Jenifer Ringer talks about leaving New York City Ballet

New York City Ballet principal Jenifer Ringer talks about her new memoir, the sugarplum saga and her retirement from the company

Jenifer Ringer performs with New York City Ballet

Jenifer Ringer performs with New York City Ballet Photo: Paul Kolnik

Despite of an abundance of classic repertory treasures, New York City Ballet's winter season at Lincoln Center's David H. Koch Theater is also bittersweet Four principals—Janie Taylor, Sébastien Marcovici, Jonathan Stafford and Jenifer Ringer—are retiring. Before her February 9 farewell performance, Ringer talked about her tumultuous, but celebrated run with NYCB.

Jenifer Ringer, the New York City Ballet principal, hasn’t had it easy. She’s battled eating disorders, which forced her to quit dancing for a year. In 2010, she was singled out in a New York Times review of The Nutcracker as looking like “she’d eaten one sugarplum too many.” And last fall, her husband, the former NYCB principal James Fayette, and son were attacked at a park along the Hudson River by a scissor-wielding maniac. The spellbinding, romantic Ringer, who retires from NYCB on February 9, has handled it all with dignity. In March, she’ll move to Los Angeles where Fayette has taken over as managing director of L.A. Dance Project. In the meantime, she’s penned a book, Dancing Through It: My Journey in the Ballet.

Why are you leaving now?
I turned 40, and I’ve always felt that 40 was going to be a good age for me to stop. I feel so grateful for my career, and I feel like I’m ready to devote more time to my family and to be more available to them [Ringer and Fayette have two children]. A friend of mine—a woman who danced here—once told me, “It takes 100 percent to be a wife, 100 percent to be a mother and 100 percent to be a ballerina, and something’s got to give.” I’m at the point now where I want to do honor to the role of principal dancer, and it takes a lot. I think it’s time for me to let the principal-dancer part go so that I don’t dishonor it. And so I can focus on my family and be more available to them. Being a ballerina takes a lot of self-focus and a lot of self-maintenance, and I feel ready to let that go and focus on other things. 

Did you choose the repertory for your final performance?
Kind of. When I spoke to Peter [Martins] about retiring, the rep had already been set. This program just seemed to be right. [Jerome Robbins’s] Dances at a Gathering has been so special to me for so long. And [George Balanchine’s] Union Jack is just fun. It’ll be fun to do something serious and meaningful and then to do something that involves the whole company; it’s dancing for the fun of it, which brings you back to why you started it all in the first place.

Could you talk me through the different parts you’ve performed and learned for Dances at a Gathering over the years? 
Sure. The first two parts I learned were the blue girl and the green girl, neither of which I actually performed. But I did work on the green girl some with Jerry, which was a great experience. Any moment to work with Jerry was amazing because he was so detailed and real in the rehearsals, and just being able to watch him dance the steps was so instructive, because even though he wasn’t literally dancing them, he would have the carriage to his body and his neck and his head and the look on his face—he could so eloquently convey to you what he wanted. Also, in those early days, I was watching him rehearse all these dancers that he loved so much; they were such Robbins dancers. It was Wendy Whelan, Damian [Woetzel], Jock [Soto], Lourdes Lopez, Lauren Hauser, Robert La Fosse—all of his favorites. The first part I performed was yellow girl. That was great—it’s a bright, sunny part with so much energy, and it was a great way to get into the ballet at that point in my life, because I was young and did have a lot of energy. [Laughs] I did that for quite some time. Then I moved into the purple, or mauve, girl, which is the more stately, mature role; it has a little bit more sense of mystery to it, because she keeps having these interludes with that mysterious green boy that comes in and out. From there, I moved into the pink girl, and that one has been really special. That one pas de deux in the scherzo—it’s a moment of stillness in the middle of the stormy music. It’s just a beautiful thing to do. So it’s been a satisfying progression for me. If I had danced a couple more years, maybe I would have asked to do the green girl at the end, just because the green girl is supposed to be an older ballerina remembering her experiences onstage. I think it would have been cool to have done that. But, you know…

They put you in rehearsals for that when you were really young, right?
Yes, it’s true. And that was very typical of Jerry; he would try people out in lots of different things to see where they would fit, and he obviously decided that I wasn’t right for green girl at the time and moved me into yellow girl. That’s one of the things he used to do a lot in our company: He would switch people around. Even what we call the “wind waltz” is something that sometimes the yellow girl has danced, sometimes the purple girl has danced—when I originally did yellow girl, I did the “wind waltz.” And then when I went into the purple girl, I still did it, but as the purple girl.

