The Life of a Dancer

A look behind the scenes at the working life of the artists-cum-athletes of the Richmond Ballet, and into the world of la belle danse.

At around 10 o’clock on a late winter morning, dancers of the Richmond Ballet gather in the fourth-floor studio of their steel building on Canal Street. Floor-to-ceiling windows on two sides of the room look out over the downtown city skyline, usually inviting light into the space, but not today. Rain streams down the slick surface against the backdrop of a glowering sky.

The 14 members of the professional company, and the 30 or so trainees and apprentices all hoping to make it to the big show, start each day here, at the barre, rain or shine. Jerri Kumery, the lissome ballet master, walks slowly around the room as she conducts the 90-minute class, softly issuing corrections or compliments to the dancers who watch their movements closely in the smudged mirrors. As muscles warm, outer layers of clothes are shed and perspiration begins to show. One of the dancers grimaces as he lowers his body to the floor in splits, and the company lets out a collective sigh at the end of each exercise. But in a moment of levity they break concentration and laugh as two dancers accidentally collide and stumble, giggling.

Tonight they will perform Giselle at the opulent Carpenter Theatre. The audience will not see any sweat, or witness any stumbling or hear any sound that would betray the brute strength required to perform the gravity-defying choreography. The dancers will appear weightless, their fluid movements, effortless. But here, on mornings like these, is where the work happens to create that fiction.

 “You want the truth? You can’t handle the truth!” teases Malcolm Burn at the beginning of a rehearsal. The native New Zealander who has been with Richmond Ballet for nearly 25 years, first as a dancer and now as ballet master, gets a laugh from the group for his Jack Nicholson impression. The object of his gentle ribbing, Julie Smith, a fresh-faced 22-year-old, smiles. She is the newest member of the professional company. Just days before, she was promoted from apprentice (typically, a two-year paid training program) to company member, and signed her first professional contract (she will earn roughly $20,000 for the season). This is a place few aspiring dancers make it to. “It was exhilarating,” Smith says of the day she found out. “There are no words.”

A native of Plano, Texas, Smith began dancing at the age of eight. She spent one year as a trainee at Cincinnati Ballet, then auditioned for six months before landing an apprenticeship at Richmond Ballet in 2008; a process she describes as “like running a marathon.” (Of the 24 or so trainees at Richmond Ballet each year, only eight will be hired as apprentices.) This year, Smith is just one of three apprentices who were promoted into the professional company.

Today is one of Smith’s first rehearsals as a pro. She stands somewhat shyly at the edge of the group as Burn gets serious and calls everyone to gather around an old TV that has been set up in a corner of the darkened stage. There is new choreography to learn for next season, and this is how they do it. “Ballet repertory is not recorded in books or libraries,” writes Jennifer Homans in her 2010 book, Apollo’s Angels, which limns the 400-year history of ballet, “it is held instead in the bodies of dancers.” Burn pops a tape into a VCR, and Smith leans forward with the others to see the small screen and hear the crackling music.

When the tape is finished and the dancers try out the new steps, Burn offers technical direction, “OK, now arabesque,” and advice that is a little less concrete: “Now you come around and swoopy-doo,” he says, making a wide sweeping motion with his arms. The dancers seem to know what this means as little by little they try and tweak and try again, each effort bringing them closer to what the steps will look like when they are finally performed a few months from now. There is little about Burn to suggest the harsh stereotype of the ballet master who shouts at dancers and cracks a stick against his palm. Dressed in dark jeans and a t-shirt, Burn’s wispy gray hair and glasses make him appear something more like a charming mad-scientist.

He watches as Phillip Skaggs, 33, Thomas Ragland, 24, and Tommy Garrett, 27, practice a series of jumps. Quiet for a few moments, he determines that the second beat in the three-count step is off. “It’s so small, but it shows,” he says to the men, who have been running and leaping across the stage in the empty theater for at least 15 minutes and are now breathing heavily. But there is more to master than just technique. “Character does not come from the technique,” Burn admonishes.

“At first, I had a hard time getting into character,” says the lanky 6-foot 2-inch Garrett, a native of Jacksonville, Florida, who is in his seventh year with the company. “The first couple of years of my training I was so focused on technique.” When I meet him later after the rehearsal, he is wearing jeans and a plaid shirt, his longish brown hair tousled. He laughs as he explains he wanted to be a basketball player when he was young and told his mother (who owned a small dance school), “You’ll never find me in tights!” He appears boyish as he says this, but gets serious when he explains that it was the difficulty of ballet that drew him to it ultimately.

This evening, he will perform the role of Albrecht in Giselle. The convivial young man talking with me seems so different from the regal and sophisticated character he will become in a few hours. To prepare for the nightly transformation he must make, Garrett says he listened to the music constantly for weeks, even as he fell asleep. He also describes what strikes me as an almost Zen-like process of visualizing choreography over and over in his head.

