American Ballet Theatre soloist Simone Messmer talks about her decision to leave

Simone Messmer discusses her decision to leave American Ballet Theatre for San Francisco Ballet

Simone Messmer

Simone Messmer Photograph: Sarah Sterner

Simone Messmer talks about her decision to leave American Ballet Theatre for San Francisco Ballet. This incredible American Ballet Theatre soloist will depart for San Francisco the day after ABT wraps up its Metropolitan Opera House season. Her first performances with the much-admired San Francisco company will be in New York at the David H. Koch Theater in October. She will be missed.

For years, Simone Messmer has been one of my favorite dancers—not just at American Ballet Theatre, which she joined as an apprentice in 2002, but in the entire dance universe. With distinction, grit and unflinching elegance, she has provided a reason to endure otherwise meaningless ballets, as well as been spectacular in good ones like In the Upper Room, On the Dnieper and Firebird. Even so, she’s been too-often passed over for roles. Following ABT’s Metropolitan Opera House season, Messmer joins San Francisco Ballet; it’s a brave and bold decision, but I’ll miss her profoundly. One consolation is that her first performance with SFB will be in New York this fall. It’s fate.  

Time Out New York: Why are you leaving ABT?
Simone Messmer:
In the full-length classicals, my rep has gone as far as it can go. There’s only so much you can do with a two-minute variation—you can continue to play with it, but after a while it gets a little dry. I do a lot of rep in the fall [season], and I’ve worked a lot with choreographers. But for some reason, maybe because the rep shows don’t sell as well as the full-lengths, they are not considered at an equal level as doing a Swan Lake. So getting promoted or moving up or getting more—you have to get those ballets, and they won’t give them to me.

Time Out New York: Have you asked?
Simone Messmer:
Yeah. I’ve never actually gotten an answer of it being because I’m not good enough. I think Kevin [McKenzie] thinks that I’m not as classical as some of his other dancers, which I can see in a sense, but I consider myself very versatile. I continue to work on my technique and really try to push myself, and there’s something to the fact that when you join a company at 17, first impressions mean a lot. I think he’s seen me that way for a lot of years and hasn’t taken note as much of how I’ve progressed or pushed myself to grow. That’s not necessarily something you can fault a whole organization for. Over the last couple of years, something’s happened to my dancing. I’ve really come into my own, and I need more, because I just want to learn more and grow. If I can’t do that, then I’m in the wrong place. He completely understands. I need the Juliets, and I need the Giselles. I need to not just do the second ballerina. And I don’t like to be the pinch hitter all the time because I can be. That’s not how you want to do your career: You want the coaching, the whole process. And that process is really important to me. I really got to do that for the Annenberg grant. [In 2010, Messmer was a Leonore Annenberg Scholarship fellow.] Everything’s a double-edged sword. Yeah, I learned all these things, but now I’m unhappy, because now I have so much more knowledge. I know exactly what I want for myself. And there is no time to waste. It’s a short career. It’s very upsetting, but you can’t affect somebody’s taste. And that’s a thing that I can’t stress enough. Clearly, I do not agree with all the decisions being made. It’s not my job to agree. But I need to really be behind the company that I’m working for more than I currently am with decisions being made—not just dancing-wise, but organizationally-wise. I’m not thrilled with what we’re doing right now, and instead of becoming an old, bitter ballerina who’s upset, I’m gonna go, and I’m going to leave on a good note, dancing well and having a good attitude and knowing that this is not the end of anything. I need something else personally right now. I think a lot of people can’t understand that, because ABT has been everybody’s dream forever. Everyone wants to be a ballerina at ABT. And that’s been in me since I was nine.

Time Out New York: It was on your list of goals.
Simone Messmer:
I wrote it down. So to think that that could not happen is so utterly emotional. [Tears up] But I want to dance more than I need the title. Even if I could get there right now at ABT, I don’t have a Georgina [Parkinson]—a coach. I think our coaches at ABT put in everything they can, but there are a lot of ballerinas and a lot of guest artists. They’re working from noon to 7pm, every day. They can only do so much with the time that they’re given, and I need more of a process than that. And even if you are a principal, you get one show a week.

Time Out New York: If that.
Simone Messmer:
Yeah, if that. And that is not how you grow. It’s just not. You look at the likes of Alex [Alessandra] Ferri and Nina [Ananiashvili], and the people that were guesting when I joined. The shows were different every night. It was something special that you got to witness, and you were a part of it. And now I think the guest artists are, for the most part, really beautiful dancers, but they’re not given rehearsal time either. They’re not treated necessarily as part of the company because they’re in for a week, out for a week. And they can’t change their show the way they want to because they’re not as comfortable as they should be. I want to have something more, that’s all there is to it. I don’t have any interest in bad-mouthing the organization because really I have a career that people would kill for. I have a rep that’s pretty amazing at ABT versatility-wise. But it’s just not enough for me, and that soloist rank right now is such a difficult and unhappy place to be. We all want more. It’s the hardest place to be in a ballet company. So what do you do? You ask for more and you don’t get it.

Time Out New York: Would it be different if you were doing principal parts in the big ballets?
Simone Messmer:
Right now it would be different but in the end it’s still one show a week. I’m sure in three years, I’d get tired of that and want to move. I want to see our principals grow. I’m not sure that we have the time or energy as an organization to do that right now. I feel like it shouldn’t be good enough for us as a company, but I know it’s not good enough for me. 

Time Out New York: I would trade an “exciting” performance for people just trying something and dancing differently.
Simone Messmer:
Dancing differently—I want to go to the ballet and see ballet. I don’t want to go to the ballet and see gymnastics. Again, it’s a taste thing. I wish that ABT would put validity in the theater part of American Ballet Theatre; we are the only company that has all of this rep and the possibility to really make those theater things amazing and fresh again. And I’m an actress. There needs to be more focus on what you say when you point your foot and what you say in your transition steps. We just don’t have the rehearsal time to break it down. I hope to come back here one day, but right now it’s not a place where I can be an artist or grow.

Time Out New York: How would you want to come back?
Simone Messmer:
I hope that one day they invite me back as a guest. Occasionally people leave on a sour note because they have a problem seeing the full picture, and I understand that. It is a selfish career. You have to look after yourself because no one else will. But you have to understand the climate that you’re in. It’s still not good enough, and I’m still leaving, but I do understand and I’m not angry about any of it. Really, all I want is the best for ABT, and right now I think I would be more angsty than need be and it would probably affect my work in a poor way if I stayed. I feel like I lead by example. I do the best I can always, and I hope the younger ones see that and take note and really breathe it in and understand that you have to do it yourself. You can grow even if you’re not getting every role you want. I hope people pick up whatever hole is missing when I leave, because everyone leaves a bit of a gap. We spend so much time together on tour and everything, and any personality that leaves is felt.

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