When I joined the New York City Ballet, I had a million questions. How soon before a performance should I get ready? When should I eat dinner—before or after the performance? How long should I wear my false eyelashes before I throw them out? Should I practice hard steps onstage before the curtain goes up or save them for the show? How long should my warm-up be? How do I do well in this career?
Before long, I discovered that the older dancers were willing to help us newbies. Wendy Whelan, for instance, took me under her wing and helped me with everything from my hair and makeup to what to eat for energy before a performance.
I wanted to see what questions NYCB's newest batch of corps members Mira Nadon, Kennard Henson and Gabriella Domini had. To answer their questions, I spoke to two of our most senior dancers, Maria Kowroski (who's been with the company 24 years) and Jared Angle (who's danced here 21 years).
In your early years in the company, how did you develop your individuality as a dancer while still trying to fit into the corps de ballet?
Kowroski: Every time I stepped onstage I pretended that I was the only one out there. I never tried to balance in a position longer than anyone else, or stand out in other ways, but I always tried to perform like I was a principal dancer. Even when I was standing in the line of swans in Swan Lake I thought, "What would I do if I was out here by myself?" I think that mentality helped me feel natural and comfortable in my own skin.
Angle: I actually don't think I was thinking about individuality at all when I was in the corps. I was just trying to absorb everything that I had been told by the ballet masters and to apply the corrections towards every single step that I did onstage.
What do you believe is biggest sacrifice you had to make in your outside life to get where you are today in your career?
Angle: Actually, nothing felt like a sacrifice when I was younger. I suppose looking at it from an outside perspective, leaving my family to go live in New York City at age 16 was a sacrifice for the whole family. But I was so ready to get to New York and just dance! I also remember having pangs of jealousy when my friends back home were going off to college and doing a "normal life."
Our life at 18 is already 12 hours of working—rehearsing and performing. So, I felt that I missed out socially. But in hindsight, I've gotten so much more out of this career and I wouldn't change anything.
Kowroski: I also left my home in Michigan to move to New York at 16. It was hard for me to leave home then. My mother died in her 50s and looking back, it was a major sacrifice not to have those years with her.
Also, when I first started dancing principal roles, I felt like there was a sacrifice there. I lost a lot of friends because to take the plunge and do all the work necessary to be the "chosen" one, I felt very alone. I had to take care of myself and focus on what I needed to do and not all my friends at the time were supportive.
What areas of your technique do you feel you’ve had to work the hardest towards mastering?
Angle: I had to work hardest on mastering classical solos because much of my early repertoire was focused only on partnering. Partnering has always come easy to me, so I didn't have to worry about it—and I know I'm very lucky. But at the same time, my ease with partnering made my anxiety about dancing alone worse. I found that I was rarely out onstage in a solo, so I felt like I had to work much harder to get to dance certain roles. I also couldn't just "whip out" a classical solo without lots of rehearsal. I still haven't figured out how to do double tour en l'airs, but I'm still trying every day! One day I think, "I just figured out ballet technique—PERIOD," but then the next day it doesn't work the same, so…
Kowroski: Balanchine technique has always been a struggle for me. It hasn't been natural because instinctively I like to move slower. With my stature, I've always had a hard time getting my body to move fast. I've tried to learn to move fast in an efficient way so I don't feel flustered. I want to dance fast but still be on top of the music, without rushing.
Having enough stamina has always scared me, too. In my early years in the company, we would never "run" the ballets, or dance a piece straight through without stopping. We always stopped for corrections at various moments, which allowed me to catch my breath when I normally would be tired. So, by the time I got to the performance, when I obviously couldn't stop to rest, I didn't know if I had the stamina to make it through. I inevitably doubted myself, which made things worse. Then I would hold my breath…it was a horrible combination! But there's always something to work on—that's the good thing and the bad thing about this career. I'm still watching videos of myself, and trying to improve.
Do you have a favorite memory from your first years in the company?
Angle: Getting "thrown on" (replacing an injured dancer at the last minute) during my first years in the company. I got thrown on a bunch which was so scary, but wonderful. It was always so exciting because the other dancers and ballet masters rally around you and everyone wants you to do well. I also loved learning a whole ballet in a day from scratch and then performing that night.
Looking back, what’s one thing you would change about your mentality as a young dancer?
Angle: I would've been more positive about myself and my dancing! Easier said than done…
Kowroski: I would tell myself this: Try not to focus on the negative things in your performance. When you go out onstage, leave everything out there...and have no regrets...dancers are so hard on themselves and you will never be perfect in your own eyes. This career will always be challenging and you will always find new things to work on. Enjoy the moment and know that the special time is onstage and it will feel different every time you step out there—which is what makes it so great!