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This article by Nicole Plett was prepared for the October 11, 2000

edition of U.S. 1 Newspaper. All rights reserved.

Ballet’s Backstage

In today’s supercharged world of work, the way we

work means many different things to different people. But does anyone

work harder than ballet dancers?

At 1 p.m. on a crisp, sunny fall afternoon, in the studios of the

Princeton Ballet School on North Harrison Street, the professional

dancers of the American Repertory Ballet are hard at it: women and

men at work. The big room is ringed with young dancers decked out

in colorful layers of eccentric practice clothes, while a grating

tape machine plays Poulenc — loud.

In here, the humid air is charged with effort. Limbs are limber but

muscles ripple — and not just on the boys. Big, athletic

movements,

and complicated, risky movements, too, are executed flat out.

Everyone’s

sweating, including artistic director and choreographer Graham Lustig,

who is sitting straight-backed in front of a wall of mirrors, taking

notes and making corrections. Ballet mistress Elaine Kudo operates

the tape player and supervises every detail of the movement.

At the center of the action is guest soloist Kyra Nichols, veteran

principal dancer of the New York City Ballet, rehearses a trio from

Lustig’s "Paramour" with company members Kymm Clayton and

Peter De Grasse. "Paramour" is one of three premieres featured

on ARB’s upcoming "Opening Night" engagement, set for Friday

and Saturday, October 13 and 14, at the State Theater, New Brunswick.

Also featured on the program will be the world premiere of

"Fandango

Furioso" by Kirk Peterson, set to Bernard Hermann’s film score

for Hitchcock’s "North By Northwest." Completing the trio

of premieres is "Angels in the Architecture," by Canadian

choreographer Mark Godden, set to Aaron Copland’s "Appalachian

Spring." All three works on this first of ARB’s "Seven at

the State" concerts will be accompanied in performance by the

Princeton Symphony Orchestra, led by Mark Laycock.

For these young men and women of American Repertory Ballet, working

hard is a given. But working alongside a principal dancer of the

internationally

famed New York City Ballet is notable. Although NYCB has never

subscribed

to the star system, everyone in the room knows that Nichols, who

joined

the company at 15 and achieved "principal" status in 1979,

commands a status as high as any dancer, in the U.S. or around the

world, can hope to reach.

"Paramour," for a cast of 12, set in a bold, brash Paris of

the 1930s, is inspired by the secret diaries of Anais Nin, and danced

to Francis Poulenc’s "Concerto for Two Pianos and Orchestra."

Nichols plays the taboo-breaking Nin, now past her prime, as she

contemplates

some of the sensual pleasures of her past. Lustig choreographed the

work in 1987 for Sadler’s Wells Royal Ballet. Pianists for the

colorful

Poulenc score that ranges from the gentle and meditative to desperate

and forceful are Arcardy Figlin and Whit Kellogg.

In a conversation following the rehearsal, Nichols — showing no

signs of the intensity of effort just expended — cheerfully

relates

how the events that brought her to ARB, and her family to Princeton,

began "in the delivery room."

Nichols is married to David Gray, who was raised in Princeton and

graduated from Princeton High in 1977. Formerly a press officer at

New York City Ballet — where the two met — he currently

commutes

to the city to his job as a compliance officer with Washington Square

Securities. Four years ago, however, the couple was living in New

York and visiting Gray’s mother over Thanksgiving. Pregnant with their

first child, the family found themselves at the emergency room of

the Princeton Medical Center.

"Joseph came a month early — he came at Thanksgiving instead

of Christmas. When we went to the emergency room the man on call was

Myron Pawliw, a member of the board of American Repertory Ballet,"

says Nichols, with a note of irony. "Myron was so into it —

he used to dance. And he began to invite us to ARB galas and we got

to know Septime Webre (ARB’s former artistic director) and Mary Pat

Robertson, who runs the school."

Compounding the family connections that have brought

Nichols to ARB is her younger brother, Alex Nichols, a set and

lighting

designer who has worked with Lustig over the years, including as

lighting

designer for ARB’s "A Midsummer Night’s Dream" which had its

world premiere last season. Alex Nichols has worked extensively in

San Francisco’s Bay Area, and for Pennsylvania Ballet, Hartford

Ballet,

and American Ballet Theater. Her other brother, who also danced at

one time, lives in California, where he teaches meditation.

As Nichols notes, all three siblings gravitated towards the profession

of their mother, Sally Streets, a former member of New York City

Ballet.

Kyra began her early training with her mother in Berkeley, California,

where her mother still teaches. Her father, now retired, was a

professor

of biochemistry specializing in heart disease at the University of

California at Berkeley.

"From the minute I started ballet I knew, when I was four years

old, that this was what I wanted to do," she says. "So I’ve

felt very lucky to know my vocation and to really just love it, to

not want to do anything else. Because I know kids struggle to figure

out what they’re going to be."

By age 13, Nichols started spending her summers in New York at the

School of American Ballet. She became an apprentice to NYCB at age

15, in 1974, and was taken into the corps de ballet as soon as she

turned 16. She was named a Principal Dancer in 1979.

