Longtime Nashville Ballet artists John Upleger and Kayla Rowser, both of whom retired this season, in Christopher Wheeldon's Ghosts

Karyn Photography, Courtesy Nashville Ballet

Honoring This Year's Retiring Dancers: Interviews With 7 Soloists and Principals

In addition to cancelled shows, the coronavirus pandemic has disrupted final performances for many retiring dancers. To give them a chance to reflect on their careers and offer advice to the next generation, we compiled a collection of interviews with seven company artists who had planned to give onstage farewells this spring. Click on the links and photos below to read more about these inspiring artists, and to absorb what you can from their extraordinary careers.

Want to honor a retiring ballet dancer? Please leave a tribute in the comments!


Kayla Rowser, Nashville Ballet

Kayla Rowser, costumed in a white swan tutu, pli\u00e9s in first arabesque allong\u00e9 on her left leg. Nicholas Scheurer, in a blue-green price costume,  holds onto her waist behind her.

Kayla Rowser and Nicholas Scheuer in Swan Lake

Karyn Photography, Courtesy Nashville Ballet

Kayla Rowser says her decision to retire from Nashville Ballet after the 2019-2020 season came peacefully. So too, she says, was her coming to terms with how the COVID-19 global pandemic forced her to end her 13-year career there early, without a final onstage farewell.

"I have found so much comfort in looking back at all I've been able to experience in this art form," says Rowser. "My career may not be ending exactly as I always pictured, but it still surpassed my wildest dreams. For that, I will be forever grateful."

Originally from Conyers, Georgia, Rowser trained at the Magdalena Maury School of Classical Ballet and with Georgia Youth Ballet before dancing professionally with Charleston Ballet Theatre for one season. In 2007 she joined Nashville Ballet's second company, NB2, and in 2010 was promoted to the main company. The award-winning Rowser has performed a multitude of roles, including Odette/Odile in Swan Lake, Aurora in The Sleeping Beauty and the title role in Paul Vasterling's Lucy Negro Redux. Sheltered at home in Nashville with husband Nick Tazik, the 31-year-old opened up about her career, being a social advocate and what's next for her.

Read Kayla Rowser's full interview here.

Benjamin Griffiths, Pacific Northwest Ballet

Benjamin Griffiths, wearing a brown shirt and short off-white skirt,  jumps off of his left leg with his right leg held high the side and his left arm held over his head.

Benjamin Griffiths as the title role in Balanchine's Prodigal Son

Angela Sterling, Courtesy PNB

Pacific Northwest Ballet principal Benjamin Griffiths was supposed to celebrate his final Seattle performance on June 7 before the coronavirus pandemic forced the company to cancel its season and summer tours. A native of Boise, Idaho, Griffiths trained with Lisa Moon and later at the School of American Ballet before joining PNB's corps de ballet in 2005. A principal since 2016, Griffiths has performed an impressive range of leading roles. "Technical prowess marked his roles in William Forsythe's Vertiginous Thrill of Exactitude, Ulysses Dove's Red Angels and Oberon in A Midsummer Night's Dream," says PNB artistic director Peter Boal. "His Sarabande in Agon seems cast by Balanchine himself."

Griffiths, who is married to former PNB dancer Jordan Pacitti, also developed the curriculum for PNB School Professional Division's Men's Strength Training Program and graduated summa cum laude from Seattle University with a BA in Interdisciplinary Arts with a focus in Arts Leadership. Below, he talks about missing out on a final performance, his most challenging roles and his next steps.

Read Benjamin Griffith's full interview here.

Chandra Kuykendall, Colorado Ballet

Chandra Kuykendall, dressed in a blue peasant dress and with her blonde hair down, sits on the stage floor and looks far off into the distance.

Chandra Kuykendall in Giselle

Courtesy Colorado Ballet

After 23-years as a professional dancer, 22 of those with Colorado Ballet, Chandra Kuykendall felt it was time for change. The 41-year-old principal dancer, who officially retired this season, did so to spend more time with her husband and two small boys and to do all those other things being a full-time ballerina curtailed. A native of Parker, Colorado, Kuykendall trained at the Academy of Colorado Ballet for 9 years before joining Colorado Ballet in 1997. She was promoted to principal in 2007 and has performed leading roles from Odette/Odile in Swan Lake and Aurora in The Sleeping Beauty to ballets by George Balanchine, Antony Tudor, Twyla Tharp and Jíří Kylián. Kuykendall took time to talk about balancing career and family, and on missing out on a final onstage farewell.

Read Chandra Kuykendall's full interview here.

