It was Saturday afternoon at Target, and shoppers in sweatpants were trudging down the aisles of the Nassau Park mega-store with restless children in tow. As I navigated the paper goods section, around a corner came a striking figure pushing two small boys in a shopping cart. Her perfect carriage, swanlike neck, and impossibly long legs immediately set her apart from the rest of the crowd. She was Kyra Nichols, Princeton resident and principal dancer of the New York City Ballet.
I have seen Nichols dance in dozens of ballets by choreographers George Balanchine and Jerome Robbins during her 33-year career with the famed company. I am always impressed by her unique artistry as well as her technical prowess. But on this winter afternoon last year, she was clearly in her favorite role: mom.
Considered to be the last of the great ballerinas trained by Balanchine, Nichols opened her final spring season with the New York City Ballet this week and will retire from the company with a final performance on Friday, June 22. At 48, her career has lasted years longer than that of most ballet dancers. Her final season with the company began this week at the New York State Theater in Lincoln Center. She has been commuting for rehearsals and performances since moving to Princeton with her family seven years ago.
“I’m ready,” Nichols tells me a few weeks ago, seated on a sofa in the living room of the comfortable ranch house in a wooded Princeton neighborhood where she lives with her husband, David Gray, interim executive director for the New Brunswick Cultural Commission, and sons Joseph, 10, a fourth grader at Johnson Park, and Cameron, 5, who is in pre-K at the Princeton YWCA. Gray was previously executive director of American Repertory Ballet in 2002. He is now on the board of the Patrios Teahter Foundation and Kyra is an artistic advisor to the foundation. “It’ll be sad in a way, but it’s time,” she says. “I’ve had a wonderful career. And I have a wonderful life here. I’m very lucky.”
Nichols has been balancing ballet and motherhood for the past decade. She met Gray when he was working in the press department at New York City Ballet. When their son Joseph was three, they moved from New York to Princeton, Gray’s hometown. “We came here for the free babysitting,” Nichols says with a laugh, “because David’s parents were here. He said this was the most boring place in the world, but here we are. And I love it. It’s a great place to raise kids.”
David’s mother, Clara Lidz, was director of the nursing program at Mercer County Community College and died in 2004. His father, Richard Lidz, now retired, ran Visual Education Corporation, a West Windsor based educational publishing firm subsequently bought by McGraw-Hill.
As a family, Kyra and her husband and sons like to eat out at Zorba’s Brother on Nassau Street and Christopher’s at the new Heldrich Hotel in New Brunswick, stroll around Grounds for Sculpture, bicycle on the towpath, and kayak on Carnegie Lake.
It is hard to reconcile this soft-spoken, self-effacing woman with the celebrated ballerina revered by legions of dance fans and praised by critics. “With few exceptions, City Ballet is currently made up of two groups — Nichols and everybody else,” critic Gia Kourlas wrote in the New York Times of a performance the dancer gave in the ballet “Serenade” last February.
“She’s very humble,” says Anthony Rabara, Nichols’ Pilates teacher at his studio in Montgomery. “Yes, her legs go higher than anyone else’s, but she just takes class along with everybody else. She never expects any kind of special treatment.”
Ballet has been a part of Nichols’ life for as long as she can remember. Her mother, Sally Streets, was a member of the New York City Ballet in the 1950s until she married Nichols’ father, a professor of biochemistry and biophysics at the University of California at Berkeley. The couple lived in Berkeley and had two sons and a daughter, and Streets began teaching ballet in her basement.
“I was always there,” says Nichols, who was four when she began to take lessons with her mother. “Half of it was a pool table and the other half was a studio. My mom did great recitals. One of my favorite Christmas presents was a blue tutu that I got to wear in a recital. I got to do a lot of performing, which helped me later on, I think.”
Nichols’ extraordinary facility was evident from her earliest years at the basement ballet barre. Her mother sent her to San Francisco for more extensive study with teacher Alan Howard. When she was 12, Nichols spent a summer in New York studying at the School of American Ballet, the prestigious academy associated with the New York City Ballet. By 15, she had entered the school as a year-round student.
“I knew by then that was all I wanted to do,” Nichols says. “But it was hard at first. I had been a big fish in a small pond, and this was very different.”
Nichols and three other girls including Leslie Browne (of the 1977 ballet film “The Turning Point”) boarded with the mother of ballerina Violette Verdy, a star at New York City Ballet at the time. Nichols became an apprentice with the company at 16 and joined as a full member soon after.
“It was such an exciting time,” she says. “Balanchine was still alive and teaching every day (the choreographer died in 1983). I was there when Suzanne (Farrell, the celebrated ballerina who left the company when a jealous Balanchine fired her husband) came back. I was there when Misha (Baryshnikov) came to the company (in 1978). What a wonderful time that was, what life he brought back to Balanchine! And the theater was always packed. It brought a different kind of audience in. There was such an excitement about being there at that time. You never knew what would happen next.”
