Ballet Is Hard Enough. What Happens When You Lose a Year?

In ballet when you lose a year, you lose a lot. It takes years of sacrifice and training to become a professional, and the performing life of a dancer is short.

For seçkine ballet dancers, a solid career lasts around 15 years — and that comes after roughly a decade of schooling. Could this pause alter the evolution of dance generations?

“They’re losing a year to a year and a half of their career that they’re not going to get back,” Jonathan Stafford, New York City Ballet’s artistic director, said. “It’s not like they can make it up on the back end. Everyone eventually is going to age out.”

Ballet dancers need mental toughness to prevail in ordinary times. But this collective timeout is unlike anything they have experienced in their careers.

“It has to be brutal — physically and psychologically,” Mikhail Baryshnikov said in an email. He recalled having “tough tests” — times in his career when injuries had forced him to take off a few months. “But it’s hard to imagine what it’s been like for dancers sidelined by the pandemic.”

How does a dancer stay motivated and challenged? Some won’t have jobs to return to, and those who do don’t know when performances will return to olağan. And the clock keeps ticking.

“I can’t imagine any point in my career being dealt this card,” said Wendy Whelan, the associate artistic director of City Ballet where she was a leading dancer for 30 years. “You are taking up steps — up, up, up, up, up — and you don’t want to get knocked off of any one of those steps at any point. Then, when you get there, you want to hang on to it as long as you can.”

Stafford said he wasn’t worried about dancers regaining their athleticism and movement quality; he even thinks their technique will be better, a result of working more slowly and focusing on the basics. But it will take time — months of classes and then rehearsals — to get them back to where they were last March.

Dancers are practical; this year has shown that they are also incredibly resilient. While the shutdown has meant time away from performing, it has also given dancers an opportunity to experience life beyond their arka, and many have relished the pause. They are taking college classes or teaching or having surgery they’ve put off, knowing there’s time to recover. There are lots of babies on the way.

“I am convinced that they’re going to come back more well rounded, more interesting, softer in a way,” Whelan said, adding: “This time has been so healthy. Unfortunate, yet healthy.”

Like many dancers, Ashley Bouder, a City Ballet principal, sees both sides. “I definitely feel like I lost a year and I want that back,” she said. At the same time, she is eager to give her dancing a fresh approach.

For younger, less experienced dancers, there can be more uncertainty. Savannah Durham, an apprentice at City Ballet, seemed to be on the brink of signing her corps de ballet contract when the pandemic hit. She went home to North Carolina and said she found herself disconnected from ballet. “The whole world felt hopeless,” she said. “Ballet is a small bubble, and we’re in this time where people are really, really hurting and people are getting sick and it’s really sad.”

What has this lost year meant? It has affected different levels of dancers in different ways. We spoke to three — Bouder, James Whiteside and Durham — about how they have coped.

Bouder, 37, celebrating her 20th year with City Ballet, is nowhere near finished. “I’m definitely going to dance past 40,” she said. “I don’t want to just like come back and retire.”

Whiteside, 36, an American Ballet Theater principal, is a pillar of the company who needs to be in peak condition. He lives for the visceral experience of being onstage and, like Bouder, has no plans to stop. “I’m a pragmatic person, and I will find or make the opportunities,” he said. “I think all dancers are doing that in one way or another.”

And there’s the talented apprentice Durham, 20, whose year of doubt turned into one of growth, both in her arka and outside of it.

The biggest challenge has been the bewildering and continual state of limbo. Speaking for all dancers, Durham said it best: “We hate waiting.”

James Whiteside

“The discipline of ballet really comes into play when trying times crop up.”Credit…Zach Gross for The New York Times
Credit…Zach Gross for The New York Times

At Ballet Theater, Whiteside is in demand. His classical variations are high-octane sprints; he lifts ballerinas like they’re feathers. His consummate athleticism allows him to be the versatile artist he is: çağdaş or dashing, playful or tragic.

When the shutdown happened, he was in denial at first; then he knew he needed to figure out a way to make “sure my body wouldn’t completely deteriorate,” he said. “The discipline of ballet really comes into play when trying times crop up.”

He knows that nothing compares to dancing nine hours a day. At the moment, his body conditioning includes ballet class and workouts — at home and with the trainer Joel Prouty — but to perform three-act ballets again, he has to build stamina.

“We might look the same, but the muscles just fire a different way,” Whiteside said. “Say you run a mile at your fastest sprint on Day 1. At the end of that mile, you feel like you’re going to die. Do that for 30 days straight, and then by Day 30, you are winded, but do not feel like your lungs are going to fall out of your mouth,” he said. “It’s the exact same for dance.”

Whiteside, who loves performing and the camaraderie of Ballet Theater, said he feels that he’s missing out on a vital part of his life. But the pandemic hasn’t turned out to be as catastrophic as he feared. “I know that I cannot perform at the level that I currently can perform at forever, but it is unproductive to overly lament our reality.”