Balanchine was a key figure during her City Ballet years, years when

he still taught class every day and trained young dancers to perform

his work.

"When I got into the ballet company, we were taken in very young,

because there was this man, Mr. Balanchine, who took us and worked

with us — created us. He wanted young dancers that he could mold

himself," she says.

"Today there’s much more knowledge about the physical realities

of dancing, why are kids getting stress fractures or hurting

themselves,

and how to prevent it. Back when I started, there wasn’t anything

like physical therapy. That’s why a lot of the older dancers of that

period have had hip replacements and such, because we just didn’t

know."

Nichols has danced many of the great principal roles of the NYCB

repertory

including "Chaconne," "Concerto Barocco,"

"Liebeslieder

Walzer" to music by Brahms, Stravinsky’s "Afternoon of a

Faun,"

and "Stars and Stripes." Critic Marilyn Hunt has described

her as a "ballerina full of freedom, speed, and joy. She

irradiates

everything she does with integrity, taste, and a fresh glow."

Yet even among the roles for which she is best known, Nichols declines

to name an absolute favorite.

"People always ask me that question, but I couldn’t say one role

is more precious than any other," she says. "I do like his

more romantic ballets, like the `Liebeslieder Waltzes,’" she adds,

"but I also like dancing his classic, technical works like the

`Piano Concerto No. 2.’"

Maturation and motherhood have benefited her work. "Having a child

did so much for my dancing," says Nichols with equanimity. "In

ballet, you tend to get so self-involved. Involved with your pointe

shoe and how your toe feels and your double pirouette. But when Joseph

was born, he was the most important thing. And I enjoyed my dancing

more because I just did it, there wasn’t that life-or-death matter

about that double pirouette in a performance. And I think I danced

better because I was more relaxed and I enjoyed it more."

Is she planning on a third dancing generation?

"Joseph likes to dance, but not ballet. He likes loud music,"

she says. "He loves coming to the theater. In New York, when we

lived there, he came to the theater all the time. And when Jerry

[Robbins]

was still alive, he adored him. He would come and knock on my dressing

room — not to talk to me, but to see if Joseph was there!"

Eventually Nichols and Gray, reluctant to raise Joseph

amidst the rigors of New York City, decided to move to Princeton where

they bought a house 18 months ago. Over the intervening years, Nichols

had taught some guest classes for Princeton Ballet School’s summer

program.

Nichols joined the faculty of Princeton Ballet School, the official

school of ARB, in January. Part of the faculty of 28 serving 1,200

students, she is one of three teachers of the school’s Professional

Training Program, the school’s most advanced division comprised of

15 students (14 girls and one boy) in grades 10 through 12. Sharing

the group’s teaching are ARB dancers Mary Barton and Lisa de Ravel.

The PBS advanced division was taught for six years by Elisabeth

Carroll,

who is no longer with the faculty. "We decided it would be

preferable

to have multiple teachers for this program," says Robertson. These

students, she says, are dancing at a very advanced level. San

Francisco

Ballet School, School of American Ballet, Juilliard, and Boston Ballet

were among their destinations for summer study this year. They are

also part of the company’s young performance group, recently re-named

American Repertory Ballet Workshop.

Nichols says that the dance world her 15 and 16-year-old students

will enter is significantly different from the one she joined in the

early 1970s.

"I’m finding it fascinating to be teaching these girls," she

says. "They’re a great bunch. And they’re just really hungry for

all my corrections and thoughts. I try to relay a lot of stuff that

Mr. Balanchine taught me and that Jerry Robbins taught me, because

if I don’t, they’re not going to experience those greats."

"Nowadays girls have to find ways of developing themselves more.

Back when Mr. Balanchine was alive, he molded us. Now you’re given

classes and technique, but to be something special in the dance world

you have to really do it yourself."

"I try also to teach them things to get them going, things that

I only realized later in my career, technical things, working with

the energy of a step or a combination of steps, that you don’t put

the same impact on each step. I try to go beyond, `is your foot

pointed,’

I try to go with a whole package. And I’m finding it a lot of

fun."

Nichols confirms that it is rare to find her appearing as a guest

artist with another company.

"I’m always so busy with City Ballet, and now I’m sort of winding

down," she says. "At this stage in my career, I’m not dancing

as much," she says, "and Peter Martins has been wonderful.

He lets me pick and choose what I’d like to dance." All Nichols’

NYCB roles this season will be ones she has danced before, including

her six weeks with NYCB’s annual "Nutcracker" production.

Is the mother of a pre-schooler thinking about retirement?

"That day, of course is going to come. But I don’t know when it

will be." she replies. "I have a feeling it will be one of

those things where, after some performance, I’ll say, `That was

it.’"

Yet as she reduces her stage presence, Nichols says teaching will

become professionally important. "I can’t do both fully at the

same time. And I want to do them both well, and then still have time

for my little boy," she says. " They grow up so fast, and

I don’t want to miss it."

Opening Night, American Repertory Ballet, State

Theater, 15 Livingston Avenue, New Brunswick, 732-246-7469. $15 to

$45. Friday and Saturday, October 13 and 14, at 8 p.m.


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