Waltzing with Herman Cornejo to the song “Strangers in the Night,” Sarah Lane shows off a sleek elegance that is tinged with a refreshing sweetness. But several minutes later into the rehearsal of Twyla Tharp’s Sinatra Suite, she gives as good as she gets, dancing the contentious duet to “That’s Life”—accidentally kicking Cornejo in the stomach. Even though she’s the smallest woman in American Ballet Theatre (5’2” tops), it’s best not to underestimate her. She’s built like a sparrow, but she has the will of an eagle.
Lane joined the corps in 2004 after eight months in the ABT Studio Company. Since then, she has jumped out of the pack to stake her claim on a broad range of roles: the sprightly Amour in Don Quixote, the do-or-die ballerina role in Theme and Variations, a lead in Tharp’s In the Upper Room, and even the doomed Anne Boleyn in Christopher Wheeldon’s VIII. Plus she was chosen by Payless recently to represent their new ABT shoe line.
“Sarah, in that delicate frame, can display a robustness in her approach, and a ‘feeling’ for dancing that can radiate,” says ABT artistic director Kevin McKenzie.
Whether riding a legato musical line with ease or attacking an allegro passage with ferocity, Lane projects her stage persona in a way that only natural-born performers can. And even if you can’t see her captivating dark eyes from the back of the theater, you’ll definitely notice the eloquence of her port de bras.
Of course, Lane, like most dancers, describes herself in a self-effacing manner. “If I just stood and did a tendu, you wouldn’t see anything special. I wasn’t given crazy legs and physicality,” says Lane, who in reality has a lovely classical line. “For me, dancing is a form of freedom to express things on a deeper level that you can’t express with words. When you leave the stage, you have to know you were able to communicate something, whether you’re in the back of the corps or in the front as a soloist.”
Lane was born in San Francisco, but her family moved to Memphis, Tennessee, when she was a toddler. Her father, a sound engineer, wrestled and raced dirt bikes, while her mother, more conservative in style, home-schooled her children. Lane claims that having two younger brothers who quickly outgrew her gave her the backbone to stand up for herself. “I wasn’t born into a rich family and we struggled a lot with finances,” says Lane. “My family still does.”
Although she had little exposure to ballet in the countryside outside Memphis, Lane bugged her mother to let her take lessons. At 4 she began tap and jazz classes at a local community center for a bargain price: 10 lessons for a dollar. But she wanted the ballet experience, and soon enrolled at the Memphis Classical Ballet. When the family moved to Rochester in upstate New York, Lane became fiercely focused at the Draper Center for Dance Education, a school that has produced a number of other fine dancers, like ABT’s Kristi Boone, and Aesha Ash of Alonzo King’s LINES Ballet.
Her teacher, Timothy Draper, saw Lane’s potential. “Tim was an incredibly driven perfectionist and pushed us a lot. I ended up having a close relationship with him. He was difficult to understand, because he was very hard on the outside, but on the inside he was like a father,” says Lane. Draper coached her through the competition circuit. To raise money for the competitions, Lane worked at the Discovery Channel store at a local Rochester mall. “I was an expert telescope seller,” she says.
As a young student, Lane never considered herself ABT material. It also never occurred to her that her height was an issue. “I always thought that a ballerina was supposed to be petite,” she says. But when she first auditioned for ABT, John Meehan, then the Studio Company’s director, informed her that McKenzie thought she was too small.
After a Boston Ballet audition, she was guaranteed a contract, but, through a technical snafu—an administrator had listed her as Catherine Lane—it never materialized. Seventeen years old and undeterred, she competed in the Youth America Grand Prix Competition in New York. When the sound system crashed, she danced her variation in utter silence and earned a standing ovation—and the bronze (see “Turning a Nightmare Into a Dream,” Oct. 2002). She also won the attention of McKenzie, who invited her to take company class and promptly offered her a Studio Company contract. Two months later, she took a silver medal in the Junior Division (the highest awarded in 2002) at the U.S.A. International Ballet Competition in Jackson, where she danced excerpts from Diana and Acteon, Napoli, and Raymonda. In retrospect, though, Lane thinks that competitions aren’t really about winning medals. “It’s not as much about the competition as it is about the performing and the confidence it builds,” she says. “It gets you over your fear of an audience.”
Lane’s teacher, Tim Draper, died suddenly later that year. “I felt like my support and accountability was pulled out from under me,” says Lane. “I was so accustomed to his trusting eyes, both bearing down on me and driving me on. It was very disorienting not to have his very sure opinion.” The last time she saw him was after her first Studio Company performance. “He looked so proud, and that was worth all the words. He saw something in me, and his vision helped make me what I am.”
In her second year with ABT, Lane seized the day in one of those crucial understudy moments. She was thrown into the devilishly hard Theme and Variations on short notice, an event that “made me face my fear.” Lane has both a strong Christian faith and a tendency to get nerve-stricken before performances. “I pray—no, I beg before I go onstage,” she says. “That helps me get over myself.” For the record, her performance of Theme opposite Cornejo drew some raves. Gia Kourlas in The New York Times called her a “delight” who “radiated assurance in the thorny female part” and who has “something undeniably dazzling about her right now.”
Slumps sometimes follow successes, and Lane fell into a period of self-doubt following the company’s 2005 fall City Center season when she danced lead roles in several ballets, including Peter Quanz’s Kaleidoscope. “I was getting into a very self-conscious way of dancing,” she says. “I was feeling unmotivated. I was battling where I stood in the company versus where my future would be.”
Former ABT ballerina Susan Jaffe, who has championed Lane’s talent, gave her a pep talk after coaching her for a Black Swan pas de deux guest appearance. “I reminded Sarah that success in life is not always a straight line to the top but instead a zigzag line of ups and downs,” says Jaffe. “Often the things that look difficult are the very things that make us stronger, wiser, and turn out to be great gifts at the end of the day.”
Jaffe makes it clear that Lane has what it takes. “She dances from the heart,” says Jaffe. “The difference between a dancer who dances only with the body and the intellect as opposed to the heart can be felt on a visceral level. This art form is so difficult to transcend because as a dancer, one must work on many different levels. Sarah has an innate sense of those deeper levels. I look forward to seeing what she does with that as she matures.”
Lane would love to dance her favorite role—Juliet. Her tender beauty, expressive face, and heartfelt dancing would make that a perfect fit. She’d also like to take a stab at a very different heroine, Kitri in Don Quixote. For the new production of The Sleeping Beauty this spring, she’s been cast as the Charity fairy and in the Bluebird pas de deux. But she has never knocked on the director’s door to ask for a soloist position. “I feel like if I’m given something, it’s because I deserve it,” she says, “not because I went in and asked for it.”
For down time, Lane visits her family in Rochester or hangs out with her boyfriend, Luis Ribagorda, a Madrid-born dancer in ABT’s corps. “I was wishing I was in Spain this morning when the subways were flooding,” she says with a laugh. “Things are so much more relaxed there.”
Lane’s imagination and versatility are evident. But she’s also grounded in the reality of the work and knows that attaining a ballerina status is no simple waltz to the top. “I have been blessed, but there is no perfect situation,” she says with the wisdom of someone far older than her 22 years.
“Your whole life is a race. Sometimes you are given opportunities to take a breather, but for the most part, it is a marathon.”
As she finishes the rehearsal, weaving through Sinatra’s rendition of “My Way,” she exits, primed to take on another challenge. Her way.
Joseph Carman is a contributing editor to
Dance Magazine and the author of Round About the Ballet.