And all that jazz...

Career bumps aside, the luminous Monique Meunier is ready to dance again.

SHINING STAR Meunier dances, back in her NYCB days.

SHINING STAR Meunier dances, back in her NYCB days. Photograph: Costas

[Editor’s note: This story has been extended with online bonus content]

You danced at New York City Ballet from 1990 to 2002 before joining American Ballet Theatre as a soloist. Three years later, your contract wasn’t renewed. Why are you ready to talk now?
I guess I needed to heal after ABT. I needed to pick myself up again. It took awhile, but I realized that I’m so much stronger now than I ever was, and I know so much more because of what I’ve been through. A lot more. I want to do more contemporary work now, I want to choreograph, I started painting. I feel like I have more energy than ever. Like a horse that’s been let out. [Laughs] I feel so grateful and lucky about my career and everything that I’ve done, and there’s so much more out there that I want to do. I’m starting to act now. It’s like my mom always says in Spanish: “There’s no bad that good won’t come out of.” And it really is true. We all have a choice to either grow from a situation or just suffer and I’m not going to suffer. No way. Life’s too short.

We talked after you left NYCB for ABT, and you were excited then, too. What happened?
There’s a long line for parts. I learned a lot from Georgina Parkinson. I did stuff. It is my dream company, so I was so grateful to be there; I guess it wasn’t in the cards for me to fulfill every dream I had there, but who knows why things happen? Maybe people think that people from City Ballet can only do Balanchine. They don’t know that we have other training; I was Russian trained, so I did the classics when I was little. I worked as hard as I could, and I devoured everything that they gave me; I was like a sponge. I got everything I could out of my time there. That’s why I don’t regret anything.

What did you focus on with Parkinson? On different variations that I did; things I was learning, like Myrta [in Giselle] and Gamzatti [in La Bayadère]. She’s amazing. I loved her because she allowed me to be me. That’s the best kind of coach for my style. It’s hard to change people once you’re already established. It was a big move, and I needed encouragement, and she gave it to me.

Did she talk to you about why you weren’t getting so many parts?
No. She just gave me encouragement like, “Know who you are, I love you—you’re beautiful.” And whenever I would go onstage, it didn’t matter what part I was doing, I would give my soul no matter what. That’s what it’s about. That’s what I’m going to remember when I’m dying: Not the parts or the status or the places I’ve been, but what I felt giving onstage. It really doesn’t matter if I’m in the back or in the front of the stage, it’s about giving—100 percent.

You always look different from the other dancers because of that—I’ll always remember your last NYCB performance in Antique Epigraphs. Well, that’s so Zen, too, which is why I chose it for my last ballet. I really dove into that one. It’s a moment of dance: it’s peaceful and very transitional and nostalgic. It was a beautiful moment.

What did [ABT artistic director] Kevin McKenzie say when your contract was up?
Just that it wasn’t going to be renewed. But what can you do? That’s why it was hard for me. It was time; you either move up, or you get out. They had no thoughts for my moving further up. If I stayed, I would have been miserable and I would have been hurting myself, so it’s a good thing, but it felt like, Oh my God, my life’s over. [Pauses] I performed a lot that last season. I had a good time. It was my moment. I was like, Let me just dance in this beautiful theater with this beautiful company. I already knew it was over. But I used it for my performances. It was almost like, this is my last breath and even more reason to enjoy the stage and the audience and the people that I loved there.

How did the company compare with NYCB?
They’re totally different because of the ballets. City Ballet is becoming more of a family now, but ABT is very much like a family. Whenever I did a new role, all the girls in my dressing room would give me little cards—really sweet. I guess that’s normal? I don’t know. I had never had that before. I had that from my close friends, but the principals would give little cards. Even Nina [Ananiashvili], after my Ballet Imperial, came to my dressing room. Julie Kent gave me little cards. Max [Beloserkovsky] and Irina [Dvorovenko]—always so supportive. Very sweet, beautiful people. I loved my time there, and my time at City Ballet. I feel so lucky that I was at both places.

Are you open to dancing with other companies or choreographers now?
Definitely. There are some people I’m talking to. I don’t want to jinx it by giving specifics, but things are happening. I want to be in a company again—but it’s very different than what I’ve ever done before in terms of the other companies I’ve been in.

Are they in New York?
No. I’ve done it here. I’m not afraid of moving or going somewhere new. I’m excited about learning something new; I think it’s because my dad took a boat from Cuba, so nothing compares to that in my life. I just went from one company to another. [Laughs] It’s not that scary when you put it into perspective.

