To watch Jennie Somogyi rehearse the pulsating Fearful Symmetries is to witness a ballerina in her prime. Somogyi naturally taps into the sharpness and speed, angles and agility of Peter Martins’ choreography. In the adagio, her willowy body swirls around Philip Neal to the ebb and flow of John Adams’ music. Onstage, she brings a new womanliness to Fearful by amplifying every move.
When Martins, ballet master in chief of New York City Ballet, saw the ballet recently he was impressed with Somogyi’s performance. “I just thought, ‘Wow! She is a whole other level of dancer.’ ”Somogyi says, “I get so caught up with the music, and I feel like the movement just carries me along. I figured out what I could do with the steps in that first slinky pas de deux. Now it feels like a totally different ballet.”
Somogyi was born in Easton, Pennsylvania and grew up in Alpha, New Jersey. She was the only child of a working class couple. Her father, a mechanic, taught Jennie how to change oil and tune up a car before she was licensed to drive. An athletic child, Somogyi started gymnastics at age 4, but transitioned into ballet when she discovered the joy of moving to music.
At 6 she auditioned for the School of American Ballet (the training center for NYCB), but she was too young, and they suggested she study with Nina Youshkevitch, who had danced with Colonel de Basil’s Original Ballet Russe. Somogyi credits Youshkevitch with giving her core strength and courage. At 9 she was accepted on scholarship at SAB. For years, Somogyi’s extended family and neighbors drove her two hours between New Jersey and Manhattan.
Her first year at SAB, to her amazement, she was cast as Marie, the lead girl in The Nutcracker. That experience kindled her love of performing. At 15 she danced the lead in Balanchine’s Allegro Brillante in SAB’s annual Workshop. Impressed by her dynamic performance, Martins invited her to apprentice in the company and, soon after in 1994, she joined the corps. In 1998, Somogyi became a soloist.
She was promoted to principal in 2000, the same year she married Brian Fallon of the New Jersey Police Department. She walked down the aisle to the opening strains of Serenade, her favorite ballet. They continue to live in Alpha, where she and her husband built a house.
The ballerina didn’t realize how vastly different their worlds were until one night, shortly after their engagement, he watched from the wings as she came off from a “puffy” variation. “I was bent over, with my hands on my knees and Brian ran to me saying, ‘Are you all right? What’s wrong?’ I kept waving him off, and told him this was normal.” After that, he recommended she keep an oxygen tank in her dressing room. “It was an eye-opener for both of us.”
Somogyi has been the go-to ballerina in NYCB for several years. Strong and versatile, with a powerhouse technique, she dances with daring and clarity. Over the years, she has captured the Balanchine sweep and grandeur in Serenade, she is bold and articulate in Agon and Episodes, and performs Brahms-Schoenberg Quartet with lyrical abandon. She’s light and flirty in Who Cares? and dazzling in Tschaikovsky Pas de Deux. Somogyi is equally at home in Robbins’ Dances at a Gathering and does a unique, spidery Novice in The Cage. She made her debut in Peter Martins’ full-length Swan Lake with a last-minute substitute for Prince Siegfried—Charles Askegard—and Anna Kisselgoff of The New York Times pronounced it “triumphant.”
Considering the workload that Somogyi carried, it’s astonishing she was never injured. “Obviously,” Somogyi says with a little laugh, “I was saving it up for something big.” In January 2004 her luck ran out. During Balanchine’s gut-buster Tschaikovsky Piano Concerto No. 2 (also known as Ballet Imperial) her posterior tibial tendon (the one that allows you to stand on your foot) snapped. Somogyi says, “I felt a rush of heat go up my leg and thought I had jammed my foot. It was all very confusing. I remember thinking, ‘If I can get on pointe why can’t I work it out?’ ”
When Askegard saw her limping, he implored her to stop dancing. But she insisted on going on with the ballet, not realizing she had a serious injury. Backstage, he said to her, “If we go onstage, I’m going to sort of carry you around.” Which he did. “I wouldn’t take my hands off of her except when I had to.”
