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By Joseph Carman
You know her when you see her. She’s the woman in the corps de ballet with the eye-catching artistry: the soft lyricism, the rich musicality, and the aura of a blossoming ballerina.
That would be Nicole Graniero, an American Ballet Theatre dancer whose gracious stage persona, delicate Renaissance Madonna features, and formidably natural technique beckon your attention—even in a large ensemble. That’s no easy feat, because at 5'3", she’s currently ABT’s shortest corps member. (She appears taller thanks to long limbs and the way she stretches her line.) But since joining the company as an apprentice in 2006, she has left an impression on diverse roles: the second soloist in Balanchine’s Ballo della Regina who effortlessly performs the suspended revolutions à la seconde; a fleet-footed lass in Tharp’s Brief Fling; and as the serene central woman in Tudor’s Continuo.
Ethan Stiefel, ABT principal and dean of dance at the University of North Carolina School of the Arts, has known Graniero since she was a student in his summer intensives at Martha’s Vineyard and a dancer with his company, Stiefel and Stars. “There is a solidity and versatility in Nicole’s technique that allows her to command her movement without unnecessary strain,” says Stiefel. “She is able to mix purity of form with a passionate, innate sense of performing.”
Graniero began dance classes at age 3 in Westchester, New York. The daughter of a former dancer and a professional golfer, she had a lightbulb moment while dancing in a local production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream at age 13. “As I was walking to the stage, I thought to myself, ‘I want to do this for the rest of my life,’ ” says Graniero. “I could do this all day, any day.”
Later, while attending public school in Yorktown Heights, New York, she studied at New York City’s Studio Maestro with teachers of widely varied backgrounds: François Perron (French), Marina Stavitskaya (Russian), and Deborah Wingert (New York City Ballet). Wingert was impressed with her young student’s precocious musicality and how she balanced both the cerebral and visceral approaches to her work. “She pays great attention to detail,” says Wingert. “Then she feels free enough to interpret the steps on her own. Nicole works very diligently, and then out of the blue, when she performs, she sparkles and shimmers. She has a quiet sense of passion that sort of sneaks up on you.”
Her training in different techniques helped Graniero attain her goal of dancing with ABT, whose performances she watched and daydreamed about as a young student. After studying with the ABT Studio Company’s associate program (now the JKO School at ABT), Graniero joined ABT II in 2004 as a lead-in to the company. She quickly earned recognition for her versatility. “Some people say you should learn one technique and build on that, but I’m not stuck in one style,” says the 22-year-old Graniero. Eager to work with new choreographers, Graniero also danced in Benjamin Millipied’s 28 Variations on a Theme by Paganini when the New York City Ballet principal brought his Danses Concertantes to the Joyce Theater last December.
Graniero claims that she had to cultivate her classical fluidity, something that anyone who saw her angelically lyrical performance in Tudor’s Continuo might find hard to believe. “My strengths are turning and jumping,” she says. “Adagio is more of a challenge. When I was younger, I had very weak arms. My teachers got on my case, and I started practicing my port de bras at night. Once you start to move from your back, it’s much easier and more enjoyable. With a grounded center, you can free yourself to do anything.”
Dancers sometimes get lost in ABT’s large corps, where instant feedback isn’t guaranteed and company politics are unavoidable. But Graniero has firmly staked her place. In company class, she has had to learn to position herself front and center in the first group. “Yes, you are a corps dancer; yes, you are dancing in a line,” she says. “But you have to go back to yourself—remember that this is what you love to do. I dance for ABT but I am a dancer for myself.”
James Kudelka cast her in a featured role in his Prokofiev ballet Désir for ABT’s spring Met season, a piece Graniero calls “very abstract, with lots of partnering and big movement.” Expanding her horizons, she recently participated in the Altria/ABT Women’s Choreography Project. Her assignment, performed at the Guggenheim Works & Process series, consisted of contrasting sharp and smooth phrasing in a solo she choreographed to a Philip Glass score.
In her rare spare time, Graniero follows her two brothers to their rock band gigs in Manhattan and Brooklyn. She’s also a confessed shopaholic with an addiction to fashion, especially high heels.
The high heels might reveal Graniero’s spikier side. One of her dream roles is the fiery Kitri in Don Quixote. Contrast that with another favorite, Giselle, a seemingly form-fitting role she recently danced as a guest artist (partnered by ABT’s Joseph Phillips) with the Palos Verdes Ballet in California.
Audiences can dream, too. Perhaps one day we will see her in both at ABT.
Joseph Carman is a DM contributing editor and author of Round About the Ballet.
Photo: Gene Schiavone, courtesy ABT