You always remember your first time. For me, it was when the elevator doors opened onto the old ABT studios on West 61st Street one summer in the mid 1970s. There, boldly emblazoned on the wall overhead, were three feet tall letters that spelled out the name American Ballet Theatre.
As a young dance student growing up in Chicago, my only connection to that name had been as an audience member, peering out of the darkness at the magical events unfolding onstage. Yet there I was, a teenager new to New York City, gazing up at a name that had even then become iconic for me. That moment is forever etched in my memory; it was when I first realized that perhaps my dreams were within reach, and that the seemingly impossible was indeed possible.
Little did I know at the time that ABT would become my home for the next 20 years. Only about 1,000 dancers have likewise fulfilled their dreams with Ballet Theatre in its 67 years, and this Memorial Day weekend, the company is paying tribute to those artists. With the prospect of seeing so many of my colleagues from those years, I caught up with a few of them in advance of our reunion, both to reminisce, as well as to attempt to glean the essence of what makes the Ballet Theatre experience so distinctive.
The memories that accumulate over two decades of life within the company possess a certain resonance that remains long after you've taken your final curtain call. And saying farewell to a vocation which is so life-defining can leave one feeling more than a little disconcerted. Charles Dickens, in his preface to David Copperfield, wrote: "It would concern the reader little, perhaps, to know how sorrowfully the pen is laid down at the close of a two-year's imaginative task; or how the Author feels as if he were dismissing some portion of himself into the shadowy world ..." Can you imagine the feeling after 20 years?
The first performance I returned to as an audience member was Don Quixote, and I remember feeling a bit peeved that the company could actually perform the ballet without me flirting with Kitri in the first scene as I had for virtually every performance of my tenure. It's heady stuff being out there on the Met stage, and it takes quite an adjustment to feel comfortable watching rather than doing.
Former soloist Robert Wallace, now a financial adviser in London and a father of three, says he's seen the company "a thousand times" since he left, adding, "It's amazing, because the muscle memory is still there. I find myself doing all the steps right there in my seat." Cynthia Harvey, who lives in England with her husband and son, remarked, "I tend to be critical because I'm a teacher and coach now, but mostly I just say, 'Gosh! I wish I could have done that!'"
There is a kind of grace bestowed upon dancers, an innate emotional transparency that they have at their disposal, which they are mostly aware of only after the fact. It's not that dancers don't ponder the nature of their art. But the act of creating is so natural for most dancers as to become commonplace. Perhaps it comes from the fact that they so often hear their calling at such a young age; it's as if dance becomes inseparable from who they are as a person.
"One day you're just taking your weekly ballet class, and then suddenly, it gets to the point where you can't not do it," said Susan Jaffe, who first discovered this calling at the ripe age of 8.
I asked Rachel Moore, the company's Executive Director, (and with whom I was last onstage in the third act mazurka of Sir Kenneth MacMillan's production of The Sleeping Beauty), if she could enlighten me as to what she thinks constitutes excellence in ABT's dancers in particular. "There's a qualitative edge to our dancers, an essence of theatricality that I find unparalleled. Throughout the company's history, we've been extremely fortunate in attracting dancers with an intrinsic aesthetic value system."
Not all former dancers move into careers as teachers, coaches, and artistic directors. The virtuosity they exhibit onstage crosses over into their lives as "lay" people, a term dancers affectionately apply to anyone who has never… well, danced. At the risk of creating a virtual Harper's List of job descriptions, some of the varied careers alumni have moved on to include: writer, photographer, doctor, lawyer, nurse, pastry chef, fine cabinetry maker, producer, curator, and doll maker (Doctor Coppelius, anyone?). As Moore points out, "There are so many resources dancers need to marshal on a daily basis; that, coupled with their dedication to excellence, is so easily transferred to their lives after dance."
My favorite example of a dancer's drive and determination would be that of my friend Andrei Dokukin, who, after a year at Juilliard, half a decade in ABT, and lots of biology and chemistry classes, is now a first-year resident in Internal Medicine, barely 15 years after learning his first word in English! A little closer to the fold, Artistic Director Kevin McKenzie, when asked what he would be doing if he hadn't taken his chosen path in life, didn't hesitate in responding, "Architect." And Moore barely skipped a beat when saying she had dreams of becoming a Supreme Court Justice. How comforting to know that the company is in even more capable hands than we had already presumed!
It came as little surprise to me that the two recurring themes in my conversations with alumni were the sense of family, and the importance of tradition within the company. Marian Butler, a current corps member, observed: "Keeping tradition alive is so much a part of what ABT is about. Of course, we have our backstage traditions too, like the pinky circle the corps ladies form before the curtain goes up. It's our way of showing that we're all here for each other." The boys have always had a ritual of their own, albeit with less lofty intentions; the second act Swan Lake poker game, which I hear continues to this day.
The family aspect has sometimes proved quite literal, most recently with the brother/sister duos of Angel and Carmen Corella, and Herman and Erica Cornejo. Going back a little further is former soloist Veronica Lynn, whose mother, Lupe Serrano, was one of the company's grand ballerinas of the 1950s and '60s, and remains on the staff to this day as a company teacher. And then there was the "Brown Dynasty," consisting of Isabel and Kelly Brown in the 1950s, and their children Leslie, Elizabeth, and Ethan, and whose story was immortalized on screen in The Turning Point.
The passing of the baton doesn't always come so naturally, though; at least not at first. Alumnus Gage Bush, currently ballet mistress with the Studio Company, and her husband, the late Richard Englund, former director of ABT's previous second company, eventually relented to their younger daughter Rachel's persistence at taking ballet classes. "After her very first class," remembers Ms. Bush, "she stormed into the house like a thundercloud, placed her hands firmly in her hips and stated, 'Too many rules!'." I guess she got used to all those rules; she is currently a radiant soloist with New York City Ballet.
It would be difficult for me to lavish too much praise upon ABT. Rarely has the company seemed so insistently alive, and the youthful hubris of the younger generation of dancers awes even those who have left their mark in a big way. "They've done quite well without me!" exclaimed Cynthia Gregory, one of the most highly regarded and popular ballerinas of her generation. "When I look back on my own 26 years with the company, it's like it was another life."
Dance stands proudly at the nexus of art and music and drama, and American Ballet Theatre remains firmly at the pinnacle of that nexus. Henry Miller wrote, "All that matters is that the miraculous becomes the norm." ABT's dancers bring that concept vividly to life every day of their careers. Although the company's former dancers have moved on to other paths, their new lives as observers rather than participants of their art remain no less miraculous. I, for one, can't wait to see all of my old friends. I'm sure many of you feel the same way.
Scott Schlexer was a member of ABT's corps de ballet from 1976 -1995.