A Flair for the Dramatic

May 31, 2013
NYCB’s Georgina Pazcoguin

Pazcoguin, wearing a dress designed for her by Reid Bartelme and Harriet Jung. Photo by Matthew Karas.

It was the final days of New York City Ballet’s two-week Sleeping Beauty run last winter, and Georgina Pazcoguin had been alternating between the regal Fairy of Courage and the vindictive Carabosse. Shortly before she started her preshow ritual, ballet master in chief Peter Martins summoned her to see him. “With trepidation and my heart racing, I rushed up to Peter’s office,” says Pazcoguin. “He informed me, ‘I’ve decided to promote you to soloist.’ ” Stunned, she remembers blurting out, “No way!” Then: “I shed a tear, and Peter said, ‘You deserve this.’ Then he gave me a big hug and a correction: ‘Your Carabosse is maybe a little too mean. Now, go and have a great show.’ ”

Pazcoguin has built a reputation as a versatile and charismatic performer, and a hard worker with a relentless drive to improve. A lightning-quick study, she is eager to take corrections and is sometimes referred to as “the sponge.” She may also be the most theatrical dancer in the company.

A few weeks before her well-deserved promotion, Pazcoguin (paz-CO-gin), a vibrant dark-haired beauty with intense brown eyes half hidden by thick bangs, was taking a breather between rehearsals at the David H. Koch Theater in Lincoln Center, and reflected on her 10 years in the NYCB corps. Her mood was upbeat but also a little somber. Despite an upward trajectory of dancing more and more roles, soloist status had still eluded her. “I do love the corps of City Ballet and I’m so lucky to get to dance this remarkable rep,” she said. But, after so many years in the corps she admitted, “I started to doubt myself: What am I doing wrong?’ ”

Since her promotion she has rededicated herself to NYCB. “I’m inspired and will work twice as hard,” she says. And she is looking forward to the jam-packed spring and summer seasons, when she will be dancing in a string of works, including Robbins’ N.Y. Export: Opus Jazz and West Side Story Suite, in which she does a star turn as Anita.

Born in Altoona, Pennsylvania, into a large family of six siblings, the dynamic 28-year-old is part Filipino and part Italian. She began dance classes at age 4 at the Allegheny Ballet Academy, where she trained with Richard Cook, Deborah Anthony, and Cherié Noble. She later trained at the rigorous Central Pennsylvania Youth Ballet before coming to New York City. After three summers and a winter at the School of American Ballet (NYCB’s official academy)—all on scholarship—she spent 2002 as an apprentice with the company while earning her high school diploma from the Professional Children’s School. In 2003 she got her corps contract. “From the start,” says Pazcoguin, “they didn’t quite know where I was going to fit in or even if they were going to hire me.”

Though considered by some not to fit the Balanchine-ballerina mold, Pazcoguin’s career blossomed early. She understudied and performed a variety of solo and principal roles, and in the process discovered her affinity for Jerome Robbins’ ballets. “When I first started learning N.Y. Export: Opus Jazz,” she says, “I thought, This is it, this is what I really get.” She made the Statics role her own. Loose-limbed and jazzy, Pazcoguin heats up this ballet with her sensual presence.

She has also discovered new aspects of her dancing in ballets by guest choreographers like Mauro Bigonzetti and Alexei Ratmansky. She is fierce as an earthy displaced immigrant in Bigonzetti’s Oltremare. And as the overwrought Woman in Red in Ratmansky’s Russian Seasons, she illuminates this angst-ridden character.

However, New York City Ballet is the House of Balanchine, and Pazcoguin knew that to be a true Balanchine ballerina, she must refine her already strong technique. She had to work on articulating her legs and feet, and in general, she says, “find the softer side of Gina.” In Symphony in Three Movements, her musicality perfectly responds to Stravinsky’s propulsive rhythms. Onstage in Theme and Variations corps, she radiates serene confidence, with pure line and gorgeous extensions. In Jewels, she is a frisky, well-polished Ruby or a cool, crystalline Diamond. Though she dances several roles in The Nutcracker, Pazcoguin infuses Arabian (Coffee) with alluring perfume. In ballets such as Donizetti Variations, Concerto Barocco and Serenade she dances with a special luminescence.

Her Robbins repertoire has continued to grow, with such roles as the cheeky first girl in Fancy Free. In Robbins’ comic masterpiece The Concert, she’s a hoot as a pushy chair-snatcher. About being in the ensemble of The Cage, she says, “I’m drawn in by those terrible bugs and how Robbins disjoints the body. It’s one of my favorite ballets. I hope one day to dance the Novice or the Queen.”

