"Diamonds," the glittering third act of George Balanchine’s Jewels, has held special significance for New York City Principal Dancer Russell Janzen over the years. Other than George Balanchine’s The Nutcracker, it was the first ballet he performed as a new apprentice in 2008. “I remember standing on the side in the finale and watching the principal couple and thinking, This is crazy— I can’t believe I’m onstage while this is happening.”
And six years later, “the first time I danced the pas de deux felt like the start of something,” he says, referring to the string of leading roles that followed, lighting his path to becoming a Soloist in 2014. "Diamonds" also marked the beginning of his symbiotic onstage partnership with former Principal Dancer Teresa Reichlen, “which was so important to me,” he notes. “We really cemented something special.” And in 2019, two years after his promotion to Principal Dancer, Janzen and Principal Dancer Sara Mearns were coached in the "Diamonds" pas de deux by former Principal Dancer Suzanne Farrell, the ballerina hand-picked by Balanchine in 1967 for his groundbreaking plotless full-length ballet. “It was exciting to be reinvigorated in this part, to have the ground shifted underneath us a little bit,” he recalls.
So it seems fitting that on September 24, Janzen will close his luminous, 16-year career at NYCB with a farewell performance in "Diamonds," one of the many roles in which the tall, elegant dancer with the deliberate manner and eloquent partnering abilities, excels. Following his final performance, he will attend graduate school for social work. In a Zoom conversation from Saratoga Springs the day before his final turn in Justin Peck’s Copland Dance Episodes, Janzen, accompanied by his brown-and-white “super mutt” Oona, talked about his love of partnering, the ballets he will miss, and why, at the age of 34, he’s ready for something new.
You’ve been dancing since you enrolled at the Rock School for Dance Education in Philadelphia at the age of six. What attracted you to ballet?
Russell Janzen: In school, I always liked structure and rules. At the same time, I loved movie musicals and Broadway shows. So finding something as glamorous and artistic and creative as ballet, that you could excel at in a very specific way—I was obsessed.
The New York Times aptly described you as a partner who puts the woman first without fading into the background. What has partnering meant to you?
I love the solo dancing I’ve done, but I really love the experience of dancing with someone else and making another person’s performance go well. I’ve always liked the challenge of figuring out the physical mechanics. And a lot of the really wonderful things for taller men in our repertory are the pas de deux. I feel lucky to have danced so many of these beautiful ballets. I’ve been encouraged to really think about how the way you execute a step—how you bring your hands to your partner’s waist or how you take their wrist—can convey care and is actually more important than making something look impressive.
You are retiring with "Diamonds," one of the first major roles you danced. Can you tell us about that period of your career?
My first four years at City Ballet, I was mostly injured. I would bounce back fairly quickly, so I did dance, but at the time, I felt like I wasn’t dancing at all and it was frustrating. So it felt so good to finally get to really dance to the point of exhaustion, and work with so many different people in the studio—Jonathan Stafford on "Diamonds," Albert Evans and Sally Leland on Concerto Barocco, Rosemary Dunleavy and Peter Martins on Barber Violin Concerto, Karin von Aroldingen on Robert Schumann’s Davidsbundlertanze and Tschaikovsky Suite No. 3. Not only was I getting to dance the way I had wanted to for a really long time, but I was being engaged by so many different wonderful, artistic, thoughtful people. And doing something brand new so frequently was such a thrill. I’m watching some of the younger dancers do that now, where they’re being given challenge after challenge, and you just see them running towards it. That excitement when you feel physically and mentally ready for what is being given to you—it’s so, so rewarding to experience that.
Of the more than 50 leading roles you’ve danced at NYCB, over half were in Balanchine ballets. What did his ballets mean to you?
I remember first coming to the School of American Ballet and learning Theme and Variations from Peter Boal and feeling like, Oh, this is different. It’s funny now that Theme seemed very dance-y to me, but compared to Le Corsaire and Don Quixote, I loved what that variation offered in terms of how you got to move. While the execution of Balanchine choreography is very specific in sharpness and texture, there’s also freedom in terms of intention. That combined with the way the choreography makes sense of the music makes all of these ballets so incredible to dance.
You danced beautifully this past spring. Why retire now?
It’s partially physical—the combination of dealing with injuries and taking time off during the pandemic sped up the end a little bit. But the decision was really about wanting to expand the way that I get to experience the world. I’ve had an incredibly rewarding career and basically done everything I’ve wanted to do.
Are there any ballets that you will especially miss?
I feel sad about leaving Copland Dance Episodes, and I wish I had a few more performances of Dances at a Gathering. With both, you’re in a real community that feels lovely and intimate— and extends backstage. To be part of a group of people who are dancing so beautifully to wonderful music, in this world you’ve created together, is a gift.