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This article by Anne Levin was prepared for the April 25, 2007 issue
of U.S. 1 Newspaper. All rights reserved.
A Balanchine Ballerina Takes on Her Biggest Role: Mom
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
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
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
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
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
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
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.
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