But it wasn’t until the dancer copped the dream role of Anita in West Side Story Suite that she hoped for a promotion. The New York Times’ Claudia La Rocco wrote, “…the ballet belonged to Georgina Pazcoguin, who was ravishing as Anita…lashing her legs in an interpretation both sultry and witty.”

At right: With Amar Ramasar in
West Side Story Suite. Photo by Paul Kolnik, Courtesy NYCB.

In the much-ballyhooed Martins/Paul McCartney collaboration of 2011, with Sir Paul’s original score for the narrative Ocean’s Kingdom, Martins cast Pazcoguin as the treacherous Scala. She performs this pivotal role with passion amidst swirling clouds of costume.

Principal dancer Amar Ramasar partners her in the film version of NY Export: Opus Jazz. During the filmmaking, which can be a tedious process with long breaks between takes, Ramasar relates how Pazcoguin kept the cast’s energy up. “It’s four in the morning and we are shooting Statics at night for two weeks,” he relates. “It’s like 40 takes. She kept us going in every shot, no matter how tired we got. And,” he adds, “I think it shows in the film.”

But after 10 years in the corps de ballet and in spite of the many successes, the road seemed to be reaching a plateau. She freely admits that “these past few years have been a struggle.” She felt she needed to broaden her horizons, so she took the initiative to explore other dance forms and theater. She was wary but ready. “I’m not one to turn down an opportunity no matter how scary it might be.”

She took a two-week Broadway workshop that put her in a new milieu with singers and Broadway dancers. Opportunities outside of NYCB materialized. Now, during NYCB’s off seasons Pazcoguin dances with Ballet Next, a new chamber ballet troupe co-directed by former American Ballet Theatre ballerina Michele Wiles and former NYCB principal Charles Askegard. They offer her an intimate venue in which to explore works by guest choreographers such as Bigonzetti and Margo Sappington. Askegard, who is her partner in real life, created a pas de deux for Pazcoguin and himself. “When I perform or work with him, he encourages me to reach for the highest levels,” she says. “He is a wonderful supporter and coach.”

Rehearsing with Charles Askegard in his
Stravinsky Divertimento for Ballet Next. Photo by Erin Baiano, Courtesy Ballet Next.

Even before Ballet Next, Sappington had met Pazcoguin when she became artistic director of the newly revived American Dance Machine, which performs iconic Broadway and Hollywood numbers (see “On Broadway,” Aug. 2012). The group’s founder, Nikki Feirt Atkins, had sought permission of Christopher Pennington, the executive director of the Jerome Robbins Foundation, for Pazcoguin to dance in the revival of “Mr. Monotony,” a darkly intense trio from Jerome Robbins’ Broadway. The story goes that when Pennington learned the lead role would be danced by Pazcoguin, he said, “If Gina is involved, you can have anything. Gina can do it all.”

Robert La Fosse, the original Mr. Monotony, staged the number. “Gina was meant to dance,” says La Fosse, who is a former principal of both NYCB and ABT. “She always wants to give a 150 percent. At times I have to use Jerry’s favorite phrase, ‘Easy, baby.’ ”

When Pazcoguin performed “Mr. Monotony” with Ramasar and Kurt Froman at the Career Transition for Dancers gala, she smoldered with sensuality. “The spotlight sort of goes to her,” says La Fosse.She doesn’t need a special costume or lighting—she makes that happen when she performs.”

A couple of days before Pazcoguin’s promotion, she enjoyed one of the greatest highlights of her career—dancing Anita at the Jerome Robbins Awards at the Baryshnikov Arts Center. Sitting in the front row of the tiny theater were the honorees: Stephen Sondheim, Hal Prince, and the original Anita, Chita Rivera. “Performing before these three Broadway legends was both terrifying and exhilarating. I’m singing and dancing my brains out. And Chita was sitting so close that I could see her facial expressions. Afterwards she came up and said, ‘You are fantastic, wonderful!’ And then she gave me a correction: ‘When you double-kick in the end, really make it high. You can do it.’ ”

As for her new status at NYCB, Pazcoguin says, “I have a feeling of gratification and an immense sense of relief. Peter has been wonderful about letting me explore these new opportunities.” With misty eyes, she says, “This is my home and I hope it will stay that way.”

Dress designed by Reid Bartelme and Harriet Jung. Photo by Matthew Karas.

Astrida Woods writes for several performing arts publications in New York City and Atlanta.