Corrections or additions?
This article by Nicole Plett was prepared for the October 11, 2000
edition of U.S. 1 Newspaper. All rights reserved.
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
and complicated, risky movements, too, are executed flat out.
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
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
famed New York City Ballet is notable. Although NYCB has never
to the star system, everyone in the room knows that Nichols, who
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
some of the sensual pleasures of her past. Lustig choreographed the
work in 1987 for Sadler’s Wells Royal Ballet. Pianists for the
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
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
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
designer who has worked with Lustig over the years, including as
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
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
Kyra began her early training with her mother in Berkeley, California,
where her mother still teaches. Her father, now retired, was a
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
"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
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
Nichols has danced many of the great principal roles of the NYCB
including "Chaconne," "Concerto Barocco,"
Walzer" to music by Brahms, Stravinsky’s "Afternoon of a
and "Stars and Stripes." Critic Marilyn Hunt has described
her as a "ballerina full of freedom, speed, and joy. She
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
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
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
who is no longer with the faculty. "We decided it would be
to have multiple teachers for this program," says Robertson. These
students, she says, are dancing at a very advanced level. San
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
"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
I try to go with a whole package. And I’m finding it a lot of
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
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."
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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