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

Time Out New York: And you’re a big one!
Simone Messmer:
I’m not exactly a wallflower. [Smiles] I wish the best for everything, and I hope people are happier in the future than they are right now, but I also can’t be surrounded by so much negativity. You’re consoling left and right. And I need consoling sometimes too, but it is on a constant basis on one side or the other, and it’s just too much focus on not what you’re doing. It takes away from everything you’re doing, and if you’re doing that much unfocused work, you’re not doing good work. Or you could do better work. Clearly some people are doing well, but there can always be better. Again, my taste is clearly different than the current artistic climate there, but again I have a really great rapport with the coaches and with the dancers and that’s something I’m going to miss. Because it’s starting from scratch, but I hope this is a good move for me. I hope I’m dancing a lot. We’ll see.

Time Out New York: What rank are you going in as?
Simone Messmer:
Soloist. Their rep is great. There’s all the Balanchine, a lot of new choreographers, which always works well for me, and enough full-lengths that there will be time to work on them. I have 13 weeks of rehearsal. Actual rehearsal!

Time Out New York: Did you audition for other companies? 
Simone Messmer:
No. I looked at the rep. I looked at who was running the company. I looked at the staff and in all honesty, I’m a New Yorker. I do not want to live in many other places, so San Francisco was the one place. I sent a small reel; they called me when I was in Beijing and said, “Come now.” I ended up flying from Beijing straight to San Francisco. And because Beijing’s pollution is so bad, my wisdom tooth got infected; I ended up having emergency oral surgery and having two teeth removed and my jaw scraped 12 hours before my audition. The dentist was like, “Don’t move for two weeks.” I was like, “Okay.” [Laughs] So I did my audition 12 hours later on only ibuprofen. I looked like I had been punched in the face. I couldn’t talk. I was like a chipmunk. It was the worst-case scenario. And 17 hours of jet lag on top of everything.

Time Out New York: What was the audition?
Simone Messmer:
Just a company class. For three days. Helgi’s [Tómasson, artistic director] very straightforward. He was like, “You’re looking for a principal contract,” and I said, “Yes.” He said, “What if we don’t have it available?” I said, “The rep matters to me even more than the contract, but we’re obviously on the same page about what I want.” He offered me a job a week later, and I took it. You can’t think about these decisions too much, because there’s too much emotion involved in this career. You could always backpedal. But when I told Kevin—and we have always had a good relationship in the office. I’ve always been very blunt with him, and he’s always been as honest as he can be given his role in the company. He was like, “I basically told you that right now I can’t give you the time, and it’s a really brave thing that you’re doing and you have such self-awareness that I think this is a great move for you right now because you would just be unhappy or bored.” And I could turn around and say, “I think this is a bad choice; I think you should be giving me more…” But you can only say that so much. We’ve always had a great relationship talking to each other, but again actions speak louder, and they don’t match up for me. So you have to read between the lines. As much as I’m sure he would love to give me the time and effort or whatever, I am clearly not at the top of the list to do that, and I am clearly not his taste of a ballerina. What do you do? Again, you can’t affect somebody’s taste. It’s innate to that person, and if you can’t get behind that with me, then I can’t be here right now. It’s not a healthy environment for me. And I wish there was more direction in the company, not necessarily directly from him as a director, but just the general direction of the company. It seems a bit chaotic right now. There are a lot of great things here. I am going to greatly miss my relationship with [Alexei] Ratmansky.

Time Out New York: I had thought of that. 
Simone Messmer:
Yeah. He has worked so much with me and has trusted me with things that I am so appreciative of and has also pushed me to be a better dancer. I love getting into a room with him. That was one of the reasons I had to rethink moving or not. You’re like, Okay, maybe I’m not doing Juliet, but I have a relationship with this choreographer that people look for their whole lives. But on the other hand, he’s everywhere. San Francisco is going to do the Shostakovich evening, so it’s not that I won’t be working with him. I hope to continue that. And also, I’ve gotten lucky in the sense that I’ve had that with a few choreographers. Demis Volpi, now the resident choreographer at Stuttgart—the ballet he choreographed, Private Light, a lot of people didn’t like, but it was such a collaboration. Those relationships—the process of it, the relationship of it, and what it turns out to be is priceless. The whole thing is this gem. Firebird was that way for me. [On the] Dnieper was that way for me. Private Light was that way for me. Twyla Tharp! I ended up workshopping Rabbit and Rogue years ago in her apartment, and I got injured. When she came in to see the ballet, I was a little fat and a little out of shape, and she threatened to pull me out of that ballet. And she was not sugarcoating that, but I was not at my best. I hadn’t seen her for a couple of years and she came in to see a run-through of Upper Room when we first put it on a couple of years ago, and she just looked at me before and was like, “Let’s see.” After that, she said, “You look fantastic.” It’s not that I always need to be told that, but I need people around me who understand how to communicate on that level of saying, “You are not looking good right now. You need to revamp whatever you’re doing.” I’ve been such a sponge; I’ve been with such amazing people. Maybe not for long periods of time, but I took what I could from George [Georgina] and Ratmansky and Twyla, and I hope that it shows. I hope that even though I’m not a principal at ABT, I do have a fan base that has seen such a growth. That’s all you can really do is continue to give them something new and grow and continue to get better, and if I stayed another season at ABT, I would have nothing new. What do you do? It’s not fair to me as an artist, to myself, to stay in that position knowing I’m not going to grow and not going to find something new. That’s what this is all about, and that’s why it’s such a short journey. Your body can only do so much and if you stop and say, Let me pause for a couple of years and see what happens—you just can’t recover from that sometimes.

