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By Astrida Woods
NYCB's Sara Mearns abandons herself to the movement.
Sara Mearns in costume for Wheeldon's DGV: Danse à Grande Vitesse. Photo by Sarah Silver.
Sara Mearns is onstage in semi-darkness, ferociously spinning in attitude, arms flailing overhead. Her feet stabbing like angry pecking birds, she pirouettes on the edge of control, and then suddenly collapses in a wide second position on pointe. During the stage rehearsal of Alexei Ratmansky’s demanding Russian Seasons last February, Mearns danced full-out. While most dancers with a crammed performance schedule would prefer to save their energy, Mearns’ enthusiasm and strict work ethic dictate otherwise. “If I do it now, it will be easier,” she says. “My body already knows what it will feel like and I will be prepared for tonight.”
That night she delivered an explosive and passionate performance that illuminates Ratmansky’s unorthodox style of classical and Slavic folk motifs. The part she plays—a young woman in a conflicted frenzy—is the polar opposite of the ethereal Odette in Swan Lake—the role that catapulted the then 19-year-old corps dancer to stardom in January 2006. Mearns breathes life into both these drama-drenched characters with an intensity that draws audiences to her magnetic stage presence. Mearns says, “I want the audience to see every emotion I have.”
Rehearsing with Robert Fairchild for Ocean’s Kingdom. Photo by Paul Kolnik, Courtesy NYCB.
Mearns impressed Peter Martins, ballet master in chief of New York City Ballet, when he first saw her in the School of American Ballet’s (NYCB’s official dance academy) 2003 workshop performances of Chopiniana and as Lilac Fairy from Sleeping Beauty. He says he remembered thinking, “This girl is going to be something.” When injuries plagued resident Swan Queens in the company, Martins turned to Mearns. “With Swan Lake,” says Martins, “it was a no-brainer. I just knew she was ready for it both physically and mentally.” To watch this teenager deliver a performance of such vivid emotional depth was to witness a major talent in the making.
“It has always been my favorite ballet,” says Mearns. “I had studied tapes of Natalia Makarova in Swan Lake for so many years that I felt like I knew the ballet. Knew what it should be, and what I should feel like out there. I don’t know if I could have portrayed it then. Now I can.”
Born in Columbia, South Carolina, she began dancing at 3 with Ann Brodie. At the Calvert-Brodie School of Dance, tap, jazz, and ballet were on equal footing, but she competed only in the two former disciplines—never in ballet. Mearns says it was fun, and she and her older brother Keith racked up an impressive number of trophies. (A YouTube clip shows the Mearns siblings, ages 10 and 12, perform the White Swan pas de deux.) None of this could have been possible without her mother’s dedication to her daughter’s burgeoning career—sewing costumes and chauffeuring her hundreds of miles to ballet classes and dance competitions. Brodie urged the young dancer to study with Patricia McBride at the School of North Carolina Dance Theatre and then go to New York to study at SAB. After four summer intensives there, Mearns enrolled as a full-time student in 2001. In the fall of 2003 she apprenticed with the company and joined the corps the following year.
After her promotion to soloist in 2006 Mearns continued to earn high praise for her charismatic performances. She was a serenely magnanimous Lilac Fairy, a breath of freshness as Spring in Robbins’ Four Seasons, rhapsodic in Martins’ Barber Violin Concerto, and serenely poetic in one of the most coveted ballerina roles—the adagio in the second movement of Balanchine’s Symphony in C.
But her breakthrough season came in 2008 during the Robbins Celebration, when lead parts cascaded on her like an avalanche—“Diamonds” in Jewels, Sugarplum Fairy, Susan Stroman’s Double Feature—but most often she was cast in Robbins’ ballets. Known for her no-holds-barred style, Mearns intuitively subdued her powerhouse dynamic to conform to Robbins’ credo of “less is more,” in the Ives, Songs; In G Major; and Goldberg Variations. At the end of this marathon season Mearns was awarded principal status.
Principal dancer Jared Angle, who partners Mearns in many of these ballets, says, “The reason Sara is good in Robbins’ material is that you have to have a certain depth. She has that maturity…an emotional sort of resonance that you need in Robbins.”
Physically Mearns is unlike any ballerina in the company. She has a broad torso and expansive shoulders that at times creep up. But her secret weapon is that fabulous Russian-style back that gives amplitude to roles such as Titania in A Midsummer Night’s Dream and splendor to her silken grand rond de jambes in “Diamonds.” She is also tall with long shapely legs and feet in a company where speed is of the essence, and delicate arms and hands that have innate grace—ideal for Allegro Brillante. These are hallmarks of a Balanchine ballerina.
Above: In her dressing room preparing for Symphony in C. Photo by Nick Bentgen, Courtesy NYCB; Above right: As Odette in Peter Martins’ Swan Lake. Photo by Paul Kolnik, Courtesy NYCB.
