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Ballet star Joseph Gorak talks about his journey to American Ballet Theatre

American Ballet Theatre's sparkling new soloist speaks out
By Gia Kourlas |
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When Joseph Gorak was 14, he was accepted into Orlando Ballet School; his family lived in Texas. No matter! They moved to Florida. “It was crazy,” he says. “My parents saw potential, and they didn’t want to hold me back.” While there, he worked intensely with Fernando Bujones, the American Ballet Theatre star; it’s no surprise that Gorak is on a similar path. Recently promoted to soloist, he has a full schedule for ABT’s fall engagement; last season, he dazzled the ballet world when he stepped into Cinderella with just two weeks to learn the ballet. Here’s how it went down.

I know you saw The Nutcracker when you were four. How vivid is that memory?
I remember the theatrical part of it: the sets and costumes and the lights. It was my first time being in a theater, and that excited me. In the beginning, I was very theatrical, and my parents were going to put me in acting classes. That didn’t really work out because I was very shy and didn’t like to speak, so they put me in a ballet class, and of course I was shy and I didn’t want to go, but I was always dancing around the house and finally got into it, and I fell in love. I loved the idea of ballet. I was so young. It wasn’t like I was thinking, I’m expressing my ideas through movement, but in a way I kind of was. I loved that it was performing. It helped me get over my anxiety and shyness, because I got to be something that I wasn’t. And then as I got older, I just enjoyed the discipline of going to ballet class and wearing the uniform and learning about ballet. I always wanted to be beautiful and handsome—in a way, ballet made me feel like I was beautiful.

And confident, too?
Yeah. Because in life, I was very self-conscious. I still am, but when I was a kid it was horrible, and in ballet, I could let go. I felt pretty. I felt like I was accepted. No one judged me, even though ballet is about judgment and critique—but that was okay with me. I felt like I fit in.

That’s great. Because you can also experience the opposite in ballet too, right?
[Laughs] Of course, as I got older, I was like, Oh gosh. This is hard.

I’m doing everything wrong.
I hate this. [Laughs]

Were you in Florida at that point?
I was in Texas, where I studied until I was 14. That’s where I really got my start. I was born in Indiana; that’s where I saw my first Nutcracker. Shortly after, we moved to Texas, I enrolled in a school that really didn’t have any boys, and my teacher, Les Jordan, took me under his wing. It was the North Central Ballet school in Texas; it was small, but that was the best for me because there was no pressure. It was a friendly environment. It was strict, but I could learn and grow as a dancer and not be scared. I wasn’t thrown into a huge boarding school.

Was it good that he was a man?
Yeah, I think that helped. Also because I was the only boy, a lot of the classes were geared toward the women. That made me the dancer I am today. I was exposed to more port de bras—men’s classes are more geared toward jumps and power, and I had that, but everything was done with grace. I remember classes where we would spend an hour just walking or running or on transition steps, and you don’t really get that in a lot in men’s classes. It also helped that all the girls wanted to stretch their feet and stretch in general, so I was forced to do that too. 

Do you think that’s why your feet are so beautiful?
Oh, I don’t know. [Laughs] They’re not that beautiful.

How long did you study with Les?
Nine years. It was a long time.

What was his focus?
We did a lot of different things, which I think was good for me. He encouraged me to watch videos of great dancers and learn from that too. I always watched Nureyev. Bujones, of course. And he encouraged me to attend summer programs and to study anywhere I could, so I wasn’t tied down to a small school. He was great. I’ve been very lucky.
Where did you go for summer programs?
I did the ABT Austin summer intensive. I went to SAB [New York City Ballet–affiliated School of American Ballet]. This was after I moved to Florida, because Peter Stark, my teacher, wanted me to experience the Balanchine style at least once. He came from City Ballet. I went to Orlando Ballet’s summer intensive. There was the Jackson, Mississippi, competition. They had a two-week summer intensive, and I went to that.

Had you been asked to stay on at SAB?
I was. I got offered Orlando first, and I was there for a year and SAB offered me a year; that was after Fernando had offered me a contract with Orlando Ballet, so I took that.

