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By Joseph Carman
Purity and elegance make this ABT corps dancer stand out.
“Use that God-given fifth position,” demands artistic director Kevin McKenzie as he coaches Joseph Gorak on his pirouettes. An American Ballet Theatre Nutcracker rehearsal is underway, and choreographer Alexei Ratmansky stands by to help. Gorak’s ability and potential have been drawing a lot of attention—and corrections—lately. An ABT corps member since 2010, Gorak has had a breakout year, displaying impeccably centered virtuosity in Tharp’s In The Upper Room and calm, sinuous control in the premiere of Demis Volpi’s Private Light. He has also danced the prince in Ratmansky’s Nutcracker, and a featured role in his Dumbarton. The 22-year-old’s splendidly arched feet and scissored lines, combined with pure, perfectly placed technique (with none of the upper body tension that sometimes plagues strong male dancers) command attention onstage.
ABT principal David Hallberg, who has been a mentor, sees a lot of similarities to himself when he was Gorak’s age. “Joey’s so naturally gifted, he almost doesn’t realize it,” says Hallberg. “What I try to help with is his confidence. ABT is a really big pond, but with his talent he can swim just as well as any of them.”
Gorak fell in love with ballet after seeing The Nutcracker when he was 4. His parents enrolled him in ballet classes at a local Texas studio. When the family moved to Orlando, Gorak took lessons with the late Fernando Bujones and Peter Stark. “They worked on technique, placement and fine-tuning my body,” says Gorak. Bujones and Nureyev were his ballet idols. “Growing up, I had all Nureyev’s tapes,” he says. “I wanted to be Nureyev.”
Gorak entered, and won, a bushel of competitions: the silver medal in the senior men’s division at the 2005 Helsinki International Ballet Competition; the gold medal in the senior men’s division at the 2005 YAGP Finals; and the Grand Prix at the 2006 YAGP Finals.
Kirk Peterson, then director of ABT Studio Company, spotted the 16-year-old prodigy at the 2006 YAGP Finals and asked him to join the company. Gorak stayed until he was made an ABT apprentice in 2009.
After signing a corps contract, the reality of swimming in the big pond was initially disorienting. “I got burned out and thought about leaving,” he admits. Then ABT sent him and Christine Shevchenko to compete for the 2011 Erik Bruhn Prize, which he won with the aid of coaching in La Sylphide from McKenzie. It helped him turn the corner in finding himself as a person and an artist. “Now I think I am completely confident in myself,” he says. “I can work for myself without trying to please others.”
In June, Gorak is scheduled to dance Lensky, the lyrically tormented soul in Cranko’s Onegin, during ABT’s Lincoln Center season. Does he feel up for it? “Oh, yes, I am ready to be a mad Russian,” he says. “Tragedy and despair are right up my alley. I’ve always wanted to do the acting, the dying.”
He also dreams of classical roles like Siegfried and Albrecht. “I think Joey’s future is still unwritten,” says Hallberg. “What I appreciate about him, because it comes so naturally, is his cleanliness. So often cleanliness is compromised for trickery or flash. You don’t have to have the flashy pirouettes to be a great dancer.”
Joseph Carman is a senior advising editor at Dance Magazine.
Gorak in Ratmansky's Dumbarton. Photo by Gene Schiavone, Courtesy ABT.