When soloist Kathryn Morgan made her entrance as the Striptease Girl in Miami City Ballet's Slaughter on Tenth Avenue last October, the audience greeted her with a burst of ecstatic applause. This was more than Morgan's debut in the role, or her first performance as a new member of MCB. It was her first time appearing with a major ballet company in nine years.
Morgan is a born actress, and she dances with an expressive musicality. She leaned into the jazzy elements of the choreography and nailed the character's flirtatious energy. In any good production of Slaughter, there's a moment in the pas de deux between the Striptease Girl and her Hoofer that always feels somewhat cathartic, an expression of freedom set to an exultant burst of music. Leaning in a deep backbend against his arm, she marches slowly across the stage, marking each beat of the music with a percussive kick.
When Morgan did it, it felt especially triumphant. "At the end, it was just like a rock concert," she says of the energy in the audience, who gave her a standing ovation. "For me it just felt like home. This is where I'm supposed to be."
Morgan rehearsing Slaughter on Tenth Avenue with Chase Swatosh
Alexander Iziliaev, Courtesy Miami City Ballet
Morgan's debut marked a return to the stage that, not long ago, she would have told you was impossible. Starting her career with a bang as one of New York City Ballet's most promising young stars, she had seemed destined to rocket to the top. By age 20, she'd danced roles like Juliet, Sugarplum Fairy and Aurora, and become known for her knack for lyrical, romantic ballets.
But after illness sidelined her career, Morgan left the professional world, and never expected to dance for a company again. Now, she is readjusting to company life as a Miami City Ballet soloist.
Over the course of her unconventional path back to ballet, she's become a role model for young dancers, an honest voice bringing more transparency to the ballet world and an inspiration to anyone who's struggling to beat the odds.
Morgan's unusually fast rise at NYCB reads like a ballet fairy tale. Growing up in Alabama, she started training at Mobile Ballet at age 5, and joined their youth company. Her first time in New York City, she saw NYCB's Nutcracker.
"I turned to my parents and said, 'I'm going to be up there one day,' " Morgan says.
At 15, she auditioned for the School of American Ballet's summer intensive and, after her first weekend there, was offered a spot in the year-round program. At 17, midway through her second year at SAB, she was told she would be offered an apprenticeship, and was asked not to audition anywhere else.
The roles came fast. Two weeks into her apprenticeship, Morgan was asked to fill in as Juliet in the balcony pas de deux during the company's Saratoga run. At age 18, just after receiving her corps contract, she played Juliet in the full-length ballet. At 19, she was cast as the Sugarplum Fairy in The Nutcracker, and at 20, she danced Aurora in The Sleeping Beauty. At 21, the soloist promotion came, with the implication that she could expect to go all the way to principal.
"I had this dream career. It was just like, 'What could possibly go wrong?' " Morgan says with a laugh. "Not so fast."
Morgan working with Miami City Ballet artistic director Lourdes Lopez
That spring, Morgan was waiting to get her hair braided for a Romeo and Juliet performance when the hairdresser paused. "I sat in the chair and he said, 'Um, Katie where's your hair?' " she remembers. "I said, 'What are you talking about?' and he said, 'Half your hair is gone. I have nothing to braid.' "
Not long after that, Morgan started gaining weight, despite dancing 10 hours a day. "I remember several ballet masters pulling me aside and going, 'Are you aware that you're gaining weight?' And I thought, No, I had no idea," she says sarcastically. "It was awful."
Sometimes, she would rise up on pointe and collapse back down again, because her muscles had started to weaken. She found herself unable to get through a day without taking a nap. Once, she developed such a bad migraine before going onstage for Jerome Robbins' In the Night that she still has no memory of performing it.
Morgan was diagnosed with hypothyroidism, meaning her thyroid was not producing enough of certain hormones. She was prescribed a replacement hormone. But three months later, she had gained 45 pounds and was no closer to feeling better. For the next two years, she remained a member of the company but didn't perform.
"I kept having to pull out of the ballets, because I either couldn't get through them or I would not be able to fit into the costume, which was humiliating," she says.
The pressure of feeling like she was letting the company down only made things worse. Finally, "I said, 'I'm sick as a dog, I cannot get through a day, I hate my life, I can't look at myself in the mirror,' " she says. She made the decision to leave NYCB and focus on her health. She was 23.
It took three more years, and eight doctors, to figure out what was really wrong. "Doctors told me I was crazy, I was making it up," she says. "One doctor even looked at me and said, 'You look fine,' because as a ballet dancer even if you gain 45 pounds, you still look 'normal.' " Morgan and her mom would bring photos of what she had looked like before the illness, and doctors would tell her, "Well, that's unattainable."