Tell me about meeting him. What was that experience like?
He taught my first audition in Texas, and I remember being so scared. I’m sure the class went fine, but I thought it was horrible, and I remember driving home with my mom just bawling. [Laughs] I had looked up to him for so many years. When I came to Orlando, he said, “I want to work with you.” That was kind of a shock. He would come into the school and teach a class every once in while. He would coach me—not all of the time, because he was busy with the company, but he helped me; I did a competition in Helsinki, and he coached me for that. After class, we would have little sessions.

What did he focus on?
It was pretty much precision. Technique. He always drilled that, and I think I was so afraid of disappointing him—I just wanted to cry every time, because he would demonstrate everything, and it would still be perfect. He had been retired for so many years, and he would go to fifth, and it would be textbook. [Laughs] But I could watch that, and it helped me. It gave me a mental image. And he would tell me stories about when he was a dancer; what his teachers did for him. Never to settle. He always wanted me to strive for consistency. I think he wanted me not to throw myself into my dancing. I was young, and he wanted me to focus on and really strive for technique so when I got older, I could let go, but I would still have a foundation that would hold up for the rest of my career. As the years have gone by, I have become more of an artist; I throw things away, but then I don’t have to focus as much on hitting proper positions because it’s so drilled into me. He didn’t want robot technique, but at my age he wanted me to focus on proper classical ballet.

Was that when you were in the company or a student?
A combination. It started when I was a student, and it was so unfortunate: Halfway through the year after I got into the company, he got sick. [Ed. note: Bujones died of melanoma in 2005.] That was really hard. I was 15. Fernando made a deal with my teacher Peter that if I was going to be in the company, I would still train with the school because I was young. I would work with the company from 10am to 6pm, and then I would go upstairs to the school and finish off with classes. If it were right now, I would just die. But at 15, I was just okay.

Did you have a feeling that time was limited with Bujones?
I don’t know. I remember those two years in Orlando: I didn’t think. I was just going with the flow. I knew what I wanted. And I knew I didn’t want to stay in Orlando. I wanted to come to ABT. I always had it in the back of my mind that if I worked hard and did everything honestly, it would work out. And things did work out for me. I don’t mean to sound conceited; I really worked toward it.

You were close with Peter too. Did you feel like you had to make a choice between City Ballet and ABT?
No. That was the good thing. He wanted me to experience Balanchine style. He knew I didn’t want to go that route, but some of those things helped me in my technique. I had a lot of coaching with Peter. He was so good for me. Everything that I was weak in, he worked with me day and night. I had never really partnered until him. Getting stronger. Jumping. We worked on tours and turning. Acting. We’d work on variations, and he’d have me go to the Youth America Grand Prix and say, “It’s not to win—it’s just to work on a variation, because you’re going to need that if you’re going to make this a career.” He would pull girls from the company that were just a little bit bigger than I was for partnering work. He was just there for me in life in general. I could go to him for anything.

How long did you stay there?
Two years. I won the Grand Prix. [ABT] had already been looking at me. I also took an audition class. But I got the Grand Prix, and they gave me a contract to come. That was a dream come true.

You joined the Studio Company. Who was in charge?
Kirk Peterson was in charge my first year. A lot of people in the company now were there: Eric Tamm, Devon Teuscher, Leann Underwood, Tom Forster, Jose Sebastian, Katie Williams. Mary Thomas. Christine Shevchenko. I was scared at first. I was excited to be in the Studio Company, but I approached it in the wrong way. When I first came, I just wanted to be in the company. I was like, I have to prove myself, I have to get in the company. I didn’t really get to enjoy life in the Studio Company; it’s about being nurtured and getting to do great roles. The first year was hard. As the years went on, people trickled into the company. Some didn’t, but a lot did, which was nice. I was there for two and a half years and finally got into the main company.

