The most terrifying experience I have ever had on stage happened during a performance of New York City Ballet's The Sleeping Beauty. But I will tell that story later.
First I will explain my long history with the ballet. In 1991, I was a young corps member when Peter Martins announced that City Ballet would be mounting its own production of The Sleeping Beauty. We were all very excited to be a part of something so huge from the very beginning; the girls, especially, knew that there would be a lot of dancing for them and a lot of opportunities for special parts. Which was definitely the case for me: I can't even really remember when I did which parts because all the separate runs of the ballet have become one long experience in my memory. Since the premiere, I have danced the roles of Lilac Attendants, Vision Scene corps, Garland Dance, Awakening Friends, Act One Friends, Generosity Fairy, Tenderness Fairy, Courage Fairy, Emerald Jewel, Princess Florine, and Aurora. I understudied the Ruby Jewel, Diamond Jewel, and the Lilac Fairy, but never danced them. (Of course, the one part that I was hoping for, the cat in Puss and Boots, never happened. I so wanted to wear a tutu with a tail on it.)
Now to the terror. When I found out I was to dance the role of Princess Aurora, I was of course ecstatic — and a little daunted. It was my first experience dancing the principal part in a full-length ballet, and I wasn't sure that I would be able to survive. Because of the streamlined nature of the choreography in our production of The Sleeping Beauty, there is not much rest for Aurora. The role is physically and technically very taxing, and over the years I had seen many ballerinas attempt the part with various degrees of courage and fear. I had no idea how I was going to react to dancing the role myself. And the very first entrance is the most nerve-wracking of all: not only does the ballerina have to run down a flight of stairs wearing hard, slippery pointe shoes and a tutu that blocks her view of the floor, but she then also has to dance a very quick and demanding solo and proceed directly into the Rose Adagio.
For those who may not know, the Rose Adagio is the moment in the ballet when Aurora meets her four potential suitors. This dance has been made famous by the fact that at the beginning and end of the adagio, the ballerina balances on one leg, on pointe, supported only briefly by each suitor in turn; in between each partner, she raises her arms over her head to fifth position, keeping her balance. And thanks to that tricky entrance, instead of feeling calm and relaxed for those history-laden balances, she is tired, breathless, frazzled, and panicked.
Or at least I was, that first time. I looked into my four cavaliers' faces, seeing four friends: Christopher Wheeldon, Edwaard Liang, Henry Seth, and my future husband, James Fayette. They also looked a little scared, unfortunately. It is a high-pressure part for the men because they are dealing with a freaked-out ballerina, and no one wants to be the guy with whom disaster strikes. I stood in tendu facing my cavalier, took his hand and stepped into attitude, and felt time stop. The entire audience leaned forward for this oh-so-famous moment. Everyone's smiles on stage seemed to become fixed as they focused on me and wondered if I would succeed. People backstage ran to the wings and sat on each other's shoulders saying loudly, "Will she be able to do it?" The conductor looked up at me with curious expectancy. The stagehand in charge of the spotlight turned the strength up to the very brightest it would go. I think I heard someone gasp — I suppose it might have been me.
And I thought to myself, "What would happen if I just didn't let go of this hand right now?" I seriously contemplated keeping a tight grip on my first cavalier and just staying there for the entire allotted music. But there was of course no getting around it: I would have to let go in front of all those people and deal with the consequences. So I extracted my fingernails from that poor man's palm and raised my right arm up to meet my left in fifth position. Happily, there was instantly another hand waiting for me when I quickly brought my hand back down again. Disaster was averted. In fact, disaster was kept at bay all eight times I had to let go, and I was able to continue the performance with my dignity intact. It ended up being a wonderful, gratifying experience, and I felt honored to be able to dance that role in such a beautiful, magical production.
Yes, it was terrifying. But in the end, I can say that the terror was completely worth it.
Jenifer Ringer is a principal dancer at New York City Ballet, which she joined in 1990. She first danced the role of Aurora in the 2000 spring season.
New York City Ballet will perform The Sleeping Beauty from January 3-14. Please visit www.nycballet.com for more information.