The new kid on the block
ABT's Cory Stearns makes a huge leap this season-for starters: Conrad.
Thu May 22 2008
Photograph: Samuel Zakuto
Ballet can be like baseball: As any dancer in the corps de ballet knows, you have to be ready to jump off the bench. At American Ballet Theatre, Cory Stearns, 22, is the latest to find himself in that situation. The Long Island native, gorgeous in a storybook-hero kind of way, makes his debut as the dashing Conrad in Le Corsaire on the afternoon of Saturday 24. “Cory has a lot on his plate,” says Susan Jones, a ballet master with the company. “He has a lot of strength, but he’s still finding out about where it is and when he can call on it. He’s going to be fine with it—more than fine—but I hope that he can just make that steady progression, which he seems to be doing. It’s quite exciting.” Stearns, who trained with Valia Seiskaya before relocating to London’s Royal Ballet School—where he not only perfected his technique but also appeared in a Kylie Minogue video—spoke about his highly anticipated ABT season.
[Ed's note: This story has been expanded with online bonus content.]
Who decided you would be a dancer?
Originally, it was my mother. My family was very athletic, and I think she wanted the kids to be balanced; she didn’t want us to be jocks. She wanted us to have musicality and grace, so she put us into dance when we were very young. I think I was three when I started creative movement at a local church. It wasn’t serious or anything. When I was five, she wanted me to train more seriously, so I went to Seiskaya Ballet. There were a few times when I wanted to quit, and other family members were encouraging me to do sports—soccer and tennis and that kind of thing, and I did want to do that, but she was very strategic in her offers to allow me to quit. She’d say, “Just wait, just wait.” Then, after a performance, she’d say, “Do you want to quit now?” [Laughs] Finally, I was really pushing to stop when she said, “You’ve never tried a summer program.” So that winter, I auditioned for different programs, and I got into a six-week program in Pittsburgh; that was my first serious experience with other male dancers. We had variations classes. It was also the first time I saw the video ABT Now. It was the first time I found a male dancer that I really looked up to because I was pretty much the only one in my school. Also, in Pittsburgh, I had a big crush on this girl—that was just a great summer. But the video showed me how much further I had to go. Whenever I do something, I need to have a goal, a standard to reach. Everyone sees a sport or an art but a lot of them don’t understand why it’s so difficult or what makes it beautiful. I try to find that with whatever I do, and I hadn’t found that until I went to Pittsburgh.
Who was the dancer you saw in ABT Now?
It was José Manuel Carreño doing Black Swan. After that, I would come to New York and take class at Steps and José was there a few times. That was an amazing experience. And now I’m in the company with him; it’s cool. I know him more personally. It’s funny how that works.
Is Carreño dancing the Slave in your performance of Le Corsaire?
No, Angel Corella is. That would have been freaky. But I have a rapport with Angel now, too, so I’m happy. That’s my life story. [Laughs]
Are your brother and sister older? And did they continue with dancing?
They are older. My brother—I’m not sure why he quit. I think he had a hard time. I had a hard time in school with friends. Big time.
People made fun of you because of ballet?
Yes. At my elementary school there was no problem, because I went to a school from K through sixth grade of, on average, 14 people in a class. There was no criticism. Seventh through ninth grades were rough. And in tenth grade, there was a huge switch. Out of nowhere, everybody started respecting what I did.
My school principal called me in and said, ‘We’re having this program where some kids in school that do extracurricular things are going to speak in the gymnasium.” Whether or not to do it was a big decision for me. I had received a lot of criticism for dancing. I said, “I can’t be embarrassed for what I do if I’m going to do it for the rest of my life, and there’s nothing embarrassing about it.” I remember seeing all those people in the gym and feeling very insecure about speaking about ballet as a male. But after I did it, everybody was so interested. We spoke to different classes during the day and during one period I was talking about how I had gotten into these summer programs where we danced for seven or eight hours a day, and that there was a possibility that I was going to move to London the next year. And my gym teacher, a very charismatic, big guy who used to tease me too a little bit about ballet, stood up and said, “I’d just like to say that Cory is one of the best athletes in the school. I know he’s going to go really far with this, and I’m so proud of him and I’d like to congratulate him and I give him a rough time because I want him to join the tennis team, but I know this is going to be something he’ll take who knows how far.” It really touched me. People who had really given me the hardest time in my class were obviously kind of abashed. They were like, “I didn’t realize that you took it so seriously.” They were embarrassed that they had given me such a hard time for all those years, and they apologized. They said, “That’s really great…you’re going to London?”
That’s the magic word: You’re getting out of here?
Exactly. You’re leaving our little town? If I had left in ninth grade and everybody had given me a hard time and I hadn’t really turned everybody’s opinion around, that would have been sad. It was nice to leave on that high note.
You said that people gave you a hard time. Did you get into fights?
