A nine-year NYCB dancer discusses her recent layoff.
Mon Jun 29 2009
Along with being a dancer, you are a painter. Recently your artwork was rejected from the Dancers’ Choice program. Would you describe the piece?
When I made the painting, I was really upset about everything that’s gone down lately, but I was also thinking about the universal culture of classical ballet—specifically the corps de ballet. It’s about something that’s not really discussed. The painting is called Kids, because we’re referred to as kids by the administration. Some of the people they’re referring to are 35-year-old women with children. I’m 25.
Is that term used for both men and the women?
Yes. I’d like to ask Peter [Martins] who came up with the kids thing. It feels like an insult and we notice, and I just wonder if it’s necessary or what they think it does. It feels derogatory; we work really hard. We’re adults. The painting is a self-portrait. I look really pissed in it. The hair—I’ve gotten into wacky materials lately and I bought neon paint—is neon blond, and through the hair it says, “Kids, kids, kids, kids, kids.” In the collarbone and the neck area, it quotes the things that have been said to me during the past couple of months. I asked my girlfriends if they would incorporate some of the things that have been said to them but nobody wanted to share. It was really cathartic to make the piece and to let go of nasty comments. And also to put them on my body—because a lot of the comments were body-oriented also. I wrote in glitter: “This is all I’ve ever wanted” in huge letters, and then “sophieflack.com” in the corner because they didn’t want to display my website in the showing. So I put it on the piece. It felt like a big fuck-you. It felt amazing to make it. I needed to purge myself and I really wanted to share it, so I was disappointed when it was rejected, but not surprised. It was a risk I was taking. I think it was worth it. I displayed it backstage on a corkboard by the green room, so a lot of the corps saw it. And they liked it.
It’s so ironic—because the Dancers’ Choice evening was about celebrating the corps de ballet. Who rejected it?
I can’t name anybody. [Laughs] But it was rejected because it was too angry. It just feels like a bit of a lie. I guess the whole idea of performance, especially in ballet, is really an illusion—what you put out there is just a tiny bit of what really goes on depending on your profession, but it feels like this is part of that illusion. That we have glamorous lives and in reality, we’re often not treated very well and not very fairly, and I’ve been really frustrated for a lot of my career. At the same time there’s this duality, because I feel so lucky to have been a ballet dancer with the company that I wanted to; I’ve danced a lot for nine years. The same person that gave me this gift is the same person that took it away and crushed me. A lot of people refer to Peter as a father figure. It’s a dysfunctional family.
I would suppose that every dance company is.
I know. I can’t really say that it’s just City Ballet.
Have you danced in any other companies?
No. But I have friends in other companies. I know that we dance more—hours a day, hours a week.
So you will be attending Columbia University?
Yes. In General Studies. People keep asking me if I’m going to continue dancing. The biggest thing for me is that I came to a place in my career where I feel really comfortable and at peace onstage, and I feel like that’s a real achievement. Just to feel like myself onstage. And I just don’t know where my talent’s going to go. For me, art is a fluid thing, and it’s one talent that goes into a lot of different places. And I’m interested in a lot of different things, artistically and not. I’m just really curious. That’s why I’m going to Columbia. Still, though, the amount of control that I’ve found—I just don’t know what I’m going to do with that knowledge of my body. I don’t know if I’m going to put it into something else or just kind of let it lie dormant.
Did you talk to other dancers who left?
Yes. Actually, my shrink is [one]. And Kristin Sloan. She transitioned into video with the company; I feel like that was a smooth transition for her, because she’s still working in the theater. I have this idea to do a documentary on the stagehands. Part of me is obviously still interested in being part of the theater, but maybe from a slightly different angle. I’m curious about the knowledge the stagehands have of the dancers and what draws them to work at a theater that produces only opera and classical ballet. It’s the juxtaposition between these big burly guys that are teamsters and these lithe ballerinas. Visually it’s really interesting also. I love Toni Bentley’s book Winter Season. Every girl in the corps has read that. I want to have a little distance from [the ballet world], but I do want to start writing a lot. Maybe an updated version? I love that book. My boyfriend read it when we started going out for him to get an idea of our world.
When did you start dancing?
Seven. I’m from Boston. I danced with the Boston Ballet. My first role onstage was a lamb in The Nutcracker. In Boston, they have lambs in the Marzipan section.
Do you know why you wanted to start ballet?