“Not everyone thinks about it so much,” says Maggie Small, 26, who has just joined us. “Tommy really likes to think through the choreography over and over, like 42 times before he does it! I say, ‘Oh my God! Can we just do it?’” Garrett smiles, and says, “It just makes me feel more secure.” Small, also in her seventh year with the company, is allowed this bit of playfulness. She and Garrett have been a couple for nine years—since their first apprentice year. A Richmond native who came up through the ranks of Richmond Ballet, the ebullient Small was singled out in 2010 by Dance Magazine as one of the year’s “Most Amazing Performers.” I ask if she has thought of moving to a company in a bigger city (though Richmond Ballet is Virginia’s only professional ballet company, and the official state ballet), she doesn’t hesitate: “Why? I have everything I need right here.”

Everything about Small reflects the ethos of carpe diem that the late George Balanchine, who was perhaps America’s most influential choreographer, was known to espouse. “What are you waiting for?” he would say. “What are you saving for? Now is all there is.” I ask what Small’s plans are for the future and she smiles: “That’s a good question!”

When I meet Shira Lanyi, who is 24 and in her fifth season with the company, she confesses, “It’s really annoying to me when people ask what else I do. People sometimes don’t realize this is a full-time job.” (Dancers arrive around 10 a.m. and work all day, eight hours or more, six days a week for the 40 weeks of their annual contracts.)

A few weeks from now, when the season ends in mid-May, the dancers’ contracts will end, and many of them will draw unemployment insurance for some or all of the 12 weeks they are not paid during the summer. For the last six years, Lanyi—a graduate of Maggie Walker Governor’s School in Richmond who laughs easily and plans to study to become a pediatric orthopedist when her dance career is over—has supplemented her income by operating a catering business called Sur La Pointe. She is not the only dancer with a side business: Phillip Skaggs, 33, and one of the company’s most seasoned performers with 12 years at Richmond Ballet under his belt, operates a guest-performer referral business, GotPrince.com, which he started in 1998, the year after he joined Richmond Ballet. (Dancers often perform as guests in other companies.)

The enterprising Skaggs tells me, “I’m more than a dancer. I’m happy dancing right now and my body feels great. But I will only dance until it doesn’t feel right anymore.” The owner with his wife of a circa 1911 bungalow in Richmond’s North Side, Skaggs says his “dream job” in his next career would be to flip houses.

Skaggs’ path to dancing was more circuitous, perhaps, than some of his colleagues’. Born and raised in Kentucky, the 6-foot 3-inch square-jawed blonde with the earnest expression didn’t start dancing until he was 16. “My whole ballet life has been like Forrest Gump. I’ve always shown up at the right time, the right day to make it work out.” He trained at Nutmeg Conservatory in Connecticut for three years, and of his peers there he says, “We were a bunch of jocks. We’d go to the gym and pump iron and slam chests, then at night we’d watch ballet videos.” It was at Nutmeg that he says he had an a-ha moment. “Once, rehearsing for Sleeping Beauty, I did a pose and looked over in the mirror and saw the prince,” he says. “I saw the vision then of what I could be. At that point, I wasn’t the most talented kid, but I decided to work to be the best dancer that I can.”

The next time I see Skaggs, it is at the tail end of a rehearsal for a performance he and fellow company member Cecile Tuzii will give in North Carolina next month. They confer with Burn as they run bits of the choreography. Even in the over-warm theater, the fluorescent lights overhead throwing down jagged, unnatural light, none of the magic of ballet is lost; in some ways, the removal of the artifice makes it even more beautiful to watch.

“There is a point when you no longer look good in white tights,” Skaggs confides later. “It is a visual art, and you want to take yourself out before someone else takes you out.” Though he is, he says, living in the present of his career, he is also at a point where he is beginning to evaluate what comes next, and the long-term effect on his body of the punishing physicality of his work. Like his peers, Skaggs is no stranger to injury; he tore an ankle tendon just last year. (Not surprisingly, the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics claims that dancers have one of the highest rates of nonfatal on-the-job injury at 97 percent.)

Skaggs is well acquainted with the rehab process. His wife of seven years, Katie Lynch, 32, was a professional dancer and company member with Richmond Ballet for seven years; she retired in 2007 (a term that feels odd to use when talking about such young people). “I really wasn’t ready to retire, but my body was, which made it especially hard for me,” she says. Lynch was diagnosed with lupus (a chronic autoimmune disease) at 17, just before she joined Richmond Ballet as a trainee, which slowed down her recoveries from a series of injuries that started in her first apprentice year. She describes the many months she spent in rehab and on Worker’s Compensation as torturous. “For a dancer, the worst thing is to sit on the sideline.”

