Read our interview with New York City Principal dancer, Sara Mearns as she discusses growing up in the ballet world, and the whirlwind of classes, schools, auditions and ballets that have come together to make her dreams come true. The interview is open, honest and truthful. A true look at the life of an American ballerina.
Photo: Sara Mearns performing with New York City Ballet
Sara Mearns: Growing up, dance was my entire life outside of academic school since I was three. I really didn’t know much else. At that time I did every genre of dance possible: ballet, tap, jazz, lyrical, musical theater, competitions. So my opinion of dance was that it was something that I did. I was part of such a great group of girls and boys coming up in the school, and we were all friends and we all enjoyed being at the studios for hours because that was all we knew. We didn’t seek anything else out to do.
SM: I don’t remember ever having days where I didn’t want to do it. and I never remember a day where my mom said, “You have to do this.” Ever. In fact, we would always be the last ones to leave the studio, because I didn’t want to or because I was so involved in everything that it would all of sudden be 11 PM! I never wanted to be late for anything, and that drove my mom crazy. She had so much that she had to do for me. She was probably the one sometimes, with the mindset of being so tired that she didn’t want to go to the studio that day, but she knew that I didn’t want to miss a day, so she didn’t.
SM: My year at the South Carolina Governor's School for the Arts and Humanities was definitely a growing up year. I was 14, and it was my first year living away from home. The only arts department that allowed 9th and 10th graders was the dance department and basically I already knew many of them. My brother had been part of the inaugural class, so I knew a lot of his friends and my best friend was already up there, so I had lots of friends to keep me company. At the time, it was really the only place to go for me to get good training, because my studio in Columbia had closed down after my teacher, Miss Ann Brodie, had passed. My mom was only an hour and a half away so it wasn’t too bad. All of the students there were so unbelievably talented in all the departments, but also just great people. The facilities were gorgeous and I got the opportunity to perform a lot. I did my first full-length ballet, Coppelia, at the end of that year. I am so grateful to all of the teachers there, academic and dance, for preparing me for the next step.
SM: My ballet teacher Miss Ann Brodie had spoken to my mom about SAB, and told her that I had to go there if I had a chance at any prospect of being a professional dancer. This was when I was 11. Somehow my teacher knew that maybe I had a shot. I didn’t know anything about the big companies at that point or the major schools . I did know of New York City Ballet and American Ballet Theater. My best friend and I made screen names when we were 10, and she got ABTstar2b, so I had to take nycbstar2b, which at the time I did not want.
SM: My first audition was when I had just turned 12, literally the same month, for the summer course and my mom had taken me to New York to do the smaller more intense audition in front of all the teachers. I wore one of my favorite black leotards that had a pinched front and low pinched back with bigger than spaghetti strap shoulders, pink tights, and Sansha flat shoes. I don’t remember being that nervous, just really awe struck, and I didn’t think they were going to take me. The other girls were so good. I don’t remember telling myself anything when I went in. We found out in a letter a few months later that I had been accepted. I don’t remember how excited I was, but I do remember how excited my mom was.
SM: I went to SAB for 4 summers: 1998 to 2001. The first two years I did New York auditions, and the last two years, I did the mass audition at NCSA in Winston, Salem. I didn’t think I was going to get into SAB my 3rd and 4th summers because I had some rough years with studio changes, which ended with me trying to give myself class in the studio my uncle had built me in the basement. Which is kinda of amazing, when I think about it now, a 13 year old giving herself class? Most days my mom had to make me do it and some days I didn’t do it.
To give a little back story, my first ballet teacher had passed when I was 12, which then left the studio to close. My mom began to seek out anything she could, which led to her driving me every day to Charlotte for 8 months to take class with Patricia McBride.To this day I don’t know how she found that or decided she would do this but that is just how amazing she is. It was an hour and a half each way, 6 days a week. I would leave academic school early every day to get there on time. Eventually, I left that school which left me with my basement classes. So needless to say, I was not looking so great at SAB but somehow they still were accepting me for the summers.
By the 4th summer, the teachers there had not asked me to stay, which they do with students they like and see a potential future in. I knew that I was not one of them because of the talent that surrounded me. So on the last week of the summer course, I went to them and basically begged to stay, saying I had no where else to go, which I didn’t at that point. If I had gone back to South Carolina, I would not be here today writing this interview. They came back to me on the last day, and said, “Yes.” It is because of them taking a chance on me that day, that I am here.
So I was in for the winter term which started in September 2001. We all know what happened next, 9/11. I witnessed it all and it was rough living in New York. Thankfully, my brother was at the school already, so my mom had some relief that at least we had each other.
