Sara Mearns, right, speaks before SPAC patrons in Q&A. Photo by Michael Hallisey / TheSpot518
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Her dance partner calls her a “stage animal.” Not quite the description one would expect to attribute to a ballet dancer, let alone a ten-year principal of perhaps the most prestigious dance company in the world. But, that’s the dynamic in which Sara Mearns performs within. Like in the dual roles of Odette/Odile in Tchaikovsky’s “Swan Lake,” her debut role as a lead performer for the New York City Ballet, she takes on another persona. A devil may care performer who pushes her boundaries in a manner that defines all dancers from George Balanchine’s school. It’s an openness her dance partner Jared Angle finds, “exhilarating.”
“Her openness to the stage experience is something I love,” he told the New York Times in a Marina Harss interview last June. The two have danced together for nearly a decade. The trust the two have built between each other has allowed Mearns to “explore options” while performing. She sometimes improvises, a fact she shared last week during a pre-performance Q&A session at Saratoga Performing Arts Center last Thursday, July 19. He’s able to recognize and adjust.
Mearns is the modern-day ballerina. In an art form that demands perfection, she openly admits to failing.
“Last night, I (Tweeted) that I was like 0 for 2 now because I didn’t feel that I had good shows,” said Mearns, following a string of performances in Balanchine’s “The Four Temperaments.” She takes to social media, making a connection with fellow dancers, fans and casual observers. More dancers of her generation are doing the same. Misty Copeland, Ashley Bouder, to name a few. They are tearing down the veil that separates ballet from audiences. Twyla Tharp has embraced it, too, through Instagram. They are all trying to open ballet to the rest of the world.
“I do want to connect with other people besides ballet dancers, because I want to keep ballet current,” said Mearns. “I want to keep it popular. We’re up there with some of the greatest athletes out there; up there with the tennis players, football players, basketball players, whatever. I just want to show that side of it. We have to do the same amount of work that they do. Even though we don’t have the same amount of fame, we have to work just as hard as they do, and I just want to keep ballet dancers out there in that sort of way.”
Ballet has long been perceived as an art form exclusive to high society. Whether it be the price of admission, the French terminology afixed to dance moves or the lack of understanding the plot — there’s a general consensus that only certain people can enter the ballet world, and it is wrong.
Mearns began to dance as a 3-year-old in Columbia, S.C. When she was 12, her ballet teacher passed away. Her mother scrambled to find another school. “She was a very good stage mom,” she said. “She did her research and did her homework. She didn’t think at that time that Columbia, S.C. had a school that was good enough, or a teacher good enough.” It would lead Mearns to Patricia McBride, the renowned New York City Ballet dancer. “At that time, obviously, I didn’t know who she was,” Mearns said with a grin.
Today, Mearns is considered one of the best dancers of our generation. She has danced for Tharp, Karole Armitage and Peter Martins. She tackled the roles of both the White and Black Swans, a role Martins placed her in, when she was only 19. At 32, she’s been a principal dancer for the City Ballet for ten years.
But, had she not asked a simple question as a young teenager, it almost didn’t happen.
By the time she was 15, she had attended four summers at the School of American Ballet, the official school of the New York City Ballet. On the last day of the program, she approached her instructor Susan Pilarre. The young dancer was not asked to stay on and was facing a return home to Columbia. “‘Can I please stay,’ she asked. “‘I have nowhere else to go. If I go back to Columbia, South Carolina, I’m going to stop dancing.’
The school found scholarship money, and she was able to stay.
“I really believe that, if I went back, that would have been it,” said Mearns, “and they let me stay. Somehow, they found scholarship money and they let me stay. I really do believe that if I didn’t go and ask them, I would not be here today. So, those milestone things that happen when you’re 15 that you don’t realize that you’re doing it, like you’re jumping off a cliff. If I didn’t make those decisions, or my mom didn’t, I wouldn’t be here.”
As she continues to keep the ballet world open, Mearns said she likes to speak with young dancers. She said she likes to hear their questions, and learn what challenges they are going through. Looking back on her own childhood, she can’t believe she went through the challenges she experienced. It gives her a chance to share that knowledge with teenagers on the brink of making life changing decisions.
“When I answer them, I don’t really sugarcoat it,” she said. “I’m not fake. I tell them for real what it’s going to be like; what you’re going to be feeling, what you’re going to be going through. I think it’s important for them to hear that at that time. I went through the same struggles as them. It took a lot of work to get here today. I just want to make sure that they understand that, and that they are okay with that. That’s what they are going to go through to get where I am here today. I think it’s very important that young students hear that at that age. It’s a very difficult, confusing, crazy time that I can’t even believe that I had to go through it.”
Michael Hallisey is managing editor of Spotlight Newspapers.