Nicholle Rochelle dances large. At 5' 7" she is a willowy, feminine presence onstage, drawing audiences in with her lucscious movement quality, extended line, and confident skill. “When I first saw her in an audition for the company I was taken by her physique—she reminded me of Sylvie Guillem,” says North Carolina Dance Theatre artistic director Jean Pierre Bonnefoux. “She eats up the space around her onstage,” says NCDT ballet associate artistic director Patricia McBride. “It is divine to watch. And she can do anything from classical to contemporary.”
High praise for the 23-year-old Malibu, California, native who admits to being rather sickly her first season with NCDT’s second company. Now entering her fifth season with the main company, Rochelle is in peak form. Recognized as one of the company’s stars, she is drawing critical attention with bold performances at home and on tour. As a finalist at the New York International Ballet Competition in June, she wowed those who got to see her dance—including her partner at NCDT, Adam Stein.
“She is a ballerina who can really move,” says Stein. “In the beginning it was a bit intimidating partnering her because she is so good.” Stein says at times he would be late for his own music during a variation because he was fixated on Rochelle’s dancing. “She is mesmerizing to watch and a tough act to follow.”
Introduced to dance at age 6, Rochelle says she couldn’t stop moving as a child, so her mother, a former professional belly dancer, enrolled her in ballet and jazz classes at Malibu Civic Ballet. “At first I hated ballet,” says Rochelle. “Being sort of hyperactive, I preferred the freedom of jazz class.” At age 10, that changed. She found she had an affinity for the art form and by 12 knew she would make ballet her career. A product of Royal Academy of Dance training, Rochelle earned its highest honors on her annual exams and in 1999 qualified for the Adelene Geneé Awards in London where she became the first U.S.-trained dancer to place, taking home a bronze. After a brief stint as a trainee with Miami City Ballet, Rochelle joined NCDT. In 2002, she garnered a Princess Grace Award and this season was promoted to principal.
While the recognition of a promotion means a lot, Rochelle has already begun to feel the pressure. “All eyes are going to be on me now,” she says. “You have to act like it, look like it, be regal, and everything has to be polished and fine-tuned.”
Rochelle was all that and more in a performance at New York’s Chautauqua Institution in July. In the opening volley of choreography in Alonzo King’s Map, she attacked the stage like a predator on the hunt, limbs slicing through the air with muscular aggression and near flawless technique. And in the grand pas de deux from Le Corsaire with Stein, her statuesque carriage, impeccable turning ability, and breathtaking classicism earned her a standing ovation.
In addition to dancing the Black Swan pas de deux and performing the lead in Balanchine’s Serenade this season, Bonnefoux expects Rochelle will figure prominently in next month’s production of The Nutcracker and in Dwight Rhoden’s new ballet for the company, slated for February. “She has a way of being loyal to the choreographer but making the choreography better than it is,” says Bonnefoux. “She loves to be challenged with different dance styles.”
Rochelle says for a long time she dreamed of dancing with American Ballet Theatre, but now feels fortunate to be where she is. She believes the repertoire and roles she has gotten to dance with NCDT over the years are invaluable. “You can give me a principal role one night and a corps role the next. I don’t mind, I just want to perform,” says Rochelle.
Ever ambitious, Rochelle is still very much on the hunt when it comes to her performance career, looking to feed her insatiable hunger for the stage. “I want to be famous, and dance in the grandest opera halls in the world,” Rochelle says. “Not for the attention, but for the thrill of it. I am going to dance for you and relish every moment of it!”
Steve Sucato is a former dancer turned writer/critic. He is based in Erie, Pennsylvania and is a frequent contributor to several newspapers and national dance publications.