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By Elaine Stuart
Last April, at the start of rehearsals for New York City Ballet’s spring season, then-20-year-old corps member Chase Finlay casually checked the casting board—and got the shock of his life. For the first two shows of Balanchine’s Apollo, his name was written next to the title role.
“I initially had a feeling of panic and stress,” Finlay says of learning he’d be performing such a coveted part. “But then I just stood back and said, ‘Wow. This is a crazy opportunity. I’m going to do my best.’ ” (Finlay’s best was so brilliant it earned him a promotion to soloist two months later.)
Dance companies are organized as hierarchies, so there’s usually little surprise when it comes to casting. However, junior company members are sometimes tapped to perform a leading part—particularly when an injury sidelines an artist in the upper ranks. Nothing could be more thrilling for a dancer who has been toiling away in the corps. Every up-and-comer pines for the chance to make his or her mark on a role typically reserved for principals. But those who have been through it know that stepping out of the background and into the spotlight presents challenges as well as rewards.
Finlay says he struggled less with the choreography, which he had been understudying, than with seeing himself as worthy of the part. “It was intimidating to have Peter Martins and Nikolaj Hübbe and all these great dancers do it before me.” And although Apollo was his dream role, he recognized the danger in indulging that. “If you go into it thinking it’s this huge iconic part,” he says, “you set yourself up to be too nervous and uptight.”
Instead, Finlay focused on the ways he could relate to the character. During the weeks leading up to his debut, he worked tirelessly in and out of rehearsal to understand Apollo’s journey in the ballet. In the end, he used his age and relative lack of experience to infuse the role with a fresh perspective. “I tried to give it more of a youthfulness as opposed to a godly figure,” he says. “I was able to be myself rather than try to be someone else.”
Eran Bugge found herself in a similar position when she was cast in a featured part made on the award-winning Lisa Viola in Paul Taylor’s tango-inspired Piazzolla Caldera. Bugge studied Viola’s interpretation on video but ultimately realized she had to develop her own voice. And in this case, the character—which Bugge describes as “a strong, feisty woman”—required her to adopt a new persona.
“I’m the shortest in the company, so I often play a younger ingénue,” she says. “But I don’t want to fall into a type, so it’s nice that he gave me something outside of that.” The dynamic movement also stretched her technically. “I tend to be a softer, more lyrical dancer, and this dance is very snappy and staccato.” While excited to expand her range, Bugge admits there’s more at stake in center stage: “If you screw up you feel like everyone’s going to see it,” she says. “When you’re in the background, it could maybe fly under the radar.” And there’s intense pressure to live up to expectations. “It’s not just representing yourself, it’s representing Paul and Paul’s work, and you want to give it the best possible presentation.”
Of course, this can lead to insecurity. For San Francisco Ballet’s Mariellen Olson, gaining confidence was the key to landing a lead role. She made her debut as Myrtha in Giselle last February after overcoming a mental hurdle. “There was a time when I thought, ‘I’ll never get to do that,’ ” says Olsen, who has been in the corps since 2002 and learned the part in the past. “But then something changed. I was like, ‘Why not? I should be doing this. I’m a jumper and I’m theatrical. This is the role for me.’ I made myself get over my doubts and really went for it. And I think that’s why I got to do it.”
But the physical preparation was as demanding as the psychological. “It’s probably the hardest role I’ve ever attempted,” Olsen says of Myrtha. “It takes everything out of you.” And mastering the athletic choreography required enormous self-discipline. Olsen was in one of multiple casts that alternated rehearsals, so she ran the part every day on her own—in addition to her corps responsibilities. The extra effort paid off, though. “I felt so much stronger for the rest of the season, like I could conquer anything,” she says.
A lead role provides room for artistic growth, too. These three dancers all worked hard to cultivate a commanding stage presence—something that doesn’t come naturally after years of blending into the backdrop. And as daunting as it was to have every eye in the audience on them, sharing the spotlight with principal dancers also took some getting used to. “I put them on a pedestal; they’re stars!” Olsen says of Vanessa Zahorian and Taras Domitro—her Giselle and Albrecht. “And I had to get over that because I had to be the boss,” she jokes, referring to her character.
While Olsen’s fellow dancers supported her turn in the role, such opportunities can breed resentment within the ranks. “There’s always going to be some people who aren’t happy with a younger person getting parts like that,” says Finlay. On top of interpersonal tension, up-and-coming artists often find themselves navigating newfound fame. After New York Times critic Alastair Macaulay raved about his portrayal of Apollo, Finlay told himself to “take the compliments but also leave them, keep working harder and not let it get to my head.” Then there’s the potential for letdown after the performance is over and reality settles in. “Once you go back to the corps, it’s a bummer at first,” Finlay admits (though he didn’t remain there for long).
Olsen made her appearance as the spirit queen at a Saturday matinee and had to dance as a peasant and wili in the evening. “I was on a high from doing Myrtha that afternoon, but that’s life. I am in the corps and was just lucky enough to step out for a show,” she says, adding, “In a way I was relieved because I had done those parts for years. I could relax and enjoy my time onstage.” Bugge agrees. “The next night you might have more of a background role. But it’s nice because we share the pressure and rewards.”
However short-lived, that shining moment is more than worth any angst that comes with it, according to these dancers. “You almost can’t create it completely in the studio. You have to get under those lights and have the red lipstick on and the flower in your hair,” says Bugge.
For Olsen, who had never done a run of Giselle with the full set and smoke before her Myrtha performance, the experience was transcendent. “I kind of went to a different world,” she muses. Finlay can relate. “I was completely lost in the character,” he says of his first show. “Once the curtain went down, I just stood there for a few seconds and was like, ‘Did that happen? Did my dream come true?’ ” He laughs. “It was a great feeling.”
Elaine Stuart has written about dance for The Wall Street Journal, The New York Times, and The Brooklyn Rail.
From top: NYCB’s Chase Finlay as Apollo last spring. Photo by Paul Kolnik, Courtesy NYCB © Balanchine Trust; Eran Bugge in Paul Taylor’s Also Playing. Photo by Tom Caravaglia, Courtesy PTDC; Mariellen Olson in SFB company class. Photo by Erik Tomasson, Courtesy SFB.