Dark-haired and petite—and pregnant with the couple’s first child, a boy they will name Louie—Lynch is on the faculty of the School of Richmond Ballet and teaches 5, 6, and 7-year-olds. She is circumspect as we sit talking in the quiet of the lobby on a late afternoon. “I can equate it to the stages of grief,” she tells me of her decision to retire. “It sort of felt like there was a part of me that died when I stopped performing. I had been ‘Katie the Ballerina’ since I was three. I worked hard to become that person, then I wasn’t her anymore. Who am I without this I asked myself? Will I ever feel as passionate about anything else?”

In two weeks, Lynch, the daughter of an orthopedic surgeon, will graduate with a nursing degree from Virginia Commonwealth University, and plans to work in labor and delivery. Was it hard living with a dancer during the transition to her next career? “In some ways, because Phil is a dancer it was easier because he understood,” she says. “But also because he was a dancer, I couldn’t escape it.”

So, what does Lynch miss the most? She pauses for a moment, and glances at the pointe shoes lying on the floor nearby (earlier she demonstrated how a ballerina’s foot fits into the shoe, still limber enough to bend over despite being eight months pregnant). “I miss performing the most, and the physical activity. At the end of the day my body would be so tired, but it felt so good.” She adds, “Nothing is going to be exactly like that was, but I have to be able to leave that there and move on to other things.” All dancers do.

“I miss moving through space to the music,” says Stoner Winslett, founding artistic director of Richmond Ballet who is in her 31st year with the company. She cradles a small dog on her lap as we talk. (Winslett’s 11-year-old daughter persuaded her to adopt the timid Shih Tzu named Ellie who was recently rescued from a puppy mill. “Dog, you will be reformed!” she says as she hugs her.) Winslett explains that her knees gave out while she was in college (she began dancing when she was four and even operated a small ballet school in her parents’ basement when she was a teenager), which prevented her from dancing professionally. “I was mostly sad when that happened,” she says thoughtfully. But she adds, “Around that time I was also starting to think there could be a different way dancers could be treated. A lot of directors treat dancers like Kleenex, use them and throw them away. I thought maybe I could make a different kind of place.”

Richmond Ballet is a no-star, all-star company, which means that all the dancers have an equal chance at winning leading roles. And, unlike many other major ballet companies in the country (including the New York City Ballet, which earlier this year ended a nearly year-long contract dispute over pay, and illness and injury policies), the dancers in Richmond Ballet are not in a union.

Of Richmond Ballet, Winslett says, “We’re not where we want to be yet, and we never will be. As a dancer you realize that perfection will never be attainable,” but, she laughs, “every day we come a little closer, and that’s what makes it so savory!”

“It was great to dance, but it’s even better to master,” Jerri Kumery, 53, tells me when she comes out of her smallish office and settles in to one of the soft velvet sofas in the lounge area outside the administrative offices. She is all energy—even seated, her body is moving, and she gestures with her hands as she speaks. “I have a photographic memory,” she says. “I love to put together puzzles. As a ballet master, what I love is to take all the pieces of the choreography and fit them together, then see it come to life with the dancers.”

Kumery retired in 1987 after 10 years with the New York City Ballet where she danced for Balanchine (“Mr. B” as she refers to him). She suffered a career-ending injury in a rehearsal for an opening night performance of his ballet, Rubies, in which she was a soloist. Her arms came unlocked from her partner’s as he threw her into a jump: She landed squarely on her knees, unable to break her fall. She performed that night anyway. “The doctor knew I couldn’t dance again,” she says, “but he also knew I had to go on stage and find out for myself.” After a year away from ballet, she returned and became a répétiteur for the George Balanchine Trust (one who is authorized to stage Balanchine ballets). “I guess I needed to go far away from that life I had lost to find another beginning. I wasn’t completely Jerri until I got back into it.”

Would she rather not have been blind-sided with an injury like hers? “The universe made the decision for me,” she explains as she cocks her head of close-cropped blonde hair, “and I’m open to that. I couldn’t imagine deciding to stop.”

“I think going out because of an injury would be more difficult,” Igor Antonov, 43, tells me later the same day. “That for me would take a lot of vodka!” jokes the Ukraine-born Antonov who, just two weeks earlier, gave his last performance after a career that lasted 25 years. (At the age of 10, he was sent to a prestigious dance school in Kiev, 12 hours away from his home.) As we talk, he crosses his legs and runs his fingers through his thick brown hair; he has an easy way about him. “I’m sad not being on stage,” he says of his decision to retire, his voice thickly-accented, “but at the same time I am ready to not be on stage.”

Antonov (who is engaged to fellow company member Cecile Tuzii) will now teach upper-level dancers in the School of Richmond Ballet. (“Maybe I should work at McDonald’s?” he jokes). “I like helping somebody achieve something they haven’t before, through the discipline of everyday hard work.”

What Antonov doesn’t like, he says, is for people to come see rehearsal. Why? “For me, the ballet is magic. We’re supposed to pretend it is effortless.”

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