Yeah. It was actually a strange coincidence. Boston Ballet was actually rehearsing in my school gymnasium when the company was reconstructing a building. So I would see ballerinas walking around in our school. It sounds like a dream or something. But ballet was also a trendy thing to do in first and second grade. I was really shy and I wanted my mom to walk me down the stairs to the gym, but she said that when I was brave enough to walk down the stairs by myself was when I allowed to take lessons. It took me a year to find the courage. And I loved it right away. I guess as a shy person, ballet was really helpful.
So you studied dance at the Boston Ballet School?
Yes. And I studied gymnastics.
Who were some of your important teachers?
I studied with Jackie Cronsberg when I was 11 at Chautauqua. She had a Balanchine school. And also Gloria Govrin and Sandy Jennings, who is Jackie’s daughter and was a former NYCB corps dancer. Patty McBride taught me at Chautauqua. When I was 11, we saw a video of her dancing and that’s what inspired me to join NYCB. I’d never seen anything like it before and I just knew that’s what I wanted to do. I was a really ambitious little kid. I set my goals really high for myself. I went to Chautauqua for three summers, Suzanne Farrell’s for three summers—they were overlapping—and SAB [School of American Ballet] for one, and they asked me to stay.
What was your experience with Farrell?
I love Suzanne. She gave the hardest class. She did mind-boggling combinations and physically impossible things, and her classes were totally intense: two hours, twice a day. We once did penches on pointe and a promenade arabesque on pointe in the center. The craziest stuff! It was really fun and kind of impossible.
But that’s how you get stronger.
Yeah! We kept trying all these impossible things. At that time, I was looking at the National Ballet School of Canada and SAB. I had heard good things—that [the former was] more nurturing than SAB. Suzanne encouraged me to go to SAB instead. She said I had a freedom and that I was very Balanchine.
How old were you at SAB?
I was 14 during the summer, and I turned 15 in August, and then I went for the year. The first year was one of the worst of my life. It was so hard emotionally, and I was completely unprepared. I went from being totally precocious and among the best at my school—but more than anything else, it was really hard being away from my parents. I was always close with them, and I was sort of a freakish child where I liked hanging out with grown-ups and I didn’t have any friends my own age. I was really shy and I was truly unhappy at school. I was kind of a dork. Ballet wasn’t really a cool thing to do. It was a great relief when I came to New York and I met all these other girls. It was really a relief. At the same time, I had never used a vacuum before; I didn’t know the basic ways to live on my own. I didn’t get along with my roommate. I had never really chosen food for myself. I ended up feeling really sad and missing home a lot. The first year was rough; but I had the support of family friends that took me under their wing for a couple of years. I used to go to their house and they would feed me a good meal. And I took private lessons with Wilhelm Burmann and Nancy Bielski once a week, so I formed relationships with them also. I studied with them for years, even though it was against the rules, because I was on scholarship. I think working with them has made me the dancer I am today.
That’s an amazing combination of teachers. Don’t they teach at the same time, though?
I used to take Willy, leave early and take the rest of Nancy. They hated that I did that, but I worked privately with each of them also. It was an amazing combination, combined with SAB. It was really hard.
What did they give you?
Like in I Heart Huckabees, one really finishes where the other leaves off. It’s kind of like my parents. They’re so different but together they’re the perfect parent. Nancy and Willy are really funny. I love both of them. Willy is a real sweetie; he has this whole class persona. I used to cry in his private lessons. He was terrifying: “Why can’t you do this?” But it was really effective and he got exactly what he wanted out of me; I would try until I got it right. He wants the extreme out of every dancer—he asks for extreme positions and extreme movements, and what comes out is actually extremely right and beautiful, because people think they’re doing something farther than they actually are. Nancy gives one of the hardest classes. No matter how in shape you are, you take her class and feel out of shape. You go in the middle of the season and you think you’re really fit; there’s something aerobic about her class. Her barre is sometimes really slow and you have to work through your frustration of how slow it is and how hard it is. If you take her class consistently, you will be a stronger, better dancer. I’d say that Willy is more about style, speed and position and Nancy tends to be more about endurance, strength and stamina.
What is the biggest problem at NYCB?
I’d say that my biggest gripe is that they’re not utilizing the best choreographers. I think a lot of people have a problem with that. My boyfriend and I often go to Cedar Lake and it’s our favorite company to watch—their dancers are incredible, from Juilliard and Hubbard Street, and we’re friends with a lot of them, but also they have the world’s most innovative choreographers. I wish that Peter would allow that. I think a lot of dancers feel that way.
What choreographers have stood out to you from Cedar Lake?
Crystal Pite and Ohad Naharin.
How do you feel about coaching at NYCB?