Why did you join Complexions?
I had danced a solo at DiCapo, and I hadn’t been onstage in awhile, which was why I started painting. I had to let it out somehow or I was going to go crazy. Finally I got to be onstage again and I did a José Limón–style solo, and I realized, I’m in flat shoes. I am a dancer, first and foremost. My friend Danny Tidwell was in Complexions at that time and it turned out that a girl was injured and that they needed someone for the summer tour. It was perfect timing. I stayed for one year, and it was truly a great experience. The ballet that Dwight Rhoden did for the group at that time, Hissy Fits, was something I’d never done before. It was like your body was speaking. There were no pirouettes. It was all just talking with your body, and there was one point in the pas de deux where I actually felt I was screaming with my body—and that’s what made me think, Oh, I would like to choreograph. It opened my mind and many doors. I still love doing Agon and the Black Swan pas de deux on gigs, but I realized there’s so much more to dance. And that’s because of Dwight. So that’s why I was there. You’ll see it later on.

Define contemporary dance—is it Danny Tidwell–Mia Michaels–So You Think You Can Dance?
No. It’s Nederlands Dans Theater. Billy Forsythe. Ohad Naharin. I want to challenge myself. I never thought I wanted to choreograph, but I do and I have ideas. I’ve learned so much about how the body can move. I’m already picking music, and my dream is to have a show at Joyce Soho. I already know which dancers I want to ask—some from ABT, some from City Ballet. And I’ve always liked acting. I auditioned for the role of Penny in Dirty Dancing. It’s going to be in Chicago and L.A. and then on Broadway. I want to start using my voice now. To have another way to express myself that isn’t about being silent is so much fun.

How was the audition?
I enjoyed the process. They were very supportive at this audition—maybe Broadway is like that. They coach you and they’re very giving, and that was nice. My friend is Jenna Elfman, the actress, and one time I went with on her auditions—before she was a star. She would audition, audition, audition—seven in one day, and she would change in the car. At that time, I couldn’t have imagined it. Now, I realize the audition is part of the fun; I thought, I wish I had three more today. Isn’t that funny? That audition came out of the blue, and I was like, “Sure.” Other dancers they had approached were scared—and maybe ten years ago, I would have been a little, but I’ve been through so much. What’s going to happen? They’re going to say no? At least I tried. I guess that’s my attitude now. It has opened me up to everything.

How did you get to that point? What did you do? Are you a Scientologist?
No! I guess in order to survive the pain that I had after ABT, in order to keep living and keep going and respecting my talent, my family and to keep respecting my life, I had to rise above it. I had to evolve. I was forced. It happened daily, little by little, and I’m not saying that things don’t hurt, but I know how to handle it better, I know how to deal with it. I know it’s not the end of the world, and it’s certainly not the end of me ever. Nobody can crush me. I learned that slowly. And I’ve had help from my parents and [her boyfriend] Nilas [Martins]. Like, “Come on, get out of bed!”

When were you at your lowest?
It didn’t hit me until the fall after I left ABT. It was October. Everybody’s performing. It was a nightmare. What a prison I was put in. That’s when I started painting—it was, like, seven canvases in three weeks because I had to do something. Then, Nutcracker came around so I had my gigs; I do Dewdrop in Stanford University every year, and that’s one of my favorite Balanchine roles. And I got to dance in March, and spring came and I joined Complexions. The pain did come back from time to time, almost like it wasn’t resolved yet. Recently, I feel I’m over it. I’m excited about my future now, and maybe I wasn’t before. I looked at my life as a failure—and now I don’t see it that way. It happened slowly.

After you left City Ballet, a former principal dancer was overheard saying, “We’ve done everything for her. She doesn’t want to dance.”
I’ve always wanted to dance. Obviously, by my performances, you can tell that’s all I want to do. I became a woman there! It’s not always going to be a straight road, you know? If I didn’t want to dance, I would have left at 20. Of course! There are so many other things that I would like to do in my life, but the dance just had such a stranglehold on me that there was no way around it. It’s like a mission. I was born to do this. It’s kept me together through whatever has happened, personally, from 15 to now. Dance is my core.

You and Nilas Martins have been a couple for a long time?
Oh yeah. We are each other’s biggest supporters. Through everything.

What will happen if you join a company outside of New York?
Do you know how close the world is? We were in Spain performing, and we got home and it was door-to-door 12 hours. It was amazing. There is the telephone and e-mail and Skype. The thing is, dance is my first love and my passion, and if I can be happy in my life then I can be a good girlfriend, I can be a good human being. If I don’t have that, nobody’s going to want to be with me. [Laughs] He’s the same as me, and we get each other. We’re best friends. Through anything, we’re there for each other. He’s very straightforward and he puts everything into perspective—when you’re cloudy, he removes the clouds and makes you see your path. And step-by-step, like, “Don’t think of next week or next month, just think of today.” Just having someone there who loves you no matter what—not being alone with your struggles, it’s so beautiful to have that. I think it’s because of the friendship. There is no bullshit.

What has been the biggest hurdle as far as your career is concerned?
I guess not being put onstage as much as I need to be. When you’re not onstage, it’s hard to be in shape, and I also get sad. Injuries are one thing, but when you’re healthy and you’re not dancing enough—that is very hard. It’s your outlet and you’re not allowed to play. It’s like, “Go to your room!” But you soul search during those times. You can learn so much about yourself and about artistry, so that when you go onstage you’re better then you were before. My mom was right.