Some careers come together so organically that the dancer barely has time to take stock of how she got to where she is. That's how it was for Betsy McBride, at least until 2015.
Born in Coppell, a suburb of Dallas, McBride began taking ballet at her local school at age 3. At 14, she attended a summer intensive at the school affiliated with Texas Ballet Theater. Within a few weeks, McBride was offered a year-round place at the school with the tantalizing prospect of being hired by the company. Which is exactly what happened just a few months later. And there she stayed, eventually performing some of the most desirable roles in TBT's repertoire: Juliet, Odette/Odile, Aurora, the glamorous soloist in Balanchine's "Rubies," the title character in Ronald Hynd's The Merry Widow.
As the 24-year-old brunette explains, "I wasn't even thinking about a career yet. It was all sort of a whirlwind, and I just went with it." She could have stayed where she was for the rest of her career, cycling through the classical roles and having new ones created for her by the company's artistic director, Ben Stevenson. "I grew up there—I was comfortable there," she says. But as time went on, she realized she was hungry for a change: a new company, a bigger city, longer seasons, opportunities to tour. "I was ready to go somewhere new and start over."
So early in 2015, she contacted American Ballet Theatre, hoping to arrange an audition. Though she was informed that there were no openings, she was invited to come to New York City to take class. She took them up on the offer, and made a good impression. By chance, a position opened up, and she was offered a contract. She made her debut with ABT as a nymph in The Sleeping Beauty toward the end of the 2015 Met season. (Encouraged by her success, her boyfriend, Simon Wexler, also auditioned and joined the corps a few months after her.)
But the decision came at a cost: She had to trade in her life as a leading dancer for a place in the corps. "I've definitely struggled with it at times. It's weird, I'm new here, but I'm not new to being a professional. So I just try to keep doing what I need to do and not focus on that too much."
Her clear-eyed approach has already helped cement her place in the company. She has been given some opportunities: a little swan in Swan Lake, Fairy Fleur de farine in Alexei Ratmansky's historically minded Sleeping Beauty, Columbine in his Nutcracker. And more chances seem to be in store: She's rehearsing the role of the lead gypsy in Don Quixote and recently started learning the choreography for Olga, the younger sister in John Cranko's Onegin.
She realizes that nothing is automatic in a big company like ABT. She's fifth cast for Olga, which means she may not get to dance it for a while, if ever. As she puts it, "It's definitely a waiting game." Meanwhile, she's finding sustenance dancing in the corps. "It challenged me to go back to working with my peers and feeding off of each other. You feel that camaraderie and the ups and downs."
"Betsy is an extremely versatile dancer with a vibrant personality on the stage, and quick to learn," says Susan Jones, principal ballet mistress at ABT. "When she joined, it was as if she'd always been here."
Her adaptability was on display in a recent rehearsal of Ratmansky's new ballet Whipped Cream, in which she was creating the role of one of four "swirl girls." Even as she learned the complicated steps, she danced them full-out, with confidence.
It's easy to see why critics back in Texas used adjectives like "reckless" and "daring" to describe her dancing. And she's not timid about trying new things: "Sometimes Ratmansky asks us to do something that seems impossible. And then you realize, once you try it, that you can. It's been kind of a light bulb for me." It seems that with this move she's gotten even more than what she bargained for: a choreographer of international repute who can push her to new heights.