For the corps, there is not any unless you do a featured role. It’s usually a catch-22. How do you improve if you don’t have any coaching? I just got into a cycle of frustration. I would do Pilates and work on my own—core strength was always my biggest weakness. I’m overly limber and floppy. So whenever I felt like I got to a real powerful place, I would expect the parts to follow and then my frustration would grow and I would be like, Why am I kicking my butt if nothing’s happening? It seemed like an endless cycle for years. A lot of people are frustrated.
You joined NYCB in 2000. What have you been able to dance that you were happy about?
The first thing that comes to mind was Vespro by Mauro Bigonzetti. It was just great to work with an innovative choreographer and something different, and I felt pushed, and at first I felt really shy working with him and not quite ready for it, but I felt like he brought a new energy out of me. It was just really exciting. Other than that, I kept getting cast in very classical ballets. I told Peter once, “I’m really interested in more neoclassical, edgier things.” The Cage is one of my favorite ballets. I like The Four T’s. I’m interested in odd positions. I feel in classical ballet you can only go so far.
Did you consider joining Cedar Lake? Or even going to Italy to work with Bigonzetti or another European company?
I thought about Cedar Lake. It would be really difficult having only done Balanchine and never having any modern training. People do it. I would have had to work really hard, and I just think I wasn’t willing to do that kind of work. And I love New York and never seriously thought about moving.
Can you talk about how you were told you were being laid off?
It was rather impersonal. I knew exactly what [Peter] was going to say because my best friend had gone in right before me and was crushed, and she called me and told me exactly what he said. So when it was time for me, he basically repeated word for word what he had said to her.
How did you react?
I had told my parents, “I think I’m going to be laid-off—how should I approach this meeting?” At the time, I had the idea that I wanted to teach at the school. I love kids and I knew Darci Kistler was head of the six- and seven-year-olds program. I thought it would be a great side thing to do while I went to school. So I wanted to keep a good rapport since I was kind of asking for another job. I decided to go in and be really gracious and thank them for the time that I had. And it’s true—I am thankful. But it’s so complex. I can’t even sort it out in my head. It’s really a family. I mean, it’s not exactly a family, because they don’t love you unconditionally. I grew up with it. It’s all I really wanted, literally my whole life.
So how did it go down?
I thanked him. I said, “Thank you for these past nine years. It’s been an adventure.” And then I promised I wouldn’t cry, and of course I cried. I hugged him. That, I wish, I hadn’t done. [Painful expression] Yeah. And I walked down the hallway—there’s a long hallway from his office—and at the end, I burst into tears. It hit me, this is really happening.
Are you upset because you didn’t let him have it?
My friend, whose name I won’t mention, was shocked that he was letting her go. She totally gave it back to him and after she told me that, I was like, “Brav-o.” That’s exactly what I wanted to do. I’ve talked to our AGMA [American Guild of Musical Artists] representative many times since this has happened. They’re obviously upset; the company was given other options: pay cuts, a hiring freeze, but they didn’t want to do any of that. So [AGMA is] obviously upset with the situation too.
Do you have any other legal outlet?
I have a workman’s-comp case. Our rep said that he might have been more comfortable firing people who have a life outside the company. Which is so fucked up. In other words he would feel less guilt. I don’t really know what to say to that. I definitely fit into that category. One of the girls has a child. That’s something outside of work, but she may have to move home with her parents because she doesn’t have a job. And he’s hiring new apprentices. Of course it’s upsetting and I’m really not sure if it is financial. It seems like, in a way, he was just cleaning house of the people he didn’t like for whatever reason. That makes me sad. I think I’m an all right dancer; I know I’m not the best. So my guess is—the one reason Peter gave to everyone who was let go apparently was “You don’t take company class regularly.” It’s an optional class. He was careful not to mention anything he could potentially be sued over, like frequent injuries. I had a hamstring injury and I was out two years ago during Saratoga and [the rest of that] summer, but then I did Parents in The Nutcracker. And I’ve had some neck injuries also. Everybody gets injured. I asked if it was because I had been injured a lot and he said, “No, no, no.”
Did he give you any reasons?
No. What would he have said? Your breasts? [Laughs] I certainly wasn’t cast in certain things because of my breasts and that’s something I deal with a lot in my art.
I’m sorry to laugh, but it’s not like you’re a Scores dancer or something.
I know! [Laughs] I’m really not even that big. But there’s obviously a specific look. I guess that makes sense; it’s an aesthetic art form. A tad narrow-minded. At ABT, they’ve got some busty girls. I’m fine now; I love my body and I think if they have a problem with it, it’s them and not me, but when I was growing up it was really hard in school, because there was really no one to look up to with breasts. It feels good to be that for the young girls.
