A Beat of Her Own

Defying expectations at every step in her career, Teresa Reichlen’s path as a dancer has been anything but typical.

Thirty-three-year-old Teresa Reichlen is—literally—head and shoulders above the rest of the dancers at New York City Ballet. At 5 feet 9 inches, she shatters the mold of the diminutive and delicate ballerina.

As a young child in Clifton, Reichlen (“Tess” to her friends) had everything required in a successful dancer’s toolbox: the turn out, the flexibility, a quiet drive and determination belied by her shyness. It was clear to anyone paying attention that she was going places. And she has.

“I just want to continue to strive to be better and not become complacent and continue to improve if possible.”

— Teresa Reichlen

Reichlen has danced lead roles with New York City Ballet in both classical story ballets and modern works, bringing to her parts a crystal clear technique and a litheness reminiscent of NYCB’s legendary prima ballerina Suzanne Farrell. She has the composure and coolness of a Hitchcock blonde, and it is clear she is someone who can take on anything that is thrown at her. Alastair Macaulay, The New York Times dance critic for the past decade, has described her dancing as “so unmannered and so selfless that at first it’s hard to know what to say about it. Instead you find yourself watching the choreography with new attention.” In its latest review, The Washington Post referred to her simply as “the majestic Teresa Reichlen.”

Reichlen’s parents signed her up for ballet classes at age three: “I had a lot of extra energy, and I think my parents were just trying to channel it,” she says with a laugh. When other competitive dancers her age had moved to boarding schools for dance, she stayed at Russell School of Ballet in Northern Virginia, but continued to attend summer programs at various professional companies. 

By age 15, it was clear she needed to make the move to New York City to fully explore her potential. “It was a really difficult move,” she recalls of leaving her parents and three brothers behind, “but I knew that’s what I needed to do to continue my studies.” She auditioned and was granted admission to the School of American Ballet, a New York City dance academy with 450 students from around the world. Graduates from the rigorous school make up 90 percent of NYCB. 

The New York City Ballet is one of the oldest ballet companies in the U.S., founded by legendary choreographer George Balanchine in 1948. Balanchine’s dream was to create a 20th century ballet company that emphasized the speed, energy and musicality that he believed encompassed the American spirit. Balanchine also loved tall ballerinas with long limbs—for Reichlen, a perfect fit.

Reichlen’s gamble and sacrifices paid off, and in 2001, at the age of 18, she was selected to dance in the NYCB’s corps. But the hard work was just beginning. Members of the corps in any professional company must be work horses, typically dancing 40 hours a week and wearing through more than 10 pairs of pointe shoes a month in the process. NYCB in particular is known for its large number of shows and grueling work demands. 

But Reichlen knew the company was also known for taking chances on new dancers. “It’s typical in the company for the corps members to try soloist and principal roles, so they can see you and see what you can do.” When she was 19, the company performed Jewels, a modern three-act ballet by Balanchine. The “Rubies” section’s central character is a sly and dynamic woman called Tall Girl. Reichlen was made for the part. She won it and danced the role for the next year. Her performance was strong enough that she was made a soloist at the age of 21, chosen from among 50 other corps members.

Teresa Reichlen

Photo courtesy of NYCB

Reichlen enjoyed her time as a soloist, but also began to take classes at Barnard College with the idea of earning a degree in biology for a fall back career. But no stranger to the unbeaten path, she persevered in dance and in 2009, at age 25, not only survived a round of layoffs in the company, but received a promotion to principal dancer, the highest rank a dancer can earn. “What would have been my junior year of college, I was promoted to principal. I was so happy, so excited about dancing, and traveling all the time,” Reichlen says. 

She again rose to the challenge. She took on the title role in Firebird, a dark, psychological ballet and Balanchine’s signature piece. Reichlen created a performance that won her rave reviews from the likes of Macaulay, who called it “the finest interpretation I have ever seen of that part.” And last February, she was featured in the PBS Great Performances special, “New York City Ballet in Paris.”

Last summer, Reichlen played her most challenging role to date—the role of Odette/Odile in Swan Lake. She laughs, “I’m still recovering. A full-length ballet is a whole other level.” The company’s packed schedule didn’t leave much time for preparation for the two-and-a-half-hour ballet. “We had three weeks lead in to that,” she explains, noting wryly, “so that was a push.”

Not that she’s complaining. Asked her favorite part of dancing, she doesn’t hesitate. “I just like the constant challenge of it. There’s always something to work on.” She stops for a moment and adds, “I think dancers are never satisfied. We are striving for perfection but of course can never reach it.”

That work ethic is appreciated by her fellow dancers. Russell Janzen, principal dancer with NYCB and a frequent partner, says that her diligence pushes him to “work better.” He goes on to say, “She doesn’t cut herself any slack. When we prepared for Swan Lake this season, we planned a training schedule in advance, and settled into a routine that helped us both spread our focus throughout the ballet and build our stamina. That was all thanks to her.”

After 14 years of dancing Tall Girl in Rubies, she is inextricably linked to the part, with The New York Times calling her version “definitive.” She danced it again this summer in a 50th anniversary international celebration of its premiere. In the special collaborative performance, Reichlen held her own against ballerinas from the Paris Opera Ballet and the famed Bolshoi. Janzen explains, “She has a crazy body. Her hypermobility allows her to create extreme shapes, and she has the strength and technique to back it up.” 

Reichlen says she still loves to dance Tall Girl, but also yearns to try the rest of Balanchine’s vast repertory. “There are so many things I love. Almost all of Balanchine’s ballets I just adore.” However, she’s realistic about a career in which the average age of retirement is 40. She toys with eventually trying a second act in management. “I’d like to do something leveraging all of my experience and skills. Something in which I can use my experience working in the arts the past 15 years.”

But for now she still has dance goals to conquer. “I just want to continue to strive to be better and not become complacent and continue to improve if possible.” What is her dream role? She stops to think for a moment, “God, I kind of want to do everything.”

This article originally appeared in our December 2017 issue.

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