Eris Nezha, Los Angeles Ballet

Eris Nezha, wearing white briefs, squats into second position and cradles the head of Petra Conti, who is wearing a sparkly white top and briefs.

Eris Nezha with Petra Conti in L'Altro Casanova, choreography by Gianluca Schiavoni

Costin Radu, Courtesy Nezha

Eris Nezha has been a principal dancer with Los Angeles Ballet since 2018, but that is just one aspect of his long international career. He began training in his homeland at the National Ballet Academy of Albania in Tirana, later attending Milan's Teatro alla Scala Ballet School. In addition to dancing as a principal at La Scala Ballet and Boston Ballet, he has traveled the world as an international guest artist, performing with Staatsballett Berlin, Zagreb National Ballet and Tirana National Ballet, to name a few.

Nezha was set to retire at the end of this season in Thordal Christensen's The Sleeping Beauty, which has since been postponed until summer of 2021. His last performance was in February opposite his wife, fellow principal dancer Petra Conti, in George Balanchine's Agon. Pointe caught up with Nezha to talk about his life onstage and his exciting plans for the future.

Read Eris Nezha's full interview here.

Lara O'Brien, Carolina Ballet

Lara O'Brien, wearing a pink dance dress and a chunky gold crown, makes a beckoning motion with her right arm and looks toward her right.

O'Brien as Lady MacBeth in Robert Weiss' Macbeth. The ballet, which was to be her swan song, has been rescheduled for next season.

Armes Photography, Courtesy Carolina Balle

Carolina Ballet principal dancer Lara O'Brien planned to retire from the company she has spent her entire 19-year career with this spring. Her final onstage appearance, as Lady Macbeth in Robert Weiss' Macbeth, a role she originated in 2016, was supposed to happen in May but was cancelled due to COVID-19. Luckily, the production was rescheduled to November 19-22 in Raleigh and she will delay her retirement until then.

A native of Crystal Lake, Illinois, O'Brien trained at the School of Ballet Chicago and School of American Ballet before joining Carolina Ballet in 2001 as an apprentice. She was promoted to soloist in 2004 and principal in 2011, and is also a mother and the owner of two dance studios. The 38-year-old O'Brien spoke to Pointe about about her career in Raleigh, as well as what it takes to balance dance, family and a business.

Read Lara O'Brien's full interview here.

Gabriel Gaffney Smith, BalletMet

Gabriel Gaffney Smith, wearing a white shirt and stirriped pants, stands on his right leg in a twisted open first arabesque. Behind him stands a similarly dressed male dancer in front of a large, white rectangular structure.

Gabriel Gaffney Smith as Don Jose in Gustavo Ramirez Sansano's Carmen.maquia

Jennifer Zmuda, Courtesy BalletMet

For 35-year-old Gabriel Gaffney Smith, retiring from BalletMet is more about switching focus than a bona fide farewell to dance. A modern-day Renaissance man, Smith is also a choreographer, composer and visual artist. His road to being a dancer began at age 12 at New York's Saugerties Ballet Center. He then attended Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre School before becoming a member of the main company in 2005.

In 2008, he joined BalletMet, where he has not only danced but has had opportunities to choreograph and compose music for the company. He has also collaborated with musicians and choreographers, composing works created for The Washington Ballet, Kansas City Ballet, Cincinnati Ballet and Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre. As a visual artist, his woodcarvings have been shown at the Columbus Museum of Art and in galleries across the United States. (See samples of his artwork and music at GabrielGaffneySmith.com.) Smith, at home in Columbus, Ohio, with fiancée and fellow BalletMet dancer Carly Wheaton, reflected on his career and talked about why he's shifting his attention toward his other artistic loves.

Read Gabriel Gaffney Smith's full interview here.

Margaret Mullin, Pacific Northwest Ballet

Margaret Mullin, in a blue leotard, jumps into assembl\u00e9 with her arms above her head on a darkened stage.

Margaret Mullin in Price Suddarth's Signature

Angela Sterling, Courtesy PNB

Let's get one thing straight: Margaret Mullin is not retiring from dance just yet. But the longtime Pacific Northwest Ballet soloist is saying goodbye to company life. A native of Tucson, Arizona, Mullin has spent her entire career at PNB, rising from apprentice to soloist over the course of 12 years. Her dream to dance there started early as a student at Ballet Arts Tucson, and she eventually moved to Seattle to train at PNB School full time.