With nearly 80 ballets on her resumé, Mearns learns new roles at the pace of instant replay—and executes them onstage with the finesse of a seasoned ballerina. “It’s a gift,” says Susan Hendl, who coaches her in several ballets, including Swan Lake. “I think it is something you are born with; we call it ‘dancer smarts.’ Sara instinctively knows what something should look like and feel like and how to put it together. She is very quick to learn and, because, of her musicality, it sticks.”
For Mearns there is no such thing as stage fright. “The stage is where I am at peace and nothing can hold me back,” she says. But at times Hendl needs to rein in the young dancer’s impulse to go all out and she does it through music. Hendl says, “I remind her, ‘Sara, the music tells you what to do, what to feel. It’s all in the music.’ ”
In 2009 Mearns suffered a lower back injury that sidelined her for six months. The layoff alerted her to the necessity of finding a balance in her life and taking better care of herself physically. Mearns admits she struggles to control stress and how it affects her body. She is learning to manage it with daily Gyrotonic sessions to keep her joints moving freely, physical therapy, and the art of just doing nothing. “It is so amazing,” says Mearns, “just to sit on my couch with Rocky, my dog, and watch taped episodes of Modern Family.”
Since her return in 2010, Mearns has racked up more accolades as Odette/Odile—now dancing with Jared Angle as Siegfried. “Jared had a lot to do with how I acted and danced onstage,” says Mearns. “He is so giving and allowed me to be in my own world.” Angle responds, “It might look like there is a light touch involved, but she is not a wispy willowy dancer. It’s a very physical experience to partner her—which I love—and we have a blast.”
With the demands of an ever expanding repertoire placed on her, new injuries surfaced in 2011. She sprained her left ankle four times, which curtailed her performance schedule. But she was back on top for the event of the year. Cast in the lead as Princess Honorata in Ocean’s Kingdom, the much publicized Paul McCartney/Martins’ extravaganza, Mearns enjoyed the frenzy surrounding that event, and of course meeting Sir Paul the Beatle. “It was surreal,” she says. “Paul brought such great energy…a great eye to the ballet. He was so happy to be there in the rehearsal studio. And,” Mearns adds, “he was so humble.”
Christopher Wheeldon has created roles on Mearns since 2007, for instance the cold-hearted girl in The Nightingale and the Rose. In 2008, he cast her in the lovely little classical quartet Rococo Variations, and last winter she originated a standout role in Wheeldon’s Les Carillons to Bizet, dancing with exceptional verve and flamenco flair.
“Sara has a very distinct personality,” says Wheeldon. “Her movement quality is voracious. If you don’t pull her back a little, her fiendish abandon can get the better of her. But when it is fully realized it is unlike anything I have seen onstage. Sara is one of the most important dancers of her generation.”
Above: In Wheeldon’s Les Carillons. Photo by Paul Kolnik, Courtesy NYCB. Above left: In Ocean's Kingdom; costume by Stella McCartney. Photo by Paul Kolnik, Courtesy NYCB.
For Mearns, working with Wheeldon is like a roller coaster ride. “In one night he is able to pull three different dancers out of me,” says Mearns. She also performed in the NYCB premiere of Wheeldon’s DGV: Danse à Grande Vitesse. Her chilling, almost unbearable intensity in the slow duet with Robert Fairchild revealed yet another facet to her artistry.
But what impressed and surprised Wheeldon most was her solo in Polyphonia, a role originated by Alexandra Ansanelli that required fragility and strength—forces of opposition. “I remember thinking she was totally wrong for it,” says Wheeldon, “but, I thought that Sara would have an interesting take on it. She blew me away. Without changing its intention, it now looks like it could have been made for her.”
Wheeldon goes on to say, “Sara gives high energy and drama in spades, but when she works in a quiet, more lyrical way, she is just as effective. Not so deep down inside that glamorous and powerful young lady is a fragile and delicate poet.”
Movie-star beautiful with golden hair and a cover-girl complexion, Mearns’ offstage style contrasts with her onstage assoluta image. Dressed in skintight black leather pants and sheepskin lined black boots, she looks like a très chic biker-babe. Relaxed and cheerful, she sinks into a comfy couch at NYCB headquarters and massages her calf muscle as she talks about her present state of mind. “On my 26th birthday last January,” Mearns says, “I realized that time moves fast—and that I need to stay here and be in the theater as long as possible. This may sound funny, but I feel like Lady Gaga in her song ‘Marry the Night’ where she explains that she is married to making music.” The ballerina leans forward, saying emphatically, “I can relate to that completely.” Spending up to 13 hours a day in the David H. Koch Theater, she considers it her home. “I never call what I do ‘work,’ ” says Mearns. “I always say, ‘I have to go to rehearsal,’ or ‘I’m performing tonight,’ or ‘I have a full day of dancing.’ Because, to me it is not work, it is my passion. It is what I do.”
Above: Headed to the stage of Koch Theater, dressed in the new tutu for Symphony in C. Photo by Nick Bentgen, Courtesy NYCB. Above right: In rehearsal for Ocean’s Kingdom. Photo by Paul Kolnik, Courtesy NYCB.
Astrida Woods writes for Playbill, Atlanta Arts Critic blog, and other publications.