That’s a long time. Did it feel like a long time?
It did. And I think because everyone from my year had pretty much gotten in except for me and my friend Jose, we were just left for a couple more years. [Laughs] There were times when we were like, this isn’t going to happen. But I never left because in the back of my mind I thought, I made it this far. I just really want to see if I can make this happen. I think it was timing. I’m on the shorter side, and they didn’t have contracts for shorter guys. And not a lot of people were leaving the company at that time. There weren’t a lot of spaces. Or maybe I just wasn’t ready. [Laughs] Maybe it was a sign.

It must be tough to have to start over again when you get into the company.
That was hard. It was a big transition going from dancing solos and pas de deux—you’re in every single piece, you’re traveling to Europe—to being in the fourth cast of something. For a year, I didn’t really dance and that was hard, but necessary because I needed to learn how the company worked, and I needed to find my place in the company and be comfortable enough to slot into the ballets. I wanted so badly to be thrown into things and have roles, and now I look back and think, Thank God. [Laughs] I would have peed my pants. I would have died, and I would not be sitting here today.

The stress would have taken you down?
Yeah. And dancing at the Met for the first time—that was so exciting, but…I’m sure my eyes were bulging out of their sockets. It helped that I joined with Jose. We were there for each other. We still are. I joined the company at a very different time; ABT went through a big transition. I joined when there were a lot of senior people, and not that seniority isn’t a big deal now, but then it was, you’re going to get your throat slashed if you don’t respect seniority. That was good. I feel that in the ballet world in general these days, there’s a loss of respect. That might sound bad, but I think it’s happening. I learned to respect the dancers that were older than I was and to respect choreography and the way that these ballets have been done for years. Discipline: I feel like there’s a lack of that now.

Does it have to do with how relaxed things are in society in general?
Totally. The younger generation has a lot of power now; there’s not really anyone saying, “You can’t do that” or “This is wrong.” It’s not a free-for-all, but…I just feel that it’s still ballet and there should be respect for it in general.
When did you start feeling comfortable and getting parts? Did that happen simultaneously?
I think so. I started getting parts maybe my third year in the company. I had really established myself, and I knew everyone; it wasn’t like I was given these great big roles that I couldn’t handle. I was slowly given opportunities that suited me. And then they also challenged me. It was good, and I think the ballet dancers and Kevin allowed me to make mistakes and learn from them, instead of being given a part, making a mistake and being cut off. That helped me to grow. Parts started getting bigger and bigger, and by then I could handle them because I had already gotten opportunities and partners I had worked with before.

Is that what you’re referring to in terms of mistakes?
Yeah. When I joined, I was not the best partner. I needed to grow. I still do. I was very tense and very nervous, and I wanted to prove myself so badly that I wasn’t giving everything that I could to roles. I was just trying to do it perfectly.

It makes you frozen.
Yeah. And because they allowed me to do more roles, I could ease up. I’m more comfortable now.

What felt good?
When I got to dance Lensky [in Onegin]. And that year I had done my first Nutcracker, so I had a taste of what a principal role was like. I got to do Benno [in Swan Lake] for the first time. It wasn’t easy, but I approached it better than I would have years before. I wasn’t as scared, and I knew that I could just try my best and I wasn’t afraid to fail so much. I do think the Bruhn competition helped. [Ed. note: Gorak won the Erik Bruhn Prize in 2011.] I got to work with Kevin [McKenzie, ABT’s artistic director] a lot; he prepared me. It was more about the process than the end result. That helped me to look at my performances and realize that it’s not about being perfect onstage; it’s about giving, being honest. And it’s not about perfect technique or perfect dancing. It’s what you bring to the role and telling a story.

How did you find out about Cinderella?
Oh my gosh. That was a dream too. That was really exciting, because I wasn’t cast. I had two weeks before the shows to learn it. Cory Stearns got injured, so James Whiteside had to go in for him, which meant that Xiomara Reyes needed a partner. The two women setting Cinderella wanted me. It was Saturday night, and I got the call from Kevin McKenzie. He said, “We’re going to send you the video. Could you learn the ballet?” I learned it on Sunday in my tiny apartment.

Did Jose come over?
No! I was like, I need to focus. [Laughs] Monday came and we rehearsed. We had two weeks and we put it together and I went on.

