A Fresh Prince

January 17, 2012

There are moments when a dancer and a role match up in a way that sends a shiver through the audience. During Chase Finlay’s first performances of George Balanchine’s Apollo last year, the similarities between the New York City Ballet dancer and the young god were arresting: Both were beautiful but rough-hewn, testing the limits of their considerable powers. Finlay was green—just 20 at the time—but the purity of his line, the plasticity of his jump and the gracious nobility of his carriage softened any unpolished moment. And beyond his raw excitement about standing alone at center stage, he exuded real, magnetic authority. As Apollo, Finlay gave us a glimpse of the artist he might become.

 Now 21, Finlay has turned many heads—and not just because he is (as it has become customary to note) six feet, blond and classically handsome. Singled out for his charisma and technique, he’s had, like many young NYCB dancers before him, extraordinary opportunities early in his career. But whether a dancer continues to grow after sink-or-swim tests like Apollo can be a toss-up. Still something of an attractive cipher onstage, Finlay is just beginning to invent himself. Apollo’s path to Mount Olympus was predestined; the ultimate extent of Finlay’s ascent is up to him.

Finlay, who grew up near New York City in the affluent suburb of Fairfield, Connecticut, discovered ballet the way many boys do: He followed his older sister to the studio. “I was really into lacrosse at the time, and I thought taking a couple of ballet lessons might help,” he says. But at age 7, after seeing a performance of Balanchine’s Nutcracker in Stamford, Connecticut—featuring several School of American Ballet students—he decided to train in earnest. “When the Chinese guy came out in the second act and started doing split jumps, I was like, ‘Whoa!’ ” he remembers. “I turned to my mom and said, ‘I have to do this for real.’ The athletic aspect of it was so appealing.”

Darla Hoover, associate artistic director of Ballet Academy East, remembers watching Finlay two years later in that same Nutcracker production. “You couldn’t miss him,” she says. “Of course he was adorable, this little blond boy, but he was also totally at ease up there.” By that time, Finlay and his sister (Page, who went on to dance with San Francisco Ballet and Oregon Ballet Theatre) were commuting to New York to train with Hoover at BAE. “Darla became a second mom to me,” Finlay says. “I was good friends with her son Trevor”—now a Boston Ballet II dancer—“so I was always over at her apartment hanging out. She took me under her wing, in ballet class and outside of it.” Finlay was obviously gifted, but Hoover wasn’t about to let him coast through his training. “She kicked my butt, which I needed,” Finlay says, laughing.

After several years studying Balanchine technique with Hoover, the teenage Finlay faced an important decision: take a contract with American Ballet Theatre’s second company or enter the School of American Ballet in the hopes of eventually joining NYCB. He chose SAB; it was a gutsy move. “At ABT, there’s a tendency to let young dancers sit in the corps for a while, wearing a bunch of funny costumes,” he says. “With the repertoire that NYCB does, I thought I’d get more exciting experience right off the bat, assuming I made it into the company.” At age 17, he became an NYCB apprentice.

Soon—remarkably soon—the roles started coming. Once Finlay was promoted to the corps in 2009, he danced featured parts in Robbins’ Interplay and 2 and 3 Part Inventions, Balanchine’s Divertimento No. 15 and the pas de quatre from Peter Martins’ Swan Lake. A special highlight was Christopher Wheeldon’s Polyphonia, which Finlay performed with an otherwise all-principal cast. It was his first time partnering the majestic Sara Mearns, whom he’d idolized as a student.

Mearns was impressed by Finlay’s partnering. “He had great instincts,” she remembers, “and he really listened. That’s what you need—someone who’s there mentally and physically.” Though Finlay was initially in awe of Mearns, he soon found that the “intimidation factor” worked to his advantage. “Dancing with Sara is almost like a competition: She’s brilliant, and she pushes me,” he says. “But I push right back. I do well under pressure.” Onstage together, Mearns and Finlay crackle, feeding off that competitive energy.

Finlay stepped into the brightest of spotlights last spring, when, thanks in part to another dancer’s injury, he made his debut as Apollo. Though he was shocked to be given a chance at the role, Hoover wasn’t surprised. “Apollo was something I saw coming Chase’s way a long time ago,” she says. “He is Apollo—he just is. Before he even moves.” NYCB artistic director Peter Martins had no qualms about entrusting the part to Finlay. “He was obviously the right type,” Martins says. “The look, and the facility. I had every confidence in him. He was ready.”

With Mearns’ encouragement, Finlay studied tapes of Peter Boal, Nikolaj Hübbe, Jacques d’Amboise, Ib Andersen and Martins in the role, and worked intensely with Martins and coach Richard Tanner. He also learned to deal with some inevitable unpleasantness. “There were a lot of established guys who expected to get Apollo,” he says. “For a while, I was getting those sideways looks in the hall. It was uncomfortable.” He turned to principals Andrew Veyette and Amar Ramasar for support. “They’ve had my back since I joined the company,” he says. “They tell me when I look bad out there, but I like that they’re real with me. And they’ve been through similar things. They know what it’s like.”

Finlay’s Apollo debut was a smash. (“He shows the artist’s journey as an adventure story in which everything is new,” Alastair Macaulay wrote in The New York Times.) A few months later, Martins promoted Finlay to soloist. “I was thrilled for him,” Mearns says, “but I was actually happy for me, too. I was like, yes—now we really get to dance together.”

With rave reviews and promotions comes a lot of pressure. It’s a feeling Mearns, who had her breakout performance in Swan Lake at age 19, is all too familiar with. “At this point, when you’re rising fast, there are so many distractions that can pull you away from ballet,” she says. “I learned, and Chase has to remember, never to lose focus. With a talent like Chase has, he can’t afford to veer away.”

But for the moment, Finlay is just enjoying the ride, and trying to “stay normal,” he says. Modeling stints for Abercrombie & Fitch and French Vogue aside, he insists he’s a regular guy. He’s a New York Giants fan who spends his days off watching football at sports bars. He plays the drums, and jams with fellow NYCB musicians Joaquin de Luz, Ask la Cour and Zachary Catazaro. And he still has dinner with Hoover frequently. “She knocks me down a peg when I need it,” he says.

NYCB dancers are notoriously loyal to Balanchine’s company, and Finlay is no exception. But he does dream of guesting opportunities at ABT, the Kirov or The Royal Ballet that would allow him to tackle big classical leads. “I love the rep I’m dancing at NYCB, but I’ve always seen myself as a classical dancer,” he says. “I don’t exactly want to be David Hallberg, but the path he went on? That would be pretty awesome.”

“Chase has more growing to do, but people will always notice him,” Mearns says. “How can you not? He’s the perfect prince. There are moments now when he’s intimidating to me.”