A "Ballerina" Is...

Published in the December 2013/January 2014 issue.

Stella Abrera soars in American Ballet Theatre's "Le Corsaire." Photo by Gene Schiavone.

In a recent editorial in The New York Times, dance critic Alastair Macaulay wrote that “the lesson of history is that ballerinadom has been continually redefined.” I believe it is time for a new definition, one that does not hold up Old World glamour or a dancer’s nationality as criteria. The greatest female dancers today are bringing their own vitality and originality from all over the world to the universal language of ballet.

To be clear, every balletomane and professional dancer has his or her own concept of the ideal ballerina. For some, it’s about clarity of form and the seamless execution of choreography. For others, it’s about dramatic range or stylistic versatility. To some degree, these attributes are prerequisites. Yet the most fundamental characteristic of my ideal ballerina is someone whose depth of character and generosity of spirit makes her a leader not only in her performances but in class and in the rehearsal process.

Shakespeare scholar Harold Bloom once wrote that one of the most remarkable things about the character of Juliet is that she exudes both exceptional virtue and an exceptionally sparkling personality. To me, this rare balance is also the aim of a ballerina.

In real life these are difficult ideals to live up to, but I have many colleagues who are a daily inspiration. At American Ballet Theatre, I am continually struck by Stella Abrera’s unwavering discipline, integrity and intelligence in both art and life. Her versatility as a dancer and actress is complemented by her graciousness onstage and to her colleagues. Similarly, New York City Ballet’s Wendy Whelan is a goddess onstage, but down-to-earth in real life. Neither fit the outdated stereotype of the self-centered diva ballerina. They are compassionate, focused and sensitive people and artists who maintain both their sense of humor and their consummate professionalism day in and day out.

At the Royal New Zealand Ballet, where I am a principal guest artist, I am excited to watch a young dancer with extraordinary promise grow into a star. This emerging ballerina, Lucy Green, has the physical attributes to do great things with her art: a brilliant jump, coordination and musicality to spare. However, for me, it is her work ethic, her imagination and her sensitivity to others that really classify her as a ballerina in the making.

Ultimately, I most admire these dancers, as well as others, for how they encourage greatness in everyone around them. It may be a somewhat naïve and romantic notion, but I believe that a ballerina must nurture positive qualities and an openness of mind within herself so that she can share her inner life in a genuine way on the stage. In order to communicate the truth and the universality of human experience, the ballerina must gain perspective and dimension from both her own life experience and her intense respect and dedication to the craft of ballet. She must go beyond the steps and strive to bring humanity and humility purely and truly to every moment of expression. That, to me, is artistry that is meaningful both on and off the stage.

Gillian Murphy is a principal dancer at American Ballet Theatre.