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A swan is born

The young Sara Mearns learns to fly solo.

Paul Kolnik
TUTU MUCH Her turn as Odette/Odile was a shining moment for Sara Mearns.

Sara Mearns is an earthy, beautiful girl who until last year was just another dancer in the New York City Ballet corps. But then, in January, she was handed a rare opportunity: to dance the difficult dual role of Odette/Odile in Peter Martins’s production of Swan Lake. That was followed by more break-out roles, including Titania in Balanchine’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream. In March, she was promoted to soloist. All that and Mearns, who began training at the age of 3 in Columbia, South Carolina, is still just 20 years old. Following her turn in Swan Lake, she sat down to discuss her remarkable experience.

When did you first learn about Swan Lake?

They put up a rehearsal schedule in the middle of the Nutcracker season. I had no idea what it was for; people were hinting to me, “Maybe it’s Swan Queen.” And I was like, “Wait, are you kidding? No.” I went to the rehearsal and [ballet mistress] Merrill Ashley was like, “Isn’t this exciting? Peter wants you to learn Swan Queen.” I was happy, but so shocked. It hasn’t even sunk in yet that I actually just did it—twice. I’m still in the clouds.

Did you always want the part?

Yes. My teacher, Miss Ann Brodie, used to say that I looked like a swan. I remember when I was in the SAB dorms, I had my Swan Lake tape with Natalia Makarova. She’s my idol. My roommate and I would put it in and memorize every bit of it. If I had the urge to watch ballet, I’d just put it on. She has such a calmness about her. It’s not so much about the dancing but about her upper body—how she acts with her face to really tell the story.

How did you stay calm during the performance?

Wendy Whelan, Jeni Ringer and Miranda Weese told me, “Breathe in between each entrance to calm yourself down. Don’t think of it as a whole—you’ll freak yourself out.” So that’s what I did. Jeni and Wendy offered their dressing rooms. And they told me little things to do, like at intermission, to have a Coke to revive myself. And to drink water all the time.

Had you ever worked with Merrill Ashley before?

I hadn’t worked with any of the ballet mistresses except for Rosemary Dunleavy because I had never done anything before. Ever. No demi parts, nothing. In class, Merrill is very strict, but in rehearsals, she made me feel comfortable. She was very much like, “I don’t want to kill you. Just do what you need to do and don’t overdo anything.”

What part did you enjoy the most: Odette or Odile?

I thought I was going to enjoy Odette more, but that became the most stressful for me. It was weird.
I’ve always loved the white swan, but being the black swan was so exhilarating.

Are your parents supportive?

My mom has been there the entire way. My brother dances with Pennsylvania Ballet, and our mom has done everything and anything for us. My parents were divorced when I was young, so my father hasn’t been in the picture much at all. But my mom sacrificed everything for us. She learned how to make tutus from scratch. I’ve never worn a catalog costume in my life.

Was she a dancer?

No. When I was three, she found a studio, and it happened to be Ann Brodie’s. Such luck. During Swan Lake, I thought of Miss Ann, who passed away when I was 13 or 14, because I knew that she wanted me to do this. My other teacher, Shamil Yagudin, passed away recently; he trained me during the summers. I thought about them a lot. This wasn’t for me. It was for the people who got me here.

The New York City Ballet season begins Nov 21.Visit nycballet.com for details.