On The Rise: Jessica Alejandra Wyatt
It’s not Jessica Alejandra Wyatt’s elegant lines that first catch your eye, nor her effortless control. Rather it’s the emotion she projects. Performing the flurry of steps in Andrea Miller’s Nací, Wyatt’s luminous eyes seem filled with quiet sorrow. “There is this aura about her, this magic in her face,” says Eduardo Vilaro, the artistic director of Ballet Hispanico, where Wyatt is a member. “It’s what the Spaniards call duende, almost like a spirit inhabits her.”
Wyatt, 27, always wanted to be a ballerina. Her parents, Elena Carter and Joe Wyatt, were both principals with Dance Theatre of Harlem. “Since I can remember, I was playing in my mom’s tutus,” says Wyatt. “My parents never forced me to dance; I loved it.”
She grew up in Portland, Oregon, and trained with her mother (who died of cancer in 2006) and Haydee Gutierrez at the School of Oregon Ballet Theater. “My mom didn’t cut me any slack,” Wyatt remembers. But starting in her teens, she began to have injuries. Though Wyatt spent her last two years at the school as an Oregon Ballet Theatre trainee, by the second year she faced knee surgery.
After taking a year off to recover, Wyatt auditioned and got a one-year apprentice contract with the Joffrey Ballet. She found, once she arrived in Chicago, that she didn’t get many performing opportunities. “I don’t have the body type for classical ballet,” she says. Frustrated and injury-ridden, she considered quitting dance altogether.
It was at the wrap party for The Company, the Robert Altman film about the Joffrey, that Wyatt’s ability to salsa changed everything. “I felt this tap on my shoulder, and this good-looking man says, ‘I’m sorry, I have to dance with you,’ ” she remembers. “It was just us on the dance floor and we tore it up.” The man was Vilaro, the founder and then-director of Luna Negra Dance Theater, a small Chicago company that performs contemporary ballet infused with Latin and Afro-Caribbean dance. Vilaro told Wyatt that she should come dance for Luna Negra.
When the Joffrey only renewed her contract on a trial basis, Wyatt debated whether to give up her pointe shoes. Then she heard about an audition for Luna Negra, and decided to give it a shot. Vilaro already had his mind made up. “She walked in the door and I said, ‘I’m going to hire her.’ ”
So started a new chapter in her dance life. At first, Wyatt felt intimidated by the choreography. “I looked like a ballerina trying to do modern dance,” she says with a grimace. “It was embarrassing.” But gradually she became excited. Soon critics were singling her performances out.
Wyatt would have stayed at Luna Negra, but in 2009, Vilaro, a former Ballet Hispanico dancer, was tapped to take over for that company’s founding director, Tina Ramirez. He invited Wyatt and Luna Negra dancer Vanessa Valecillos to audition for BH. “I jumped at the opportunity,” says Wyatt. “If you find a director and a job that works for you, you stick with it.” For Vilaro, bringing his own dancers was key. “As a new director, I had to show what kind of dancer in both mind and body I was looking for.”
Wyatt continues to stand out at her new company. Her greatest strength is her ability to distill emotion, rather than letting it overtake the performance. Her strong work ethic underlies her ease onstage. “She is the dancer every director dreams of,” says Vilaro. “She is in class every day—and mind you, class is not mandatory.” Adagio in the center, which many dancers dread, is her favorite part of class. She revels in the strength, sweat, and concentration that it requires.
Has Wyatt put her tutu dreams behind her? “When I left the Joffrey, I cut my hair off and gave all of my pointe shoes away,” she says ruefully. “But when Vanessa and I got our contracts, Eduardo said, ‘Pointe shoes!’ ” She’s been slowly working them back into her regimen. “l still love Swan Lake. It’s what my mom and I shared.”
To this day, her mother inspires every performance. “My mom was my idol,” says Wyatt. “The greatest compliment anyone can give me is that I remind them of her. To be where my parents performed, that’s one of the most exciting parts of being in New York. I feel like I followed in their footsteps.”
Kina Poon is assistant editor at
Wyatt in Nebrada’s
Batucada Fantasia. Photo by Rosalie O’Connor, Courtesy Ballet Hispanico.