Can you talk about some of your frustrations?
Peter is an intimidating guy to talk to, but I spoke to him a couple of times. Just caught him coming from rehearsal and told him that I wanted to be challenged more. This is over the past three or four years. I set up a formal meeting last year. I really felt good and comfortable onstage and I felt I could take on more responsibility. And it wasn’t being reflected whatsoever in my parts. I was doing senior corps parts but my peers were doing more featured roles, and I had never done a featured role ever, and it just felt a little weird. I wanted to experience that! It was coming to the point when I was so frustrated—I thought, I have nothing to lose. I might as well tell him to his face, “I want to be pushed more.” So I set up a meeting; it took a lot of courage. I worked out with my dad exactly what I was going to say. It took two weeks to get an appointment. I finally came in, and I was so nervous—shaking—and I spoke to him in a whimpery voice and recited my memorized little speech: that I wanted to be pushed more, that I was coming back from my injury and that I had this new drive. He was really responsive and receptive. He said, “What parts do you want? Let’s look at the schedule. What do you think would be good for you?” And so we picked different things in the upcoming schedule.
I thought, Oh my God, this is going so well! He was like, “That’s a great idea.” It couldn’t have gone better. And I left. Then I wasn’t called to the first ballet we had talked about. I think I approached him and reminded him, or I told Rosemary [Dunleavy] and she said, “Oh, you can come to the rehearsal.” As if nothing had happened! As if we hadn’t had that conversation. And then something else came up that I wasn’t called to, even to understudy, and it just became very clear that it was not going to happen. I was stressed out for a while because I realized, This could just be it. This could be how my career is going to be from now on. Is this enough? And a couple of months later, I was let go.
That is some weird timing. And it was your decision not to go to Saratoga?
Yes. This theater means a lot more to me. I’ve had spiritual experiences in the theater. I’m really going to miss it. And honestly, I’ve never liked going to Saratoga.
What will you miss?
The live orchestra. And those moments before, when you’re warming up backstage when you’re in the second or third ballet, and first ballet is going on and there are lights streaming through the side, kind of like the sun coming down through a cloud. The orchestra is so beautiful and there are all these different colors offstage and the lights are low. The lights are dark for a lot of our careers, really. It’s very calm and everyone is completely quiet backstage. I’m not religious at all, but the closest I’ve ever come to being religious is that quiet, meditative time. It’s not that I don’t think I’m going to find that anywhere else. I think when I create a piece of art, something similar happens, but that’s it really. The other thing I’m going to miss—and I keep coming back to this—is the ridiculous camaraderie between the female corps in the dressing rooms. Sometimes I can’t stand them, and they’re completely catty, but there’s something about being in the dressing room that really opens people up where they just say anything and everything. I’ve never had that experience except in the dressing room, where people are completely open to one another. There is something absolutely amazing about that and I don’t think that’s a normal work experience. We just share everything. It’s all out there. And we’re really funny together. We have really good laughs and sometimes the girls are absolutely catty and ridiculous, but that’s part of it, and there’s something beautiful about that too. There are so many facets to it. It’s not simple at all. I’m going to miss that. We’re doing ritualistic makeup and hair, the same every night. Sometimes we have music on and we’re chatting. We talk about dirty things and funny things and things in the news. I hate when they talk about catty things, but casting comes up. It’s always the same two people. But it’s part of it. It could be a sitcom or something.
Do you have rituals before certain dances that you’ll miss?
Not specific to a certain dance, really. We all say, “Merde.” For Serenade for some reason, because we start off very exposed, we all say, “Merde” and sometimes we go around and hug each other. It’s very sweet, that atmosphere. We know each other so well. We see each other completely nude regularly and we talk about our sex lives. Nothing is unacceptable to talk about. I don’t know any other friendships like that. This is such a specific environment to do that in. It’s not always positive, but nobody knows you better than those girls. I’m really going to miss that.
I think it might be good for you to get out of that.
Nancy Bielski said that! I don’t know if this is funny to say, but sometimes I think I’m too free a spirit for a place like that. My friend Jess Flynn left a handful of years ago, and she was the freest spirit. People just can’t survive. She’s not dancing at all anymore. She’s the funniest girl. She used to do these really funny routines backstage before a show. She reminded me a lot of Katie Morgan.
You’re so right—I never thought about that before.
There’s a real freedom onstage also.
What has it been like to dance these past few months since your termination?
