The Women Behind the Tutus
Updated: Oct 1, 2020
Coverage of a panel giving ballerinas a vocal platform.
Perfection is not a word unfamiliar to the prima ballerina or her audience. Beyond that goal of precision, however, lie real women, living real lives, and striving to cultivate a just as beautiful future for themselves and their art form.
New York City Center released a panel discussion on their website from Aug.13-19 as part of their Live @ Home initiative. The panel, which was hosted by accomplished dance critic, Alastair Macaulay, took place between him and three prominent ballerinas: Misty Copeland, Sara Mearns, and Tiler Peck. The discussion, part of a series of videos featuring the three dancers called Studio 5|Great American Ballerinas, gave its virtual viewers a peek into the visual performers’ quarantine lives and feelings on ballet moving forward.
Breaking the ice, Macaulay asks how each individual feels about seeing dance themselves and if they go to the theater often before he dives deep right away asking how the social justice uprising has shifted the ballet world.
Mearns and Peck, both dancers at New York City Ballet, agree that they hadn’t seen a lot of diversity when they first entered the company.
However, in recent years, both noticed an increase in the number of people of color; Peck recounts that just recently, the NYCB had their first black woman “in the front of the room” teaching class.
Copeland, who mentions the willingness of others to have tough conversations and how American Ballet Theater is making similar strides, imparts how completely this diversification is part of her life’s work. She tells how she strives to remain transparent on the issues the ballet world still has to face and stands on her platform of a principal dancer, as a black woman who “will never stop working” to create that change.
Macaulay transitions the conversation to the lockdown, first asking how the ballerinas have been staying active while at home and then wonders how that space affects the mover’s technique.
Peck’s response detailed how she had just returned from an injury and living on the West Coast disrupted her ability to take the virtual class offered by NYCB.
Focusing on resilience and knowing that she needed to give herself class every day, Peck explains how she decided to Instagram Live her classes, offering a solution to those experiencing the same problem. A decision she thought would garner only a couple people, ended up attracting thousands, she says.
Peck then expanded this accessibility by inviting other artists to guest-host, saying this, and her class consistency gives her the motivation to continue spreading joy during this time.
Mearns, conversely, relays how much she struggled with being on lockdown. She tells of “moving out” of that feeling as time passed through teaching, zoom classes, and rehearsals.
Regarding technique, Mearns shares a note given in a Zoom class where she was made aware of how much she was slouching and acting like she was in a small space; Knowing that she had room and pretending she had her standard space could allow her to keep her technical presence.
Copeland, who just sustained an injury before the lockdown, tells of how being stuck at home gave her time to rest that injury and instead focus on other passions such as, creating a relief fund called Swans for Relief, for dancers out of work and struggling during this time.
“I saw an opportunity for us to come together and unite and really set an example for what the world should be doing.” says Copeland.
Macaulay then immerses the audience into the women’s’ ballet lives for the bulk of the remaining discussion, first asking what it has been like to be without their peers and partners.
All of the ballerinas agree that they miss their peers. Copeland specifies how much she misses the physical touch aspect of her job, Mearns relays that she has found it “therapeutic” to get to know her peers on a more intellectual level, and Peck tells of how she misses the movements available with a partner, like lifts.
Macaulay the wonders what it is like working with ballerinas from the “senior generation”.
Mearns, Peck, and Copeland share that they enjoy this aspect of their professional careers as they often have the opportunity to work with those who carry some history of the movement they all practice.
Next, Macaulay notes that all three chose to have the videos created for Studio 5|Great American Ballerinas live and wonders how that spontaneity is kept alive in their work.
Mearns talks of her intention to remain transparent, particularly on her social media platforms. She explains that the new generations loves getting that inside experience, and she feels the rehearsal process is excellent for people to see. She also notes that she keeps her performance different every night by using advice once said to her by Suzanne Farrell: “You rehearse options” of what you will potentially perform.
Peck says that she wants the audience to feel how “organic” the process can be. She tells that something she has always said is that a dancer knows the phrase, steps, and technique, but getting from “point A. to point B.” is uniquely your own. This practice, she explains, is how she keeps her performances spontaneous even when doing the same piece over again.
Re-learning roles, Copeland explains, is something she finds challenging and fascinating. Referencing her earlier statements on the passing of stories, Copeland says “there’s power in experience” and enjoys discovering how she can find “newness” in that experience.
Copeland also says, “I feel like something that this generation is doing differently, and I think necessary to keeping the art form relevant and alive is kind of pulling back the curtain and showing that we are artists and we are athletes and what we do is really hard.”
The last question Macaulay asks on the topic is how they each feel their status as prima ballerinas have shaped them as people.
Mearns explains that she wants to show both the good and the bad that can occur in her position. She says she wants to remain human to her peers and potential mentees, imploring the importance she places on transparency.
Copeland feels both grateful and responsible in her position as a prima ballerina. She conveys that she wants to continue the cycle of mentorship she felt entering ABT and tells of her goals to keep setting a positive example for black women and people of color in general.
Peck explains that her experience changed considerably, moving into her role as a prima ballerina. She says she feels pressure to keep the level of each ballet performed at a high caliber.
She also relays a story of when she first entered the company; Wendy Whelen, a principal at the time, approached her and made her feel welcome by letting her know that she was present and available for questions at any time. Peck tells of how she hopes to be able to do this for new company dancers as well.
Finishing off the conversation of a humanizing note, Macaulay last asks the woman what they have gained from their recent experiences.
All three relay that they have the opportunity for the first time in a long time to spend a while with their loved ones.
Mearns explains how she had to find something to do with her evenings but that she is spending time with her husband and dogs and has the time to read for the first time.
Peck explains how much of a gift spending time with her family has been as she left home when she was only sixteen. She says she also loves getting to connect with different types of artists from around the world.
Copeland, mentioning her love of cooking and production, tells of the silver lining she has seen for herself and the ballet world: It’s giving the industry time to step back and take stock of what’s important, allowing the art form to take advantage of virtual platforms and come out with a better perspective on modernity to catch up and keep ballet relevant.