A swan is born

Sara Mearns sheds her wings and performs the role of a lifetime

KEEP YOUR CHIN UP Mearns, as Odette, in Swan Lake.

KEEP YOUR CHIN UP Mearns, as Odette, in Swan Lake. Photo: Paul Kolnik

Sara Mearns is an earthy, beautiful girl who until recently was just another dancer in the New York City Ballet corps. On January 14, she was handed a rare opportunity: to dance the difficult dual role of Odette/Odile in Peter Martins’s version of Swan Lake. Mearns’s elegant rendition radiated composure and a luminous depth, but her casting didn’t come as a surprise to those who had witnessed her in Chopiniana and as the Lilac Fairy in The Sleeping Beauty at the 2003 School of American Ballet Workshop Performances. A few days after her Swan Lake debut, Mearns—who began training at the age of 3 in Columbia, South Carolina—discussed her remarkable experience at the New York State Theater. A tiara graced her blond hair, but fame hasn’t gone to her head: She was simply celebrating her 20th birthday.

Time Out New York: When did you first hear about Swan Lake?

Sara Mearns: They put up a rehearsal schedule in the middle of The Nutcracker. 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. [Incredulously] It hasn’t even sunk in yet that I actually just did it—twice. I’m still in the clouds.

TONY: Did you always want to perform Odette/Odile?

SM: 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.

TONY: How did you stay calm during the performance?

SM: 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.

TONY: Had you ever worked with Merrill Ashley before?

SM: 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.” Swan Lake is all about your arms, so she would just stand with me in front of the mirror, and we would do the arms together. I had to open my chest a lot, and my chin, in certain parts, always had to be up. When I was onstage, I would hear her in my mind, saying, “Chin up.”

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

SM: 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.

TONY: After a few fouetts, you substituted pique turns. What happened?

SM: Your leg, by that time, is dead. When we were in the dress rehearsal, I didn’t really finish the fouetts; I just kind of walked around and Merrill and Sean Lavery said, “You have to have a plan.” So I did a version of what I wanted to do: fouetts into pique turns without even posing to go into them, and I was fine with it. So during the performance, after 16 fouetts, I thought, Oh no. I cannot do anymore. I couldn’t feel my leg.

TONY: Why did you dance so infrequently last spring?

SM: I went through some ups and downs. I went home during our 11-week layover last year, and I started over. Clean slate. I took classes with [former NYCB dancer] Stacey Calvert and I talked to her about everything. My boyfriend, Amar Ramasar, came down for about three and a half weeks. I don’t think I’ve ever told him this, but he’s played a major role. We started seeing each other last year, and he’s made me a happier person.

TONY: I also noticed, during Swan Lake, that you lost quite a bit of weight.

SM: I think that played a big role last year in why I was so down. I’ve always had a bit of a weight issue. I went to nutritionists and they had a lot of things to say to me. Some helped, others didn’t. I went to the gym every day. I was really clearheaded and smart about it. But I love food. I am definitely not one to do something stupid with it.

TONY: How supportive have your parents been in your career?

SM: 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.

TONY: Was she a dancer?

SM: 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.

New York City Ballet continues at the New York State Theater through February 26.