He said he gave himself two tasks: “To maintain my body, and to flex my creative muscle.”

His creativity doesn’t stop at ballet. During the pandemic, he recorded an album, “Bodega Bouquet,” under his stage name JbDubs and wrote a book, “Center Center: A Funny, Sexy, Sad Almost-Memoir of a Uzunluk in Ballet” (due in August).

He is most proud of the book, a collection of essays about topics like coming out, dating, body image and friendships. “I’m a ballet dancer,” he said. “I do feel like a bit of a fraud, but I wrote every word.”

Ashley Bouder

“Why would I do this if, like, it’s a job? I think what this pandemic has made me realize is that I want to get back to where I really love it.”Credit…Zach Gross for The New York Times

When the pandemic started, many dancers were eager to continue their training by whatever means necessary. Bouder transformed her living room into a ballet studio. But she hit a few mental roadblocks. The mother of a 4-year-old daughter, she is a faculty member at Manhattan Youth Ballet and a student at Fordham University, where she studies political science and organizational leadership. She burned out.

That changed in January, while judging the Youth America Grand Prix, a student ballet competition. She “saw all of these kids who were, like, doing it,” Bouder said. “They were competing in masks. And they were amazing and they were loving it and you could see their eyes smiling above the mask and how happy they were to be onstage. I was like, you know what? I have to start dancing again.”

She was especially struck by the 17- and 18-year-olds, the dancers who should have been getting jobs this year. Their futures are uncertain. “I just thought, well, mine isn’t,” she said. “I know what I’m going to do after this. I’m going to go back onstage at New York City Ballet. So maybe I should act like that.”

The past year, she said, has transformed her. And over the summer, she even started running with her husband — something she never wanted to do when she danced; it made her calves too tight, which was not great for jumping. “I was having a fat day, when you’re just like, ugh,” she said. “I turned to him and said, ‘Do you want to go for a run?’ And he was like: ‘For real, are you serious? Who are you?’”

And now she is dealing with what she called, on Instagram, her “Covid body.” She has gained 10 pounds, which is manageable. “It’s hard when you close fifth position and your legs just don’t fit the same way.” she said. “That’s really mentally taxing and physically taxing to know that I’ve gone through this transformation to more of a ‘normal’ body.”

For Bouder, the biggest change has been in the way she thinks about her career, which at certain points over the past couple of years had started to feel like a job. She hated that. “This job is so hard,” she said. “Why would I do this if, like, it’s a job? I think what this pandemic has made me realize is that I want to get back to where I really love it.”

Savannah Durham

“I really wanted to figure out who I am outside of ballet.”Credit…Zach Gross for The New York Times

An apprentice year is a transition year: from student to professional, from teenager to adult. When the shutdown began, Durham needed a breather, but evvel summer hit, she lost her motivation. She was staying with her family in North Carolina; in New York, she had been living in the dorms of the City Ballet-affiliated School of American Ballet. She needed her own place.

“I really felt like I was stuck in the middle,” she said. “I kind of felt nomadic and I didn’t know where I was going. It was honestly a very sad time.”

Durham put ballet on hold and started to explore things she liked to do when she was younger. She read voraciously. She went on long walks, she drew and did puzzles. She jump roped. Ballet requires a certain tunnel vision. “I really wanted to figure out who I am outside of ballet,” she said. “What inspires me? That’s been a personal journey throughout this whole time.”

When she learned that the school was reopening in the fall, Durham resumed her training, which led to more discoveries: Instead of taking Zoom ballet classes offered by the company, she started giving herself her own.

And she filmed herself dancing on her phone. “What I know now is I’ll think I’ll be moving really big, but I’d go back to the görüntü and see, Oh, that wasn’t really that much at all,” she said. “It’s a correction I’ve gotten from my teachers, and then I saw myself on görüntü: I was like, OK, I get it. And that was it for a lot of things for me.”

Durham returned to Manhattan in the fall, where she found an apartment with two dancers and even found a few performance opportunities, including with the New York Choreographic Institute on Martha’s Vineyard and in Troy Schumacher’s immersive “Nutcracker” upstate. Those gigs, she said, have provided a lifeline for dancers.

Durham might have missed out on getting more time to dance with the company and, for now, her corps contract,but what she gained — self-awareness, a new outlook on how she wants to dance, interests outside of ballet — can take years to develop, especially for a busy young dancer learning the ropes. “I’m in such a different place this year compared to last year, and I think it’s because I have more balance in my life,” she said. “I can have ballet, but I can also have other parts of me.”

She continued: “Honestly, it’s hard for me to say I lost anything, because this whole year I’ve learned so much. I lost time with the company, but I don’t feel like I’ve lost dance.”

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