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Not a Kyra in the world

NYCB's finest ballerina bids farewell.

Photograph: Paul Kolnik
SCARF DANCE Nichols performs Pavane.

[Ed note: This story has been extended with online bonus content.]

Kyra Nichols is the shining star not just of New York City Ballet but of ballet, period. Hired by George Balanchine in 1974, Nichols, revered for her musicality and lush, spontaneous phrasing—truly a lost art—performs for the final time on Friday 22 in a special Balanchine program, featuring Serenade, Robert Schumann’s “Davidsbndlertnze” and “Der Rosenkavalier” from Vienna Waltzes. (“I can put on a pair of high heels!” she notes of the evening’s last work.)

Nichols, who lives in Princeton, New Jersey, with her husband and two sons, began ballet training in California with her mother (former NYCB member Sally Streets) and Alan Howard before moving to New York to study at the School of American Ballet. This weekend will certainly be a weird one: The night following Nichols’s retirement, Alessandra Ferri steps down from American Ballet Theatre. Buy flowers in bulk.

You once said that you didn’t want a farewell program. What changed your mind?

[Laughs] When I told Peter Martins this summer that I’d rather just leave, he said, “No, you can’t! You have your fans! And I’m good at making these programs up.” So I said okay. He asked, “Is there any ballet you really want to dance?” And the only one I could think of at that moment was Serenade. That was my first Balanchine ballet. He incorporated that and came back with a couple of other ballets: Davidsbndlertnze and Vienna Waltzes.

You originally danced the part of the Russian Girl in Serenade?

Yes. Suki Schorer taught it to me. It feels so natural to me: where the steps go, the flow of the ballet. When you learn a ballet in the school, it always stays with you because you spend a whole year working on it, and you sort of pick it apart. It is very much a part of my body, even though it’s not the same role. Now, I do the Waltz Girl.

When did you stop?

I did Russian Girl for years! I guess Peter thought I might like to try doing the other one. I don’t remember quite what the circumstance was. You just sort of move out of certain roles—not that I didn’t want to dance it anymore, but the Waltz Girl is really special.

Haven’t you always loved to waltz?

The waltz, as far back as I can remember, has always been my favorite. I don’t take good photographs because I don’t ever stop. I’m always in motion, and the waltz is the perfect kind of music for that. I let the steps pour out. I’m not the kind of dancer who starts to make up a story or think about things. I let the music pull me.

Did you dance to waltzes when you were a little girl?

Oh yeah. I used to dance in my mom’s basement to Strauss waltzes. We had a record. [Mutters] That’s how old I am. My brothers would be the stagehands, and we’d use paper blocks to make the set and the folded up Ping-Pong table would be the backdrop with crepe paper on it. Then I would to talk my brothers into being the curtain in the front—so they’d pull across a blanket. I’d do it most of the time when my grandparents were there, and I’d hand them flowers that I had made and say, “I’ll tell you when you can throw them at me.” I’d start dancing and finally my mom would go, “You know, I think that’s enough, Kyra.” [Whispers] They have to go,” And I’d go “No! I’m not done,” and put it back on and dance for probably another 15 minutes until my mom would say, “Now, Kyra, it’s really time. They have to go.” And I’d cry in the corner. My show was stopped.

Your art wasn’t fulfilled.

[Laughs] But it was fun. I just remember loving those times, having a scarf and just carrying on—whatever I could find, I’d put on.

What was it like having your mother as your teacher?

It was wonderful, but difficult. I looked up to her so much. She went back to dancing after she had three kids, so she was the ballerina I watched and wanted to be like. I’m sort of stubborn. I always knew how I wanted to do things, but my mom wanted to correct me and make me better because there’s a lot you don’t see as you’re learning. I would always bristle because I thought I knew it all. I don’t think the mother-child relationship is easy; kids take correction better from people who aren’t their parents.

Did you have similar bodies?

I’m taller and bigger, but very similar. We both have the same bump on the top of our foot.

Did she talk about the company and Balanchine often?

Not a lot. But she was on that tour when Tanny [LeClerq] got polio. She danced a lot. There were fewer people in the company and at that time they would do two movements from Symphony in C and Bourre Fantasque. She enjoyed working with him, and I think that firsthand experience added to what kind of a teacher she is now. It was real luck that she got in; somebody hurt themselves and at that time you only got in when there was a space. She had been with Mia Slavenska’s company and was very experienced, so he decided to take her and put her in things right away.

