Sara Mearns Explores New Realms in Joyce Theater Program

March 7, 2022

Over the past several years, Sara Mearns has successfully burst her “ballerina bubble,” experimenting with dance genres ranging from postmodern to hip hop to musical theater. The New York City Ballet principal now brings her talents to The Joyce Theater in a production titled SARA MEARNS: Piece of Work. The program, running March 8–13 (after three years of planning and pandemic-related postponements), features Mearns in works by an eclectic group of choreographers, including frequent collaborator Jodi Melnick, plus Beth Gill, Guillaume Côté, Vinson Fraley, Austin Goodwin and Paul Zivkovich. The program also includes a Merce Cunningham MinEvent starring Mearns and other dancers, staged by Rashaun Mitchell and Silas Riener. Here, Mearns catches Pointe up on these fruitful collaborations, and how expanding her repertoire has helped her grow as a dancer.    

How did this program come to be? 

The Joyce approached me a few years ago, but it took a long time to get a final program because I wanted it all to feel very personal, and not just be big names or flash. It had to come about in an organic way, especially on a program like this where I’m dancing in almost every piece, and the pieces have to work together, or else it’s too much for the audience. 

You first performed the collection of Merce Cunningham solos on this program at the Cunningham Centennial in 2019. How has your relationship to these pieces changed over time? 

I actually started working on them in the winter of 2018; I needed at least six months before I attempted the Centennial. The Cunningham style is still challenging for me. It’s very humbling, and it never gets easier—sort of like ballet. But that’s what’s great and fun and challenging, and keeps me going. 

Jodi Melnick and Sara Mearns in Melnick’s Opulence. Photo by Steven Pisano, courtesy The Joyce Theater

What drew you to Beth Gill, who is known for making slow, postmodern dances?

She’s been on my radar for many years, so this was the perfect opportunity for me to meet with her. At first we weren’t sure what to do, but she did a lot of research and came back to me with an amazing idea. It’s very conceptual, and different than anything I’ve ever done. She has a very different way of working in the studio. It’s slower, and focused on diving deep into the steps and the movement, not just pushing forward. Our energies really vibe together. 

In the past few years, you’ve expanded so far beyond the boundaries of ballet. Has that changed your sense of identity as a dancer? 

I think to be a dancer in New York, you can’t not take advantage of everything we have here. When I started working with Jodi eight years ago, I realized I was in this ballet bubble. I became obsessed with everything else that was happening, and this snowball effect began of doing things I wouldn’t normally do, or didn’t know I could do, or might fail at. I don’t think everything I’ve done outside of NYCB has been a huge success, but it’s all led to something else. When I’m on my layoffs I get to feel like a different dancer, like a different person, and it offsets and balances the intensity of my career at NYCB. My work never gets stale or complacent or easy. And I don’t like easy.

This is an updated version of an article that appeared in 
Pointe’s Summer 2020 print edition.