It was very painful. At first I felt ashamed and embarrassed, and then I felt rage toward the administration that made the decision to terminate my contract. Towards the end, I mourned my lifelong love of dance and the close relationships I’ve formed within the company. That kind of intimacy isn’t ordinary. I could have made the decision not to return to work once I was laid off, but I decided instead to have the experience of my last performances and have some sense of closure. My boyfriend and I threw a party the night after my last performance to celebrate my transition. I chose to celebrate my long career at NYCB and share the transition into the “real world” with close friends and family. I feel very lucky to have achieved my dream; it’s formed the person I am today. More than anything, I learned the importance of artistic integrity and the power of laughter. The whole experience, honestly, feels like a part of me is dying and is going to die. Ever since I was a little kid, this is all I wanted to do and the only place I wanted to dance, and it really feels like I’ve gone through an entire grieving process—as if I’m preparing for my own death. I went through a very sad period. I had a total attitude at work, which I completely regret. I still have some anger. But I’m trying to come to a place of acceptance and peace. I really wish I could be a robot and just smile all the time and be like, I’m going on to better things! Which I am and I know that—I know it’s best for me, but I’m a very emotional being.
It’s hard to completely suppress the anger and the sadness.
And it comes at weird times! I was anticipating that I was going to cry for three weeks straight. Instead it’s like I have PMS and I get grouchy at random moments—that’s what it’s like for me instead. My poor boyfriend! The more curious I get about other subjects besides dance, the more trite and silly dance seems in a lot of ways, but there are these extremely profound moments that you can’t find anywhere else.
You have expressed being upset that there were going to be apprentices.
It just feels like he wasn’t truthful in the Times article. It’s really what I’m pissed about. They spun it a certain way; they announced Darci Kistler’s retirement very conveniently around the same time—that she was going to be retiring a year from now, which is unusual to announce a year in advance. It just feels like a lie. It kind of feels like they spun it the way they wanted to and it’s not very truthful. It doesn’t seem like it was a financial problem if they’re hiring new people, and I think that they did have another option. It would have been nice to leave on my own terms.
Would you have been able to do that?
Probably not this year. I probably would have wanted another year. But the timing’s not bad.
You had applied to Columbia before this happened. Were you going to study part-time?
Yes. There are a handful of people who go to Columbia, but it’s hard. A lot of them have had to take semesters off because they don’t offer classes at night or early morning. For example, Dena Abergel started at Columbia and had to switch to Fordham because there weren’t enough classes she could take. So I was anticipating finishing up at Columbia. It’s such a hard choice. It’s almost easier that they made it for me. I’m not thankful, but it’s a really hard choice.
You approached me to do this interview. Why did you want discuss your termination in public?
I think it’s part of my cathartic process of grieving. But I also really feel like the public needs to know what’s going on; the way they spun it didn’t feel accurate. Why is that important? Maybe it’s selfish. I don’t know. Like I said in my e-mail, I’ve really never been the center of attention as a member of the corps, and I’m about to leave and no one knows I’m leaving. I want people to know I’m leaving even though nobody might notice. They’re just going to remove my name from the roster, and somehow I don’t feel right about that. It’s very hush-hush. And I’m not sure I agree with that.
What would you change about the company?
[Laughs] If I were the director? Part of it might be that choreographers don’t want to come here because they don’t have enough time to rehearse their ballets, and I have to be fair about that, but I would prioritize. They want to reach a younger audience, and I think the way to do that is to work with more innovative choreographers. You can still do the Balanchine and the Robbins, but dance is evolving, as is the rest of the world, and the company should evolve along with it. I think that would be the number one thing. Peter has been immensely successful in keeping the company financially stable, but he has little interest in artistic innovation. Balanchine didn’t think the company would survive his death, and I think he chose Peter because he thought the company would have the best shot at survival with him as director. I don’t think he chose him for his artistic vision or creative abilities as a choreographer. The company is not keeping up with the movement of the rest of the art world because they have completely isolated themselves. It’s a completely self-contained world. In the windowless theater, it doesn’t even feel like we are in New York City. Many of the dancers live by the theater and rarely leave their ten-block radius. I just wouldn’t play it as safe. I wouldn’t try to cater to the audience. [Smiles] I don’t think as an artist you should cater to the audience, and I think there’s way too much of that.
Your last performance was on June 21 as a tall fairy in A Midsummer Night’s Dream. How did it go?
I was so giddy with excitement and nervousness; it sort of felt flike I was about to graduate into the real world. Then right before I made my first entrance, one of my best friends, who was also laid off, hugged me and we cried together. Another friend was performing Titania, and when she saw us crying, she began crying too. Onstage I was very conscious about enjoying my performance. As I exited the stage for the last time, I looked at the audience and knew I would not ever experience the joy of performance again. I didn’t take anything for granted.