I never got in one fight, but very close. People threatened that they were going to beat me up. I got pushed against the locker a couple of times. I got into a lot of fights with my brother, but never people at school. If you got into a fight, it was bad; you got suspension, and my parents were really strict about that.
You did move to London in 2001 after winning a scholarship to study at the Royal Ballet School. It was through the Youth America Grand Prix competition?
I did and that was lucky because I did terrible in that competition. I did pretty well in the regionals in Connecticut, and then I got to the semifinals in New York. I did well in my contemporary solo; that’s when I found out I got the scholarship to Royal. And then I went out and did Black Swan—performing that because of José—and I choked onstage. I wasn’t ready. I did terribly. I didn’t perform it all, and I didn’t get into the finals. I was distraught after that. I was crying, and I remember getting changed and leaving my dressing room and going out into the hallway. I saw my parents and my dad goes, “Cory!,” and I ran away from him because I was so embarrassed.
Did you forget the steps? What does an experience like that teach you?
I didn’t forget the steps. When you perform you need control. Different people get different kinds of nerves and I get a lot of nerves. At that time, I was still trying to find a way to control them. I was asking different people what I should do. I don’t think you should do that as a dancer—I think you need to find it yourself. Some people say, “Take deep breaths and don’t watch the people that perform before you,” and other people say, “Make sure you’re not doing it for yourself—do it for someone else and then it’s okay, because then you can just enjoy what you’re doing.” And none of that is true. You want to do well, obviously; I find now that I just understand that I’ve been doing it in the rehearsal, and I can do it and when I go out onstage. I just have to quell that emotion, that electricity. Because if I let it get the best of me… At the YAGP, the problem was that I got off the music. I was ahead of it. I wasn’t listening and I wasn’t looking at the audience at all, and so when I went to my last double tour down the center and I was off my leg. I just wanted to be offstage. As soon as you think that, it’s over. I think that was the last performance I had before I went to London.
What was the training like at your school in Long Island?
It encouraged individual focus. At ballet schools, people put their focus on you; they’re so meticulous about the work you do. It wasn’t like that with my teacher, Valia Seiskaya. Class wasn’t so much about placement and how you worked the feet and your port de bras; it was more about your approach to dancing in general, and that’s what she taught me the most. The strength of approach: When you go for it, you go for it. She was into turns and jumps. She wanted me to be masculine. She never said that, but it was just the way she trained me. I formed a very close relationship with Valia and her husband, who was very involved with the dancers as well. I would stay at their house during performances because I lived an hour away. She was funny—when she gave you a correction, it wasn’t like, “I think you should…” She’s Russian-Greek. She would say, “What is that? What is that?” I found it funny, and that’s why I developed this way of taking people with a grain of salt. Not taking them too seriously. She would yell at me. I would talk a lot in class; I would get kicked out of class. I don’t know—for some reason, I felt like I had to balance my work with social stuff. She would always yell at me for talking, and then there would be times when I wouldn’t be talking and she would yell at me and I’d get really upset. She really cared about me.
You moved to London to study at the Royal Ballet School. How old were you and how long did you stay?
I was 15. I stayed for three years. I had a great roommate who I was really fortunate to have had—he introduced me to everybody. I’m very independent. Even at that age, I was excited about going somewhere new. I lived in Wolf House; on one side was the guys and on one side was the girls. I had to learn to cook on my own. I lived on a very small budget. I had about £1,000 that I could spend for that entire year, so I would spend £13 a week on food, and at the same time I had a girlfriend so I had to take her out to dinner. And I’d live on pasta. But that was amazing. I find Europeans very different from Americans. There’s no small talk when you first get there. The day you meet, they don’t know you, they don’t really care; but when you do get to know them, it’s so deep. And the fact that a lot of people came from other countries and were in the same position that I was—all starting anew—we all connected and I felt like it was a family and I just had a great time. I learned a lot, and London is beautiful. I liked the teachers, the training was great. I remember the first day: I was doing a combination and I messed up and I cursed out loud in the middle of class and that is unheard of, especially in first year. My teacher stopped class and he said, “Mr. Stearns, we do not use that language in Royal Ballet School. Next time you do that, I’ll send you to the director’s office.” Everybody was looking at me; I was this American kid. That was pretty much the introduction I had to Royal. It was all about port de bras and your extremities, how you work your feet and cleanliness. That gave me a new perspective on dance and on how much work I had to do. I lost a lot of confidence when I went there, but I think it was good for me.
Did you experience a big cultural adjustment?
