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Kyra Nichols: A Ballerina's Life

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The card from NYCB Guild reads:

"Join us for this special evening with one of the world's most luminous and legendary ballerinas. Moderator Ellen Sorrin, NYCB's Director of Education, will talk with Ms. Nichols about her memories and thoughts of her great career -- past, present and future."

It will be held Monday, January 27, from 6 to 7:30 p.m. at the New York State Theater. If you're not a member of the Guild, $5 will get you in.

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I attended this interview last night. (The next interview is going to be Feb. 17th, Darcy Kistler and Jock Soto.) There were several hundred people in the audience, which must be quite gratifying for Kyra. Unfortunately I do not know the current NYCB or Ms. Nichols at all so I was attending as part of my "learning curve."

With all due respect, the interviewer, Ellen Sorrin, Director of Education at NYCB, was very sweet but not a particularly adept interviewer. If you were intimately familiar with NYCB and its past dancers, it might seem okay to leave answers on a first name basis - "Suzanne, Karin, Patty" - but it would have been a little more professional (and helpful to the likes of me) to stop and clarify - "That's Suzanne Farrell, etc." It would also have been nice (from my perspective) to have a series of well ordered questions, either based on KN's chronological development (training, performance, touring, etc.) or her roles (with dates, please), but instead there was rather a hit-or-miss approach. Some of the more interesting questions came when they opened it up for audience questions. I will give you some of the highlights, and if they seem random, it is pretty much the way things came up.

KN's mother had been a corps member at NYCB and danced soloist roles. Mom started a ballet school on the West Coast which is how KN was introduced to ballet, and she knew from the moment she started that she loved it more than anything else she did. KN studied for three summers at SAB before becoming an apprentice in the company (at about age 15). Jacques D'Amboise was her mentor, who helped her by, among other things, choreographing on her for festivals "since I was not one of Mr. B's favorites."

KN finds the "fast ballets" like Square Dance and Ballo de Regina the most technically challenging since she naturally prefers the slower choreography.

The new Firebird (during the 70's - again it would have been nice to have the details filled in for those of us who don't know them)was the first time she worked with Mr. B - who would just "give me the steps and let me go with it, find my own way to dance them." The costume was a nightmare with a train (tail?) and with wings that would slam shut into a single wing behind her when she turned quickly. "Suzanne" and "Patty" helped coach her.

She found Diamonds difficult because of the Farrell "mannerisms" and associations but she managed to try different things, working through the role in the studio, until she was comfortable with it.

She has been very lucky with partners, such as Sean Lavery and Adam (I assume Luders, but again no one clarified this...) and she is enjoying dancing with Philip Neal because they now know each other's timing so well that they have a kind of shorthand and don't have to discuss every move ("When I am tired, he knows which way I am going to fall.")

She has a great fondness for Jerome Robbins, who was always "respectful and nice to me." He created Spring in Four Seasons for her. She finds that she will sometimes think about him during performance - he taught her the power of where and how you look (glance) during a performance, and she enjoyed traveling to China with him to dance there.

Peter Martins' choreography for KN (Poulenc? again, details would really have helped here - dates, other cast members?) tapped into her more emotional, vulnerable side and she has used this in other ballets.

Changes in her dancing over time: "I wish I had come to this point sooner, where I am calmer and enjoy dancing without having to worry about rising to a new level. Dancing is fun for me now." Because she has a family ( 2 sons, 15 months and 6 years old), she says she realizes that if she misses a double pirouette, it isn't the end of the world. She would like to encourage younger dancers to have fun with their dancing, that becoming a dancer shouldn't just be a "hardship." She now gets asked for a wish list before each season - of ballets she would like to perform. "It is strange to think that I am now where Suzanne and Patty were when I joined the company."

Lots of questions about balancing her work and her family - it helps that her husband is executive director of the American Repertory Ballet in Princeton where they live so she takes class there and doesn't have to commute into NYC every day.

How do you keep a ballet fresh when you perform it repeatedly? I listen to the music, and just try to be myself. The body is different with each performance.

Would she have liked to do more comedic roles, like Coppelia? She views Swanhilda as a soubrette role for a smaller dancer.

Sleeping Beauty - the full length ballet is exciting but the balances in the Rose Adagio are so nerve wracking that you are exhausted by the end of that act and you have two acts to go.

