Interview: Next generation of ballet stars: Joseph Gorak

The ABT company member reveals what it takes. And sometimes it takes Chinese food and a couple of bad days.

Photograph: Rosalie O'Connor

You started dancing in Texas?
Yes, near Dallas at a small school. I started with ballet. My mom took me to see The Nutcracker, of course [Laughs]. I loved the costumes and the theatrical part of it. I was more into that than the actual dancing, but my parents got me into classes when I was five. Yeah—it's been awhile. I joined [ABT II] when I was 16, and I'm 21. It was never about making ballet a "career"; I just knew that's what I wanted to do from the beginning and when I was 14. I really dug into it and decided, Okay, if I want to do this, I have to push it now. So that's when I got really serious.

Were your parents cool with that?
Oh, yes. They were the best. They've done everything for me. They put their life on hold. I think they saw that ballet wasn't just a little hobby or something—it was what I was meant to do. I got a trainee position [at Orlando Ballet School], and I was thinking about moving there by myself, but I was 14; two weeks later, they were like, "We're moving with you," and we packed up our house and moved to Florida. They gave up a lot. I still can't believe it.

Who was an important teacher or mentor?
Definitely Peter Stark [former director of the Orlando Ballet School]. He was my coach, my mentor. He taught me a lot—he was my main coach. We always had one-on-one time. And Fernando Bujones as well; later, I got into the company [Orlando Ballet], and he was my director; he coached me on variations and he really helped me to hone my technique. I got to work with him in his last days. That was really special.

Were you always thinking about ABT?
I think so. Yeah. [Laughs] I wasn't one to be like, If I'm not going to get into ABT, I'm going to die. But I considered other options, and I loved ABT's repertory.

How did you make your way to New York?
I won the Youth America Grand Prix [in 2006], which gave me a contract with the Studio Company [now ABT II], but I had [already] auditioned while I was doing the Grand Prix and gotten in. The Studio Company was a really good transition for me. I improved a lot in those years and I think it was good for me to be in a smaller company and really work on performing. The ultimate goal was to join ABT, and sometimes I had doubts that that would ever happen. Toward the end of my second year, there was a meeting and they told me I would be joining the company as an apprentice. It just kind of happened.

What were your early experiences of being in the company?
We were there all the time, because we were always learning our parts. In the beginning, it's slower; you're learning the ropes, and you're getting to know everyone and getting to know your spot, and I think it's more about that. It wasn't like you got shot out of a cannon. We were pushed slowly into the corps.

What were some of the ropes?
Just adapting to a new environment. Joining a large company, learning the rehearsal schedule. Not to get in anyone's way. Learning how to perform and how to work with a group and watching the older dancers, how they work.

And just trying not to freak out in general?
Yeah. Definitely.

What was your first role in the company?
My first performance was as a peasant in Swan Lake. Of course, I was peeing my pants because I was so nervous. We were in Washington [, D.C.]. The first thing I did at the Met was [Balanchine's] Allegro Brillante.

Oh, nice!
Yeah. It was a great opportunity for my first year in the corps.

What have been some important parts?
I got to do the Neapolitan in Swan Lake at the last minute.

Were you ready?
I had two rehearsals—maybe, tops—but I had watched that Swan Lake so many times, and I knew the part. I had practiced some of the steps, so I think I was. And I got to do the Chinese dance in The Nutcracker this year. I was really excited to do that.

What was it like working with Alexei Ratmansky?
It was amazing and really refreshing to have him come in and work with us. I think he's really positive. It was a breath of fresh air; he's really good working one-on-one and at telling you what he wants and how to make it work, and he takes time with you. With Chinese, I went into it with an open mind; I wanted to see what he wanted the role to be, and I tried to understand his vision. Ate some Chinese food trying to get some inspiration. I tried to be as cute with it as I could. I tried to become a Chinaman.

Do you have any idea what you're dancing in the spring?
I don't know. I would love to get an opportunity like Benno [in Swan Lake] or Bluebird [in The Sleeping Beauty], but I couldn't say this early. I have high hopes for the spring season. I'm not thinking about getting an enormous role, but I think it'll be pretty bright.

How do you keep a balance between ballet and life?
I definitely try to have a life outside of the ballet. When I'm at the ballet, I'm 100 percent dedicated to what I'm doing. I am a ballet dancer and I love what I do. But I love going to the movies and museums and exploring the depths of New York City, and I try to force myself to do that even when I'm tired. I think it's important to explore what's outside of the studio walls, because there's so much that this world has to offer that doesn't have anything to do with ballet. I can even get inspiration from other things for ballet. And so I have friends; I love going out to dinner; I live a pretty normal life.

Good or bad: Black Swan?
[Laughs] I thought it was good, actually. I don't think a lot of it was a very good representation of the ballet world, but I enjoyed it. It was a little too gory for me. I don't do well with blood, but I have a dark side. I like gloomy movies. Ballet dancers should just have an open mind and not take it too seriously, because [the film] took things a little too far, and I don't think the ballet world is completely like that.

No, not so much.
Yeah. But I thought it was good.

Do you have to say that because you want to be cast in Benjamin Millepied's ballet this spring?
[Laughs] No. I really respect his work, though. It would be great if I could be in one of his ballets one day. But I'm not trying to, you know...

Yeah. It's okay. Tell me about the Erik Bruhn Prize. You've been chosen to represent ABT, along with Christine Shevchenko, in the competition this March?
Yeah. I haven't thought once about the competition part. I hate competitions. I don't think you can compare dancers in that way. But I think that right now it's the most amazing experience, because I get to work one-on-one with [artistic director] Kevin McKenzie and dance roles that I potentially want to do and could be doing in the future. It's amazing just to work on something and work with Kevin. He has a great eye. I'm not going to win; I'm going to work and just get on the right path.

What do you mean? What's the right path?
Just toward my future. It's a learning experience. I have so much to learn, and I think I've already grown a lot from just rehearsing. So that's what I want out of it: experience, growth. A good, positive experience. Christine and I are working on the La Sylphide pas de deux. It's beautiful. We're also working on a contemporary piece that Nicola Curry, a dancer at ABT, is choreographing for us. It's great to work with her because she is one of my peers, and when we're in rehearsal, I don't think I'm as scared or nervous to prove myself; I can just work and dance the movement for what it is. And take everything in.

If you're having a really bad day, what do you do?
This is my new thing: If I'm having a bad day, I take a moment and try to see what was good about the day. There are so many cruelties and so many horrible things in the world that I have never had to experience. I probably won't have to, and so what if I danced badly? It's not the end of the world. It used to be for me. I get to wake up every day and do what I love, and I get to work with people that I love, and that's rewarding. So I just shut up and stop complaining. I think without the bad days you wouldn't have good days. The bad days are good every once in a while. And that makes me human.