Have you read Barbara Milberg Fisher’s memoir? She wrote about the company during the ’50s. Or maybe you don’t want to go near ballet anymore?

[Laughs] No, I don’t feel that way because I’m not bitter about it at all! It’s my own decision. I’d rather leave now before somebody said to me, “Um...it’s time.”

Who would say that to you?

I don’t even know who would, but somehow, through the grapevine, it would come to me. You know how it is. I don’t want to be in that position. I enjoy dancing so much, but it can’t last forever. And the fact that I’m married and have children—I definitely have another life. People go, “What are you going to do?” And I don’t really have any plans. I’m going to teach. I like to give private lessons. I’ve never not had to go take barre, and I must say that during the past few years when I’m involved in something with my boys, it’s always that feeling of, Oh, gosh, I have to do a barre. I’ll probably go take a class once in awhile, but if it’s between class and something that’s important for the boys? I can tell myself: “I’ll do it tomorrow.”

What went into your decision to retire?

When I turned 48 last summer, I went, “Forty-nine...50? No.” People talk about the 33 years, and I think it’s more impressive that I’m still dancing at 48! I turn 49 in less than a month, and I’ve been so fulfilled. I’ve danced everything I could possibly want to dance.

Do you teach anywhere specifically?

Well, I teach a little bit at the Princeton Ballet. You know who is there also? Kathleen Moore [formerly of ABT]. We stand at the barre together. We have a good time, laughing. But I enjoy teaching young, hungry kids. I love the one-on-one. If they’re really hungry for the information and want to have a career, it’s very fulfilling because they improve and want more.

How young are your students?

I have a few girls who are 10, 11, 12. That’s the age to be nurtured. If they wait until later, it’s too late. Balanchine took people young, but I think that was one reason: He could mold them. The sooner you learn the steps, the stronger you get and the more vocabulary you have, so by the time you audition for a company, you’re prepared. You can’t wait for it to happen.

When you give private lessons, what do you work on? Do you coach or is it more of a class?

It’s more of a class. I also stress pointe work, which I find is a very weak spot—not here at the School of American Ballet, but at other schools where students put their toe shoes on for 15 minutes at the end of class. That’s not enough. If you’re really going to pursue a ballet career, you need to wear them, like Balanchine wanted, at the barre so that they’re part of your foot. You don’t have to even go up on toe; teachers wait until a dancer is strong enough in the bones, and I understand that, but you still could put them on for tendus. It’s amazing—there’s this girl I’ve been working with. Her name is Kyra, which is weird, but she’s been putting on the pointe shoes since the fall, and the progress she’s made is just wonderful. [Passionately] Put them on so that they’re not foreign objects. If you’re going to have beautiful pointe work, that rolling down that Mr. B wanted—soft shoes and rolling down—get that young.

What do you think of Gaynor Minden pointe shoes?

I don’t really know anything about them because I’ve never worn them. I wore Capezios when I first started pointe work—it was at the time when you got your shoes really small. You could never get them on, and you’d have a bottle of rubbing alcohol to pour on them so that you could get them on your feet. Having experienced that with my mom, I always wanted my shoes to fit like a glove, to really be a part of the foot. Later, I switched to Freeds of London. I like Freeds because they kind of fall apart and mold to your feet. All of these other shoes look like they might last longer...they’re so expensive. I know why people wear them.

But you want them to feel like a second skin?

Yeah. At least for me. It would be hard for me to wear something like that. Everybody’s foot is different and some people like hard shoes, some people like softer shoes.

How do you break yours in?

I used to use Fabulon, but they don’t make that anymore. I put a little lacquer in the tip, on the inside, and then I close them in the door. The poor little cobblers must cringe when they hear that. They mold it so perfectly, and then I just go [She makes a slamming noise.].

But that’s common. You like them soft, right?

Yeah. Mr. B was really adamant about not hearing that pitter-patter on the stage—and that goes back to when I was doing Russian Girl when he was still alive. He’d be furious because he always heard the shoes and he really wanted to hear the music—ballerinas should be light, and you shouldn’t hear them clomping around. That’s always stuck with me.

Did Balanchine or another teacher help you figure out how to break in your shoes? Or to find the right shoes?

