Sarah Hay photographed by Nathan Sayers for Pointe.

A Star Is Born: Sarah Hay Rises in Both Dresden & Hollywood

This is Pointe's October/November 2015 Cover Story. You can subscribe to the magazine here, or click here to purchase this issue.

On the Starz television series “Flesh and Bone," Sarah Hay plays Claire, a troubled young dancer getting her first big break in a New York City ballet company. With faraway eyes, she listens to music on a dreary train, escaping some unknown horror at home to attend an audition in the big city. Her hands move expertly through a variation as if in prayer. But when her phone rings during her first company class, she finds herself the focus of ridicule. Forced to perform the adagio by herself in front of the company, she sails through it with sharp technique and emotional intensity, making it clear to the show's characters that Claire is a dance genius.

Though “Flesh and Bone" is obviously fictional, Hay's natural acting ability comes across as finely crafted as her dancing. It's hard not to imagine that Hay had plenty of source material from her own life to draw on for the role. After a slow career start and battles with intense anxiety and body issues, Hay is now thriving at Dresden Semperoper Ballett as a second soloist. Her extreme vulnerability and emotional honesty, developed after years spent struggling at the bottom of companies, punctuate her highly technical dancing and make her performances on stage and screen so compelling. Now, Hay is coming into her own in front of an audience numbering into the millions, and her future is looking bright.


Hay as Marie in Aaron S. Watkin's "The Nutcracker." Photo by Ian Whalen, Courtesy Hay.



A native of New Jersey, Hay's ballet training began at the School of American Ballet. But she eventually left in her early teens when it was inexplicably suggested that while she was talented, she should try modern. “I was depressed and wanted to quit after that," remembers Hay. “It had long been a dream of mine to join New York City Ballet."

She began taking open classes, eventually finding Susan Jaffe at the Princeton Dance and Theater Studio. Jaffe encouraged her to audition for American Ballet Theatre's Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis School, where Hay spent three years developing her technique. “I learned nuance and musicality at SAB, but my technical aspects developed later at JKO," she says. Hay had high hopes for joining ABT's Studio Company, but says the artistic staff found her too unfocused. Though she had always contended with attention problems, Hay felt they had improved during her last year of school. But it was too late. Girls younger than her were promoted instead.

Back to taking open classes, she was spotted by Charlotte Ballet artistic director Jean-Pierre Bonnefoux at Steps on Broadway and was immediately offered a second company contract. While Hay enjoyed her first taste of contemporary ballet and loved working with resident choreographer Dwight Rhoden, after two years she did not feel she was being pushed and went back to auditioning. An open call brought her to Pennsylvania Ballet, but her experience still failed her expectations. “I spent two years in their second company and two years as an apprentice," she says. “My dancing plateaued. I gained weight and lost confidence." Frustrated, she resigned.


Hay in William Forsythe's "Impressing the Czar." Photo by Ian Whalen, Courtesy Hay.


To get to her sweet spot, Hay had to go back to the beginning. While still at PAB, she was coached by Jodie Gates in William Forsythe's In the middle, somewhat elevated. “Sarah was an instant standout when I staged Bill's work," says Gates. “She has strong technique, keen musicality and the willingness to take risks, such key elements for a contemporary ballerina." Gates recommended that Hay try a Forsythe workshop to learn more about his choreographic style, so she attended one held in Dresden. Though Dresden Semperoper Ballett artistic director Aaron S. Watkin spoke with her about hiring her when a contract opened up, Hay returned to New York and resumed a discouraging cycle of auditions for Broadway shows. But a month later, Watkin called. At 23, Hay moved to Germany to finally accept her first corps contract.

There, she found a company full of individual dancers with varying physiques. Having struggled with her curvy body during her school and early professional years, Hay found herself losing weight simply due to being used in more repertoire. Watkin tested her with soloist roles right away. “He gave me chances," says Hay, “and molded me into who I am." Two years later, she landed the role of Swanilda. Hay is now featured in both classical and contemporary pieces and feels lucky to have worked intimately with Forsythe on his full-length ballet Impressing the Czar. “I have had to work on loving myself," says Hay. “When you feel at a loss all of the time you start to wonder if it's you, but for me it was the place. I felt thrown away by some people who had treated me horribly, but now I just try to see my imperfections as what make me who I am."


Hay in William Forsythe's "Impressing the Czar." Photo by Ian Whalen, Courtesy Hay.


Frequent partner István Simon finds Hay easy to connect with on both creative and personal levels. “Sarah is an intelligent woman with a great sense of humor," says Simon. “When we are dancing together I feel inspired and can bring out more of myself artistically. With her, I feel free onstage."

Having found such a welcoming dance home, Hay wasn't really interested when she was contacted to audition for “Flesh and Bone." But when she looked closer at the email, she was impressed by the show's executive producers, including Emmy-winning “Breaking Bad" writer and producer Moira Walley-Beckett and Oscar-nominee Lawrence Bender. She sent in a video, but it was taken from too far away. And yet, there was something fragile and intriguing, so she was asked to do it over. Hay had “an innate understanding of the complexities of the role," says Walley-Beckett, “and she was fearless." After a three-day final callback in New York, Hay received a call from the production team. “I was so excited I couldn't even tell my mom on the phone," she says. “Then I thought, What am I going to do about my boss?" But Watkin was supportive and gave Hay a six-month leave of absence to shoot the show.


Hay in William Forsythe's "Impressing the Czar." Photo by Ian Whalen, Courtesy Hay.


Hay entered a new world of 15-hour days on set, often wearing her pointe shoes for 12 hours when shooting dance scenes. Sometimes she would spend the entire weekend in bed out of pure exhaustion. “Her work ethic was impressive," says Walley-Beckett. “It surprised me that she was more nervous on big dance days than on big acting scene days. I think it's because ballet dancers are such perfectionists, and she wanted so badly to be flawless in her technique and performance."

After working with an acting coach the first week, Hay chose to simply channel the real dance world. But as a premium cable series, “Flesh and Bone" deals explicitly with adult themes and is clearly geared towards a mature audience. The stress of playing such a troubled character was real, and a romantic relationship ended up a casualty to her schedule and the intensity of the work. While her personal experience was easy fodder for emotional scenes, nudity and sex scenes were also part of the deal. However, filming them was not as scary as she anticipated, and her attitude seems to reflect maturity gained over her very personal battles with her own physique. “For me a body is a body, and we all have bodies," she says. “I didn't have to do anything I was uncomfortable with. The set was closed and everyone there was respectful."

Now, Hay patiently awaits the reaction to the show while looking towards her future in both ballet and television. “I feel like I have come to my peak as a dancer," she says, “and now it's time to push my limits and try to become a first soloist. But as far as acting, I have no idea. I am at a crossroads waiting for things to happen, and for the first time ever, there is no bad, it is all good."

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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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