Maggie Small in Karinska costume for Balanchine’s Liebesleder Waltzer.
Photo by Matthew Karas.
Maggie Small’s pointe shoe swings inches from the ceiling of a corner studio at Richmond Ballet, as partner Fernando Sabino presses her through a lift, her body arched across his hand. After a slow spin down, the pas de deux continues through shifting romantic moods—lyrical and earnest, charming and flirtatious—punctuated by more gravity-defying lifts. Small and Sabino are rehearsing ballet master Malcolm Burn’s Pas Glazunov under the gaze of artistic associate Igor Antonov. At the end of the run, Antonov mentions to Small that a pirouette seemed late; she says quickly, “Yes, I felt it.”
Small, 26, generates crackling energy from within her small frame. Her vivacity makes you want to run up and hug her onstage sometimes. In sprightly roles such as the mischievous Swanhilda, she brims with comic energy. She dances an elegant and gracious Sugar Plum Fairy, skimming joyfully through her grand jetés. But audiences love best her rippling, smoldering snake in the Arabian Dance. And in a contemporary work such as Ma Cong’s Luminitza, she spirals and arcs through luscious partnering sequences.
“Her range, both technically and emotionally, is very impressive,” says Stoner Winslett, artistic director of Richmond Ballet. “There’s a deep honesty about her performance.” Richmond Ballet is particularly proud of Small’s accomplishment, since she is a homegrown talent. She started dancing at age 3 in a local studio, and by age 5 her mother enrolled her at the School of Richmond Ballet. She came up through the school, served her time as a trainee, then an apprentice, and joined the company six years ago. “You were immediately drawn to her…a little sparkle going on there,” remembers Burn.
As a young teenager Small rode horses, played piano, and roller-skated. “But ballet was always my favorite,” she says. “There was no question that eventually it would take over, once I was allowed to take more classes.”
At right: As Clara in Richmond Ballet’s Nutcracker, 1997.
Small’s mother is African-American; her father is white. Race, however, did not play much of a role in her experience inside or outside the ballet. Small doesn’t remember ever being the only student of color in her ballet classes. But, she says, “I also don’t remember looking for it. I really wasn’t very aware; I grew up in a bubble.”
In the midst of her apprenticeship, Small tried college for one year at New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts. “After my first apprentice year it was really hard to decide what to do,” she says, “because it was important to my mom that I went to school, and I didn’t want to. I was happy dancing all day long, and it was really difficult because the company offered me a position and I didn’t know what to do. You know…you want to make your family happy. So I said, OK, I’ll go to school.”
Small was not particularly happy at Tisch. She was not interested in choreographing, for example, which was a big part of the program. After the first year, she called Winslett and asked to return to finish her apprenticeship. Winslett was able to make it happen, and Small has not looked back since.
Growing up at RB has yielded some magical experiences for her, including the chance to work with Antonov, a dancer she had idolized as a child. During her apprenticeship, she remembers, “I was giggly excited to be in the studio with him.” Later, “It was really cool to dance with Igor. For his retirement performance [last fall] I got to dance Who Cares? with him. And it was sort of like a pinch-yourself moment, even now when I’ve been in the company with him for so long.”
Back in the studio, Small and Sabino take a few minutes to work on another lift from Pas Glazunov, with help from Antonov. Small is concerned about her balance at the top of the lift; Sabino is not sure if he can slow down and still manage to press her to full extension.
Small’s partnership with Sabino has developed almost inadvertently. Says Winslett about her 14-member, unranked troupe, “In a small company like this we usually move people around, and we never purposely try to develop partnerships. But they’ve been put together a lot, and work together beautifully.”
Sabino enjoys their complementary styles. “We are completely different,” he says. “But when we are together we become one. I like a lot of improvisation, and she likes to be told what to do. It’s a good marriage. I go with her, and she goes with me.” They call each other “work husband” and “work wife,” though their relationship remains platonic. Small has been dating RB dancer Thomas Garrett for several years. They are rarely partnered, however. “Tommy and I don’t dance together very much,” says Small, who is 5' 5". “He’s real tall, and there are a lot of tall girls here. I’m little.”
Maggie enjoys a rare rehearsal with fellow RB dancer (and offstage partner) Thomas Garrett. Photo by Sarah Ferguson, Courtesy RB.
After going through Pas Glazunov, Small and Sabino run After Eden for Burn. They are rehearsing for the company’s London debut in June. They throw themselves into the emotional work full-out, breathless and sweaty by the end. Burn compliments them and gives a few notes. Later, he says of Small, “She’s always been wonderfully open to try anything—and laugh while she’s doing it. She’s gutsy and courageous. You can take her and throw her into the air, and she’ll go ‘Wheee!’ as she comes flying down.”
Eve, in After Eden, is Small’s favorite role. “I really love that the steps come from the character and the character comes from the steps,” she says. “It can be different every time—there’s room to make it my own without feeling like I’m not being true to the choreography.”
When studying a new role, Small calls herself “a homework girl.” For Coppélia, in which she performed Swanhilda last February, she studied other dancers’ interpretations on DVD and she read up on the history of dolls. “I had a lot of fun researching automatons,” she says. “It was really creepy. But it’s difficult to decide how you’re going to be a girl, or a doll, or a girl being a doll.”
Burn appreciates the dancer’s intelligence and versatility. “Maggie continues to surprise me. I don’t think there’s any limit to what she will be able to accomplish.”
Small loves the challenge of RB’s repertoire. If she were in a bigger company, she says, “I wouldn’t get to do what I do here. There are days when I cannot possibly give any more. I would love to sit down for an hour. But whenever we actually get that break, I think, ‘Oh, I’m so bored. I should probably go run something downstairs.’ It’s just the way I enjoy dancing—dancing a lot.”
During the summer she explores other opportunities, such as the National Choreographers Initiative, in which she participated for three years as a dancer, and this summer she performed with Jessica Lang’s new company at Jacob’s Pillow.
But she is always glad to return to RB. “I dance with people I like, for people I like, in my hometown. My family is here. I work with my boyfriend every day, and he’s happy. It’s a real good gig.”
Small in costume for Cong's Luminitza. Photo by Matthew Karas.
Lea Marshall is a freelance writer and interim chair of dance at Virginia Commonwealth University.
Maggie’s tips on building strength:
Skinny Legs Early on in her apprenticeship with RB, Small realized, “I had really skinny little legs, and I wasn’t superstrong.” So she began strength-building exercises using a Thera-Band.
Practicing the Hard Parts “I like adagio, and I don’t really like petit allegro. But I push hard at all of it, because there’s no variation where you’re going to do just adagio.”
Doubling Up “I always do the exercises at least twice, so that I can build up my strength. If you push yourself in rehearsal and class, then when it gets to show days, it’s not as hard.”
Daily Pilates Since starting Pilates three years ago, she says, “It’s made me even more aware of my core and made me re-think the way I work.”