No. As an apprentice, I had been wearing Lilly Samuels’s rejects. When I got in the company, I had to go to Freeds to order shoes, and I didn’t know what to order. It happened that Susie Pilarre was there, too. She was really into her shoes—always changing her maker and all of that, and she said, “Those are nice,” handed them to me, and I said, “Okay, I’ll get these.”

One ballet that you resisted going back to was Mozartiana, which was a highlight of the season. Why did you decide to go for it?

I’ve sort of consistently done it over the years. It’s a funny thing——my mom laughs because whenever I come back from an injury I always end up doing Mozartiana, and it’s one of the hardest ballets! I feel like you have a lot of chances to redeem yourself in it because there are so many variations. It doesn’t move too much. It’s very upright, there’s a lot of pointe work. I guess I do it now because I don’t have anything to prove: I just do what’s natural and I don’t feel like I have to outdo my last performance. It’s like Serenade, you know? I just listen to the music and the steps come out. You can’t program yourself to do it perfect every time—you have to go with what your body’s doing and to get to the point where you can do that is kind of fun. It’s taken 33 years Just when I retire. [Laughs].

What was harder than anything else? Diamonds?

Diamonds probably was the hardest to step into. I was thrown in when I was, like, 19. Suzanne [Farrell] was out, Merrill [Ashley] was injured. I was so young and overwhelmed. And then I didn’t do it for years. That was one of those things that he did see that I was not ready for. Balanchine put me in Emeralds. When I finally did do Diamonds, I don’t think Balanchine was alive—Peter put me in it. It was terrifying because I hadn’t been so successful the first time. And stepping into any of Suzanne’s roles was also terrifying to me because I was not like her. I loved what she could do, and I loved dancing next to her, but I wasn’t so involved in those fancy arms. I’m just not that type. I took a lot of time simplifying it. It went well, but I think I had to develop it so I didn’t copy exactly what she did. I think you have to be comfortable in your shell.

Is that part of why it was difficult? It’s also very challenging technically, right?

Yeah, and I think the pressure of it being Suzanne’s role and everybody going, “Look, she couldn’t do it.” It always puzzles me that people come and look at your first performance—your first performance in anything is just going to be a rough sketch of what you eventually develop it into. With nerves, too—you can have lots of rehearsals, but still the first time in front of an audience, it just doesn’t come out. That’s what was so wonderful back when Mr. B was alive: He would give you a ballet. And then you’d get all of the performances of it. You felt honored that you had the privilege to be responsible for that role, and there’s something about doing things many times. It gets better.

In an interview from 1985, you said that your dream part was Juliet. Is that true?

Yes. I love that music and I love those passionate and tragic stories. It didn’t ever happen and I always felt like I was too big. There wasn’t time for me to ever do it and I wasn’t one to go off guesting at other companies. This was my home, this was where I danced. I like consistency. There’s another pressure born in dancing with another company. I’m very comfortable in this situation: I love this theater. I did a lot of gigs—performing with groups of people, with Peter and Misha—and that was fun. Only a few times did I ever go and dance with another company.

What teachers really made a difference for you?

My mom and a teacher named Alan Howard, who trained me in San Francisco. He was in NYCB when my mom was in the company and then he danced with the Ballets Russes de Monte Carlo. He had a great influence on me; he really gave me strength. And I loved all the Russian ballerinas at the school. Danilova and Doubrovska and Muriel Stuart—they very much influenced me. And Jacques d’Amboise was the big one. He worked with me, he choreographed on me, he sort of made Balanchine see me because he kept wanting to use me. Even if I didn’t do the performance, he’d choreograph on me and then I’d teach it to Suzanne or Kay [Mazzo]. But in the studio, Jacques’s way of working was doing things to the extreme—doing really deep plis and a pirouette by yourself. Your partner will be there but you have to do it, and that has lasted my whole career. Or running to a place [onstage] without looking where you’re going—he taught me things like that. I still think about: Down up! To make it look bigger. It was great.

When was that?

It was when I first got into the company. On tour, my mom’s roommate was Carolyn d’Amboise, so they knew each other and kept in touch. When I came for the summer course in New York, I stayed at their house because they used to take in students. Jacques got to know me and when I got into the company— I guess he liked my dancing. I don’t think it was so much my mom knowing him but he saw my talent and brought it out. I don’t know what would have happened to me if I hadn’t had somebody like that. At home, I was a big fish in a small pond; to come to New York and just be with everybody else was hard.

Balanchine encouraged you to work a lot by yourself, right?

