Megan Fairchild is a principal dancer with New York City Ballet. Ms. Fairchild entered the School of American Ballet (SAB), the official school of New York City Ballet, in the fall of 2000. In November 2001, Ms. Fairchild became an apprentice with New York City Ballet, and joined the Company as a member of the corps de ballet in October of the following year. Ms. Fairchild was promoted to the rank of soloist in February 2004, and in January 2005, was promoted to principal dancer.
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As a professional ballet dancer with the New York City Ballet for 16 years, it is hard for me to imagine life without dance. Watching ballet is a wonderful escape from life. As busy professionals, we rush around all day, with lives that often feel complicated and difficult. I love ballet because it offers a beautiful, graceful escape from life’s complexities.
Ballet bears a stigma and exudes a sort of country club snootiness seemingly catered to a select few. I believe that part of my work as a ballerina is to be an ambassador for the art form, which often involves debunking some common ballet myths. I’d love to share some of the most common ones I come across in the hopes that you might return to the ballet soon, or perhaps, purchase your first-ever ticket to experience the beautiful escape that it truly is.
Myth #1: Ballet is complicated to follow.
One of the biggest misconceptions I find is that people feel that every ballet is supposed to have a story or a meaning. There are some full-length ballets like Swan Lake or Coppelia that obviously have a story to follow, but for the most part, the ballets made these days are more abstract and simply just movement inspired by music.
What is brilliant about all art, especially more abstract art like a ballet without a story, is that it allows audiences to have a completely subjective experience as the observer. Things that have happened in your life in the past, or just the night before, might make you experience an emotion that others might not feel. Ballet can bring out those deep personal feelings that you thought only you knew. It’s a way of connecting with your internal feelings; a way for you to feel emotions like pain, joy or heartache on a universal level. Observing ballet, you get to be completely selfish and feel what each piece means to you. A choreographer will always have something that initially inspires them, but most choreographers don’t necessarily want you to find this out. They are often happy to hear the many different interpretations and reactions to their ballet.
One of my favorite story-less ballets that I connect with emotionally is Balanchine’s Serenade. As a dancer in the ballet, or even just a spectator, I connect with this ballet on a spiritual level (and I am not a godly person at all). There is just something about it that feels like the heavens have opened up, God is close by and we are all united in this beautiful, spiritual ritual. Others might like the way the choreographer moves the dancers around on the stage, or the athleticism of it. The beauty of it is that no matter what you experience watching it, you are not wrong!
Myth #2: Ballet is disconnected from other forms of musical expression.
One of my favorite things I have heard from a ballet goer is that they fell in love with ballet because it made their initial love of classical music so much more interesting. Having a visual representation of their favorite music was this amazing two-for-one deal. We have a quote at New York City Ballet: “See the music, hear the dance,” famously said by our founding choreographer and director George Balanchine. When you go to the ballet, you can’t even be tempted to close your eyes and snooze. You are immersed in a sensational overload as the music comes to life through the movement of the dancers. I am not much of a classical music fan myself… that is, until I have seen a ballet done to a certain piece of music. Every time after that, I can’t just hear the music, but I have to visualize the movement and the picture onstage at the same time. The music becomes more colorful, and you — as the audience — find a new way to understand and appreciate it when you see professional dancers bring it to life.
One of my favorite ballets that truly brings a popular piece of classical music to life is Balanchine’s Concerto Barroco. If I just listened to this music at the symphony or even just through iTunes, I don’t connect with it on the same level as I do when I witness the genius choreography that Balanchine used to bring this music to life. Once you see the patterns he creates with the dancers on stage, or the different ways he highlights the first and second violins, the music is forever more alive and meaningful.
Megan Fairchild in Peter Martins’ “Swan Lake.” Photo (c) Paul Kolnik.
Myth #3: Ballet is old-fashioned and only for an older crowd.
A huge misconception is that going to the ballet would be like visiting a retirement home, an audience with a sea of white hairs. These days there is such a huge reach to bring ballet to every age, and choreographers have evolved to bring in a younger crowd.
One of my favorite choreographers these days is Justin Peck, who is our resident choreographer at NYCB. He choreographs to pop culture music and has an incredibly kinetic vocabulary of movement that makes his ballets feel like you are on a roller coaster with the dancers. I have always likened his choreography to Rube-Goldberg machines where a ball drops and moves the next thing, and so on. The dancers are like little kinetic machines and the ballet becomes a feast for your eyes.
Megan Fairchild in George Balanchine’s “Rubies.” Photo (c) Paul Kolnik.
Myth #4: Ballet is boring.
Ballet is only boring if you don’t know what to look for. Ballet at its best is equally athletic as it is artistic, which I think makes it incredibly unique and exciting. We are not just artists, and we are not just athletes. Instead we are a complicated constitution of physical strength, vulnerability, technical precision and emotion. You can’t find that at the opera, symphony or even professional sports game for that matter.
Every ballet we do is physically demanding, and each ballet requires its own unique artistic interpretation. But my favorite ballet that clearly defines both is Swan Lake. It is a technically demanding feat for the principal female playing Odette/Odile, the duel role of the Swan Queen and her evil double. Towards the end of an entire evening of dancing, she has to execute 32 fouetté turns (basically spinning on one foot 32 times without putting the second foot down). In addition she has to master two different artistic personas, the White Swan who is soft, vulnerable and destined for tragedy, and her evil doppelganger, the Black Swan, who is as manipulative as she is devilishly glamorous.
Megan Fairchild in Peter Martins’ “Swan Lake.” Photo (c) Paul Kolnik.
I hope I’ve helped make the case that ballet, dance and art are essential in life…especially when an escape is desperately needed. In New York City, we are surrounded by concrete and metal, busy subways, traffic jams, and sidewalks, as well as a general attitude of “the faster, the better.” When you can take an opportunity to treat yourself to something that allows you to slow down and appreciate the finer things in life, your existence in this crazy pace will be changed for the better.