Everyone was very quiet and behaved in class, and I couldn’t stand that. I can’t stand it when people are too focused—and then, after class, they’d say, “I’m so boring.” In the beginning, I started getting into that focused mode, which was too much. Every day I went to class and I would expect something. I had high standards, and if I didn’t meet them, I’d get upset, and that got worse and worse. Two months into Royal Ballet School, I was doing pirouettes and I was messing up and my teacher said, “Do it again. Do it again.” That’s the way he was. Even if we messed up pliés, first plié, he would stop and we would have to do it again until we did it right. I remember I started tearing up in class and I thought, What am I doing? I can’t believe I’m crying in ballet class. And there were other dancers who would do that in class, but as soon as I did it, I said to myself, This is ridiculous. I cried because of dance. That’s when I changed, right there, and that’s when I started to relax.
Did they invite you to stay the entire three years from the start?
They have assessments every year in character, contemporary, classical and partnering. I passed. And we’d get reports every quarter and my reports all said the same thing: “Cory isn’t working hard enough.” My parents were concerned about that. It was a misunderstanding; I was working really hard. In the beginning, when I was getting all upset, I decided to change so that when I danced I would enjoy it. And sometimes they would purposely yell at you to get under your skin. They tried to annoy you. Some teachers did that and that bothered me. It’s almost disrespectful, and that’s the thing—some of the students would get treated really disrespectfully. I would ask other students, “How could you let them say that to you?” Even though they were adults and we were teenagers, I don’t think that matters. You’re always respectful to people who are respectful to you. I think I rubbed people the wrong way.
Why didn’t you stay in London and join the Royal Ballet?
Because of my girlfriend.
That’s funny. Well yay for her.
I’m glad too, actually. The Royal Ballet was interested in me, and I was really interested in the Royal Ballet, but my girlfriend wanted to leave London and join ABT. We auditioned in Boston and in Pittsburgh. Cynthia Harvey was training my girlfriend, who was one year above me; while she was at home at the time getting trained by Cynthia Harvey in a local studio—they lived very close to each other in Norwich, England—I continued in London. I would see Cynthia a lot, and she was very encouraging about ABT. I was taken into the Studio Company [now ABT II].
Did your girlfriend get into the company?
She did. She got an apprentice contract with the main company. But she didn’t come—she had eating disorders, and she didn’t feel like she was reliable. She quit dance and that really is sad because she was a beautiful dancer. She was in all the lead roles, and the Royal Ballet offered her a contract; she felt she couldn’t do it anymore. She felt like it was too unhealthy. So that was a big, life-changing experience, too. I dated her for three years, and I had never been subject to anything like that. I come from a very strong family and there was nobody in my family who was really ever sick, and actually I grew up Christian Scientist. [Laughs] Dating this girl was an eye-opener for me; it changed me in a good way. And then I came here and that was the end of the relationship, pretty much.
How did you like the Studio Company?
It was great. I joined for four months and then I went to the main company. But I went back to the Studio Company after six months.
Well, I was told that they felt I would improve more going back to the Studio Company. I didn’t have a great first six months here. I was told that sometimes I could come off as arrogant, and I’m really not at all. I’m just not insecure. So what I did when I came in was I purposely tried to hold back in everything—so when I’d go into rehearsal I’d stay out of the way, but because I did that I didn’t learn my work as well as I should have. So people thought that was arrogance, that I felt I was too good for the corps work and that was completely not it. I had a hard time coming into the main company at first; people thought I was lazy. I was trying to appear not arrogant. So it was a blessing to be put back in the Studio Company because I had a new perspective. I realized how different it was to perform with ABT. We went to California for a month, and that was so exciting; it was when Ethan Stiefel was starting Ballet Pacifica and we did The Nutcracker with them. When I got back in the main company, I took a completely different approach: as soon as I got a part, I learned it as fast as I could. I would do my roles fine onstage and that’s really what it is to be in a company: When you start dancing with your peers and they start respecting you.
How long have you been working on Conrad in Le Corsaire?
Not very long. Irina Kolpakova told me that I was probably doing it. I had been rehearsing with Veronica Part—for her sake, because Marcelo Gomes was out, but I hadn’t learned any solos. I’m working with Kevin McKenzie, which is amazing. He’s been working with me on how to hold myself. The way I have dealt with my nerves is to pull back. So when I’m onstage, I’d be in myself, thinking of what I had to do—which, surprisingly, everybody notices. [Laughs] So you can’t do that. Transitions are the hardest part of maintaining that energy when I’m deadly tired. Instead of just doing the jump, the mind, the walk has to be out, no matter how tired I am. So that’s going to be my goal—to maintain that energy. Kevin has been helping me with that. Angel actually helped me with that too when I worked with him last year in Spain. He’s all about energy when he dances. That’s my biggest thing right now.
What are you thinking about your approach to the character? Are you mostly working with McKenzie?
