Career Advice

The Reinvention of Simone Messmer

At Miami City Ballet, the new principal has found her sweet spot.

Photo by Nathan Sayers, styling by Andrew Shore Kaminski

What does it take to make Simone Messmer happy? It’s not just another new job; it’s the right new job.

Messmer, the latest principal with Miami City Ballet, seems to have found it. As she told her new boss, artistic director Lourdes Lopez, the other day, “I’ve never been in a company with such mentally healthy people in my life.”

Of course, that’s not the only reason the company is such a brilliant fit for this transcendent, but not exactly mild-mannered ballerina. Messmer, a former soloist with American Ballet Theatre and, briefly, with San Francisco Ballet—she only lasted a season—has found herself where she’s always wanted to be: in an environment full of rigor, in which studio exploration is as valued as a performance.

“Every single person in the company is in ballet class every day,” she says. “I’ll do a pas de deux, and they stay in the room just to watch. Everyone is on board. I’m working for someone who actually really believes in what I’m doing, so I’m going to run with that.”

Messmer, who wrote to Lopez in May, was offered a principal contract with Miami City Ballet shortly after. Though the budget was already wrapped up, Lopez obtained special permission from her board to add another dancer to the roster.

But while it all happened quickly—she started on June 1—getting to this point hasn’t been easy for Messmer. In San Francisco, she quickly realized that “it was not an environment that I was working well in. I wasn’t dancing well. But other people have really flourished there. It depends on something I’m not sure I have.”

Lopez is coaching Messmer in Balanchine's Swan Lake this season. Photo by Daniel Azoulay, courtesy Miami City Ballet.

She did get little pearls of wisdom from certain people, including Sofiane Sylve and Yuri Possokhov (dancing his Firebird was a highlight, as was tackling a new role in Alexei Ratmansky’s Shostakovich Trilogy). “But in general I was floating on the ether because I wasn’t a focus of the staff, therefore my rehearsals were almost nonexistent,” she says. “I think it was a combination of the wrong place for me and also the first time in a brand-new environment. I was at Ballet Theatre for over a decade. It was the only thing I knew.”

In leaving ABT, a company in which she felt she had little room to grow, her aim was obvious: more meaty dancing roles. When that didn’t seem to be happening in San Francisco, Messmer told artistic director Helgi Tomasson that the company wasn’t the right fit. According to Messmer, she asked him if he wanted her to remain for the Paris tour, and he told her that he was planning on having her dance Choleric in George Balanchine’s The Four Temperaments. For Messmer, that would mean missing out on auditions, but the role was worth it.

Yet she never got to dance it. “I was never called to a rehearsal,” she says. After the Paris season, she left. “Very quickly.”

Shortly after, she returned to New York City, where she got in touch with her ballet teacher Wilhelm Burmann and resumed Gyrotonic training. “They got me back to a place where I was comfortable being seen again,” she says. “It was more of a mental thing.”

But it took time. In between San Francisco and Miami, Messmer experienced several difficult months when, in order to save money, she and her boyfriend, Mike Diaz—he’s the master carpenter at Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater—lived with his sister in New Jersey. “All of a sudden, I was unemployed,” she says. “Stagnant is not a place for an artist. I don’t think I’ve ever had a struggle like that. It’s a toll on your relationship, it’s a toll on your ego, it’s a toll on everything.” 

Even though she was depressed, she didn’t fall back into old patterns. Ten years ago, Messmer took a leave of absence at ABT after going down what she calls “a self-destructive path.” She declines to talk specifics, but will say that she couldn’t live with herself if she’d done that again. “It would have made it worse, and it couldn’t have gotten worse, because I maybe would have quit.”

Burmann, who admires Messmer’s rare qualities—she is both a romantic dancer and one suited to contemporary works—and has worked with her since her ABT days, has had the opportunity to study her, then and now. “She is calmer,” he says. “She is more focused, and that makes a big difference.”

But it is hardly surprising that Lopez says she needed to first believe that Messmer was interested in Miami City Ballet for the right reasons. “I was very open with her. I said, ‘You’ve left Ballet Theatre and you’ve left San Francisco, and those are major companies that any young dancer would give an eye and a tooth to join. So what’s going on here? Because something’s going on.’ ”

Messmer recalls that she was nervous. “In all honesty, I don’t want to place blame—I was unhappy in San Francisco, but it’s not my place to speak about the company that I know so little about,” she says. “It was difficult to answer questions like ‘Why didn’t it work?’ It’s not a simple answer.”

Even though Lopez was already a fan of Messmer’s dancing, she watched her in Burmann’s class and spoke to friends who had worked with her. “They all said that she’s really talented, she’s a workaholic, she’s very focused and present, she delivers onstage, but she has a very strong personality and asks a lot of questions and wants to know the answers,” Lopez says. “There was a part of me that made me wonder: If we were talking about a male dancer, would you have the same reaction?”

Lopez explained to Messmer that her sense of her was that she needed to find a place where someone would take her into a room and say, “Let’s make you a better dancer.” She told her that could happen in Miami. “I said, ‘We leave our egos at the door and it’s really all about working—but I can’t do that on my own. You’re going to have to meet me halfway. What I’m talking about is no BS, no attitude, no diva, no overthinking a situation, no under-thinking it.’ ”

A Midsummer Night's Dream rehearsal with Kleber Rebello. Photo by Daniel Azoulay, courtesy MCB.

To Lopez’s delight, there has been none of that. Messmer likes to work. She’s professional and serious. “She’s been wonderful,” Lopez continues. “And it hasn’t been easy for her because the technique is different, it’s faster. The Balanchine style is very different and she has not fought it. Quite the opposite.”

Now Messmer is learning a slew of thrilling parts, including Odette, in Balanchine’s Swan Lake, in which Lopez is coaching her, along with Janie Taylor’s luminous role in Justin Peck’s Year of the Rabbit and Balanchine’s Symphony in Three Movements, Serenade and A Midsummer Night’s Dream (both Titania and the divertissement pas de deux). While it hasn’t been easy to master the speed and intricacy of the Balanchine approach, Messmer, who has been able to work with Suki Schorer and Susan Pilarre—Lopez brought both School of American Ballet teachers to Miami to work with the company in separate visits—says that she may be more of a Balanchine dancer than she realized.

“Playing with the music the way I naturally do is geared well for this,” she explains. “There’s a big difference in the dynamic of every step. A tendu is a tendu, but in Balanchine the out–in is not even. You can do out–hold; in and out; or you hold the in. It’s that playing that makes you such a dynamic dancer.”

Now Messmer, who moved to Miami with Diaz, lives three blocks from the beach. It helps to have a carpenter-boyfriend; he is planning on building a sprung floor in their extra bedroom. She’s also grateful to her mother for sending her to Spanish-immersion school from kindergarten through eighth grade. And the Delgado sisters—Jeanette and Patricia, two of Miami City Ballet’s most treasured principals—are, in her words, “like a ray of sunshine. It’s not like anything I’ve ever seen in my life,” she adds. “I mean really.”

Messmer doesn’t think she’s ever danced as well as now—or been as confident. “I have a ton of things to work on, but I know clearly what I want to say,” she says. “It’s humbling to be in that position. And I’m super-grateful to Lourdes for taking this risk. There’s no words that can actually say thank you enough, so I just have to be that person in the company. I have to say my thank-yous through my dancing.” 

Gia Kourlas writes about dance for The New York Times and other publications.

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