A Muse's Vision

Sara Mearns talks about the creative process from her side of the studio.


Sara Mearns working with Karole Armitage on A Dancer’s Dream

It’s not always discussed, but dancers are as integral to the creative process as choreographers. That notion gives Sara Mearns, the fearless and ravishing principal at New York City Ballet, reason to pause: “I think I’ve had maybe two questions before about my point of view.” Yet with her plush, go-for-broke dancing and spontaneous phrasing, Mearns is a muse to many, from Alexei Ratmansky (Namouna, A Grand Divertissement) to Justin Peck, who highlighted her in The Bright Motion at the most recent Fall for Dance festival. During NYCB’s winter season, she graced Liam Scarlett’s premiere, Acheron. As Mearns explores new ways to enrich her dancing, she’s branching out: Last year, she starred in A Dancer’s Dream, featuring choreography by Karole Armitage, and she has more projects planned for the future. Recently, she spoke about choreography from a dancer’s perspective.

Do you do anything special before going into the studio with a choreographer for the first time?

You want to be as prepared as possible. You want to be as warmed-up as possible. And it’s funny: I always think about what shoes to wear. You don’t want to have too-new shoes, and you don’t want to have too-old shoes; you want the perfect shoes that you could do anything in. Of course, you think about your outfit. You put yourself together a little bit more than you normally would because you want to make a great first impression. And then as the process goes along, you don’t put makeup on. Your hair is a mess, and you have sweatpants on. [Laughs] That’s because you’re just trying to make it work.

Right: Partnering with Amar Ramasar

Would you talk about the process for Acheron?

It was a little weird for me because I had an injury when Liam came. My part was made on somebody else, and then I had to learn it. We had to rethink it and redo it for my partner, Adrian Danchig-Waring, and me.

Did you have much give and take with Liam?

I did. He was very open to changing things and making each couple feel comfortable. He’s very quiet in a way; he lets you figure it out and talk to your partner about it. He doesn’t get upset with you, which is kind of refreshing. Also, Liam was here and then he left and then he came back and left again, so Adrian and I had time to work on it ourselves, to rough it out, break it down. Why isn’t this working? Let’s figure this out. Sometimes it’s embarrassing. You feel stupid doing that in front of the choreographer because you want to make it look good for him.

How does it affect you when a choreographer is upset or impatient?

I kind of close down. I can’t compete with that. You don’t want to compete with that, and probably a lot of that is anxiety; they need to get that out. So I get upset, but I’m just like, I can’t do anything about it, tomorrow’s a new day, we’ll come in here and try it again. I’m doing my best for you. That’s all that you can really do, because it’s their job to make it work on you—if they can do that, if they’re intelligent enough to do that.

What do you bring to the studio that makes you a good muse?

I like to think that I have a really good personality. I dance big, and I’ll do everything full-out, the biggest, until they tell me, “Don’t do that,” or they have to tame it down. I’d rather that than them telling me, “Do more.” People mostly choreograph really big dancing and very emotional dancing on me, so I guess that’s an advantage because I can dive into things. One time, Liam was trying to get Sara Adams to not think about what she was doing and just be with her partner in the moment. He said, “Do it like Sara does. Sara Mearns—she just closes her eyes. She just stands there and lets it happen.” It’s easy for me to go to that dreamy, mysterious place in the studio. And I like to work on things. I like to do them over and over again and see if I can make them work. I like to laugh in rehearsal. That’s a huge thing—obviously, you’re going to have those dramatic moments and those really tense and stressful moments, but you have to be able to laugh in rehearsal, too. You know, we’re just people. We’re not robots. We’re not perfection.

Above: "I think of it as two visions molding together" —Sara Mearns

How do you mold yourself to someone else’s vision?

I think of it as two visions molding together. It can’t be just their vision. There have to be multiple visions coming together, multiple talents, multiple inspirations, imaginations.

Do you blame yourself when it’s not going well?

Oh, yeah. Because you feel like it’s your job to bring his creation to life. And your creation to life. You want to make the best of this because someone picked you to do something completely new. It’s a moment in time that you might not ever get again. And it’s self-worth. You want to feel important, to feel like no one else could do this. No one could ever look like this.

What was the reason behind your wanting to branch out and work with Karole Armitage and others?

I’m still doing that. In April, I’m dancing one of Mauro Bigonzetti’s works for the Youth America Grand Prix gala. It’s just different movement. No pointe shoes. No walls, no boundaries. Sometimes it’s tough here at New York City Ballet because we don’t get the very modern-modern choreographers. Sometimes we do, but most of the time I don’t get picked for that stuff. So I want to look elsewhere for that on my off time. Just to see how it feels and see how my body reacts to it. I want to see if I can do it.

Gia Kourlas is the dance editor for Time Out New York and writes about dance for The New York Times.

All photos by Chris Lee

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