Of all the many reasons to come to New York City Ballet during the winter season, one of the most bittersweet is that February is the last chance to catch Principal Dancer Miranda Weese with the Company. After this season, Ms. Weese will move to the West Coast to dance with the Pacific Northwest Ballet as a guest artist.
What Ms. Weese leaves behind is a legacy of gorgeous, heartfelt dancing. "I've had wonderful opportunities, and the bulk of my artistic achievements have been here," she said. "But at this point in my life, I'm thinking about ways to prolong my career, and one way to do this is to find a company — and a city! — with a slower pace."
This dancer's rise to the top was anything but slow. While studying dance in her hometown of San Bernardino, California, she was introduced to the New York City Ballet style by her teacher, Sherry Gilbert. "She showed me a laser disc of Who Cares?," Ms. Weese recalls. "I said, 'That's it!' I wanted something fast and different. I didn't want to be just classical."
In 1990, she left her family and moved to New York to enter the School of American Ballet. Just one year later she became an apprentice with NYCB, and in 1993 she was invited to join the Company. Fittingly, her first featured role was the lush, soulful "Embraceable You" section of Who Cares? during a Company tour to California.
Her promotions — to soloist in December 1994 and to principal in January 1996 — both came as surprises. Each time, when Ballet Master in Chief Peter Martins took her aside to tell her the good news, she had the same reaction: "After every promotion, I would ask Peter, 'Are you sure?'"
With dancing like hers, there was no need for second guessing. Ms. Weese has an onstage presence that suggests John Singer Sargent's "Madame X" come to dazzling life. Delicate and feminine, yet bold and expressive, she has been called upon to dance an enormous portion of the Balanchine repertory.
"She has a huge scope in her understanding of the ballets," said Principal Dancer Nikolaj Hübbe, who was her partner for that first role in Who Cares?, and who has often danced with her since. "She's so natural. She always gets it."
Among her favorite Balanchine ballets is Theme and Variations from Tchaikovsky Suite No. 3. Of that ballet, she says, "It's the epitome of what Balanchine is all about. It's concise and classical. And I love the music."
Ms. Weese has also originated roles in several ballets by Christopher Wheeldon. "He really speaks to the moody side of my personality," she said, adding that her work in Shambards (2004) was particularly rewarding: "I danced with Jock Soto, which was a dream come true."
Her greatest artistic achievement, however, she feels came from her work in Peter Martins's full-length Swan Lake. Ms. Weese debuted in the role of Odette/Odile in spring 1999, the first season that NYCB performed this ballet. "So many ballerinas have danced Swan Lake — I just had to find my own way in it," she said. Together with Peter Boal, who partnered her, she dug into the ideas behind the legendary ballet. "We spent weeks rehearsing together. We spent time talking and building the story."
It was not long after her success in Swan Lake that Ms. Weese had a serious setback in her career. In 2000, she suffered an injury to her hip that kept her off the stage for a year. She gained weight during that time and reached a point at which she feared she might not be able to return. Instead, she worked through it. Her comeback was gradual, and it began with George Balanchine's The Nutcracker. "I just had to keep getting in shape in front of everybody. I had to get out there," she said.
If the work was hard, it was also fulfilling: "There were times when I didn't feel like I could live up to the title of principal dancer of New York City Ballet." Over the years though, confidence grew. "I grew up here," she said of the Company. "I'll miss this audience. They've watched me grow up over the years, and they've always been so supportive."
The audience has seen Ms. Weese become a dancer with an air so gentle that she can almost seem to come from another century. The Emeralds section of Balanchine's Jewels highlights her gifts as if it were made for her — though she can take on the jazzy Rubies section with a haunting fierceness. "She dazzles with an incredible ease and calm in the upper body," said Mr. Hübbe, who puts her departure in simple terms: "I'm really going to miss her."
Ms. Weese is slated to dance in several repertory works this month, and as she anticipates her departure, she expects to look back with a glad heart. "I will be extremely proud and grateful."
Pia Catton is the Cultural Editor of The New York Sun.