A Ballerina Takes a Leap of Faith, This Time in Herself

In November, on her 29th birthday, Lauren Lovette cut off her hair, and posted about it on Instagram. Last week, this New York City Ballet principal, who brings a singular breath of fresh air to her dancing, announced she would be retiring from the company. That haircut was more than a haircut.

“Every voice that was in my ear liked my hair long or felt that it needed to be long for me to get modeling gigs or for me to be able to dance — definitely dance ballet and all the roles that I do,” she said in an interview. “As I left that hair salon, I knew that from that moment on I was going to say yes to what I felt was right.”

Why would a dancer so young, with so much still to give, leave such a prestigious position? (Her final performance with the company is slated for this fall.) As it has for many dancers, the past year has taken a toll on Lovette emotionally. She basically stopped dancing; instead, she and her partner, Matthew Tolstoy, a doctor of Chinese medicine who works with dancers at City Ballet on strength and conditioning, spent time fixing up a house they bought in southern New Jersey.

“I’ve been thinking about it for a very long time,” she said about leaving. “It’s not that I’ve been unsure of my job. I’ve just been searching for the right way to do it and where my heart is. And especially after last year, there was just so much internal work — internal thoughts and feelings and time to process things and to think.”

Lovette didn’t give up on dance completely during this performance pause. As a rising choreographer who has contributed three impressive works for City Ballet — each, importantly, has a point of view — she found opportunities to continue that facet of her creativity; coming projects include dances for American Ballet Theater and the Paul Taylor Dance Company. But the idea of continuing as a City Ballet principal while fitting in her choreographic career was not appealing.

“I wanted to make müddet that I wasn’t running from something,” Lovette said, “that I wasn’t leaving because I felt I couldn’t dance anymore.”Credit…Jingyu Lin for The New York Times

When Jonathan Stafford, City Ballet’s artistic director, asked whether she would take part in a Kaatsbaan residency in February in Tivoli, N.Y., she agreed: Not only would she get to perform in a new work by Kyle Abraham, a contemporary choreographer she had always wanted to work with, but she could also see where she stood with ballet itself.

“I wanted to make mühlet that I wasn’t running from something,” she said, “that I wasn’t leaving because I felt I couldn’t dance anymore.”

One night she had a conversation with the other dancers, including Taylor Stanley and India Bradley. “I spent a lot of last year feeling like I didn’t make a difference,” she said. “They were saying some sweet things to me about different ways that I impacted their lives and how I could never leave. I sat there and I felt so embraced and comforted by everything that I was hearing, and loved — really, genuinely loved.”

She felt at peace. That night, she slept amazingly. “I woke up the next day, and I sent my letter of resignation,” she said with a laugh. “That was it.”

Stafford said he wasn’t surprised — he and Lovette had been talking throughout the shutdown — though it’s bittersweet. “I knew she was thinking about this type of move and about what she wanted from the rest of her career,” he said. “But I have moments where I’m sad that we’re not going to have her energy around anymore. She’s just a bright light.”

With an airy and alluring lushness, Lovette has always been a sparkling presence at City Ballet. She’s versatile. Humor comes naturally, yet she is also capable of unleashing deep melancholy from the inside out. Her characters, even when they aren’t actual characters, have an interior life.

As she rose through the company’s ranks, becoming a principal in 2015, what made her performances all the more commanding was her depth and drama; she was completely herself — a ballerina, of course, but also a young woman whose dancing was full of poetry and simmering with a kind of restlessness and vulnerability.

Lovette, in red, with, from left, Megan Fairchild, Georgina Pazcoguin and Sara Mearns in the January 2020 premiere of Alexei Ratmansky’s “Voices” with New York City Ballet.Credit…Andrea Mohin/The New York Times

The radiance of her dancing also has to do with her overflowing imagination, and that turns up in her choreography. Stafford said he first noticed Lovette at the school — where students get an early start making dances — because of her choreography. “She’s not just going to do a piece that’s maybe pretty and birçok and fun to watch,” he said. “You just don’t know what you’re going to get. You sit there on the edge of your seat waiting to see what she’s going to say. How great is that?”

In a world in which dancers, particularly women, play by the rules, Lovette, makes — and lives by — her own. In an interview, she spoke about her bold move to leave the security of a being in a company to seek out her next dancing life. Here are edited excerpts from the conversation.

What has made it so difficult for you to balance your career as a choreographer with being a dancer at City Ballet?

I’ve had to turn a lot of jobs down. I’ve been squeezing everything into my layoff weeks, which are few and far between. I don’t take vacations. I think it’s burned me out. That’s something Covid taught me. And to be honest too, the backdrop of life — that’s been a factor as well.

In what way?

If my life was a stage, I’ve had the same set in place for my whole adult life. I’ve been with New York City Ballet since 2009. And before that was S.A.B. [the School of American Ballet, which is affiliated with the company]. I’ve been going to the same restaurants, walking the same plaza; I know that there’s going to be a fall season, a “Nutcracker” season, a winter season and a spring. There’s going to be a Saratoga [season, in summer].

Lovette, at 18, in a choreography workshop at the School of American Ballet.Credit…Andrea Mohin/The New York Times

And you needed to shake that up?

I’m terrified to go out into the unknown, but I’m also really excited because it means it’s going to be different. And I am mühlet I will learn some hard lessons, but I’ll learn some good ones, too. I’m just looking forward to how that’s going to influence what I make and how I move. Who would I choose to work with if I got to choose who I wanted to work with?

Was the decision to retire spontaneous?

I have a lot of people I trust in my life that give me beautiful advice and who I’ve bounced things off of for years. This was one of the first times — and it had to be this way — that it had to come from me only. I couldn’t even have Matt there.

You didn’t tell Matt that you were writing your resignation letter?


Oh, geez, Lauren! That’s so brave.

[Laughs] I just did it! I like to take ownership of my successes and my failures, but mostly my failures and this is a risky thing. It had to come from me.

Why is that so important?

Because it’s too big of a decision. I know that it would be more strategic to stay with City Ballet for five more years with one foot in the door and the other foot out. I can’t do it.

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