a corps member to a soloist to a principal: What is right for you? That’s what’s going to make standing in a line different than being by yourself. Everyone’s a beautiful dancer, but you have to have something else. Our ballets are all story ballets. You have to be able to carry the character—it’s not that you have to but, for me, it’s what I love most about it. The combination of the technical difficulties and the character is really where my heart is. And I think this company has the greatest rep to do that with and I think that’s really why it weighs so much on me and why I try so hard. I think that’s really where my heart is.
How did you change your port de bras?
I think it comes from a different place now. Before, I think it was a pose, and other people had told me where it should be in accordance with my torso and how my hands should be held and now it’s become more natural—it comes more from my back and it’s in relation with my head. It’s all one now and I don’t have to consciously think about it. It comes naturally to me in class and I do think about it but I don’t have to adjust it every 30 seconds. It doesn’t have that stress level in it anymore, which is really important—the tension in the arms...especially when you’re me and you jump a lot? That tension really goes to your port de bras. [Laughs]
You also performed in a ballet that I wasn’t especially excited to sit through—James Kudelka’s Dsir—and you really turned it into something.
Yeah? It was rough, really difficult in the beginning in terms of the learning process in general. It was really difficult. I was really worried that none of us would get it together in time for the shows! [Laughs] Those two pas de deux are so difficult and so brutal on the women; it’s not something that I was unaware of. Kudelka’s stuff is very difficult for women. As a Stepsister in Cinderella, I was on pointe for three hours. It is how he choreographs. But it was just so difficult and we would go home bruised and battered. He described each pas de deux as a different stage in a relationship and our couple was sort of married for 15 years and really comfortable; there’s a level of ease in the first pas de deux and by the fifth one, you’re bored of everything and you know each other so well that you sort of go for it. That’s something I do understand. My partner was brand-new to doing stuff at this level—I danced with Roddy Doble-—and it was a huge step for both of us. When it’s done correctly, it works really well and I went home with no bruises after the shows! So that was good and more gratifying then what I would have thought. It was the one ballet that I’ve done where I didn’t enjoy the rehearsals, but I enjoyed the shows thoroughly.
It’s good to realize that you can’t judge everything in the studio, too?
Yes. And it was great being in the room with Gillian Murphy and Xiomara Reyes—you can always learn from older, more experienced dancers and we all three had very different takes on it. And it’s nice to do a pas de deux and just let go; you have to sort of leave it all out there and that was the great part about last season. All of my roles were such that you really had to bring all or nothing or it wouldn’t make an impact at all. I was exhausted and it was just the best feeling in the world. Physical exhaustion and emotional exhaustion—that is how I feel fulfilled. I was always an athlete as a kid and I didn’t feel I’d done anything unless I swam for four hours a day and danced another three! That physical exhaustion pushes me, and I work best that way. If I’m overworked I work my best and it also probably stops me from thinking too much, and that’s probably a good thing. [Laughs]
I thought you were great in Airs, too, which was hard for some people.
Paul Taylor is really difficult for people. But he was a swimmer too, and his movement is based on that kind of coordination so it came really natural to me. I like that my role in this company is pretty versatile. It uses every part of me and I really enjoy that. I loved doing the Jir Kylan stuff and Paul Taylor and Twyla Tharp. Airs was great and I really loved my part. I never get to do the adagio girl. I’m always jumpin’—so it was really nice to be the slow, adagio girl. It’s a different feel for me. It’s a good change of pace.
When did you discover your jump?
I was really young. I’ve had shin splints since was ten. I guess I wasn’t really around great dancers until I went to the Harid Conservatory and realized that I could be better than I was. We had great floors at Harid, and I remember being able to do a double cabriole front—little ones—but I could just jump and I thought that everyone could. It wasn’t a real thought that that was a strength of mine. You take class and some people are turners and some people can do adagio. I sort of take pride in the fact that I don’t really necessarily have a weak point in my class. There’s always going to be something onstage that you can’t do. And I don’t like that idea.
Where do you take class?
I take Willy Burmann. I take David Howard also. I take company class when I have rehearsal at noon or when Clinton Luckett teaches. He teaches a great class. And Wes Chapman teaches a good class. But I have been working with Willy for five years now and I get there when I can and he knows that. But he and David Howard have both been a moral support as well. They are the ones that call you out. If you’re getting relaxed or tired or aren’t doing something, they don’t let you get away with it, and that’s really important. You look at Julio Bocca and Alex Ferri and they were in Willy’s class working until the day they retired and they’re still there! When Julio’s in town, he’s there. It’s a choice that you make and every dancer has to do it.
Why is Burmann such a good teacher?
It works for my body, it’s something that I understand, it makes my legs look longer and it’s the way that he works—the barre that he gives—and it just clicks for me. And when he gives corrections, the metaphors work for me. I understand what he means. I mean, doing it is a whole other story. But I understand what he means and it’s always working toward a goal. And it’s nice to see in those classes, Wendy Whelan—dancers who have made a choice in their career not to be comfortable. They made a choice not to be okay with where they are even if they’re a principal or a star or whatever. They’re still in class busting their ass because that’s what needs to be done and that is really nice to see and is a constant reminder that you have to. If you want to be the best that you can you be it’s not good enough giving yourself class or skipping a class a week. You have to have someone else there to call you out and these are rules I’ve made for myself because they’re the only way you can stay sane. There’s a level of integrity that every person has to make for themselves, like the moral code they live by. Everyone, as an adult, has a different one. Depending on your life experience, it fluctuates and you make these choices and with ballet I have not made a compromise on how I work. And that is a nice feeling that as a professional and as someone in a big company, I don’t feel I’ve made compromises about how I work. That’s one of the few things that you can control in a big company and so you do what you can. You can never look back and say, “Well, if I...” There are no regrets—you’ve done everything you could do.
I don’t want to put you on the spot, but I can’t believe you haven’t been promoted yet. What is that like for you?
It’s difficult. Totally. I don’t think I was ready, say, two years ago. Mentally I was not in a place where I should have been promoted. I think I probably would have done fine, but I don’t think that I would be where I am now as a dancer. Whether I’m promoted or not, I feel I’m ready and that’s all that I can do. But, yeah, I want to be promoted. Absolutely. And I’ve made that no secret. I don’t make the decisions and that is not something that I can control. I don’t run the company and I’m not behind the desk. I can only hope that they value my commitment, and I guess time will tell.
What are you looking forward to as a ballet dancer?
I really need to take the next step. I’ve taken all the steps that I can to make myself a better dancer. And now I need to stop being comfortable with that. I don’t really know what that is yet. It’s difficult to feel like you get onstage and do the best you can with every role when you do all the corps [roles].... You feel rundown and you get out there and try to do the best you can but you don’t know if it’s your best because you’re so tired. By week six of Met season, you’re pushing through and I want to feel like I put the thought and effort into every role, no matter how little it is. I want to have that opportunity.
Why is ballet so important to you?
It’s just who I am. It’s my art form. It’s like my first language. It’s much more difficult for me to have a conversation with words. I feel like I get lost and I’m not saying what should come out. But I’ve always had that, sort of--by what I’m wearing or how I look that day, you pretty much know who I am from the first 30 seconds. I just think that’s my talent, that’s my gift, that’s my art and I fully embrace it.
American Ballet Theatre performs at Bard College Thu 1--Sun 4 and at Avery Fisher Hall Wed 7--Oct 10.