Though Balanchine never created any ballets specifically for Nichols to dance, he cast her in her first major role, in his ballet “Symphony in C.” Soon, leading roles in numerous ballets by Balanchine, Jerome Robbins, Peter Martins, and other choreographers came her way. In 2004 she starred in “Double Feature,” a ballet created for New York City Ballet by Broadway choreographer Susan Stroman.
Dancer Jacques d’Amboise, who went on to found the National Dance Institute, took a special interest in Nichols and helped her cope with life in the ballet company. “I kind of thought I wasn’t being noticed,” Nichols says. “Jacques would choreograph things for me for festivals and things he was doing. And he taught me a lot about what Balanchine wanted.”
Nichols was thrilled when Jerome Robbins, a notoriously tough taskmaster, chose her for a lead role in his ballet “The Four Seasons” in 1979. “That was big,” she says, “a definite highlight of my career. Something clicked with us. He was always wonderful to me. He used to come to my dressing room looking for Joe when Joe was a baby and I’d bring him to the theater.” Among Nichols’ treasured possessions is a trio of photographs of Robbins, seated at a piano and holding toddler Joe on his lap. It hangs on a wall of her house among rows of family pictures.
After Balanchine died, dancer Peter Martins took over the New York City Ballet as ballet master in chief. Martins has been regularly criticized for various innovations he has brought to the company as well as the way Balanchine’s ballets are performed. But Nichols feels much of the carping is unfounded. “He can’t keep the company as a museum piece,” she says. “I think he has done a great job. Anybody stepping into those shoes would be criticized.”
Martins has been especially sensitive to Nichols’ needs as her career has wound down and her performances have been less frequent. “He’s been wonderful. He’s been putting in all my favorites so I could dance them, this season especially,” she says.
Martins talked Nichols into marking her departure from the company with the June 22 special evening, billed on the company’s spring schedule as the “Kyra Nichols Farewell.” She will dance all three works on the all-Balanchine program that final night: “Serenade,” “Davidsbundlertanze,” and the finale from “Vienna Waltzes.”
“I almost wish I didn’t have to do a final performance, but as Peter said, I have to do it for the fans,” she says. “Peter put the program together. My parents and my brothers are flying in, with their families. Just a little pressure,” she adds with a grin. Her older brother teaches meditation and her younger brother is a theatrical lighting designer who has done work for Amercan Ballet Theatre, Pennsylvania Ballet, and other companies.
Nichols credits her longevity as a dancer to heredity, luck, and good sense. She is amused by the looks of amazement she sees on younger dancers’ faces when she joins them in the studio at New York City Ballet, as if they can’t believe the shape she’s in at such an “advanced” age. “I’ve just been blessed, I guess,” she says. “Maybe it’s my early ballet training. I’ve paced myself. I’ve tried to be smart about what I danced, not pushing myself so much. And I’ve been very lucky about injuries; I’ve hardly had any. Pilates is a great help, too. Anthony has really helped me, especially after having children.”
Nichols begins a typical day at home in Princeton by making lunches for her boys and getting them off to school. She then drives to Princeton Ballet School for a morning class taught by popular teacher Douglas Martin, joining other ballet luminaries Mary Barton (formerly of American Repertory Ballet and the Joffrey Ballet) and Kathleen Moore (formerly of American Ballet Theatre), who also live in the area. On some days, Nichols rents a Princeton Ballet studio and teaches private lessons to three home-schooled, serious ballet students. Other days, she takes a Pilates class before collecting her kids from school and heading to the library or the grocery store and going home to make dinner.
If Nichols is needed for rehearsals in New York, she makes sure she is home in time to pick up her children from school. Clearly, they are her priority. “I’ve had such a fabulous career that doing the little things like cleaning and cooking make me happy now,” she says. “Being with my boys, taking a hike with Joe — that’s what matters. I love to look outside and see the boys playing in the mud. When I’m here, I have to keep reminding myself I have performances coming up.”
Nichols will maintain her routine of going to ballet class. She will keep up with her Pilates sessions, and looks forward to doing more private teaching. But the pressure to stay in peak performing condition will be gone. “To wake up in the morning and feel an ache or pain, and to not have to run off to the chiropractor — it’s such a luxury,” she says. “But most of all, I look forward to being here for my boys and for David. He’s always been there for me. He’s made it all possible. I’m sort of going on the theory that you close one chapter and another opens up.”
Kyra Nichols, New York City Ballet, Friday, April 27, program includes Square Dance, Pavane, Episodes, and Symphony in C (Nichols dances in Pavane only). Friday, June 22, Nichols’ final performance, the all-Balanchine program includes Robert Schumann’s Davidsbundlertanze, Serenade, and an excerpt from Vienna Waltzes. For additional performances with Nichols visit www.nycballet.com/casting. Casting is released on the website about two weeks out.