Belissima! This ballerina’s on fire

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(Photo courtesy of New York City Ballet)

My Enchanté column from EMC News, June 5, 2014.

Sara Mearns doesn’t so much perform dance; she becomes the dance.

New York City Ballet principal dancer Sara Mearns arrives for our meeting looking as relaxed as a high school track and field athlete after a good event. She’s smiling and lounges comfortably on a chair. There’s no putting on airs for this dancer who is changing the very face of ballet.

Her work seriously kicks ass, hardly a description you might use with a ballerina. There’s nothing frail or pristine about her. A gritty power flows through her supple form.

Descriptive words like fearless, passionate and wildly abandoned follow her.

Sources like Dance Magazine and the New York Times lavish kudos like “greatest” and “explosive” on her. I’d heard what I considered urban legends of Ms. Mearns bringing an audience to tears. I’d seen videos of her work and, indeed, she’s more than impressive. But tears?

Mearns, the new face of dance, says she never had a dream of being a principal dancer.
“I don’t think I knew what that meant when I was younger. I didn’t really understand the status of that until I came to SAB [School of American Ballet].”

She credits her first dance teacher in South Carolina, Anne Brodie, with inspiring her legendary work ethic. Mearns easily spends 12 or more hours a day at NYCB’s David H. Koch Theater.

“Miss Anne was my teacher from the age of three until I was 12,” says Mearns. “She said if I was going to make it anywhere I had to go to New York. I became so comfortable on stage because she had us perform hard stuff at the young age of 10.”

There’s still a large part of Mearns that’s a kid at heart. When we chat, she’s just finished a rehearsal. She moves in her chair and stretches every few minutes. Neck side to side. Arms in the air, bending left and right.

Mearns’ advice for younger up-and-coming dancers is to not compare themselves to anyone else.

“You have to focus on yourself and make yourself better as an artist and as a person,” she says. “Don’t get sucked into competition.”

Her message to the world is that ballet is fun.

“I want to make going to the ballet the coolest thing to do in New York,” she says. “That’s my mission.”

And by New York, that means the world.

Melissa Mahady Wilton, the City of Kingston Dance Engagement Coordinator and a teacher at the Kingston School of Dance says Sara Mearns is someone all dancers can admire.

“She’s simply wonderful,” says Mahady Wilton. “I love that she comes right out and says, ‘I don’t weigh myself. What’s important is am I strong enough for this role? It’s more important to worry about what your body is telling you. I love the fact that she’s so free about who she is as a person.”

Mahady Wilton noted that Ms. Mearns is the living example of hard work, love of dance and putting it out there.

“That’s an important lesson for young dancers. She works so hard and makes it look effortless,” says Mahady Wilton. “Sara Mearns doesn’t hold back. You feel her passion.”

Fifteen-year-old Kingston School of Dance student Gillian Baker considers Sara Mearns a role model. When she heard I’d be meeting with Ms. Mearns, Gillian asked if I’d give a letter to the famous ballerina. I’d never before agreed to such a request, but I accepted the letter from the dedicated young dancer.

“I wanted her to know that she’s a positive role model,” says Gillian. “I thought it was important. I’m sure she can see that she has a huge fan base. But I wanted her to know from an individual on a personal level. I wanted to tell her what she’s done for me.”

Gillian, who spends 15 hours a week in dance classes at Kingston School of Dance, as well as helping to teach younger students, explains that Ms. Mearns is not a stereotypical ballerina, and that’s part of her appeal.

“Her whole persona is so natural,” says Gillian, who started dancing at the age of three. “Even though she doesn’t carry herself like a typical ballerina, she has flourished. I was told by dance teachers when I was younger that I’d never be able to be a professional dancer because of my physique. Sara doesn’t have the typical physique either, and she’s one of the best in the world.”

At NYCB’s recent performance of Balanchine’s Jewels, a seven-year-old girl named Sarah, from California, sat in front of me in the theater. The little girl with long blonde hair and a big smile couldn’t have had a better introduction to the world of ballet.

It was her first ticket to the ballet and her first visit to NYC. She was impressed with Sara Mearns.

“I think she is so good,” says the younger Sarah. “I think she really knows how to turn.”

