Only a handful of ballet dancers make it down the path from apprentice to principal, and for each one, the journey is different. That's certainly the case with New York City Ballet's three newest female principal dancers. In January 2005, Ashley Bouder, Megan Fairchild, and Janie Taylor were all promoted to the top rank. Their stories, however, are as completely different as their dancing styles.
As a child, Ashley Bouder knew exactly what she wanted to be when she grew up. At age eight she decided she was bound for New York City Ballet. "It's where I wanted to be," she says with certainty. "It was a goal. I wanted to be a principal."
It helped that her mother had been a dancer and that her former teacher at the Central Pennsylvania Youth Ballet, Marcia Dale Weary, is a reliable feeder into the New York talent pool. What really mattered, though, was talent. And at an early age, Ms. Bouder exhibited plenty, says Sean Lavery, assistant to NYCB's Ballet Master in Chief, who saw her dance when she was in her early teens.
"It was a production of A Midsummer Night's Dream, and she was the lead butterfly," he recalls. "I saw this girl do a jump that was bigger than most men do. I thought, 'Who is that?' She can't help herself but to do things full out."
Ms. Bouder joined the Company's corps de ballet in October 2000, and by February 2004, she was made a soloist. What set her apart was a mega-watt personality on stage. Her dancing is bold and aggressive, but always tempered by artistry and musicality. She's an energetic dancer, and not just on stage. "She never wastes a rehearsal. She never wastes a class," says Mr. Lavery.
It was entirely fitting that such a super-charged dancer would be cast in the lead role of Firebird. And the story of her learning the ballet at the last minute is now legendary. "I had just a couple of hours," she says of being cast in the ballet when another dancer was injured. "When they tell you you're on, you have to do it. You can't freak out."
What is it about this Company that makes it all so worthwhile? "It's the repertory and the number of ballets that we get to dance," she says, adding that her favorites are Ballo della Regina and‹appropriately‹Firebird.
Ms. Bouder's intensity paid off, and just a year after making soloist, she was promoted to principal. She got the news at the same time that her partner in that evening's performance, Stephen Hanna, was also promoted to the top rank. "Peter Martins told us five minutes before we went out for Octet," she recalls. "We ran to call our parents and left them quick messages. I was crying and trying to keep my make-up on."
Becoming a principal has meant changing her perspective slightly. "You really have to look and dance and behave like a principal. You can't afford to have an off day." But it hasn't changed her day-to-day life. When she set her course at age eight, she built her life around her goal: "I changed my lifestyle then."
A native of Salt Lake City, Megan Fairchild came up through the NYCB system quickly, too. In October 2002 she joined the corps de ballet. She was promoted to soloist in February 2004 and made principal a year later. But for Ms. Fairchild, success just seemed to happen. Did she anticipate it or plan on it? "No way. I never thought I would be here," she says. "I worked hard, but I thought I would be happy just to be dancing."
Now, however, she's getting accustomed to dancing at the top: "I feel more responsibility, but also more freedom."
Classical to the core, Ms. Fairchild brings a sense of buoyancy and sweetness to the stage. Her spirited style and solid technique serve her well in her favorite ballets, which include Divertimento from "Le Baiser de la Fée" and Valse Fantaisie. Her acting ability and stamina carried her through an impressive debut in the full-length Coppélia. But she admits to getting a few butterflies before some ballets. "I get really nervous before Theme and Variations [the final movement of Tschaikovsky Suite No. 3]. It's a big important ballet, so classical and formal," she says. "But when I'm in it, I love it."
Ms. Fairchild is often paired with fellow principal Joaquin De Luz for pas de deux. Similar in height and showmanship, these two have proved to be a delight to watch. Mr. De Luz joined the Company at about the same time that Ms. Fairchild started dancing lead roles, which allowed them to progress together. "It's relaxed and fun. We learned The Nutcracker pas de deux together," she says.
Ballet mistress Sara Leland confirms that the two are a good on-stage match. "It's the ideal pairing. They're just perfect for each other," she says.
Ms. Fairchild, who lives in Brooklyn with her boyfriend and their basset hound, Norman, hopes to add more Balanchine works to her repertory, especially Duo Concertant. Outside of dance, she's working toward a college degree by taking classes through Fordham University. "It's a goal of mine. I'm definitely going to make that happen," she says. Considering how far she has come already, that sounds like a guarantee.
For Janie Taylor, the promotion to principal was a sweet reward for years of hard work. This bewitching dancer joined the corps de ballet in July 1998 and became a soloist in February 2001. Spending a few years at the soloist level gave Ms. Taylor time to develop her presence on stage. She became known for her razor-sharp legwork, quick style, and elusive character. And her promotion to principal in January 2005 confirmed that her unusual mix of abilities was highly valuable. "You always dream of this happening. But you just never know," she says.
Ms. Taylor has a range of strengths that make her appealing in a wide variety of ballets. "There's a freedom that she has, and a hunger to cover space," says Mr. Lavery. Her ability to shoot through tricky choreography makes her a natural in many works by Peter Martins, notably Hallelujah Junction and Morgen. Her distant, cool aura makes her an intriguing presence in Balanchine ballets like Serenade and Walpurgisnacht Ballet. And the clarity of her technique makes her just right for her favorites: "I like Balanchine's black-and-white ballets. I like watching them. Music is a big part of why I love dancing, especially Stravinsky," she says, noting that she hopes to dance Stravinsky Violin Concerto.
Ms. Taylor, who grew up in Houston and New Orleans, was athletic as a child. "I did every sport‹I was very active." But ballet was her real love, and it brought her to New York. She came to the summer program at the School of American Ballet (NYCB's official school) at age 15, and got a taste of the City Ballet style. "When I saw City Ballet perform for the first time, I really wanted to become part of that," she says. She ended up in SAB for two years, which can be tough on kids who are far from home, but not for Ms. Taylor. "I stayed in the dorms, and it was fun for me. I didn't get homesick."
Now a resident of Manhattan's Upper West Side, Ms. Taylor is a frequent museum-goer and loves film. But what she really loves is ballet. "It's too hard to do it if you don't love it."
Pia Catton is a columnist and editor at The New York Sun.