The New York City Ballet principal dancer, known for testing limits onstage, talks about City Ballet’s upcoming season, her Fall for Dance debut, and her flair for the dramatic.
New York City Ballet Fall Season
September 17 – October 13, 2013
Fall for Dance Festival
September 25 – October 5, 2013
Ryan Wenzel (Rail): What were you rehearsing today?
Sara Mearns: We started Swan Lake. We open three weeks from today. Jared Angle and I have done the George Balanchine, one-act Swan Lake all year, which is the white act, so we don’t really have to rehearse that yet.
Rail: How do dancing the full-length Peter Martins production and Balanchine’s version differ?
Mearns: It’s not the same emotionally. I do get emotional when I do Balanchine’s, but there’s something about going through a two-and-a-half-hour ballet and becoming a character for that length of time. The choreography in Balanchine’s is still great—I love the steps and I get a thrill out of it—but it’s just not as rewarding for me.
Rail: And, of course, you don’t get to dance the Black Swan.
Mearns: Yeah, it’s fun to get out of the somberness of the White Swan and be … bitchy.
Rail: How has dancing Swan Lake changed for you over the years?
Mearns: Every time we come back to it—which is every couple of years—I’m in a different place in career, I have different strengths, and I’m closer with my partner. Even this first rehearsal today was so much easier than the last time. I don’t feel like it’s going to be such a huge struggle.
Rail: You’ve felt that struggle before with the role, though?
Mearns: I felt like I was trying to climb a wall technically and emotionally. During the last performances of the full production, in 2011, I don’t think I’ve ever received that kind of response from the audience—for anything—and didn’t think I ever would.
Rail: What else are you in this season?
Mearns: I’m in Jerome Robbins’s The Four Seasons, Christopher Wheeldon’s Carnival of the Animals, Balanchine’s Episodes and Slaughter on Tenth Avenue, and Alexei Ratmansky’s Namouna.
Rail: Namouna was one of the very first ballets I saw at City Ballet.
Mearns: You’re so lucky! It’s such a thrill to dance Ratmansky’s choreography. It brings you out of your body. It makes you dance your best every time. I always think afterward, “How did he make me do that?” My solo in it is the hardest solo I’ve ever done. I’m constantly jumping and doing grands jetés, and then I land on the floor on my back.
Rail: Is there a role in City Ballet’s repertory that you don’t dance but wish you did?
Mearns: Juliet. It’s so dramatic—I want to feel that. I’ll never do it at City Ballet. They want her to look like a young girl, and I just don’t look like that onstage. I’ve never looked like a young girl onstage. But Alessandra Ferri was one of the best Juliets, and so was Makarova, and they never looked like little girls.
Rail: It sounds like you prefer romantic roles.
Mearns: I tend to lean toward the drama. It’s very hard for me to be tame.
Rail: One of the works I’ve most enjoyed seeing you dance is the “Élégie” in Balanchine’s Tschaikovsky Suite No. 3, which is pure mood.
Mearns: That’s one of my favorites. I told Karin von Aroldingen, when she was coaching me, that I want to retire with that ballet.
Rail: Not any time soon, I hope! Yet you’ve thought about it. How have you changed as a performer since your most recent injury, which kept you off the stage for eight months?
Mearns: I reevaluated my time and how I can use it. You can only dance so many hours in a day, and you have to know how many that is. If that means going to dinner with someone, going to a museum, or going home to lie on the couch—whatever it is, you have to have that, and I’ve learned that it’s okay to have that. I didn’t think it was okay before.
Rail: How did you become involved with Fall for Dance?
Mearns: It’s a festival I’ve always wanted to be a part of. I really admire what they’ve done for dance as a whole, and how they bring in companies and forms of dance that I would never be able to see. I’m close friends with one of the festival’s directors, and we talked about it being the festival’s 10th anniversary and it wanting to commission works. They invited me to dance in one of the commissioned works, and they asked who I wanted to work with. I thought, “Maybe it’s best to keep it New York based, since everyone else will be coming from somewhere else.” We picked Justin Peck to choreograph it, because I’ve never worked with him and I admire his work a lot. For my partner, we found Casey Herd, who is with Het National Ballet.
Rail: Have you danced with Herd before? How is he as a partner?
Mearns: Never. He’s a man, and I need that. He can handle me. I’m quite challenging.
Rail: Do you think you intimidate some of your partners?
Mearns: They’re petrified! The ones I dance with a lot know how to deal with it. The partners who try to control everything get frustrated. Jared has learned to be there at the right moment.
Rail: What was working with Peck like?
Mearns: We made the piece in four and a half days. Justin works very fast, and so do I. It was exciting to get into the studio with him. I didn’t know how it would be to work with him, but after the first 30 minutes, I just got what Justin wanted, and it worked. I think it’s the way we’re trained at City Ballet. We have to learn a ballet in an hour and a half and then perform. Your brain is on overdrive all the time.
Rail: What do you admire about Peck as a choreographer?
Mearns: I like that he uses classical music, and he listens to it. He gave me the score for this piece and said he wanted me to listen to it and have it be a part of me. I’ve never had a choreographer do that. To see a choreographer who’s young, who’s 25, do that—that’s very rare. I also love the way he makes your weight change from extreme positions. You have to keep moving.
Rail: Can you reveal anything else about the piece?
Mearns: [Pauses.] The music is solo piano. The piano will be onstage. We don’t stop moving for six and a half minutes.
Rail: Wendy Whelan, your colleague at City Ballet, just performed an evening of duets with four male choreographers outside the ballet mainstream. If given the chance to plan a similar program, what four choreographers would you choose?
Mearns: Alexander Ekman. Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui, who choreographed the Anna Karenina movie. They do amazing contemporary work that I want to explore. I don’t know if they’d be people I could dance with, but I’d love to do a work by Mauro Bigonzetti and one by Robert Battle. I actually have a list of names. In my time off, I want to explore other choreographers, other kinds of movement instead of doing galas and the same thing
I always do.
Rail: Your sometimes-extreme approach to dancing: Does that come naturally, or is it something conscious on your part?
Mearns: I find it natural. I think that’s why I have trouble with some of Robbins’s work. For him, there was a glass wall there. The audience is looking in on what you’re doing. With Balanchine, there’s no boundary.
You use the entire phrase, and the energy doesn’t stop at your fingertips—it should go beyond the theater. You should go as far as you can. You should reach as far as you can, until the music stops.