Sara Mearns

The New York City Ballet principal talks about her new outlook on dancing

Sara Mearns, New York City Ballet

Sara Mearns, New York City Ballet Photograph: Paul Kolnik

Sara Mearns, New York City Ballet's most daring principal, talks about her new outlook on dancing and life. She returns to the stage for the company's dynamic spring season, which begins April 30 at the David H. Koch Theater. Here, Sara Mearns—more of a swan than any ballerina out there—talks about her roles, her injuries and why she wants to be an ambassador for dance.

There are vibrant dancers in the world—and especially at New York City Ballet—but Sara Mearns dances every dance as if it were her last. Her roles are steeped in drama, but not the melodramatic-ballerina kind you might find across the plaza. Mearns takes risks; she isn’t afraid to fall. Last season, she recovered from a back injury to perform in a spectacular array of parts in ballets like George Balanchine’s Swan Lake and Diamonds, as well as in the role of the Lilac Fairy in Peter Martins’s The Sleeping Beauty. She’s returning this season, which begins April 30 at the David H. Koch Theater, with a new outlook on dancing and on life.

Time Out New York: Do you go into each season with a different frame of mind?
Sara Mearns:
I guess I kind of do. I look at what the season has, and what I am possibly going to be doing. I like to mentally prepare and start working on the steps earlier. It makes me calmer, so it’s not a huge surprise when I have to start rehearsing something and we only have two weeks to do it. I like to be prepared. Last season, it was a lot of Tchaikovsky and a lot of big, power stuff. It was really intense. This season, it’s not so high-level stress as Swan Lake and Diamonds and Lilac Fairy. That was just, Ahhh! This season seems a little bit more fun for me in that way. I’m really excited.

Time Out New York: Do you know what you’re dancing?
Sara Mearns:
Barber Violin Concerto goes up; Stars and Stripes; Fearful Symmetries. I don’t know if I’m going to be in Who Cares? this time. Slaughter on Tenth Avenue goes. Thou Swell, I’m Old Fashioned. It’s all over the place.

Time Out New York: And there’s also that block of time where every night is a different program: 33 ballets in three weeks. How do you like that?
Sara Mearns:
It’s actually really fun. It keeps you fresh and on your toes, no pun intended. And, yes, there is something great about being able to dance a ballet three or four times—you really feel like you got it and are really solid in it and can explore other things onstage with it. But there is also something really fun about doing a different ballet every night. I think that’s what’s so great about this company: You can be doing 20 different ballets in one season. Since you’re onstage almost every night, you can explore things in your dancing and still go to really crazy places—just in a different ballet with different steps. It’s kind of awesome.

Time Out New York: Is there less pressure because you’re not doing the same role three times in one week?
Sara Mearns:
I don’t know. I never really feel like I have pressure on me. Especially now, coming back from that injury. I really try not to put any pressure or expectations on myself. I am just so happy to be out there again and to be dancing with my partners and to the music. I try to eliminate all of that other stuff and know that I’m strong enough and that I’ve worked hard enough to get to this point and that I can get through it. Maybe there’s that pressure for other people? It just depends on what you’ve gone through in your career and how many times you’ve done it and if you trust and you feel comfortable with your partner. There are so many different levels. I feel like I’ve gone to this place where I’ve danced enough with the partners that I’m dancing with now, and we’re having performances where we come offstage and are like, “Wow. That felt good.” Which is a really good feeling to have.

Time Out New York: What do you want in a partner?
Sara Mearns:
Well, anything that Jared Angle or Jon Stafford has—and sometimes Amar [Ramasar]. I don’t want to make them work so hard and make them do everything. That makes me feel like I’m not strong. I want somebody who is there, but not there. Jared—you know he’s going to catch it, but he’s going to catch it at the last minute, and that’s what I love, because I can be so crazy and so extreme. I’m kind of like Kyra Nichols: I don’t want much, but what I do want is very specific at that moment. She didn’t like the guy touching her a lot. She wanted him to stand away and then be there at the last moment. I learned that from partnering with Chuck Askegard; he was one of my first partners. He wouldn’t come in until the last moment for a turn, for anything, and I was so scared, but it worked, and now I’m so used to that that I want them to stay away and then come in exactly right when I need them—just for a little bit.

Time Out New York: It must make you stronger.
Sara Mearns:
Yeah! And it makes it exciting for them, too. Jon and I did Serenade on tour, and when we came offstage, he was like, “That was exciting and on the edge, but I kinda liked it,” and was like, “Yeah! That’s what I’m talking about.” [Laughs] Love it. So I guess on the edge and exciting—that’s what I like.

Time Out New York: What happened to your back?
Sara Mearns:
Basically, I wasn’t taking enough time to take care of my body in the rehearsal period. I was doing an insane amount of work and rehearsals, and I didn’t stop to take a breath. I just kept going, and that was the worst mistake I could have made. It’s weird for me to say that I’m glad it happened, because I missed out on a lot, but it changed my whole outlook on my career, on my body, on how I work, on taking time outside of ballet and outside of the company to enjoy myself and to appreciate what I have around me, and what I have in my life. It changed everything. So I strained my back, and it was coming from everywhere else being tight: my hips, my psoas, my whatever. We were trying to find something that was specifically wrong, and we could not find it. I went to five or six doctors, did all the tests, had these horrible, horrible injections, and that didn’t work. Basically, I stopped trying to figure it out and just let it go and started enjoying my life. I had something planned every single night to go and do, and then I finally mellowed out. And I did find a very good sports therapist–chiropractor that I go to once a week now, and that was a huge turning point. He helped me evaluate my body and told me a few specific things that I have to do every day to make sure that none of this happens again. I haven’t had any problems since.

Time Out New York: What do you have to do every day?
Sara Mearns:
Before I go to bed at night, five minutes after I wake up in the morning, two or three times during the day I have to stretch in four different ways on each leg. It stretches my psoas, it stretches out my hips and that’s all connected to my scoliosis in my back that’s pulling on my muscles in my back in my ribs. So if I do not do those stretches, everything will go right back again. It will cramp back up because of the extreme positions I can go to and how hard and how physical I am when I work. So I have to do those things. I have to stretch. I was having a conversation with somebody recently—I see other dancers, and I’m just like, “How do they come in and not have to stretch? Do they do it at home? Do they ever?” I can’t move in the morning without at least a half an hour of prepping my body. Everybody’s different. You figure out where your weak points are and where you have to make sure it’s okay before you can start. So I do that at least four times a day. But it’s fine, because I know that when I do that I will be okay. I feel like crap when I don’t do it.

Time Out New York: Why didn’t the other doctors know what to do?
Sara Mearns:
Well, we were going to a neurologist, to a pain-management doctor, to a back specialist; we were looking for specific things on the X-rays and the MRIs and the CAT scans. Nothing was showing up. It has to do with how my body is evolving with the amount of dancing that I’m doing. My scoliosis. What gets tight the fastest, and what I have to release in order for my back to be able to relax. The guy that I go to knows anatomy so well, and he’s worked with so many athletes for so long—immediately, I started explaining to him what was wrong, and he was like, “Don’t worry. I’ll fix it.” It’s not that he’s so confident in himself; he just knows anatomy. He’s a therapist; he’s just a P.T. guy, but all these baseball and football and basketball teams pay him to work with all of their players. He’s worked with the Yankees. It’s like, I think I’m in good hands. [Laughs] They pay him the big bucks to keep their guys on the field.

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