Mostly—and a little bit with Irina. Kevin has described Conrad—he told me to watch Ben-Hur, I think to see how to portray a masculine man. How he walks around so confident—and everything is mine: These are all my friends, these are all my pirates and they’ll do whatever I tell them to do. And this is my girl and she likes me, of course, because every girl does. I have to have that kind of confidence. And sometimes when I try to be romantic in my work, I get soft; I have to maintain strength even with the girl, so I’m working on that with Irina. I’m so lucky. She’s so smart about her work, and when we’re working together it’s so complex. We’re not just doing it.
How do you improve your stamina?
People have recommended elliptical trainer, and I’ll probably try that, but stamina has always been kind of an issue for me. Usually by the time I perform the piece, I’m up to par. I go to the gym every day, but I usually lift weights. For instance, I did the opening for the second time only yesterday, and I got through it. I was dying by the end of it and I was on the floor panting, but I got through it. So that was a huge improvement. I couldn’t get through it before. The next time it should get better, until I’m to the point where it still kills me but I can do it and walk away from it. I usually just try to build the stamina through dance.
What else are you dancing this season?
I’m doing Etudes. There’s a chance I’m doing Espada [in Don Quixote]. I’m doing David Hallberg’s role in the Twyla Tharp piece.
It’s a huge season for you isn’t it?
Yeah, it’s a big season.
Not to make you nervous, but are you nervous?
Yeah. Well, when I talk about it with you I actually get nervous about Conrad because I’m not ready yet. But when I think about it on my own sometimes, I get really excited. I think everybody at ABT has done lead roles at their schools; I did a lot of lead roles when I was at the Royal. In my second year, I did the lead male role in the final ballet at the opera house—I hated ballet before I went onstage. I was so nervous I couldn’t even believe it. It is such a beautiful theater. Oh man, I was so nervous for that, but I did it and it went okay. That was a big thing for me. I still have time. I think I’ll be okay.
What do you want out of your dancing career?
[Laughs] Satisfaction. I guess what I get out of it right now… [Pauses] Art has so much depth. I guess I’m trying to find that in myself. I’m 22, and I’m in ABT, but I’m not even close to finding it. I want to get to a point where I feel like an artist, not just a dancer who can do steps correctly. I feel when Julie Kent dances, she finds something so deep inside of herself and brings it out. Everything is so coordinated and harmonious, and it’s not just evident in the way she works, it’s also what she gives to her partner. That’s what I want. I guess I don’t really think about what I’m getting out of it; I’m learning about the art itself, and that’s enough.
Do you think you’re in the right company?
I do now. I almost left last year. I almost went to Spain with Angel Corella’s company. I wasn’t upset that I wasn’t being given attention. I was upset because at 21 or 22, I don’t really have that long left as a ballet dancer, and I wondered if I was wasting time. I asked Kevin, “Do you think I should stay, or would I improve more if I left and started working on roles right now?” I didn’t ask, “What are your plans for me?” He said, “When I was in the Joffrey, I was doing principal roles; I came here and couldn’t do a principal role onstage for two years. ABT is different than any other stage. You could be doing principal roles in Spain, but that doesn’t necessarily mean you’ve reached that pinnacle of performing at the Met.” He also told me, “Before you know it, you’re onstage in one of those roles and you look back and you say, ‘Oh my God, I can’t believe how fast time has flown.’ So you better enjoy the journey to that point. I know it’s slow—but all this time off you have right now is time you might be wishing you had more of when you’re onstage and you have to do a huge role in front of 3,000 people.” He’s right. I felt like I had a lot of journey to go and that becomes tedious of course, but now I’m at that point where I’m learning these roles—and it’s already almost the Met season. I might have been in Spain. I’m so glad I stayed.
Your bio has all the usual information, but there is something a little extra special that caught my eye: Were you in the Kylie Minogue video for her song “Chocolate”?
I was in my third year in London and Kylie’s agent had called the Royal Ballet School, because she needed a partner. I think they called the Royal Ballet first, but Monica Mason wouldn’t let anybody go because they needed the dancer for an entire week. I remember being in class when my teacher came up to me and said, “Kylie Minogue needs a partner for a music video, but you’ll miss a week of rehearsals. Is that okay?” [Laughs] I said, “That’s okay.” I finished class, and he sent me to see them. I already thought I had it, but it was actually an audition, and I was asked to do some pas de bourrée-assemblés and penché and pirouettes, and he said, “You definitely fit the role—we’re not going to pay you very much, just want to let you know,” and I said, “That’s fine, this is icing on the cake for me just to do this video. I don’t care about the pay.” He said, “We’ll call you; the problem is that Kylie doesn’t want someone under 25”—because the pas de deux was supposed to be sensual. I was 18. They called me that night and said, Come to this gym in Kensington the next day and I went to this ridiculously luxurious gym—it was so nice and I walked in and Kylie was so nice and I started rehearsing that day. It was not very difficult; slightly hard, but really fun. We did 23 takes.
American Ballet Theatre performs at the Metropolitan Opera House through Saturday, Jul 12.