Changes at NYCB - "It is Peter Martin's ballet company now, and I admire him for tackling it. Of course he is going to choose ballets and dancers that suit him."

Did you miss dancing the classics like Giselle? No. Mr. B's choreography was freer whereas the classic are very "set." Perhaps I would have liked to do Romeo and Juliet because of the beautiful music but who ever saw a tall Juliet?

Music sustains the emotional content of ballets for her. The simpler you are with emotions, the more they come through. "If you start to "act," it is just external, put on, and the audience will know that." Doesn't care for modern music - can't dance ballets where you have to count because she wants to feel the music.

Are younger dancers just looking for more turns/higher extensions? "Perhaps one day they will look for quality not just quantity."

Audition tips - don't try to be anything but yourself. If you are pretending to be something different, you face a very long time of pretending, and you want to be comfortable in the company that accepts you.

When you retire will you teach? She recalls Stanley Williams saying that either you pass it along or it gets lost - she definitely wants to teach and preserve what she knows, as one of the last generation of dancers who worked with Mr. B and Robbins.

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Very nicely summarized. I, too, attended, and felt that the normal "flow" of questions and answers was missing from the interview. This was apparently caused (in part) by the fact that Kyra was unavailable for a talk with Ellen Sorrin over the weekend - because Kyra was dancing multiple performances and roles. (Hurray! Though one of the roles she danced was Serenade, which was substituted for the Martins' ballet Jeu de Cartes, which had to be cancelled because of Nikolaj Hubbe's injury.) Unfortunately, Kyra also got stuck in NJ and NYC traffic and arrived at the theatre after the seminar was supposed to start, which meant that there was no prep time available to review questions and develop a cohesive approach to the interview.

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I suppose the scheduling problems might excuse an interview for a local PTA group, but this is a NYCB event, organized in advance, and with a $5 admission charge (waived for Guild members). With the amount of money that is currently being spent by the NYCB with glossy brochures to raise money for the future, this was a lost public relations opportunity - something more thoughtfully done would have been impressive, informative and more of a tribute to Ms. Nichols' stature in the company. The proposed questions could have been given to her weeks in advance, by mail, by fax, by e-mail, in person - to give her a chance to think about her answers and make any objections known. She was completely charming, and deserved better. This might have been the equivalent of an "oral history" of Ms. Nichols' experiences. Instead it had the impact of a Donohue re-run.

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I was there too, and Mary J did a marvelous job of covering what happened. Thanks.

NYCB has had many different moderators over the years for its ballet guild seminars. Ellin Sorrin was neither the best nor the worst. Among the best have been Francis Mason and Peter Boal. (Boal can do anything, in my opinion.) Joan Quatrano, the woman who was repeating the audience questions last night, is also quite a good moderator. In my opinion, the worst was Lesley Stahl, a member of NYCB's Board, who drew the plum, but perhaps unenviable, assignment of interviewing Suzanne Farrell and Peter Martins. Together.

It was interesting that Kyra said she owed so much to Jacques. Because Suzanne says exactly the same thing -- how he was the one who brought her to Balanchine's attention

As you see, I'm using the first names of Kyra, Suzanne and Jacques. It's a ballet habit that's hard to break. But I agree that a moderator is obliged to make things clear. For one thing, neither she nor Kyra mentioned the name of Kyra's mother. Her name is Sally :) Sally Streets.

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Yes, she meant McBride. There's only one Patty, but more than one Pat. In addition to the wonderful Neary, there was also a Pat McBride, who preceded Patricia McBride into NYCB. Pat McBride was best friends with Tanaquil Le Clercq (Tanny) and spoke at her memorial observance at the New York State Theater. The name Pat McBride was printed in the program and when she rose to speak, there was a stir in the audience, presumably at how much Patty had changed.

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Guest TPMDdancer

I know this is sort of out of context, but this summer, I had the privalege of taking class with Kyra Nichols at Princton Ballet School(American Repretpry Ballet's School). I don't normally follow NYCB, especially since I wasn't yet born when Balenchine was still alive, so I am ashamed to say i diddn't really know who Kyra Nichols was. I am just discovering this now. She is a beautiful dancer, it was a privalege to be her student for a day. Now I'm learning so much about her, and am amazed by her.

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