Had you danced with Xiomara before?
No. It was exciting just to dance with her—I was so honored. It was a really special time.

Did Xiomara help you?
She did. I couldn’t have asked for a better situation. She would calm me down. She’d say, “We’re going to go step by step. We’re going to enjoy our time and life is too short, and we’re going to be happy and we’re going to do this and we’re going to be beautiful.” I love her for that.

It’s so weird, but I felt like that had happened when I was watching the performance. You were so relaxed, and I thought, That’s her making him feel calm.
Yeah! It’s crazy: Her energy onstage calmed me down like that. Right before I went on, I was so tense, but it was like there was no audience. We were just dancing. I’ve never had an experience like that onstage. We just listened to the music, we felt each other—it was like we’re doing this for us. It was magical. It was like Cinderella! [Laughs] And just the fact that I was this corps boy and she was this big principal, and she was so nice to me—being that understanding, I couldn’t have asked for more. I even had a breakdown, and she was there for me. So nice. She’s so kind, it’s crazy. But that was a great experience. I’ll never forget it.

How did you feel when it was over?
I felt accomplished. I felt like I had peeled away another layer of myself and my dancing. When I went home after the last performance, usually I’d stay up all night critiquing what I did like, oh God. But I was just happy. Even if things did go wrong in the show, I couldn’t remember them, because it was a really happy performance for me. I was just happy to be dancing.

This season, you’re in Liam Scarlett’s new ballet. How are you enjoying working with him?
It’s been nice. I’m dancing with Gemma Bond. Both of us are just having fun, but it’s crazy: It’s a lot of go, go, go, don’t leave the stage, movement I’ve never seen before. Liam gives us room to be ourselves. He’s not so much about us having to copy his choreography exactly. We have room to modify. It’s flowy, which I love. It’s very free.

How important is it for you to have an experience like this?
It’s important, because I am more comfortable with set ballets where it’s already created, and I just learn it and this is the way you do it. I am stepping out of my comfort zone in being choreographed on and trying to move differently. I don’t want to get stuck in my ways. All dancers sometimes hide behind what we’re comfortable in—movement-wise and in dancing. I think with me, if I don’t dance the way that I want to dance, I’m not dancing as well as I could be. But with this process, I’m watching him show the movement, and I try my best to imitate him, but I’m not afraid to just go with whatever feels right and flows out of my body. I don’t just go with a lot of things in life. [Laughs] So this is good. I’m just going with it. Whatever is happening, I’m letting it happen. Whatever.

What do you mean you don’t “go with a lot of things”?
Sometimes I get really guarded and go to my comfort zone, and I don’t let other people in. I just put on this persona. Now I’m starting to think that’s restricting. With Liam’s piece, I just kind of do whatever…well, not whatever.

But there’s no wrong way yet—
I like that. There’s no wrong way.

And so often with new choreography, the wrong way becomes the right way.
That’s true, like 99 percent of the time.

Look at all those beautiful mistakes in the Balanchine rep—we would die if they weren’t there.
Oh my God, that’s so true. It’s a good way to look at it.
What else are you looking forward to?
I already performed [Alexei Ratmansky’s] Seven Sonatas, but I’m looking forward to doing that again. It’s hard. For me, the stamina. My part—we do our pas de deux and pretty much after that, we’re dancing for the rest of the ballet and that’s hard, but I’ve kind of created a character even though it’s not…There’s a little bit of a story line to the ballet, but to help me, I kind of created this fun, happy character to get me through.

Super confident!
Yeah.

What’s his name?
I don’t have a name. I need a name. I’ll have one by my first show.

What is the sensibility of that piece? Is it freeing?
It’s got to be free. And once again, just allowing things to happen. It’s not so much about the precision of the steps—it is, but Ratmansky’s choreography is very free and big. I think I just dance. Don’t think about it. Don’t think about how you’re going to die and throw up in the wings. Just keep dancing. [Laughs]

How does he want you to move?
Big movement. I feel like he wants a classical-ballet foundation, and then you can—not throw it away, but extend it more. Enjoy it. Of course, we have formations and lines and staying on the counts and everything, but that piece for me is about enjoying your time onstage and connecting with your partner and that’s what makes the ballet. Not just trying to execute steps.

