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Tall order

At 5'9", Teresa Reichlen seems to fit the Balanchine ideal, but she's much happier "in the background"

Teresa Reichlen is barely legal, but when you're a ballerina, 21 is prime time. At 5'9", she towers over most of the dancers at New York City Ballet, where she is currently a soloist. Still, Reichlen's height is not the only reason she has always been impossible to miss, even while standing in the last row of the corps. While it's a fallacy that George Balanchine preferred only long-limbed, swan-necked dancers with small heads and willowy bodies (the only real uniformity came in the daring way they moved), Reichlen could be a picture from that stereotypical handbook. Sexy and slightly distant, she is a true Balanchine dancer whose appearances in ballets such as Agon and Rubies (her favorite role) have been spellbinding. This month, she tackles the Sugarplum Fairy.

Reichlen, who attends Barnard College and is known as Tess, joined NYCB in 2001 and was named a soloist in 2005. In between rehearsals at the New York State Theater, she discussed her career, showing that she has little in common with the goddess figure she projects onstage. In fact, it's hard to find a dancer as laid-back as Reichlen. Flashing a quick smile, she blurts, "I try to be."

Time Out New York: You became an apprentice with NYCB when you were only 16. What was that adjustment like?

Teresa Reichlen: It was very fast. Peter [Martins] needed girls for The Nutcracker, and I performed in every show. I did all of the Flowers and a cast of Snow and Parents. It's a lot to get thrown into, but I actually love being busy with dance. I guess the most stressful part was going from doing every show of Nutcracker to having a lighter schedule, and lots and lots of understudying. You have to learn how to pick up choreography quickly. You watch, you see what's happening around you, and you learn how the company works.

TONY: Does it seem like it took a while for you to get cast in more-prominent parts?

TR: A little bit, but it's different for everyone. In retrospect, I'm glad about the way it happened to me. You want it all right away, but I wasn't ready. I know I wouldn't have looked my best out there. I'm not really a natural performer—I needed a couple of years to get used to stuff and to just watch people.

TONY: How are you not a natural performer?

TR: I feel like I have to really work to emote—that's not something that comes easily. Some people just like to get onstage and show off.

TONY: But it's also nice how impassive you can be—

TR: But that's not good for everything. I used to always just concentrate on my legs. I never thought about my upper body. No matter how many times people tell you that 90 percent of the audience watches from the waist up, you don't want to believe that. [Laughs] It took me a while to realize that I loved all of my favorite dancers because they had everything: beautiful arms and a head.

TONY: Do you feel at ease as the Sugarplum Fairy?

TR: No! It's still new. There's a lot of footwork and partnering, which I rarely do. I always do the tall-girl parts and this isn't a stereotypical tall-girl part. I'm definitely not comfortable with it yet.

TONY: What quality do you want to bring to it?

TR: I want to say...maturity? Over the past couple of years, I've been described as this new, young dancer—I'd like to not look young as Sugarplum. I can only think of the word grand. This is my first big lead. I don't know that I've ever been the lead lead. I just want to live up to that title.

TONY: Is there a lot of weight to being a young dancer and getting so much attention?

TR: There is a lot of pressure. I don't want to get overwhelmed, and I don't want to be overhyped. You can never live up to that, and you see it around you—people get all this attention, and then something happens and it doesn't work out. I'd rather be in the background. I don't like to call too much attention to myself.

TONY: What are your expectations for yourself?

TR: I just want to be happy dancing. I don't ever want to get to the point where I resent it or get too caught up in the drama. That's a big goal I have for myself: not to get consumed by ballet. To keep a level head.

TONY: Is that part of the reason why you go to school?

TR: Partly, but also because I know I can't dance forever. I love dancing, but I want to do other things, too. And school is good—I don't just sit at home and think about ballet.

TONY: What are you studying?

TR: Whatever fits my schedule. Right now, I'm taking biology and statistics. I like this semester—it's the first time I've gotten to take a class that I actually wanted to take, which is really nice. I'm hoping to go on in biology. But I've also taken English classes and sociology, and I even took a dance criticism course with [critic] Mindy Aloff. That was very interesting and so different than what I thought it was going to be.

TONY: How so?

TR: It's hard to be a dancer and separate yourself to really look at a performance. I actually think it helped my dancing in the long run. I could finally see myself from the audience's point of view. Before, I knew who I liked, but I didn't know particularly why, and the class helped me to figure that out and, in turn, made me realize what I wanted to work on.

TONY: What's important to you in a dancer?

TR: Performance quality. We watched a lot of tapes. There are people who have amazing technique in class but then they go out onstage and they're doing everything perfectly but they might be kind of boring. For one assignment, we watched four different versions of Giselle and had to say which one we liked and why. It opened my eyes.

New York City Ballet performs at the New York State Theater through February 26.