SM: My days at SAB started very early. I had academic school in the morning at LaGaurdia Arts High School, starting at 7:30 AM to 10:00 AM, then ballet class at 10:30 at SAB, then back to academic school for another 2 hours, then back to SAB for either variations, pointe, character, partnering or ballroom class in the afternoon. Then homework and dinner, then bed.
Then that summer I went to San Francisco Ballet summer course which was amazing. They asked me stay on full scholarship with a possible apprenticeship with the company. That offer was the hardest thing to turn down, but my gut told me to go back to New York for one more year and see what happens. The first year at SAB, I was in the first level of advanced classes, C1, and I was not in the top of the class. But I figured I need to see what happens. When I came back, things just started to kinda fall into place. I got nominated for the Princess Grace award, I danced in lecture demonstrations, got lead roles in the workshop (end of the year performance), the Mae L. Wien award, then an apprenticeship with New York City Ballet. I didn’t really know why this was all happening but it was. I guess the director of NYCB, Peter Martins, saw something in me which i didn’t.
SM: My apprenticeship started in fall of 2003 with the Nutcracker, which you do snow and flowers every show, 50 shows.That year happened to be the Balanchine Centennial, so they were performing almost triple the amount of ballets. That meant as an apprentice, you had to learn most of them and not do them. But on a chance someone got injured, you had to step in. In the spring season that year, we did 75 ballets in 9 weeks. I don’t know how the actual company members survived it. It was so grueling but it made you step up to the plate in a huge way. It made you become a very very fast learner because there was no time to forget or go back and reteach. As an apprentice, if you perform in 8 ballets in one season, you automatically become a corps de ballet member. During my apprentice year, that did not happen with me, so I had to wait until after our Saratoga Springs tour in July to find out if they were going to take me. And they did!
When you leave the school, you are at the top of the class. You’re put on a pedestal and told you are the best because you got the apprenticeship. Then the first day at the company, you are told you are on the bottom of the totem pole and you are done no favors. It is a reality check. There is absolutely no guarantee that you will get your corps contract, so you have to work your hardest every single day. Dance and learn in the back of the room as if you will perform it. The ballet mistress may not ever say anything to you but she notices.
SM: My two years in the corps de ballet were rough. I was dealing with some weight issues, and at the end of my first year, I got a warning from the director saying he wasn’t sure this was the right place for me, and me begging him that I will do better and that this was the right place for me. I didn’t work this hard to get here and my mom didn’t work this hard for me to be here for it all to come to this. Something clicked inside of me and the second year of my corps de ballet, during our Nutcracker run, I was called to learn Odette/Odile for the upcoming Swan Lake run in the winter season. It absolutely came out of nowhere and no one had said anything to me. I had three weeks to learn it and rehearse until I was on the stage in front of 3,000 people on a Saturday matinee. I was 19 and I had never done a solo on a big stage, or professionally, and Odette/Odile was my first role.
I got the stomach flu the day before and had not eaten for 24 hours, but I went out there and gave my all and it seems like it was a success. Some principal ballerinas were injured that season so I would then replace them in other roles and be promoted to soloist after the winter season.
2007 was then also a rough year, not really being able to get a handle on my dancing and weight issues came up again. Then 2008 came and I picked up my game. I was performing corps de ballet, soloist, and principal roles all at the same time. That’s the thing with NYCB, they keep you on your toes, and even though Peter Martins had taken chances on me and saw something in me, you still have to work unbelievably hard to make it to that next level.
Photo by: Paul Kolnik
SM: In the spring of 2008, I was dancing 14 ballets a week, of all kinds, not stopping to take a breath. I didn’t see it coming. The last weekend, I had such a hard week and a hard weekend ahead of me and I was so tired, to the point of tears. It was a Saturday, I was performing Couqette in La Sonnambula, the ballet was finishing, and I could see that the ballet masters were coming backstage, and then the director, then his secretary. I was thinking to myself, “Why are they all here?” I mean yes, most of the time they watch and are there but the ballet was ending. We bowed, and I was leaving the backstage because I had to get out of makeup and costume (I had an emergency rehearsal to go to in between the shows.) I was just about to leave, and I look back to see Peter telling me to come back, with just his finger. I go to him and he says, “You know what I’m going to say.” I said, “No i don’t." I was thinking, “What did I do now?” Then we just looked at each other and all of sudden I just knew what he meant without him saying anything, and he said "Congratulations!" I started balling. The ballet masters were there to congratulate me. It was such a surprise and so emotional.
I never thought that was possible in my dreams. I didn’t see it coming. I never thought I was as good as the person standing next to me.
They usually promote people in groups, but this was just me, by myself. It made all the more special. I will never forget any moment of that day.