Yeah. I think Balanchine saw that Jacques was talking to me and he saw that I was receptive—I didn’t need direction, and I was going in the right direction.

Did you know at the time that you didn’t need direction?

I knew how I wanted to do everything. [Laughs] I just wanted to improve. I was in the studio all the time. Balanchine was choreographing so many things at that point. The Ravel Festival was happening. I didn’t waste time.

Have you always been like that? Direct? Not just about ballet?

Pretty much so. But not school. I hated school. [Laughs] It was getting in the way of my dancing.

Did you finish high school?

No, I haven’t finished high school. Maybe that’s what I’ll do when I retire! I’ll get my high-school diploma. [Laughs]

The interview you just did with an advanced student in Allegro, the School of American Ballet’s magazine, is very sweet. Your advice was: “Enjoy every moment of it because it goes by very, very quickly.” Has it really?

It has. I can remember the first day I came into the theater. It was all so new. It must have been quick because I enjoyed it. I can’t believe it. I always looked at these other dancers retiring and I thought, That’s way off! I don’t regret anything. I just think that the dancers need to keep joy in their dancing.

What was that first day like in the theater?

Balanchine was teaching every day and everybody was there early to do their stretches and warm-up because Balanchine’s class was very difficult and you had to be ready. Everybody was beautifully dressed, and there was no place to stand. There were all of these famous people there—I snuck in the corner and hid in the back. Everybody was ready to go, ready for action. And everybody had their place in class. Now, it’s sort of wherever you fit, but Karin [von Aroldingen], Merrill and Suzanne—you didn’t dare take their places. His class was so hard, but it meant so much. The repetitions. I felt really nervous and uncomfortable. It was a new experience.

Didn’t you work with Danilova for Paquita at the school? What do you remember about that experience?

I don’t remember so much about Paquita as working on variations in class. What she taught me was about the way she presented herself, the way she was dressed and her manner—that ballerina look, the way she conducted herself and the detail she taught us in those solos. But she was wonderful because she would let us do our thing, too. She was passing on, but then we had to incorporate it. And Doubrovksa was a real character. She had this little dog and it would run into the room first and she’d open the door and look in before she entered. She gave you a hard time if you yawned. Muriel Stuart: If you walked on your heels, she’d give you a real hard time. All of those things add to a dancer’s career.

As a teacher, are you concerned or worried about the next generation of dancers? What would you focus on?

I’m not concerned about the next generation. All I want to do is to pass on my knowledge and hope somebody can benefit from all my experiences. I like to work with my dancers on how to move, to cover space, to be fluid—it’s not just about the positions or the steps. And musicality. That’s one thing my mom stressed; it was very important to her that a dancer had musicality. It’s really difficult to teach somebody musicality. It doesn’t become counts, although, yes, there are certain ballets you have to count, but to be a really good dancer, you have to have a musicality. The more I teach, I see that there are some dancers who just don’t hear the music like they should for whatever the step is. It’s going to take them longer.

You have it. That’s why your performances are always different.

Well, that’s what I loved about watching Suzanne and Patty [McBride]. Especially Suzanne. She was musical in her own way. It was weird. She was hearing different things in the music and so, all of a sudden, you’d think, Oh yeah, that note. A lot of her roles are neat to dance because of that, because it’s not just the obvious.

How do you get into that zone? What do you do before a show? Not much, right?

I always think about how Balanchine said, “Don’t think, dear, just do.”

What does that actually mean?

You spend lots of time refining each step so by the time you put a combination together, those steps should be in your body, and you shouldn’t have to think about them. You can just let the music pull you. A lot of times when you think too much, you can psyche yourself out—especially before a performance, when you start thinking: How many times does this go? I remember doing that when I first did Ballo dello Regina. I had been rehearsing for weeks! And my body would have just naturally done it, but I was thinking about it. It’s just like, never think about a ballet before you go to sleep. Your body knows it. It’s about trusting your body. Sally Leland taught me Ballo; and she was still dancing at the time, and I remember running down to her dressing room going, [Breathlessly] “How many times do I do that? [Laughs]

I got to watch Miranda Weese learn that ballet from Merrill Ashley.

I miss Miranda.

Me, too.

My dressing room is very empty. At least this season, when we did Liebeslieder, Rachel Rutherford was doing her part, so Miranda’s costume was still hanging. It felt like she’s still there.

You also shared a room with Heather Watts?

Oh, yeah for years! We were soloists together and we were promoted.

