Q&A: Gretchen Smith of NYCB talks about working with Justin Peck

New York City Ballet Gretchen Smith talks about working with Justin Peck on his new ballet

Gretchen Smith of New York City Ballet

Gretchen Smith of New York City Ballet Photograph: Sam Wootton

As New York City Ballet continues its spring season at the David H. Koch Theater, a highlight will be Justin Peck's new ballet Everywhere We Go. The pieces stars dancers Maria Kowroski, Sterling Hyltin, Tiler Peck, Teresa Reichlen, Robert Fairchild, Andrew Veyette and Amar Ramasar, but—as is characteristic of Peck's work—each dancer is an individual. Here, Everywhere We Go demi-soloist Gretchen Smith talks about working with Peck and being a NYCB corps member.

What makes a corps de ballet dancer stand out? At New York City Ballet, one distinguishing feature is Justin Peck, whose ensemble choreography taps into what makes the company’s dancers so special: their fresh, individual modernity. Take the refined Gretchen Smith, who’s been in on Peck’s creative process for several ballets, including the new Everywhere We Go. Set to music by Sufjan Stevens, the ballet is full throttle: “Your abs are cramping, your calves, your feet, your back,” she says. “It’s everything.” Smith and Peck, who met during a summer session at the San Francisco Ballet School, have known each other since they were 13. Here, she shares her perspective on Peck in the studio, how his choreography has developed, and how he pulls the best out of his dancers.

How old were you when you started dancing?
I was seven and a half, eight when I started. I actually have a very cognizant memory of going to see The Nutcracker. When I saw the angels floating—or how they seemed to be floating—I leaned over to my mom and said, “I want to do that.” That was it for me.

Were you in Indiana?
Yeah. Oddly enough, my dance school, Evansville Dance Theatre, closed roughly two years ago. We had a lot of different directors come in and out, and the last one was Patrick Hinson who used to dance with New York City Ballet. He said, “You have to audition for SAB [School of American Ballet].” I was 14. He was like, “This is where you need to go—your body, the way you move, I think it would be good for you.”

What was your training like in Evansville?

I adored my very first teacher, Adahli [Aranda Corn]. Mostly it was a lot of Russian—Vaganova—training. I kind of felt lucky that so many directors came in and out of the school. We had a teacher from Germany, from Russia; we had modern dance, African dance, jazz and hip-hop.  

What did the Vaganova give you in terms of a foundation?

It really provided an appreciation for technique, but also, in a weird way, the inspiration for just letting go.

It gives you that base to test yourself. Without a base, you’re just going to float around. That Russian training helped to rein everything in when it needed to be. But my body, having been at SAB and NYCB, is different now; I felt like Bambi when I was first at SAB. I remember the day I thought, This is where I want to be. I was in Susie [Pilarre]’s class saying to myself, This is how my body wants to move. It clicked.

What did you have to work on? Dancers have to move fast at SAB.

It’s so fast. I had to work on my arms. Definitely speed. It was creating a new structure almost. Your fourth [position] when you turn is bigger. The way that you hold your arms when you turn is closer to your body. As it started sinking in, it started making intellectual sense as well: Oh, of course I would do this. I had to work on my upper body for sure, because I was so far back. [She leans her head back.] Susie was always pushing me forward, like, get on top of yourself. In a weird way, I felt like I went from a black-and-white movie to Technicolor. It was like a Wizard of Oz moment.

Do you remember your audition?

I do. It was at Butler University, and it was with Susie. She remembered me from the year before, and she said, “You didn’t come. Why didn’t you come?” I turned bright red. I had gone to San Francisco, because they had given me a full scholarship. SAB had given me half. So I reauditioned, and she said, “You’re coming this year. We’re giving you a full scholarship and you’re coming.” It was pretty amazing. I totally would not be where I am without having had that moment—it was eye-opening. This person, this famous ballerina, remembers me? It was very cool.

You moved to New York when you were 14. Did you have to talk your parents into letting you come?
Yes. [Laughs] Sometime during the last week of the summer program your parents can come and watch, and I was showing my mother around. We went to the office, because I had to check in with the registrar about something. She was so sweet. She looked at my mom and said, “Gretchen told me you haven’t decided. At some point in life, you’re going to have to let her go. She’s coming to a safe place, and we’re going to take care of her and this is what she wants to do and she’s good, and you should let her go.” That was kind of the pivotal moment.

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