Time Out New York: Not in classical ballet.
Simone Messmer:
You really can’t. And I’ve created these relationships too with Willy [Burmann, the ballet teacher] and even with Irina [Kolpakova]. And Nancy Raffa. It’s hard. I’m leaving these relationships with people who know how to speak to me, and they know how to really get in there, and I can’t even put into words how upsetting it is to leave that. It’s scary. They always expect the best from me, and they always know that I’m going to push myself to the point where they’re going to have to tell me to stop, and that’s the kind of dancer that I want to be. I’m mature now; I know when to say, “Enough is enough.” But I’m going to miss them so much.

Time Out New York: Did you go to them when you made this decision? And what did they say?
Simone Messmer:
Oh yeah. Well, a lot of these people don’t understand why it hasn’t happened [for me]. Not ABT people—that’s a whole other thing when you work in the organization, you’re very careful of what you say—but Willy and all these outside people for a long time were like, “Just wait—it’s going to happen. There’s no reason why it shouldn’t happen. They see the talent, they see what’s out there. It’s gonna happen.” But it hasn’t. So when I did make this decision, I didn’t really run it by anybody. This happened really quickly. They’re very happy for me. Helgi knows that I work with Willy. He knows that David [Howard] said, “Tell Helgi to call me whenever.” I think I have a good name for myself with the people I work with; I don’t think anyone’s had such a terrible experience with me. So I had a lot of great people that I respect really backing me, and I think this is the decision I had to make now. They understand.

Time Out New York: I do too, even though I’m heartbroken.
Simone Messmer:
Yeah. Me too. It’s heartbreaking.

Time Out New York: I just want to say something: I could see you were being passed over for major parts by other dancers like Isabella Boylston, and it was bothering me, but I found so much satisfaction in your performances. You never showed what you must have been feeling onstage.
Simone Messmer:
Oh good. [She cries.] I can’t get behind that. It’s so upsetting. We have all these dancers that are great dancers, but ABT is more than that. It should be more than that. It’s about telling a story and putting yourself out there, and I can’t watch them not do it anymore. It’s heartbreaking for me as a person, but it’s heartbreaking for [the] organization. This is not the ABT I once knew. We can be so much better. We’re not right now. I want more for everybody. And I want us to start looking up to the right people and watching the right dancers. I don’t mean ill for any of them, but a lot of it I just can’t get behind. I just can’t. And, you know, what do you say? I don’t know why these decisions are made. I don’t understand it. No one can explain it to me. The staff can’t explain it to me. They don’t understand why. And when the people you’re rehearsing with in the organization tell you they don’t understand why, it’s a really difficult place to be because you’re putting everyone in an awkward position. And you look at them and say, “Well, you think I should be doing it, so someone else just doesn’t want me out there.” I’m sure that’s not how they thought about it, but that’s how it affects me. You think someone else is better at this than I am. Or has the potential to be better than I am without giving me the chance. What do you say to that? I’m leaving such a family here. I feel like I have such a relationship with the community here, like with City Ballet and the dancers there—it’s just going to be really difficult. Everyone understands. It’s just what do you do? You know?

Time Out New York: Yes. I know you said that you went directly to San Francisco Ballet, but did you ever consider calling Peter Martins at City Ballet? 
Simone Messmer:
I really considered it, but they’re so top heavy. They have, like, 30 principals. And I don’t need to be one of 30. I really don’t. They have their rep and most of them don’t do much more than their rep, so it leaves very little room for experimentation in other stuff, which is why I chose ABT to begin with over City Ballet. It was the versatility that they provided. Unfortunately, it doesn’t extend to classical ballet for me for some reason.

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