Ballet Stars

Cassandra Trenary: Why the ABT Soloist Has Us Spellbound

Cassandra Trenary photographed by Nathan Sayers for Pointe.

This is Pointe's June/July 2016 Cover Story. You can subscribe to the magazine here, or click here to purchase this issue.

It seems that, in ballet careers, everything happens at once. For a few years, you notice a dancer and make a mental note: “She's got something." And then, before you know it, she's everywhere. And so it was last year for American Ballet Theatre's Cassandra Trenary, 22. In the blink of an eye she graduated from promising young dancer—I remember spotting her as she led the Shades in La Bayadère with unrelenting precision—to nascent star. She performed her first classical solo, in Raymonda Divertissements, in 2014. Then, in one year, she debuted the roles of Princess Florine and Diamond Fairy in Alexei Ratmansky's new The Sleeping Beauty, the youngest sister in Antony Tudor's Pillar of Fire, the sleep-dancing young woman in Le Spectre de la Rose and a lead role in Marcelo Gomes' new AfterEffect. Last August, she was promoted to soloist.

Physically, it was a challenging year. “I felt like crap!" the relaxed, forthright Trenary answered recently at a café near ABT's studios when asked what it felt like to learn so many roles in quick succession. “But I love to dance, and I just ran with it." Trenary—a petite brunette with big, lively eyes and strong features that read particularly well onstage—emanates energy and directness. No matter what role she dances, she's dynamic and strong, a force to be reckoned with.


Trenary as the Canary Fairy in "The Sleeping Beauty." Photo by Gene Schiavone, Courtesy ABT.


“She's a real person and it's fun to be in the studio with her," says James Whiteside, a principal in the company who is also a close friend. “We work our butts off, but it never has that neurotic edge," he adds, with a laugh. That ability to maintain a level head has served her well in recent months as she prepared for her biggest assignment to date: the role of Princess Aurora in The Sleeping Beauty. For the first time, she has to carry the whole show, in a purely classical idiom.

It has taken an adjustment. “I need to be bigger, and to make every step extremely important," she said after a rehearsal in February, before her April 2 debut in Detroit. (Her New York City debut will take place June 29.) Particularly in this production, which emphasizes delicate musicality over showy virtuosity, she has had to find a new lyricism, a way to make the steps sing, like notes in an aria.

In rehearsal, Trenary and Whiteside worked through “The Vision" scene, in which Prince Désiré imagines Aurora calling him to her bedside to free her from Carabosse's spell. Even after a long day of rehearsals, Trenary looked fresh and alert, unfazed by all the information coming her way. The moment the pianist placed his fingers on the keys, her body and face changed—she became someone else. Breathing into her port de bras, she gazed into her partner's eyes with a look full of curiosity and longing. How could a prince resist?

The ballet master, Keith Roberts, gave her tips on how to make her performance register even more. The unifying principle was: let go. “You have to forget how you ran with other women, and run by yourself. You can be you now," he said at one point. With each take, she seemed to expand and soften. Instead of overthinking technical details, she trusted the music and the feeling of the steps to carry her, relying less on the mirror and more on internal sensations. She also asked a lot of questions, rather than wait for suggestions.


Trenary in "Company B." Photo by Rosalie O'Connor, Courtesy ABT.

“She is an unusually self-possessed and focused artist who knows how to learn," says artistic director Kevin McKenzie, who offered her a spot as an apprentice in 2011, when she was 17 and still a student at ABT's Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis School. (She skipped over the ABT Studio Company, the usual stepping stone for promising candidates.) She had come to the school from Georgia, where she grew up with a younger brother. Her father owned a used-car dealership; her mother worked in real estate and retail. Trenary got into dance early, at 3, and started taking class at the Lawrenceville School of Ballet. But her training was eclectic, and she wasn't a bunhead; she did ballet, jazz, tap, modern dance and hip hop, but also tried horseback riding and tae kwon do. In fact, before being spotted at ABT's summer intensive and invited to study at JKO (at 15), she had only been taking ballet three times a week.

At the school, then artistic director Franco De Vita and faculty member Raymond Lukens immediately sensed her potential. “From the moment we saw her, there was something special about her. She was luminous," says Lukens, who cast her in one of his own works. Because of her varied training, she was placed with dancers two years younger than her. It took her a year to catch up to the other students in her age group. Her confidence flagged—“I started comparing myself to other people, which is super-unhealthy," she says—but she had the benefit of having her family around her. Her parents had quit their jobs, sold everything and moved up to New York. Even the family dog made the trip. “They didn't want me to come alone," she says, “and they looked at it as an adventure." (After she joined the company, they moved back south, to Florida.)


