Ashley Tuttle

The former ABT principal reunites with Twyla Tharp.

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I don't suppose you can talk too much about ABT and why you left.
[Laughs] No. It was not what I had planned [for] the way my career could have ended at ABT. It was premature for me emotionally, and it was very hard, but I think I learned so much from it. I have to look at all challenging things as positives. With Twyla, for instance, she's going to push you to a point that you don't necessarily know you're capable of handling physically. I think life will do that as well. Sometimes it will push you places so you can grow. So it was a difficult time for me. I loved being in ABT. It was my family. I was there for 17 years. I've [since] become closer with a lot of City Ballet people and people at other companies and it's interesting. What ABT brought me was such a gift. The diversity. [Mikhail] Baryshnikov was the director when I joined, and he's so involved in wanting to challenge himself and other dancers with different choreography. It wasn't always about, What's going to sell the most tickets? When I sit back and think, I worked in a room with Paul Taylor and Twyla Tharp and Mark Morris and Martha Graham's people and that ABT brought all of that to me? Not many classical companies have that kind of range. To see all the different ways of approaching dance has been very interesting. I love that about ABT. But my time was ended, and I had to move on, and that was challenging.

You were in Movin' Out at the time.
Yes, for six months, I was still doing Movin' Out. So I still had dance to go to, and then Movin' Out ended and I struggled. I had some health challenges for a few years, and if I want to be honest about it I'm sure that what's going on emotionally can manifest itself physically. I didn't have work dancing. I couldn't find work dancing.

Did you try?
I tried. I didn't necessarily go to auditions. I auditioned once in my life at ABT and that was it. Twyla asked me to do Movin' Out because we had been part of her company that was touring. I don't sing. I really don't sing. [Laughs] It's so sad. If I could just carry a tune.... That's a little bit of a struggle. I do believe the role I played on Broadway was very suited to me—Judy in Movin' Out—but there aren't a lot of Judys in Broadway shows. I don't think people necessarily think I can put on heels and strut around. They think, Oh, the ballerina. So a lot of doors were closed in that way as well. But I had been volunteering up in Harlem for [youth organization] Groove with Me. I taught dance and was on their board—and still am—and that was a very interesting time. I wasn't dancing but I was teaching little girls the positions, and I fell back in love with dance in a way that was so different than when I first experienced it as a kid.

Really? How so?
I always loved dance, and I never questioned if I should be a dancer. My parents were like, "Do you want to move to New York at 15?" Yes! High school or the prom never crossed my mind. But when [dance is] gone in a way that maybe you weren't expecting, you reevaluate, and now the act of moving, of physically dancing—not achieving this role or that role—is such a gift to me. You can get caught up in being perfect; I think a lot of dancers have this idea of, Well, I didn't do this turn perfectly! You're not very kind to yourself. I think my time away helped me see: Be kind to yourself and enjoy it. There are certain moments in my last performance—I had a few weeks of knowing, before my last performance, and I mentally said to myself, kind of like a computer, you have to bookmark certain moments. I had the presence of mind in the moment. My last show was Romeo and Juliet. One [moment] was standing on the balcony and looking down, and I saw the entire orchestra and all the bows were going the same way. It was like an ocean. Another one was the curtain coming down and not wanting it to be done yet. Juliet is not given a lot of music at the end of the ballet. You're like, But wait—I want another chunk. I'm not ready yet! [Laughs] I wish I had had more presence of mind during my career to bookmark moments because I loved them; I really have no negative memories at all, but they maybe aren't as etched in my memory as well as I would have liked them to be. So this time, I'm like, Remember going to the Tonys. Bookmark it. Because I feel very blessed to have a second opportunity [to dance].

How long did you stop dancing, and what did you do?
Three or four years. I worked in a little bit of commercial real estate. It's hard. You don't make money until you have a deal happen. Dancers are very mature in certain ways—you leave home at 15, you tour the world—but in other environments you're seen as a child. I'm going to interviews with big corporations and hearing, "You didn't go to college. You can only work with us if you have two years of college." I'm like, What about life experience? I can talk about China! They all found me interesting and all that but there's this red tape, which I'm sure plenty of people have experienced. As a dancer I hadn't. Whenever I was given a limitation in dance I was like, Really? I'll show you. You think I can't do that role? I'm going to practice it and focus and get the opportunity. So to enter the real world and be told that I just didn't have any education? I'm 39 now, so I was 34, 35, and I was like, What am I going to do? Luckily I finished high school. But do I want to go to college for four years? How am I going to pay for it? A lot of dancers hit this wall.

What did you do after real estate?
I worked in construction as a project manager for a renovation company. I learned so much about personalities, not just about the work. How do you keep the client happy and the boss happy and the construction guys happy? A difficult time. I'm sitting there cleaning out construction sites, and I've got a toilet brush, and I'm like, But I used to have a wand and a crown! Where's my tutu? [Laughs] But I feel I'm pretty balanced egowise, and I don't mean to toot my own horn, because I'm not like that, but you have to do what you have to do, and this is a hard city. But there are moments where you hit a wall of reality. And strange little things—when you're a ballerina, people come to your stage door, and donors are like, "Can we take you out for a drink?" and then I'm in construction changing light bulbs for the donors. Not the actual donors—I never ran across the same person, but the type. It's been really eye-opening. I feel very grounded in the reality of you've got to do what you've got to do. I've got compassion for everybody. The guy who's driving the bus isn't less than Donald Trump.

Check out our past coverage of Ashley Tuttle:
Holding court ABT's divine Ashley Tuttle finds inspiration in Balanchine—and basketball.
Turning points The good-bye girl.

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