The Prime of Maria Riccetto

May 31, 2010

An artist who, surprisingly, often slips under the radar, she gives some of the company’s most memorable performances. Petite, with long arms and beautifully etched legs and feet, she dances with technical strength and an innately dramatic quality that is palpable. With her natural, unaffected beauty, the Uruguayan-born dancer looks like she could be one of the bold, determined heroines in a novel by Isabel Allende. She has an unmistakable authority in both classical and contemporary works—and that is a rare thing in the ballet world.

“Maria has a very appealing presence,” says ABT artistic director Kevin McKenzie. “She brings a sense of self and a sense of humor to the company. She also brings the ability to genuinely support her colleagues.”

Although she dances her share of soloist parts, Riccetto has made an unforgettable impression in many principal roles. In the prelude of Les Sylphides, she draws a delicate pianissimo quality from the steps. She brings a special vulnerability to Robbins’ Afternoon of a Faun and in Mozartiana, she understands the tricky dynamics of off-balance adagio and allegro movement. And her Giselle has a haunting gentleness.

Riccetto is particularly fond of the Romantic repertoire. “I love to move slowly and pay attention to every detail,” she says. “My port de bras and the way I use my neck seem to come naturally in adagio movement.”

The daughter of a rancher, Riccetto began dancing at age 6 at a local school in Montevideo. Her mother loved all kinds of dance and ballet classes were a way to keep Riccetto occupied while her parents worked in the late afternoons. After a few years, her teacher urged her to audition for the national ballet school. By age 12, she was an apprentice at the national ballet company, while continuing her training at the school. “My days were crazy,” says Riccetto. “There was a lot of pressure, but at that age you feel like you can do it all.”

When Riccetto was 14, University of North Carolina School of the Arts offered her a scholarship. At first she was excited, but then got cold feet. “A month before I was due to leave, I was crying every night and telling my parents, ‘I’m not ready,’ ” she says. Riccetto ended up turning the scholarship down. At 17, when she grew frustrated with the Uruguayan company’s bureaucracy, she finally went to UNCSA.

Upon her arrival in the U.S., she knew three phrases in English: “My name is Maria. Nice to meet you. Please speak slowly.” It was a period of adjustment. “I was very naive, but I wanted to challenge myself,” she says. “I am a lyrical dancer, but I learned to move faster without losing my roots.”

When graduation approached, Riccetto traveled to New York to audition. Homesick for her tight-knit family and her country, she set the stakes high, trying out for ABT—but not expecting to receive an offer. “I said if I don’t get into a big company, I go home,” she recalls. To her surprise, ABT asked her back for a second audition, then offered her options: joining as an apprentice for the spring season in 1999 or as a corps member that August. She chose the latter, so she could dance in Balanchine’s Symphonie Concertante, coached by Melissa Hayden, for UNCSA’s graduation performance.

“People say a lot has to do with talent,” says Riccetto. “I think a lot has to do with timing and luck.” She joined ABT when a number of short girls had left, so she was immediately thrown into the front row of the corps. At 5’ 4”, she didn’t lack for partners. The company had several talented short men, like Herman Cornejo, so she was quickly dancing Sleeping Beauty’s Bluebird Pas de Deux and Olga in Onegin.

“I love ballets where I can tell a story,” she says. “That’s what I was made for. As time goes by, you realize better how to tell it. How are you going to dance Giselle when you’ve never had heartbreak? Life experience gets you ready to do those roles.”

Riccetto has had many talks with McKenzie about broadening her repertoire. “I asked, ‘Why don’t you consider me for this?’ He has a vision, whether you agree with it or not,” she says. “I am certain that if you work every day like you’ve never worked before, it pays off. That’s what happened with Giselle.”  Having already danced Giselle in Uruguay, coached by Julio Bocca, she was prepared when other dancers’ injuries gave her an opportunity to assume the role during the 2009 Met season.

Riccetto is loved in the ABT family. Her close friend Sascha Radetsky praises her blend of “graciousness and feistiness.” He adds: “I think Maria’s wisdom and perspective on life makes her dancing special. A lot of living is packed into her 30 years.” Like McKenzie, he praises her attitude towards her colleagues: “She’s dedicated, supportive of others, fun to be around, inspiring in her dancing and her conduct.”

For a long time, Riccetto was always thinking, “I want to be a principal, I want to be a principal.” Now, she has made peace with dancing exquisitely as a soloist and developing other areas of her life. She has a boyfriend in Uruguay and a burgeoning business there called Primma, a dancewear company that is co-run by her sister, a former dancer. “I know my dancing isn’t going to be forever,” Riccetto says. “There was no place to buy leotards and tights in my country. We manufacture everything there, and we are putting together a showroom.” She loves to ride horses on the ranch at home and does work for a Uruguayan charity organization called Reaching U. Since her mother died six years ago, she finds it hard to watch sad movies: “Now only stupid movies to make me laugh.”

Riccetto hopes more roles lie ahead. “I want to be recognized onstage for who I am and for my work,“ she says, “not because I asked for a role. Everything I have done until now was because I deserved it.”

And when she dances, the audience deserves—and gets—the best.

Joseph Carman is the author of Round About the Ballet and is a Pointe contributor.