In anticipation of New York City Ballet MOVES mixed repertory performance Oct 28, we asked Principal Dancer Abi Stafford about life with NYCB. She will dance in Jerome Robbins’ In the Night and George Balanchine’s Sonatine.
Describe a typical day in your life with New York City Ballet.
During a typical performance season, we start every day with a ballet class at 10:30 in the morning. Rehearsals follow from 11:30-5:30. Nightly performances start at 7:30 or 8 (Tuesday-Sunday.) Different rehearsals are scheduled each day depending on upcoming performances and daily schedules are given to us two days in advance. Most of the time we each rehearse a couple of hours a day with a lunch break. A lot of us also like to supplement our dancing with things like work-out sessions, Pilates, and Gyrotonics. I personally try to do a couple of conditioning sessions a week. For dancers who need it, there are also daily sign-up sheets for physical therapy sessions, massage, and chiropractic care. Of course, there are also costume fittings, visits to the shoe room, trips to the video room to study choreography, and hours spent preparing pointe shoes ‑- not to mention, power naps and socializing! Then we go home, wake up, and do it all over again!
Do you have any specific routines that you follow to prepare for a show?
I used to be overly superstitious about keeping my routine strict to ensure a good performance — to apply my make-up in the same order, get three paper towels from a certain machine, and do the exact same warm-up. But now, I don't need to do all that. I just like to have my shoes and costume on about 20 minutes before I go onstage and I don't wear warm-ups after that point. I'm paranoid about leaving them on accidentally!
Tell us about Sonatine and In the Night. Why are these ballets so special? Can you describe your roles in both — how you relate to the other dancers and musicians, who you think the “characters” are?
Sonatine is a charming piece choreographed by George Balanchine. It's a work for one male dancer, one female dancer, and one pianist. I love performing this work. For one, the piano is situated on the stage —musicians are normally in the orchestra pit, out of our sight — so here, I really feel a connection with the pianist. We are all in it together! The steps are classical and beautiful with a bit of playfulness and joy.
In the Night is a work for three couples. Each couple portrays a different relationship dynamic. For my role, my partner and I share an interesting "conversation" throughout the pas de deux. Basically we love each other, but we drive each other crazy. To portray this, we have our own inner monologue to go with the steps and gestures. Each movement has to have a meaning behind it in order to get our story across.
What are your biggest challenges in performing each piece?
Sonatine squeezes a lot of dancing into a short amount of time. So, by the end, we are quite exhausted or "puffed" as we call it! It also concludes with a swirling cascade of traveling jumps into the wings where we have to avoid the piano, the backdrop...and each other.
In the Night has a few tricky partnering maneuvers that could end awkwardly if something goes awry.
These are established ballets that you’re stepping into, but you’ve also worked with choreographer Alexei Ratmansky several times on new creations. Do you have a favorite part of the creation process? And in contrast, what is special about being given the opportunity to perform ballets like Sonatine or In the Night?
One of my favorite things about being a dancer is participating in a new work. I love stepping in the studio not knowing where the ballet could go. The possibilities are endless. Alexei is especially exciting to work with because he really sees our own unique qualities. He gives us steps that match our individual skills. As a result, I feel confident in his work because I know that he makes me look the best I can be. Also, he takes great care to work with us and push us and pull things out of us that we didn't know were there.
In contrast, performing established roles are fun, too, because I know that I am in great company. There are scores of wonderful dancers who have danced these roles before me. I love watching videos of other dancers in these works to see their interpretations.
If you weren’t a dancer, what would you be?
A lawyer! I'm actually in the process of making that happen. I'm graduating with my undergrad degree, taking the LSAT, and applying to law schools in the next year — all while dancing!
Who inspires you?
Wendy Whelan. She's the most amazing dancer and person. I try to dance like her because to me, it's the right way!
Where is the most beautiful place you’ve ever been?
Israel. Beaches in Tel Aviv and the Dead Sea.
Why do you dance?
I love dancing. I love the way my body feels when I'm dancing. I love the way it looks. I love trying to achieve beautiful lines and movements. I love dancing with partners who are some of my very best friends. I love the exhilaration of a great performance and sharing the experience with the audience and the other dancers. There is simply nothing else like it.