The Comeback Kid

Classic Arts Features   The Comeback Kid
New York City Ballet principal dancer Alexandra Ansanelli lights up the stage whenever she performs: and she performs a lot: but her career was nearly ended by a mysterious injury.

When New York City Ballet principal dancer Alexandra Ansanelli dances‹and even when she speaks about dance‹she expresses an irrepressible sort of joy.

"I just love to dance. I love the whole process," says the 24-year-old dancer. Ms. Ansanelli, who joined the Company in 1996 and was promoted to principal in 2003, has reason enough to wear her heart on her sleeve. She's at the top of her field despite suffering from scoliosis. She came to ballet late, but met with near instant success‹only to have it all nearly taken from her just as quickly after a major injury. If anyone understands how important it is to appreciate one's opportunities and to make the absolute most of them, it is Ms. Ansanelli.

As a child growing up in Oyster Bay, Long Island, Ms. Ansanelli was committed first not to ballet, but to soccer. "It was every day after school. I was completely devoted to it," she says. She was about to start playing on a traveling soccer team, which would commit even more of her time, when her mother encouraged her to test her love of the sport by trying something different. Something different turned out to be ballet.

Ms. Ansanelli took to the rigors of the form eagerly and displayed a talent for it. While in a summer dance class, she caught the eye of former NYCB principal dancer Edward Villella, whose daughter was in the same arts program. He encouraged her to audition for the School of American Ballet, which she promptly did. But she did not have great expectations.

"I didn't have the right physique because I had been on the soccer field," she recalls. "I didn't have all the basic training. I hadn't learned ballet starting from ground zero."

Her natural abilities, though, were strong enough to carry her, and in 1990, she was accepted at SAB. In the years that followed, she refined her technique and got her body into ballet shape. In 1996, she was invited to be an apprentice with New York City Ballet, and after just one month she danced the role of Dewdrop in George Balanchine's The Nutcracker and was made a member of the corps de ballet. Two years later, she was promoted to the rank of soloist, a very fortunate position to be in when the Company entered its 50th anniversary season. The celebration called for a great many repertory ballets, and Ms. Ansanelli was cast frequently, giving her valuable stage time and exposure to a wealth of choreography.

But as the season wound down, she noticed a mysterious pain in her foot. "It was misdiagnosed. It was unclear what the problem was," she says. And the situation only worsened. "There was so much swelling in the foot that I couldn't walk."

Eventually the injury was correctly identified as a tear in the plantar fascia, a wide band of tissue that runs from the heel bone along the bottom of the foot. But the whole process of diagnosing and then treating the ailment kept her away from ballet for almost two years, during which time she feared she would never be able to return. "It was such an unbelievable shock that it happened, that your dream could be taken from you," she says.

Thankfully the worst-case scenario was averted, and in 2001 Ms. Ansanelli was able to return to the rehearsal studio. She started out slowly, but she lived up to her reputation as an obsessively hard worker and gradually found herself making a major comeback. During the Company's spring 2002 Diamond Project season, which featured several new ballets, Ms. Ansanelli originated roles in Christopher Wheeldon's Morphoses, Miriam Mahdaviani's In the Mi(d)st, and Mario Bigonzetti's Vespro. Then, in May 2003, the day before she was to make her debut as Swanilda in the full-length ballet Coppèlia, Ballet Master in Chief Peter Martins promoted her. "I dreamed of being a principal dancer," she says quietly, "but I didn't really know if it was in the cards."

Not only was the promotion in the cards, but a whole lot of dancing was, too. The list of ballets that Ms. Ansanelli has danced is so long that it almost seems impossible for someone who has been performing for such a relatively short time. And even this list doesn't convey the hard work she has done on new choreography. Mr. Martins has made roles for her in Eros Piano, Guide to Strange Places, Swan Lake, River of Light, and Walton Cello Concerto; Susan Stroman gave her a major role in Double Feature; and for Mr. Wheeldon, the Company's Resident Choreographer, she has originated roles in Polyphonia, Variations Sérieuses, Carousel (A Dance), and Morphoses.

And her appetite for new challenges has not slowed down one bit. When asked what roles she looks forward to learning, she can't be bothered with such limited thinking. "I want to dance it all," she says.

If that weren't impressive enough on its own, Ms. Ansanelli also has the big picture in mind. She's troubled by the idea that the acknowledged heyday of dance in the U.S.‹the 1970s and '80s‹may have passed. "I really hope that our art continues to flourish," she says. "We can make our own golden period. There is so much talent and so much passion."

Though this dancer doesn't wind up with a lot of free time, when she does have an afternoon to spare, she likes to read self-help books and take in exhibits at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, and she also very much values time spent with her family.

But really, what Ms. Ansanelli wants is just to dance. "I'm so drawn to the music and the physicality of it," she says.

Luckily for audiences, she makes that abundantly, wonderfully clear each and every time she takes the stage.

Pia Catton is the dance critic for The New York Sun.

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