Probably the understatement of the afternoon. What’s missing from the remark were the wide eyes twinkling in awe of a spellbinding performance by what many call the most daring dancer in the world.

Mearns enters the stage like a wild animal prowling the jungle. There’s a slinkiness to her movement. Later, alone on stage, she spins and moves along the circumference. A gossamer vulnerability weaves through an intense strength.

And today she’s on fire. There’s nothing that will stop her.

“Dance makes people happy,” she says. “It’s a way for people to express themselves. It’s therapy for some people. Every culture has dance. It’s a way of celebrating life, relationships and history. Dance is the most comfortable place I exist.”

Mearns says she owes much to her mother.

“Mom did everything,” she says. “She made all my costumes. She did the car-pooling and paid for everything. She drove me up to New York and back to South Carolina. I wouldn’t be here if it weren’t for her. She’s still a full-time nurse.”

From the time she was 12, Mearns attended the summer programs at SAB, the school of NYCB. In the fall of 2001, she became a full-time student of SAB at the age of 15. In 2004 she joined NYCB as a member of the corps de ballet. That’s when doubt crept into the young dancer.

“I think there’s a point in every professional ballet dancer’s career where you doubt whether you can do it,” she says. “You go from being at the top of the school then when you’re in the company you’re back at the bottom. It’s challenging for anyone to sustain that confidence, but you have to know you’re important. You’re meant to be here. The young person working their butt off will be rewarded.”

She left the company briefly.

“There were body issues, definitely,” she said. “I didn’t know why I was here or what I was doing. It was a weird time for me. I went home for a couple of months. When I came back I had a new spark. The time away helped put everything into perspective. A month later I was learning Swan Lake. “

That reinvigorated spark became a flame and now Mearns is a fireball of energy and talent.

During the 2005/6 season, injuries hampered others who could dance the Swan roles of Swan Lake. Peter Martins, the Company’sBallet Master in Chief reported to Dance Magazine that, “It was a no-brainer. I just knew [Sara] was ready for it both physically and mentally.”

Others thought he was nuts casting an unknown young dancer. But when a cast list went up for Swan Lake, Mearns’ name was listed under Odette/Odile (White Swan/Black Swan).

“I wasn’t sure what that meant,” says Mearns. “I had to ask why my name was up there.”

That role for Mearns, who at the time was 19, was pivotal. Her performances sent her into the realm of dance stardom. Today, she owns the role. She’s considered the foremost interpreter of the iconic Swan roles in the world.

“Swan Lake is my favorite ballet,” says Mearns. “Growing up I learned everything about it. For it to be the first thing I’d do alone was surreal for me.”

In 2008, she was promoted to the role of principal dancer with the NYCB.

“It’s really here, a time when I can enjoy being in the prime of my career,” she says. “You work all these years and come to a point of comfort and confidence in dancing. I’ve been in roles for seven or eight years. This is when I have to reinvent them. I have to evolve.When you become the artist, you’re building on your technique. It’s all about being here and being in New York. There are lots of opportunities and my own side projects.”

She mentions other dance forms like flamenco and tango, even Broadway, that she’d like to explore.

She moves her back, wiggles a bit and sits up straighter in her chair. More stretching.

Is she the great ballerina of our time? Judging by her effect on an audience, she is.

During the performance of Balanchine’s Jewels, when Mearns is dancing to the music of Tchaikovsky, wee Sarah in front of me moves around and sits forward in her seat, eyes on Ms. Mearns, a single body filling a giant stage. The younger Sarah says she’d like to be up on that stage one day.

As I sit in Lincoln Center watching Sara Mearns, admittedly, I feel energy along my spine. As she finishes, and amidst curtain calls too many to count, I hear people in the row behind me crying, saying “That was so beautiful” over and over.

Nearby, an Italian woman yells “Bellissima! Bellissima!” Even that is an understatement of what’s just happened on stage.

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About Mark Aidan Bergin

Writer, editor, photographic artist specializing in dance, theater, concert, fashion and street photography....sometimes musician. Explorer of arts, culture and world, and all things Celtic and Gotham. On a good day, or perhaps a bad day, simply a mad (FOOBAR, not angry) scientist.
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