Finally, a family friend, an internist, discovered that Morgan had Hashimoto's disease, an autoimmune illness that attacks the thyroid, in addition to the hypothyroidism. To keep it in check, she needed to make changes to her medication, her diet and also her stress management. "He literally took out a prescription pad and wrote 'dog,' " Morgan says. She adopted a five-pound papillon, and began the long process of starting to feel better.
"My dad let me wallow on the couch for a few months, but after that he was like, 'Alright, what are you going to do? We've got to have a plan B,' " she says.
In 2014, feeling sick and watching YouTube videos at home, it struck her that there were no professional dancers on the platform. She already had a large following on Facebook from her NYCB days, and had been writing occasional posts. That turned into a blog, and then a YouTube channel. She started with stage-makeup tutorials. "I was too humiliated to show any more of me at that point," she says.
Gradually, she began offering candid advice for aspiring dancers, telling personal stories, and recording ballet class and workout videos. "The thing I try to do with my videos is not only cater to my younger self, the young bunhead in me, but also to anyone who's gone through a hard time, who doesn't believe in themselves, who has been told they are a failure—because that all happened to me," Morgan says.
As her following grew, other opportunities followed: an advice column for Dance Spirit, a slot judging for Youth America Grand Prix, teaching opportunities and even an occasional guest performance.
In 2017, Morgan got married and moved to Houston, fully committed to settling into a new life. But when the marriage fell apart 10 months in, she found herself faced with starting over once again. After moving back home with her parents, "I just needed to go do something," she says.
She had a key to a local ballet studio, and began giving herself barre every day. Then, she tried center. "I started looking at myself going, 'Huh, wow, I'm back in shape,' and it hadn't even occurred to me," she says.
Quietly, without setting any real expectations, she moved back to New York City in fall 2018, where she continued her training. She took classes at Steps on Broadway with Nancy Bielski, a favorite teacher. "I started to realize, Well, maybe I can do this again," she says.
Last February, she heard that Miami City Ballet artistic director Lourdes Lopez was hiring. Intrigued by the company's Balanchine-heavy rep and Lopez's own background as an NYCB dancer, Morgan reached out. Lopez remembered her—she had heard about her back when Morgan was a young NYCB prodigy—and invited her to Miami to take class for a few days.
"I was a bundle of nerves because I had never had to audition for a company before," Morgan says. Though Morgan was working to get fully back in shape, Lopez immediately recognized her strong Balanchine background, ingrained musicality and characteristic artistry. One day after class, the two went to Lopez's office and talked for an hour. Lopez wasn't sure she had any open positions to offer at the time, but two months later, she asked her to become a soloist.
"I just could not believe it. To go seven years not in a company, and essentially nine years not onstage, I had fully prepared myself to be offered a corps spot," Morgan says. She signed her contract on April 4, a year to the day after her marriage ended.
Now, in Miami, Morgan is getting a second shot at a professional ballet career, and she's doing a few things differently. "A year ago I never thought I'd be dancing again, let alone at a top five company, so I want to just appreciate every day, every show, every rehearsal."
In her NYCB days, she remembers being paralyzed by perfectionism and a desire to please. "I was so worried about perfect technique, hitting everything, making everybody happy," she says. "Now, I'm actually enjoying the performances."
To Lopez, Morgan fits right in at MCB. "She has an unbelievable work ethic. She is supportive of her colleagues, and she has so easily slid into the MCB family to become one of us," Lopez says.
Miami is also stretching Morgan's artistry, pushing her into new roles she might never have had the opportunity to dance at NYCB, like the jazzy Striptease Girl or the Firebird. "Usually I'm more the lyrical, dramatic dancer," she says, "but anytime I can tell a story onstage, anytime I can be a character, that's why I do what I do."
"Katie's biggest strength is that she continues to want to learn, get better and get stronger," adds Lopez. "She's open to corrections and coaching, and is always ready and willing to get down to work."
Though Morgan will always have her illness, she's learned how to keep it in check, and to notice signs that she's stressed. While she's making dance her main focus, she still keeps up her YouTube channel on the side. Everything she's gone through has given her a new outlook.
"If I had just had this easy career and went to the top, and became a principal dancer—first of all, I myself wouldn't appreciate it, but secondly, that's not how you really help people," Morgan says.
After that first performance of Slaughter, she met many people at the stage door who had come to see her dance. Some were students who had watched her ballet videos, or people struggling with their own illnesses who had been inspired by her story.
"If I can help at least one other person with my story," she says, "then I'm happy to have gone through it and I would go through it again."