Admirers of New York City Ballet’s Kathryn Morgan probably asked themselves the same question when the company promoted her to soloist last October: “What took them so long?”
Morgan had made an indelible impression two years earlier when she was one of the four dancers sharing the role of Juliet in the two-week premiere run of Ballet Master in Chief Peter Martins’ Romeo + Juliet. This streamlined adaptation of the Prokofiev classic tests its heroine’s technique the moment she enters. In the popular Kenneth MacMillan version, Juliet scampers on and teases The Nurse. Martins’ teenager immediately fires off a grand jeté, and Morgan’s is particularly stunning. It comes out of nowhere to hit 180 degrees with unerring musicality. When Romeo + Juliet returned last May, Juliet was cast with only two dancers: principal Sterling Hyltin and Morgan.
In the interim, Morgan’s acting had acquired more expressive authority. “I read the play,” she says. “I saw the Zeffirelli movie, I saw Alessandra Ferri at ABT, but I didn’t stop there. Peter gave us specific counts for picking up the dagger, but you have some leeway in timing. You can grab it, say, or wait till the very last minute to reach for it. I’m always looking for those moments when a new gesture can highlight my character, like a slight pause before I rush down the steps before the balcony scene. Peter hasn’t complained.”
Morgan has rarely received complaints. While a student at the School of American Ballet, she attracted the attention of a particularly astute judge of talent. Christopher Wheeldon, NYCB’s resident choreographer at the time, hesitates to say it was Morgan’s sweetness that caught his eye. “That sounds saccharine and her dancing is anything but,” he says. “Let’s say she had an aura of quiet authority. Equally important, it was coupled with a rare devotion to hard work. I sometimes had to rein in her energy.”
First, Wheeldon cast her in the pas de deux of his Scènes de Ballet for SAB’s 2006 Spring Workshop. Later, after she moved from NYCB apprentice to corps member, he cast her in Carousel (A Dance). Originally, this charming abridgement of the central love story in the Rodgers & Hammerstein musical was a showcase for Alexandra Ansanelli, requiring her to go from Innocence to First Love to Tremulous Ambivalence in a marvel-
ously impassioned pas de deux. Whether Morgan had ever run such a gamut of emotions offstage, she convincingly did so in the course of 20 minutes.
For most of the next two years, Morgan remained in the corps, gaining strength and stamina as dewy freshness morphed into sophistication. Although only 5’ 4”, she never disappeared into the corps’ anonymity. Gradually, she danced solos she had watched others perform.
After seeing her first Nutcracker while still a toddler, Morgan let her parents know that dance lessons were in order when she emerged from her bedroom wearing one of her dolls’ tutus. She began studying an hour a week. And she found time for seven years of piano lessons. “My mother was always urging me not to spend so much time in my room playing classical records,” she says.“ I’d always say, ‘I want to listen to ballet, Mom.’ ”
Morgan never studied with any teacher for long. Her father was a dentist in the U.S. Navy, and the Morgans moved four times before he left the service to practice endodontics (root canal surgery) in Mobile, Alabama. Winthrop Corey, artistic director of Mobile Ballet, became Morgan’s first mentor after she enrolled in the company school. Like everyone who recalls her, he was as impressed by her dedication to work as he was by her natural ability. “You can’t teach what she already had,” Corey says. “You just fine-tune it. Her instincts were like a third eye within herself that sees what needs to be done. Happy as I was for her when she won her scholarship to SAB in 2004, I regretted I’d no longer be working with such a gifted student.”
Since she became a New Yorker, Morgan has adjusted rapidly to city life. Initially her mother moved into an apartment with her, but now both parents are only frequent visitors. Her cat Princess has stayed behind in Mobile, though.
Sean Lavery, Martins’ assistant and a teacher at SAB, lost no time in working with Morgan once she began her apprenticeship with the company. While a student, she had already earned his highest possible praise: “She reminded me of Suzanne”—Farrell, that is, Balanchine’s ultimate muse—“because she’s very musical, very focused on whatever she does. And fearless.” Ironically, what Lavery offered Morgan was the pas de deux he had made for the balcony scene from Prokofiev’s Romeo and Juliet, which would be performed at Saratoga, the company’s summer home.
For all his admiration, Lavery wondered if the responsibility of dancing and acting would be too much for an apprentice: “Peter said I should see how rehearsals went. I couldn’t find time to work with Katie in New York, so Igave her a tape and asked her to study it. A week later, she knew the role perfectly.”
Principals Darci Kistler, Wendy Whelan and Jenifer Ringer have been Morgan’s role models at NYCB. Actresses who influenced her characterizations include Audrey Hepburn and Vivien Leigh. Of course, movie stars look so unshakably cool because they have the luxury of retakes and are never plagued by stage fright onscreen.
Morgan, now 21, says she was nervous only once, at a debut in Nutcracker, and just for a moment. What role could she have been dreading? Sugar Plum, with its incessant pointework that can drain a ballerina of all charm? Dewdrop, with its panoply of technical demands? “Marzipan,” she says. The leader of those panpipe-playing shepherdesses in stiff, ungainly skirts who tosses off a couple of gargouillades! (Go ahead and laugh; everybody else does.)
Morgan’s eagerly eyeing Swan Lake and Sleeping Beauty, which return to NYCB this winter. Although each contains a major pas de deux, she knows a partnership is a collaboration, not a ballerina ego trip. She and fellow corps member David Prottas earned an ovation for their performance of Bournonville’s Flower Festival at Genzano at the farewell performance of principal Nikolaj Hübbe in 2008. Although he had little time to coach them, their sunny openness, buoyant elevation and modest mastery of every deceptively simple detail was the Danish style at its purest.
At last June’s Dancer’s Choice program, she and principal Tyler Angle triumphed in the Grand Pas de Deux from Sleeping Beauty. “The first time we rehearsed the fish dive, we nailed it,” Angle says. “Katie’s an ideal partner: She meets you halfway; she’s attuned to the ebb and flow of partnering and she is totally calm.” Whether Morgan is cast as Aurora at NYCB this winter, she is definitely dancing a complete Sleeping Beauty in 2010. With Angle as her Prince Désiré, Winthrop Corey’s prize pupil is triumphantly returning to perform it at Mobile Ballet.
Harris Green writes frequently for Pointe.