Trenary in "La Bayadère." Photo by Gene Schiavone, Courtesy ABT.

Perhaps that's why family and friendships are so important to her. In 2014, after a difficult year in which she slowly recovered from one injury (a fractured metatarsal) only to be beset by another (a bulge in her cervical spine), she married fellow ABT dancer Gray Davis. Through the eight months of recovery, he encouraged her and helped buoy her spirits. “I had a lot of couch time," she says, and a lot of time to think. She took some acting classes, even joined the cast of a play and considered going back to school. Meanwhile, her desire to dance grew even stronger.

Both Trenary and her husband are regular churchgoers; the habit, she says, is “a reminder to love each other a little more." That love and the sense of groundedness it inspires may help to explain why she seems so comfortable in her own skin. She thrives on work with contemporary choreographers (like Gregory Dolbashian, Ratmansky and her fellow ABT colleague Gemma Bond). She has appeared with Daniil Simkin's pickup group INTENSIO. She even made a dance video, “Wallflower," with Whiteside, who moonlights as a pop/dance artist under the alter ego JbDubs. Watching that video, you would never guess that Trenary's day job is as a classical dancer. She looks unapologetic, strong and, in a word, sexy.

This year, in addition to The Sleeping Beauty, she'll be tackling the role of the doll-like bird in Ratmansky's The Golden Cockerel. In the future, who knows? It seems there's very little she can't do if she sets her mind to it. As she puts it: “I feel as though, more and more, every detail counts."

The Conversation
Ballet Stars
Maria Kowroski and Stella Abera. Via Instagram @stellaabreradetsky.

While both based in New York City, American Ballet Theatre and New York City Ballet are very different companies, from their touring schedules to their repertoire and training styles. Nevertheless, two principals—ABT's Stella Abrera and NYCB's Maria Kowroski—have sustained a long-lasting friendship "across the plaza" of Lincoln Center. Both Abrera and Kowroski entered their respective companies in the mid-1990s at age 17, and their careers have run side by side ever since.

Tonight, for the first time ever, these two primas, joined by their colleagues Isabella Boylston and Unity Phelan, will perform together in a new work by Gemma Bond titled Marie Thérèse, presented as part of the annual Dance Against Cancer benefit concert. We caught up with Abrera and Kowroski after a recent rehearsal with Bond to hear what it's like to finally dance together, how they've seen the ballet world change throughout the years, and what advice they'd give to their younger selves.

Keep reading... Show less
The Royal Ballet's Vadim Muntagirov and Marianela Nuñez in La Bayadère. Photo by Bill Cooper, Courtesy ROH.

Do you ever wish you could teleport to London and casually stroll into The Royal Opera House to see some of the world's best-loved ballets? Well, we have a solution for you: The Royal Ballet's 2018-19 cinema season.

Whether live or recorded, the seven ballet programs listed below, streaming now through next October, will deliver all of the magic that The Royal Ballet has to offer straight to your local movie theater. Can you smell the popcorn already?

Keep reading... Show less
Carlos Acosta in a still from Yuli. Photo by Denise Guerra, Courtesy Janet Stapleton

Since the project was first announced toward the end of 2017, we've been extremely curious about Yuli. The film, based on Carlos Acosta's memoir No Way Home, promised as much dancing as biography, with Acosta appearing as himself and dance sequences featuring his eponymous Cuba-based company Acosta Danza. Add in filmmaking power couple Icíar Bollaín (director) and Paul Laverty (screenwriter), and you have a recipe for a dance film unlike anything else we've seen recently.

Keep reading... Show less
News
Gabriel Figueredo in a variation from Raymonda. VAM Productions, Courtesy YAGP.

This week, over 1,000 young hopefuls gathered in New York City for the Youth America Grand Prix finals, giving them the chance to compete for scholarships and contracts to some of the world's top ballet schools and companies. Roughly 85 dancers made it to the final round at Lincoln Center's David H. Koch Theater on Wednesday. Today, the 20th anniversary of YAGP came to a close at the competition's awards ceremony. Read on to find out who won!

Keep reading... Show less