Adventurous dancers love a challenge, but even one as game and gifted as Sara Esty could have felt daunted diving on short notice into Twyla Tharp’s The Golden Section. When a principal was injured shortly before the ballet’s Miami City premiere a year ago, Esty was tapped to take her place. With Balanchine’s Divertimento No. 15 and Valse Fantaisie earlier on the bill, the Miami City Ballet corps member had 10 minutes to veer from a Glinka waltz to David Byrne’s hard-driving beat. She still managed to whip out Tharp’s choreography with brio, its stratospheric flight a happy blur for the dancer.
“That was a threshold moment for me,” says the 24-year-old. “It helped me to push myself to a different level.” Critics noticed too. The New York Times’ Alastair Macaulay praised Esty’s “precision infused with radiance.” In September, Esty reprised her part in the Tharp piece for the filming of Dance in America: Miami City Ballet Dances Balanchine & Tharp, to be broadcast early this year on PBS. The broadcast also features Esty in Western Symphony and Square Dance, a ballet she places among her Balanchine favorites.
“It’s one of the most difficult ballets I’ve ever danced,” says Esty. “It requires an immense amount of stamina. The steps are very high-energy—the opening movement is pretty much like being shot out of a cannon.”
Yet she has hit the right targets since joining the company as an apprentice in 2005. A native of Gorham, Maine, Esty has a no-nonsense approach to her work. For featured roles, she goes through lots of mental rehearsal, listening repeatedly to the music and reviewing choreography. “I’m really thinking,” she says, “how I want to make it my own.”
No wonder MCB’s artistic director, Edward Villella, calls her “very smart in the way a dancer must be.” Esty’s talent caught his eye at a showcase for the MCB school, where Esty was studying for a year after graduating from high school. Earlier she had attended two MCB summer intensives.
“I saw her in Pas de Dix—and wow!” recalls Villella. “Her dancing had command, understanding, and musicality.”
Esty handled the vibrant neoclassicism of that Balanchine piece as if it were custom-made. Joining the corps two years after starting her apprenticeship, she’s turned out to be the kind of versatile dancer who serves the company well. “We have four home cities and need from three to five casts to cover, so a dancer like Sara is invaluable to us,” explains Villella. Esty’s early promise convinced Villella to nominate the young dancer for the Princess Grace Award in 2006, which she went on to win over a number of other dancers from high-profile companies around the country.
Linda MacArthur Miele, artistic director of Maine State Ballet and Sara’s teacher at the company school, predicted Esty would hit her stride in a professional company. An alumna of New York City Ballet, Miele introduced Esty to Balanchine technique and regaled her with stories about dancing for the choreographer. The director remembers how Esty took it all to heart and would even go around making dances, including one to a Harry Potter soundtrack. “Once she decided ballet was her passion, I never doubted her success,” says Miele.
Esty shared her studies at Maine State Ballet with her twin, Leigh-Ann, who’s accompanied Sara on this artistic journey from the age of 3, when they began their dance training. Now the two dance together in the MCB corps. “We’re lucky to be each other’s support system,” says Leigh-Ann. Few dancers enjoy such an intuitive understanding of each other’s movement. Their pairing as the so-called bomb squad in Tharp’s In the Upper Room still astounds Roma Sosenko, MCB principal ballet mistress. “The mirror images,” she declares, “were almost supernatural.”
The twins have different strengths, so MCB can assign roles according to their abilities. “The worst thing that could happen would be for a career to come between me and my sister,” says Leigh-Ann. “Her success is my success.” Still, Sara’s buoyant performances keep taking her further. “Onstage she just comes alive,” says Sosenko, who stresses Esty’s musicality—which could be, perhaps, because Esty also plays the French horn.
Her twin believes Sara could shine on Broadway as well. It’s no surprise, then, that on Sara’s dream list are the lead in Rubies and a chance to light up Robbins’ West Side Story Suite. “Anything jazzy is right up my alley,” she says. This 25th-anniversary season at MCB, however, she’s happy to strap on her character shoes as a Gypsy in and delve into Cranko’s choreography. Showing her range and giving movement drama suits her too. “Surround yourself with all the beauty that’s here,” she says. “If you are serious, it’ll become a part of who you are.”
Guillermo Perez is a South Florida arts writer and educator.
Esty in Tharp's The Golden Section. Photo by Leigh-Ann Esty, courtesy MCB