As ABT’s Cassandra Trenary Prepares for Her “Giselle” Debut, She Brings a Fresh Approach to the Role

October 15, 2021

“Wafting,” “demure” and “ethereal” are not the first adjectives that come to mind when attempting to describe Cassandra Trenary’s dancing. Trenary, one of six American Ballet Theatre dancers promoted to principal in the middle of the pandemic, is something of a powerhouse: sexy and grounded in Twyla Tharp’s In the Upper Room, earthy and explosive in Alexei Ratmansky’s The Seasons, brilliant and quick in the title role of The Golden Cockerel. But she is also a dancer full of surprises. Her debut as Aurora in The Sleeping Beauty in 2016 revealed a whole other side, a classicism infused with emotion and subtlety.

Now, for her first performance as a principal, she is taking on Giselle. The transformation process that is happening in the studio is intense. Trenary is both molding herself to the role, and molding the role in her image, infusing it with her imagination and her spirit. She asks questions, and isn’t afraid to try different approaches to each scene as she rehearses with her partner, Calvin Royal III. (Royal, also a new principal, will be debuting as Albrecht.) “I see Cassie taking the role apart and playing against assumptions,” Kevin McKenzie, ABT’s artistic director, recently told me. “It’s just not possible for her not to go somewhere deeply personalized.”

Trenary and I spoke recently about Giselle, about her feelings for the character, and about how the pandemic has affected her sense of self.

Cassandra Trenary practices a penché on her left leg, crossing her hands at her chest, during a Giselle rehearsal. She wears a blue leotard, blue face mask, pink tights and pointe shoes and a white romantic tutu.
João Menegussi

Is Giselle a ballet you always dreamed of dancing, or was it on the periphery of your mind until now?

It’s funny, I’ve always loved Giselle, but I honestly didn’t think about it as much as I would Manon or Romeo and Juliet. I think it’s mostly because I never thought that I’d be called upon to do this ballet in this company. I suppose I just didn’t see myself in it. Sometimes when you enter a company and people see you are good at something, you get boxed in a little bit. Whenever I watched the ballet, though, the thing I really gravitated toward was the mad scene and thinking about how I would approach it. I would think to myself, “Yeah, that worked, I buy that,” or “No, I don’t buy that.”

Which Giselle do you find yourself more drawn to, the ghostly Giselle of the second act or the happy village girl in the first act?

Interestingly enough, I’m finding Act II to be a little bit closer to me in this moment, maybe because we’ve just been through this time of total transformation, having to cling to hope and forgiveness and love, and just kind of letting go. I think that has been sort of the theme of this season in my life. There’s a sense in Act II of crossing over, of being free of the confines of her previous life. That resonates with me.

Calvin Royal III and Cassandra Trenary rehearse Giselle in a ballet studio. They stands next to each other hip to hip, with her right arm around his left shoulder and his left arm around her waist. They both bend their inside knee, with their outside leg in tendu, and open their free arms out. Trenary wears a blue leotard, white romantic tutu and pointe shoes, while Royal III wears a long-sleeved blue T-shirt, black tights, and black socks and ballet slippers. Both wear face masks.
João Menegussi

It sounds almost cathartic. How do you see the young Giselle of the first act?

One of the things I’ve been struggling with is that I desperately want her to be more willful. There’s this shyness built into the choreography that I’m trying to figure out, and that I don’t always buy. There’s a lot of running away, and a lot of innocence. But I think that, body-language-wise, it can come across as un-consenting. But you know, she has power, she’s got something. She’s magic. And that’s why this fancy man with beautiful teeth and great posture chooses her. So I’m trying to find all of that and incorporate it into my performance and convince everybody around me that it works.

João Menegussi

It makes so much sense, considering the kind of dancer you are. How have you been exploring Giselle’s body language?

My biggest fear is that, gosh, I’m just going to look like me. How will I find that spirit and that vaporous quality? It’s something I’ve been looking to Calvin for when we’re in the studio together. His movements are so beautiful, almost liquid. I’m trying to find what that means for myself, and also to recognize that it’s not going to look like anybody else. But as long as the intention is there, hopefully it will work.

Calvin Royal III holds Cassandra Trenary by the waist as she does a fourth arabesque elongé on pointe, reaching her arms forward in front of her. They practice in a large dance studio with three large windows. Trenary wears a blue leotard, pink tights and pointe shoes and a white romantic tutu, while Royal III wears a long-sleeved blue T-shirt, black tights and black socks and ballet slippers. Both also wear face masks.
João Menegussi

It seems like dancers have really used this time, during the pandemic, to figure out what matters to them and on what terms they want to work in the studio.

It was probably one of the most important times in my life. I was challenged in so many ways. I’ve collaborated with so many different kinds of artists [including Molissa Fenley and Sonya Tayeh], and I made two films. I started taking acting classes [with Joan Rosenfels], and my relationship ended, and I had to have tough conversations about social justice with my family and just kind of figure out who I am. I definitely emerged from this season feeling brand-new, and in really beautiful ways. I feel like I can breathe.

Did it change the way you feel about ballet?

A little. This time really opened my eyes to a lot of the systemic issues that plague the classical ballet world. I think we’re about to shift things a lot. I came back with a sense of ownership over myself, and I want to make sure everyone around me is feeling that as well.

Calvin Royal III, Cassandra Trenary and Zhong-Jing Fang sit around a small table and pore over a book of photographs that Royal III is flipping through. They wear dance clothing and are in a dance studio, with a piano in the background.
Royal III, Trenary and soloist Zhong-Jing Fang (who was rehearsing Myrtha) discuss their roles during a rehearsal break. João Menegussi

What has the Giselle rehearsal process been like so far?

Calvin and I started rehearsing on our own two weeks before the official rehearsal period began, just to get the steps into our bodies. We worked a bit with [former ABT principal] Maxim Beloserkovsky. And even when we’re not in the studio, we talk about the ballet and our roles; we send each other articles and references that we’ve found. We’re both really interested in doing the research. In the studio, I’ve tried to be as present as possible and not get too overwhelmed. That’s been my main goal every single day, trying to be smart and also accomplish this big, big thing. There have been some beautiful moments and some anxiety-producing moments. But most of all, I’m just so excited and grateful to be back.