SM: There were other dancers around so they saw, but the first person I told was my boyfriend at the time, Amar Ramasar, who had already gone upstairs. They called him back down without telling him why and when he saw me all a mess, I told him while crying and he picked me up and wouldn’t put me down. I still have that shirt somewhere that he was wearing, because all of my makeup came off on to it. It was truly one of the best moments of my life. Then, of course, I went and called my mom from my dressing room.
SM: The most difficult thing that I have had to overcome (and I actually still haven’t on some days) is being hard on myself. I am my worst critic. I never give myself a break. There are very few moments, whether it be in the studio, at home, or watching myself on video, where I am OK with what I look like, dancing or other wise. I am very self-conscious of my face, my body. I don’t have a typical dancers body. I am a woman with woman hips and butt and very broad shoulders and a short neck. I don’t have great turnout and most of the time I don’t think my feet looked pointed. I could go on and on. This vision of myself has been the hardest thing to get over and to this day, I still have trouble with it. I have a hard time not comparing myself to someone else and asking, “Why don’t I look like them?” The one place where I feel like my best self and where I don’t judge any part of myself, is on stage. It’s an out-of-body experience, and all my criticisms of myself evaporate.
SM: I injured my back this summer, and I think it has given me the time to actually appreciate myself and be proud of what I have accomplished. When you have complete strangers say to you, “We miss your dancing. You body is so beautiful, when are you going to be back?” it makes you realize that you don’t have to be so hard on yourself, because nobody else is and they appreciate me for the way I am. That’s not to say that I wont push every day as hard as I can to be the best I can be, and to look the way I feel I look best, but just to know that even when you don’t think you are at your best, some one else thinks you are and that’s a good feeling.
SM: My first big role was Odette/Odile. I was 19 and had only performed solo roles in the SAB workshop in front of a New York audience. I had been performing in recitals since I was 3, and done all the classical pas de deuxs, and I had done tap competitions since I was 8, so performing to me was not nerve racking. I am most comfortable on stage. I had 3 weeks to learn and rehearse the entire full length. Swan Lake has been my favorite ballet since I was 10, and I know it back to front so it wasn’t hard for me to learn it. I didn’t have time to get nervous and since I was so young I didn’t have any fears. I didn’t put any high expectations on myself and I trusted my partner with everything I had. Afterwards, I was in shock at what I had just done. I honestly don’t remember much from that show, just that I thought I was going to throw up because I hadn’t eaten in over 24 hours thanks to a stomach flu. I drank a coke to perk me up and my stomach did not like that. My recent runs of Swan Lake have been the most memorable performances of my career thus far. I still get teary eyed thinking about it. The world I was in for those 2 and a half hours was perfect. it wasn’t work, it was just passion. I think the audience knew too, at least thats what it sounded like.
SM: I have been very lucky in the critics corner. I have had some rough things said about me but you can’t let that affect anything you do going forward. And honestly it’s been a little harder since I have been favored in the paper, magazines, TV, etc. Being called "The best American ballerina of our time" is a kind of a huge weight put on my shoulders. So you acknowledge it and move on. You can’t keep thinking about it because it will get to your head and then that’s when you become a diva. You must stay as humble as possible in this art form. You will receive praise because people are fascinated by ballet and by what you are able to do with your body and spirit, which is great. But I have always been my hardest critic. I think that has worked to my benefit in those situations. I am very thankful for the praise I get and never thought in my wildest dreams that I would get the things said about me that I do, but I know in my heart that I will always have hard work ahead of me every day I step into the studio or on the stage and that’s what keeps me humble and down to earth. Always dance and perform from your heart and don’t hold back anything. The best reward I have is when I am completely empty at the end of that night and know that I left it all out there on stage.
SM: Never give up. I have been dancing professionally now for 10 years and in total for 23 years of my life, and it has been anything but an easy road for me to get here. From the outside, it may look like I rose threw the ranks quickly and that everything happened at a young age. It did, but it took making life decisions when I was 14, that meant being at the studio till 11 PM when I was 10. I am always the first one to the theater in the morning and the last one out at night. I always have the last rehearsal of the day and I treat it the same as the first rehearsal of the day. Constantly push yourself to get to that next level. Pour everything you have, heart and soul, into it. It deserves nothing less. i promise you will get rewarded, it may not happen right away and you may have to make some very hard decisions but it will make you stronger mentally and physically. Be kind to your body, it is your tool, it is your glass slipper. You will not shine bright without it, so please please listen to it.
Ballet is my life. It is the air I breathe. It will always be the love that will never let me down. Without it, I feel lost and unsure of who I am.