20 Years, 70 Roles and Several Injuries Later, a Star Ballerina Bids Farewell to the Spotlight

News   20 Years, 70 Roles and Several Injuries Later, a Star Ballerina Bids Farewell to the Spotlight
 
As she announces her retirement from professional ballet, Jennie Somogyi looks back on her years of dance, creating new and original roles while surviving numerous injuries.

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A highlight of last spring's Black & White Festival at New York City Ballet was the return of Principal Dancer Jennie Somogyi in George Balanchine's Episodes. More than a year and a half earlier, Ms. Somogyi ripped a tendon in her left foot during a performance of Peter Martins' Swan Lake, the same tendon she'd torn almost a decade earlier. Once was bad, but twice? Catastrophic, a near-certain career-ender for a 36-year-old dancer. But after a grueling surgery and months of physical therapy, Ms. Somogyi was back on stage in her black leotard, responding to Anton von Webern's astringent score with assurance and abandon.

Ms. Somogyi's comeback was all the more remarkable due to the magnitude of her surgery. Facing an uncertain prognosis with conventional surgery, Ms. Somogyi opted for a donor transplant, a delicate procedure rarely performed on feet. Yes, she'd be able to walk and lead a normal life, her surgeon assured her, but he couldn't guarantee that she'd ever dance again professionally. But not only did she command the stage, she did it six months earlier than she expected. "Just to say I did this was a huge accomplishment for me," Ms. Somogyi said, during a wide-ranging chat.

Somogyi in George Balanchine’s <i>Serenade</i>
Somogyi in George Balanchine’s Serenade Photo by Paul Kolnik

Shortly after the performance, Ms. Somogyi made the decision to retire. On Oct. 11, she will close her celebrated career with New York City Ballet, begun on the same stage at age nine as Marie in George Balanchine's The Nutcracker. She will perform Balanchine's Liebeslieder Waltzer, a favorite ballet of hers that mirrors a dancer's career. "You're a person, then you become a spirit, then you go back to being a person," she explains. "How fitting!"

Widely praised for the clarity, musicality, and dramatic intensity of her dancing, Ms. Somogyi distinguished herself early in her 21-year career as a dancer of breathtaking versatility, moving seamlessly from the voluptuous romanticism of Balanchine's Serenade to the textbook classicism of the Lilac Fairy in Martins' Sleeping Beauty to the edgy acrobatics of Ulysses Dove's Red Angels. She's danced more than 70 roles in her career-long repertory, including those she originated for such choreographers as Peter Martins, Benjamin Millepied, Jerome Robbins, Susan Stroman and Christopher Wheeldon. Looking back, she counts Odette/Odile in Martins' Swan Lake and the Novice in The Cage, Jerome Robbins' killer insect ballet, among of her favorites. "I've always loved dancing roles where I'm not human," she says.

"I'm a really nervous performer, so I loved the freedom those roles gave me to make them anything I wanted them to be."

Somogyi in Ulysses Dove’s <i>Red Angels</i>
Somogyi in Ulysses Dove’s Red Angels Photo by Paul Kolnik

Ms. Somogyi, a native of Easton, PA, discovered ballet by chance when she was six. A talented gymnast, she was told to take ballet to help with her floor routines. "I couldn't stop dancing," she recalls. Her grandmother had a ballet-loving friend who suggested Ms. Somogyi study in New York, paid for her lessons with the Russian ballerina Nina Youskevitch, and personally drove her 140 miles round-trip to every class. At the friend's encouragement, Ms. Somogyi auditioned for the School of American Ballet and received a full scholarship at age eight. At 14, during an SAB Workshop performance, she sailed through the formidable lead in Balanchine's Allegro Brilliante. A year later, she became an apprentice with NYCB. By 23, she was a Principal Dancer.

"A blur" is how Ms. Somogyi describes her first 11 years in the Company. A fast learner willing to tackle anything, her repertory grew literally by leaps and bounds. "Most of the ballets in my repertory were amassed in those years. I could do the hard stuff, so I was the one they could put in," she says.

It all came crashing down at age 26 when she tore the tendon in her left foot for the first time during a 2004 performance of Balanchine's Tschaikovsky Piano Concerto No. 2. Between surgery and physical therapy, she was out for a year and five months, and she returned to an altered artistic reality. "I did the first movement of Western Symphony, and my foot would be throbbing," she says.

Thus began a system of trial and error as Ms. Somogyi figured out which ballets she could continue to perform. "It was like having a different body at 28. I had to learn to get myself to look the same but use my body differently," she says.

Somogyi as Marie in <i>George Balanchine’s The Nutcracker</i>
Somogyi as Marie in George Balanchine’s The Nutcracker Photo by Paul Kolnik

Part of the solution came in her "softer rep," as she puts it, ballets with fewer jumps and a pruned back schedule. This new phase presented Ms. Somogyi an opportunity to delve deeper into her ballets, think hard about what she was dancing, and lead a more balanced life. Married at 23, she had a baby girl at 30. She faced other setbacks, including an injury to her right Achilles tendon during a performance of Wheeldon's Polyphonia in January 2012.

Looking back on her long, luminous career, Ms. Somogyi says she is comfortable with her decision to leave the stage. "I look at my daughter and the rest of my life, and I don't think I can risk dancing any longer," she says. "I did so much before I got hurt the first time. I danced three or four ballets a night. I traveled all over the world. I feel like I did it all."

Ms. Somogyi's second act awaits. If she stays in ballet she'd like to try coaching. But she may take her life in a different direction, perhaps with another baby. Right now she's looking forward to a clean calendar and sleeping in past 6 AM which is when she gets up to catch the bus from Pennsylvania to New York for Company class. "I got into the Company when I was 15, so I'm not checking out too early," she says with a laugh. "I put my time in. I'm ready."

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