3 Dancers Who Debuted Major Principal Roles Outside Their Home Company

September 8, 2023

Gigs and guest appearances are usually opportunities to show off your strengths or a signature role. But why not take a risk? Debuting a role outside of one’s home company can be a huge career benefit: It allows you to work with a director who may see you differently, or prepare you for a challenge at home, or expose you to repertoire your own company is unlikely to stage.

Pointe talked to three dancers who ventured out of their nests to find out what they learned and how they made the experience a success.

Precious Adams, soloist, English National Ballet

In this black and white photo, Andile Ndlovu leans forward and holds Precious Adams by the waist as she plunges into a fish dive. They are performing onstage in the ballet The Sleeping Beauty, with Adams wearing a light tutu and crown and dark tights and pointe shoes, and Ndlovu in a white tunic tights and ballet slippers.
Precious Adams and Andile Ndlovu in Cape Town City Ballet’s prodution of Sleeping Beauty. Photo by Pat Bromilow Downing Photography, courtesy Adams.

Role: Princess Aurora in The Sleeping Beauty, Cape Town City Ballet

Precious Adams’ career at English National Ballet has been steadily rising since she joined the company in 2014. Last season, she danced the role of Cinderella, her first lead in a full-length ballet with the company.

But she had already taken on one of the hardest ballerina roles with a different company: Aurora, in Cape Town City Ballet’s Sleeping Beauty, in 2019. Because of this, she was perhaps more prepared to lead ENB’s Cinderella than a typical company member would have been.

“I knew I had the stamina to pull off a quality show, and that if anything went wrong, I had the experience to know how to keep going,” says Adams. “I also knew that I’d be tempted to do everything 110 percent, but you can’t, you’d die! I’d learned to ebb and flow, to find the softer moments.”

Adams connection to Cape Town began when she was invited to perform in a number of galas produced by Debbie Turner, an advocate for bringing talent to South Africa. “She thought I had a lot of potential but not all the experience I could benefit from,” says Adams.

When Turner later became CEO of Cape Town City Ballet, she extended an invitation for Adams to dance Aurora in the company’s full-length production of Sleeping Beauty. Adams only had two weeks to rehearse with the company and her partner, Washington Ballet’s Andile Ndlovu. She learned the choreography from a video before she arrived.

The short rehearsal period and lead role meant she had to independently communicate with her coaches and partners in the rehearsal room, something she wasn’t yet used to in her career at ENB.

“I was entering the space as a principal, while at ENB I was a first artist at the time,” says Adams. “So it was a huge experience for me, for instance, to tell my partners in the Rose Adagio what I needed, where to put my weight, rather than be the underdog always being given corrections.”

Beyond the technical achievement of performing the role, the confidence the experience instilled in her made a lasting difference in her career.

“How you feel about yourself is how you’re going to dance; if you’re doubting yourself, it’s not going to happen,” she says. “My new confidence propelled me through the next season at ENB. I’d danced a ‘bucket list’ ballet, but I realized I could go even further.”

Julian MacKay, principal, Bayerisches Staatsballett

Julian MacKay, wearing a white naval officer's uniform, kneels onto his right knee and leans over Nozomi Iijima, who is wearing a white dress and kneeling close the ground, her head down and her hair covering her face. MacKay reaches out to her with his right hand as if asking a question. A sailor stands behind them onstage, staring straight ahead.
Julian MacKay with Nozomi Iijima in Tetsuya Kumakawa’s Madame Butterfly at K-Ballet. Photo by Nicholas MacKay, courtesy MacKay Productions.

Role: Lieutenant Pinkerton in Madame Butterfly, K-Ballet Company

“If you’d asked me what I wanted to be when I was 3 years old, I’d have answered ‘an explorer,’ ” says Julian MacKay, now a 25-year-old principal with Munich’s Bayerisches Staatsballett. “That was my dream job, to go to new places and see new things.”

MacKay has used his dance career to do this literally and figuratively. Not only has he been a member of companies in multiple countries and guested in even more, he sees bringing characters to life onstage as another form of exploratory adventure.