Did you have girl chats in your dressing room?

Yeah, we did. But at that point, we were dancing the same things and we were dancing all the time—one or two ballets a night. We’d go up to the dressing room and not know what we were dancing. It depended on where the Serenade costume was, where the Ballo costume was. It was just what side of the dressing room it was in. “I guess you do it, tonight!”

Miranda Weese told me that you helped her out a lot. Do you reach out to younger members of the company?

I try to. I haven’t done a lot of that because I just don’t know what they’re being told in terms of how they’re being coached on something. Sometimes, when I see them having difficulty I’ll try to tell them what would make it easier. But Miranda, I would help out. I really enjoyed Miranda because she’s just really down to earth and I’m the same way. I think the biggest thing we gave each other was just support. You know? There are a lot of ups and downs—just your own frustration with something. To have somebody there going, “Come on, you can do it,” or to give you a hug was always wonderful. I think that’s something that Miranda and I had.

What’s the most incredible performance you’ve ever seen?

This is going to sound weird but it was probably Mikhail Baryshnikov when he danced a program of solos in Princeton. I was blown away. Somebody of his age? To look like that and dance like that? I just really enjoyed it. That’s the most recent thing I’ve seen, and I was just struck.

Have you ever done anything like this? Performed three ballets where you’re the focus in one program?

No. And I’m not thinking about it because I’m the kind of person who doesn’t want to know who’s in the audience. I go and do my thing and if people want to watch me, they can—but I don’t have to be the center of attention. I prefer it not to be on me. Even though I like people to look at me dance.

What’s most dear to you in the ballet world?

It would probably be all of my memories: joining the company, being in the corps de ballet, moving up, working with Balanchine, Jerry, the transition after Balanchine died. All of it has driven me. The whole process of getting to where I am now. I was there at the right time, and I feel very lucky because you can have the goods but if it’s not the right time? So I’ve been very blessed.

With a good strong body too, right?

Yeah. I’ve have taken care of it. I’ve always tried to know that was important. My parents taught me to take care of my instrument. My mom was always one to say, “You take one class and work really hard and well, and that’s plenty for the day.” And that you should take one day off a week. I’ve always kept that with me.

Are you melancholy about stepping down?

I’ve had my moments. I know I’ve made the right decision. I’m very excited about it because when I’m in Princeton with my boys, I almost forget about my dancing. Even though I still take classes, which have always been a part of my life, it’s like two worlds. I have to keep reminding myself, Oh yeah, the season’s coming up and then I have a whole different frame of mind.

Do your kids watch from backstage?

Cameron—I can’t quite trust him. [Laughs] He might come running out there to join me. But Joe does. Joe grew up here and lately, he’s been wanting to come more and more, to just sort of hang out in my dressing room and go and see Dottie [Cummings], the wardrobe mistress. He knows his way around the theater.

Robbins really loved Joe when he was younger. What does Joe remember?

He remembers the man with the cane. He was really a little bit too young to remember much about Jerry, but we do have pictures on our walls with all of us. He’ll say, “That’s the man with the cane,” because he used to come to the dressing room, and Joe would like to play with his cane.

Does Joe dance?

He did. He wasn’t really into the classes, but he liked the performing. And then I said, “Do you want to continue?” And he said, “Yeah.” And I said, “Well, you could take a year off,” and he said [Quickly], “Okay!” So he’s taking fencing now, but the ballet comes in handy. Cameron is the one who seems like he wants to take classes maybe. When I go to just do ballet to work out, he comes along and does these big tour jts and turns and rolls on the floor like a modern dancer. Whenever I go, he’s like, “Mommy, can I go with you?” So maybe I’ll put him in a little boy’s class this year and see how he does. He’ll probably get in trouble. “Well, mommy said I could do this.” [Laughs] You know, it’s funny, but down in Princeton nobody knew that I was a dancer. I’d see a few people at the ballet studio, but all of Joe’s classmates’ mothers—until they did an article on me in the free newspaper in Jersey, and I was on the cover—all of a sudden it was like I’d see people in the supermarket [She does a double take.]. I had to start dressing better in the supermarket.

Why aren’t you on the Playbill cover?

I don’t know. [Gingerly] I don’t make those decisions.

Now that you’re in your last season, what can you tell me about dancing that you couldn’t years ago?

That I feel good about myself? [Laughs] I’m really enjoying it? I just feel very comfortable in my shell. This is who I am.