In addition to dancing leading roles throughout the years, Mullin has also choreographed works for PNB's NEXT STEPS choreographer's showcase, as well as Lost in Light for the main company and Saccade for PNB Professional Division students. She is also the director and producer of the documentary film No Dominion: The Ian Horvath Story, following the life of late dance champion and AIDS awareness advocate Ian Horvath, and hosts her own podcast, "Beyond the Barre." Below, she opens up about what she'll miss about PNB, why she's cultivated interest outside of dance and her big dreams for the future.

Read Margaret Mullin's full interview here.

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Organized by Diamante Ballet Dancewear's founder, Nashville Ballet 2 dancer Isichel Perez, and Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre teacher Elise Gillum, Dance for Change makes it easy to participate. Dancers need only to make a donation to the NAACP (in any amount) and email proof to diamante.ballet@gmail.com to be given online access to a full schedule of Zoom master classes taught by Black pros artists. Teachers include Ballet Memphis' George Sanders, Boston Ballet's Daniel Durrett, Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre's Corey Bourbonniere, and more. "It's important that we amplify BIPOC voices during this time, and it's also important that we're conscious of where we're putting our dollars," says Bourbonniere. "Diamante is doing both with Dance for Change, and I'm honored to be in this talented group of melanated dancers."

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Sydney Dolan Takes Center Stage at Pennsylvania Ballet

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Courtesy de Roos

SAB Student Founds Dancewear Nonprofit to Help Others in Need

When School of American Ballet student Alexandra de Roos was 8 years old, she placed a collection box at her dance studio for others to donate their gently used dancewear. De Roos, now 17, has since turned that single collection box into a nonprofit organization that aims to minimize economic barriers in the performing arts with free dancewear and classes.

De Roos' organization, Peace Love Leotards, has collected about $2,600 of new and gently-used dancewear and $2,000 in grants and donations since formally launching in April. Dancers or studio owners can request items through a form on the organization's website.

"I knew that dancewear was really expensive and that a lot of students might not be able to do the thing that they love because it's cost-prohibitive," de Roos said. "I really wanted to create something to allow people to have the same experience of the love and joy of dance that I've been so grateful to have."

After SAB shifted its winter term online amid the COVID-19 pandemic, de Roos decided to expand Peace Love Leotards. She reached out to dance companies, resulting in partnerships with brands including Jo+Jax, Lone Reed Designs, RubiaWear and Wear Moi.

"To have them be like 'We want to help you with this and we love this idea and what you're doing is amazing,' that was really exciting to me," she said. "It was very heartwarming."

Jordan Reed, the creator of custom dancewear brand Lone Reed Designs, said she has donated seven items to Peace Love Leotards with plans to donate more consistently every quarter. Custom leotards often retail at higher prices, but Reed, a former Houston Ballet corps member, said the one-of-a-kind clothing offers an "extra bit of confidence, which can go more than a long way in a dancer's journey of training."

Paul Plesh, a sales director for Wear Moi in the United States and Canada, said the company donated 11 leotards after finding Peace Love Leotards' mission to be "commendable." Joey Dowling-Fakhrieh, the founder and creative director of Jo+Jax, said dancewear "can make a significant impact on a student's confidence, as well as how much they enjoy the process of learning dance."

De Roos has worked to expand Peace Love Leotards, Inc. rapidly in the past few months, but she first created the organization at eight years old after participating in a mentorship program with competitors in the Miss Florida and Miss Florida's Outstanding Teen pageants. The pageants, which are part of the Miss America Organization, require competitors to have personal platforms they advocate for as titleholders. As a competition dancer, de Roos instantly thought about the cost barriers to dance when wondering what her own future platform would be.

De Roos said she and her young classmates often outgrew nearly brand-new dancewear, so she approached her studio's owner about placing a collection box at the studio.

Barbara Mizell, who owns Barbara's Centré for Dance in Florida, said she was unsurprised by de Roos' proposal. De Roos always had "such a way of pushing herself and she never forgot those around her," Mizell said. As the box filled up, she distributed the dancewear to others at the studio, local schools with dance programs, and the local YMCA.

"When they could start to see that it was providing happiness for others, then it was almost like the kids couldn't wait to donate," Mizell said.

Nearly a decade after the Miss Florida organization inspired her to launch Peace Love Leotards, de Roos is now a titleholder herself, as Miss Gainesville's Outstanding Teen 2020. Her new mission for Peace Love Leotards is applying for grants, and she has already received a $1,000 grant from the Delores Barr Weaver Legacy Fund that will be used to fund a Title 1 school class.

"The whole organization behind Peace Love Leotards is the dancers," de Roos said. "Being able to help the dancers that are in need and being able to think about the dancewear that they're going to be receiving or have received has been truly amazing."

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