When Ashley Bouder steps on stage at New York City Ballet, you can feel the audience’s excitement.
As she whips through a rapid sequence of turns, people literally sit forward in their seats. Often Bouder will hold a balance for a moment where the allegro tempo seemingly doesn’t permit even a fraction of a pause, and then she’ll break into a delighted grin, as if surprised by her own phrasing. No one would guess that she dances five, sometimes six, physically exhausting roles each week.
NYCB’s ballerinas have epitomized the style, look and technical range of classical dancers in the U.S. since Balanchine first launched his school and his company. During his lifetime, Balanchine’s dancers always had distinctive personalities, and the company’s current roster continues that tradition. But today’s NYCB principals need stamina and versatility beyond what was required of their predecessors. Gone are the days when ballerinas performed only two or three times a week in a repertoire that was overwhelmingly the work of two choreographers, Balanchine and Robbins. Nowadays it’s not unusual for a NYCB principal to perform nearly every night in a range of work not only by Balanchine, Robbins and Ballet Master in Chief Peter Martins, but also by numerous guest choreographers. The company’s 2009 spring season will present 40 ballets, and a total of 56 performances.
“Being a principal dancer today is a very demanding job,” says Rosemary Dunleavy, who has been a ballet mistress for NYCB since 1971. “It’s harder physically because the company works more than we did in the past. And the dancers must perform all these different styles.”
Ashley Bouder, Sara Mearns and Sterling Hyltin all rocketed to principal status early in their careers. All three have already danced full-length dramatic ballets, as well as the company’s bread-and-butter neoclassical repertoire. They handle the physical and psychological stresses with aplomb, and their technical prowess and artistic range never seem strained. Yet each of these dancers has developed a distinctive approach to maintaining her energy and each continues to mature as an artist. Here are some of the ways they meet their jobs’ ever-growing demands.
“Ashley has a no-fear factor to her dancing,” says NYCB’s Assistant to the Ballet Master in Chief Sean Lavery. That may be how it looks onstage, but offstage Bouder admits to feeling some anxiety.
“When I got promoted to principal, one of my first thoughts was, ‘Oh my god, now I can’t afford to have an off performance!’ People expect excellence.” To handle that pressure, Bouder says that she takes one day at a time. “If things don’t go well, it’s not the end of the world, just not what I wanted to happen.”
Bouder, 25, finds inspiration in watching other dancers. “I spend a lot of time watching old tapes of ballerinas and thinking about what I want to do in each moment.” She makes an effort to see dancers and companies outside of NYCB. “I keep my eyes open.” Her interest has led her to seek opportunities to perform classics with outside companies, including learning Giselle from legendary ballerina Carla Fracci and performing it at La Scala.
When the company is working, Bouder focuses on eating protein during the day and carbohydrates at night, which she says gives her plenty of stored energy to get through the following day. If she feels like she needs to boost her stamina, she works out on the elliptical machine at the gym. She stays conditioned during NYCB’s off weeks by working with the company’s director of physical therapy, Marika Molnar.
Darla Hoover, Bouder’s teacher when she was at Central Pennsylvania Youth Ballet, says that Bouder “always had a beautiful artistic soul and steely determination. She was someone you could push to her max and she wasn’t allergic to that.” Even today, Bouder doesn’t wait for corrections; she actively hunts down feedback. And not just from her director and ballet masters but from other dancers as well. She mentions fellow principal Jared Angle as someone whose opinion she trusts: “We’re always asking each other, ‘Did you see anything I should fix?’”
A night off might seem like a rare chance to think about something besides ballet, but Sara Mearns, 22, often spends her downtime watching other dancers perform the roles that are in her repertoire. “I try to find my way of dancing through watching the ballerinas. I don’t want to be exactly like them—I don’t copy them. But I think that’s the best way to get inspiration: Watch someone who has the qualities to which you aspire.”
Mearns’ movement flows with romantic energy, but in rehearsal she sometimes reins that in. “Technically, I don’t like to over-rehearse before I do something. If you over-rehearse, you’re going to get bored with it. The main goal is what it’s going to look like onstage.”
Like Bouder, Mearns gets a lot from videos of ballerinas from previous eras, especially Natalia Makarova. She also finds visualization useful for preparing for a big new role. She tries to “envision what it’s going to feel like, which helps me get into the role.”
Mearns sometimes goes to the gym to build extra strength and stamina, and makes sure she drinks enough water to stay hydrated. During a full-length role like Swan Lake, she may drink a few sips of Coke at intermission to keep her energy up for the next act.
She admits that she felt extra pressure once she was promoted to principal. “You feel like you have to go out there and deliver. But if you dance like you did before you were promoted, well, they know what you’re going to be like onstage because that’s why they promoted you. I don’t think about the expectations. I want to keep the fun.”
Sterling Hyltin, 23, looks like a Celtic princess with her wavy blonde hair and coltish long lines. As Juliet in Peter Martins’ new production of the ballet, she seemed to throw herself into the music as much as into Romeo’s arms, instinctively knowing the richness in the Prokofiev score. For Hyltin, every role, dramatic or otherwise, is born when she works alone in the studio. “That’s where I can find what works, when I can experiment.” Lavery says, “Sterling likes to really dissect the part. You can see from day to day she’s really thought about it.”
Hyltin also uses time in the studio by herself to keep in shape during breaks: “If there’s a period when I’m not dancing a lot, I’ll take a piece of repertoire that had me in great shape and just run it to keep me going physically and artistically.”
When her schedule is especially grueling, she relies on mental rehearsal. “Sometimes you have to save your body,” Hyltin says, “so I take time to prep mentally.”
She does Pilates three times a week. “I swear by it. It gives me extra core strength and helps me pull up out of my shoes.” She also watches her diet carefully. “I try to eat red meat three times a week. It gives me a lot of energy. I try to eat well-balanced meals, and I avoid sugar. I also avoid too much caffeine before a performance. If I have anything it will be a decaf coffee.”
As for how she deals with the pressure of being an NYCB principal, Hyltin says, “During a break sometimes, I step outside to get a breath of fresh air. It’s important to have a life!”
All three dancers have a passion for continuing to improve from one season to the next. Their hard work, careful rehearsing and healthy routines exist to support that greater goal. As Bouder says, “The things you look to improve get smaller and smaller, but they still matter and they’re still there.”
Former dancer Leda Meredith is an active choreographer and a professor at Adelphi University.