This zest for new cultural and artistic experiences is what attracted him to dance with Tokyo’s K-Ballet as the company’s first guest principal. While many Western dancers perform galas in Japan, few have the opportunity to spend meaningful artistic time there.

After McKay made some mixed-repertory appearances, K-Ballet artistic director Tetsuya Kumakawa invited him to dance in his 2023 world premiere of Madame Butterfly as Pinkerton, the American naval officer stationed in Japan.

The two-week rehearsal process was rich with opportunities to learn about his host country.

“Tetsuya brought in a 500-year-old Samurai sword for me to hold from his personal collection, to teach me about Japanese culture,” says MacKay. “The care with which it had been preserved, it looked almost fake. It was incredible.”

In Japan, the Butterfly story is familiar, so he expected emotional performances, but he wasn’t prepared for the intensity his partner, Nozomi Iijima, would bring to the role of Butterfly.

“There’s a moment where at the end of a pas de deux, Butterfly sobs. Nozomi’s cry was so real, I genuinely thought something was wrong,” he says. “I almost forgot that I was onstage. I’d never experienced that before.”

Pinkerton is a varied role that begins with him dancing with fellow sailors in an American style, then transitions to show cultural fusion when he interacts with Butterfly. He’s also the villain of the story—a type of role MacKay rarely plays—which gave the dancer a chance to find more complexity than the typical ballet prince.

The role was exactly the kind the explorer’s heart craves. 

“I had never pictured this ballet as a possibility for me to dance,” says MacKay. “How can it be your dream role if you didn’t know it existed?”

Sara Mearns, principal, New York City Ballet

During a performance of the ballet Romeo and Juliet, Guillaume Côté carries Sara Mearns in his arms, her legs outstretched, as a large cast of dancers behind them face upstage, milling about and talking around a large table of food. The pair look at each other adoringly. Côté wears an off-white tunic, tights and ballet boots, his eyes covered by a black mask. Mearns wears a gray and white empire-waisted dress, pink tights and pointe shoes. Her hair is styled in an elaborate bun with ribbons and braids.
Sara Mearns and Guillaume Côté in Alexei Ratmansky’s Romeo and Juliet. Photo by Karolina Kuras, courtesy NBoC.

Role: Juliet in Romeo & Juliet, National Ballet of Canada

Sara Mearns has performed dozens of principal roles across the New York City Ballet repertory, but there’s one she’d always dreamed of dancing that eluded her: Juliet. Her former director, Peter Martins had a specific vision for the role in his version that Mearns and several other principals didn’t fit.

She’d long kept her eye out for an opportunity elsewhere, and this year the stars aligned. Through her guesting work, she’d formed a partnership with National Ballet of Canada principal Guillaume Côté. When he told her he was planning to dance his final Romeo, the two wondered if they might dance together—and she could make her debut. They spoke to NBoC artistic director Hope Muir and choreographer Alexei Ratmansky, and, in June, their idea became reality.

To take on the role, Mearns first had to face the challenge of debuting this role with another company after 20 years with NYCB.

“I’ve done gigs, but I’ve never guested with a company before,” says Mearns. “To spend a month there—it was important to me to walk in humbly, to integrate as part of them.”

This was important as Juliet interacts with most of the cast, but it was her work with Côté in particular, whom she calls “the ultimate Romeo,” thatsettled her into the role.

“To have someone so experienced as Romeo, it’s like breathing to him, guiding me patiently and generously. It was unreal,” says Mearns.

Mearns has worked with Ratmansky for 15 years, and she felt especially lucky to debut this role in his version.

“This was the first time I told a story without pantomime,” she says. “Alexei told me, ‘Don’t use your face or act too much. Use the steps only and it’ll come out. He pushed me, and he was right, as always.”

While the wait to dance her dream role was long, it happened just at the right time. She was primed for the kind of coaching Ratmansky gave her.

“I’m 37. I’ve had the life experiences to tap into all the emotions Juliet experiences and bring them to the stage,” says Mearns. “To feel all these feelings in this experience… I’d wake up every day in Toronto and think, Is this a dream?”