How do you play with the music in that ballet?
I don’t know if I do. [Laughs] I don’t count ever. I can’t. Or I’ll just mess up. I just listen to the music—which has gotten me in trouble in that ballet actually, because in that finale there are points when I really do need to be counting, but I just can’t because I’m so into it. I can hear certain phrases in the music and that’s when I start things. I just let my body listen to the music and it kind of imitates sound. I dance with Christine, and I love dancing with her. It’s important to be comfortable with your partner because it sucks all the joy out of it if you get a horrible partner. [Laughs] And then you’re just worried about them the whole time.

You’re worried about displeasing the person?
Mmmm-hmmm. It’s bad news.

Do you like dancing Twyla Tharp’s Bach Partita?
I do. We’ve been doing that for a while, which is good. In the beginning, it was so hard—the counting and the formations, so we were focused more on that and trying to find ourselves in the dancing. So now I think we know what we’re supposed to do, we know the counts. We can dance more. 

Do you like that level of difficulty?
Sometimes no, to be honest, because that’s when I get into the, why am I doing this if I’m not enjoying it, and I can’t find the point? Now, I definitely enjoy Bach; before I was stressed because we were trying to figure out the counts. But it’s been a fun process, and I did get to do the principal in Australia.

Do you work closely with ballet master Keith Roberts?
He helps me with my partnering. He’s so experienced with that. He knows exactly how to help me. I still get tense. In Cinderella, he helped me to break things up, because I see ballets as full pieces, and then I fizzle out. He’s helped me to break things down and showed me to breathe, and he’s given me moral support. I’m really fortunate to have him. I hope we can work together more in the future: He knows how to tell me things that will click. I understand completely what he’s saying. He can show it once and just the way he explains it, I get it. With other people, I have to really think about it and I’ll get it, but with him I know exactly what to do. He was a principal dancer. He knows what it’s like to get through a full-length ballet: what you need to do. He kind of calms me down.

What do you do to calm yourself down?
[Quickly] Talk to Keith. [Laughs] I don’t shut my brain off, but I get so overwhelmed. I think of everything happening at once, and I have to get through this, and once again Keith tells me to break things down. I get the clutter out and the anxiety and I just focus on, Okay, this is what we need to do now, and once that happens—done. In the past, I’m overwhelmed, and I’m doing things and then something goes wrong and all I can focus on is that thing going wrong, but it’s in the past and I have to go forward and then I can’t go forward…it’s like a whirlwind of anxiety. [Laughs] And I can’t get out.

And exercise can’t help because, sadly, it’s part of the problem.
[Laughs] Exactly! Yes! I guess it’s just breaking things down and not letting my mind get the best of me.

How were you promoted to soloist?
Oh my gosh, I still don’t feel like it’s real. At first, I didn’t believe it. It was a shock. It was funny, because they announced the promotions in the morning and I had to go into an emergency rehearsal right away. Everyone was hugging, and then they were like, “We have to start rehearsals,” so I was, like, crying and trying to rehearse. I had a five-minute break, and I remember running upstairs and calling my mom. For so long, this is what I’ve wanted and to think about it—it actually happened. To think about being young and my dream and looking at books and videos and just wanting to be a soloist with ABT. And then it happened. It’s surreal.

Was it a total surprise?
It was a shock. After so many years in the company, I never thought it would happen. I had convinced myself that it wasn’t going to, and that it was okay—I didn’t want to become that bitter, here for 20 years and just, like, hating life because it didn’t happen. I wanted to move past it, and then it happened, and I was like, What? [Laughs] I still feel like I’m in a dream. 

So now you tell yourself: You’re never going to be a principal, so don’t even think about it. Who cares?
Nope. Cut it off. [Laughs] Now I’m so happy where I am. I’m enjoying it. I’m doing the best that I can and every day I work and that’s all I can do. 

American Ballet Theatre performs at the David H. Koch Theater (at Lincoln Center) Oct 22–Nov 2.

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