It’s like he was always changing the ingredients.
Yeah. He would think, Who would be right for this dance? He was always mixing it up.

Does that happen anymore?
Not as often really. Sometimes if there’s a dancer that’s right for a particular ballet, they’ll do several roles in the ballet, but Jerry would actually change the role itself. I don’t know if it happens as much really.

You are dancing pink.

With Jared [Angle].

What is it like to be inside of Dances at a Gathering?

I think that’s one of the reasons why I love the ballet. There are times when the cast of Dances really clicks, and it becomes just the ten of us dancing for each other. Everything else becomes irrelevant. A lot of times when we perform that ballet, it’s the last of the evening and all the other dancers have left. The backstage is empty, and it just becomes this really special experience. Jerry was always so particular about us not making it an overt showcase toward the audience—it was never rah-rah, we’re putting on a show, it was very much dancing and having relationships with the people you were dancing with onstage. Having eye contact. It’s a genuine relationship between people that just happen to be dancing. With some casts of Dances, it really feels like that­—like we’re communicating without words and having a wonderful experience together. In terms of ballets, Dances at a Gathering is long, but for me it feels short. At the end of that hour, that one moment and that one interaction between that family of dancers is over, and it will never be the same. So it’s really special, and I’ve just loved it.

Your book is honest and straightforward. Will it help people with eating disorders?
I hope so. I never wanted to write a book about myself. But I was approached by an agent and also a writer who thought my story was interesting, and they thought it would be worth pursuing. The original intent was to have a ghostwriter, but when we did the proposal I wrote a couple of vignettes myself and the editors wanted my voice. That was daunting, but I do like to write. I took it on because I felt like I had gone through so much in terms of identity and self-esteem issues. That all played out with eating disorders. My hope is that the book will help other young women—whether they’re in the dance world or not—deal with some of those issues that I think a lot of people face nowadays with being told what is beautiful and what is not beautiful and how they can be beautiful. It’s my hope that this book might help them sort out some of their own feelings about identity and self-esteem and self-worth. That’s why I wrote it.

I feel that the focus on thinness has trickled down from ballet into the rest of the world in a tremendous way—it’s not even as much in the dance world as it is everywhere now.
That’s something I think about a lot having a daughter. Even pushing her stroller down the street and seeing the advertisements that we pass and the images that are held up of female beauty that are really difficult and pretty much unattainable, so I think a lot about what she’s going to be thinking she should look like. I want her to know that she’s beautiful just the way she is and that worth and real beauty come from who she is inside and her actions. You are who you are, and that is good enough. You don’t have to change yourself to be worth something. What you are is of infinite worth.

Your relationship to food started to get wacky when you were about 16. What happened?
I’m not really a critical thinker. I tend to be easy to please. [Laughs]. So I didn’t even realize it was happening when it happened. But yeah—I was a teenager and it basically started with me…I would feel better eating particular foods. I would use it to help myself feel better. I think everybody does that to a certain extent. There’s a reason it’s called comfort food, and there’s a part of that that’s very normal, but what happened with me is that it became extreme, and I started to use food. It became an addiction in a way and it was a way that I coped with any circumstance of my life. It became a really unhealthy thing for me. And it came on slowly, but it was through my teenage years. I was 16 when I got into the company, and that’s a stressful time in the life of anybody, and then to have the pressures I had—I think I just wasn’t prepared to deal with it.

Were you really fired from the company for your weight issues?
The technical phrase would be that my contract was not renewed. But it was really the best thing that could have happened to me. I think if I had stayed…and they were very gracious: They gave me so many chances before they decided not to renew my contract. They really did. I think I would have never healed if I hadn’t been given that kind of kick out the door. I would have stayed in a destructive cycle. So I don’t want it to sound inflammatory that they didn’t renew my contract. It really was what I needed. I didn’t think so at the time. It was devastating.

Was there anything they could have done other than talk to you and say things like, “Why can’t you lose weight?”
I don’t know. I was in such a dark place. I think there was a lot of healing I needed to do that just needed to take place outside of ballet. I had allowed the ballet world to have too much of a hold over me. I needed to get away from it in order to get better.

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