Somogyi says, “Charles and Perry (Perry Silvey is NYCB’s production stage manager) walked me from wing to wing, but it was only getting worse. Finally, Perry sat me in a chair and said, ‘Enough.’ That’s when he cut my pointe shoe ribbons.” Askegard carried her up to her dressing room, marshalled a cab in a blizzard, and took her home.
There are injuries that interrupt dancers’ careers and then there are injuries that threaten to end them. Somogyi sustained the worst kind of the latter. Not only did it look as if she would never dance again, it was doubtful she would ever walk. Although she had had discomfort in her left foot for several months and had two MRIs, the doctors did not think to look for this type of injury, which is commonly found only in obese middle-aged women.
After eight months of physical therapy and then major surgery, Somogyi still could not walk, and the prognosis was grim. “I got to the point where I didn’t care if I could dance, I just wanted to walk.” During her convalescence period, her extended family— particularly her husband—buoyed her spirits. Then came a breakthrough. Somehow the scar tissue dispersed and she regained mobility of her ankle. “Once I got to the walking, I wanted to dance just a little bit longer,” says Somogyi.
Now Somogyi is limited by what she can do in class: she needs to be careful jumping, only grand plies in second and slamming into fifth position is definitely a no-no. “But,” says Somogyi, “I actually get less winded than before. I used to be so nervous and attack steps, creating so much tension in my whole body. Now I’m finding little alleys and taking the back roads, and I’ve taken the pressure off of myself. I’m really comfortable—and I only have half a tendon.”
“I never expected to be doing what I’m doing,” Somogyi says, her luminous blue eyes welling up, “The doctors explained to me that if I hurt the tendon again, I’m done. There is not enough tendon to repair again. So I promised myself if and when I came back I was going to be a totally different person. If every day is a risk, at least I’m going to enjoy myself.”
On June 19, 2005, she returned to the stage in Lynne-Taylor-Corbett’s Chiaroscuro at Jock Soto’s farewell performance. From the moment she stepped onstage, there was something different about Jennie Somogyi. She was dancing with a new freedom and effervescent joy.
But before coming back, Somogyi, 29, had a serious conversation with Martins about her repertoire and the caveats placed on her return. Having joined the company as a teenager, she had never really had an adult conversation with Martins until that day. For the first time she felt on equal footing.
Last spring, Peter Martins cast her in the lead in his new ballet, The Red Violin. “I admired her guts and courage to come back,” says Martins. “The first person that came into my mind when I heard The Red Violin music was Jennie. It was purely instinctual,” says Martins. “I loved her attitude and her willingness to experiment, and that got me going.”
Although Martins had previously originated roles on Somogyi, it was more collaborative this time. “I felt I was part of the process,” says Somogyi, “and it was so much fun.” Martins kept asking her if this or that step was OK for her foot. He recalls that she balked only once, saying, “Just give me a week or so.”
The Red Violin, which premiered in May as part of the Diamond Project, is a blend of classical and experimental movement, set to John Corigliano’s strikingly modern score of the eponymous movie. As a slender flash of red, Somogyi expresses the essence of the violin. Her feet dart to the pizzicato rhythms and her arms undulate like ribbons. In a series of slow promenades on pointe, ably partnered by Sébastien Marcovici, she carves with her body exquisite origami-like shapes with each revolution.
“A maturity has emerged,” says Martins. “She doesn’t fit easily into any category. She adapts so easily to any kind of movement. She is such a modern ballerina–a ballerina of our times.”
Martins proposed a unique deal to Somogyi. “Jennie has entered a new sphere,” he says. “From now, on I’m not going to cast Jennie in any ballets without her consent. That decision should be taken as a compliment. What I mean by that is, I see her in a whole slew of ballets coming up over the next two or three seasons, but I’m not going to take any chances unless she tells me it’s OK. I don’t want it to be over. I’m selfish.”
A former ballet dancer, Astrida Woods writes for many publications including Playbill, New York Sun, and Show Business.