Fascinating in the book are the glimpses you offer of the behind-the-scenes world of the ballet dancer, including the spills and falls. Ballet is glamorous on one level but quite brutal and stark on the other. How do you view this dichotomy?
For a dancer, ballet is a combination of so many things – it is an elite, highly specialized athletic endeavour, it is an art form that requires all of your emotional energy, it is a life, it is a job. And people are people, whether they are wearing tutus or suits.
You recently retired from the stage. Can you describe your last dance?
I loved my last performance. I felt so much joy and resolution and gratefulness and satisfaction. I think writing my book actually helped me to retire – I got a lot of closure about a lot of things. I had so much fun, dancing one last time with those incredible artists that were my colleagues and friends.
Why is colour in ballet still a contentious issue, even in this day and age?
I think the access has been limiting for diverse communities. Underprivileged communities. So when you get to the top-tier companies, there aren’t enough dancers of colour to choose from. In addition to the history of ballet being predominantly white, it’s hard to be accepted and fit into the unison of a corps de ballet, especially when the audience isn’t used to seeing it.
For whom did you write this book and why?
I wrote this book for everyone. I know that my story is an unlikely one for the path of a ballet dancer. I wanted to share my personal life story for people to be able to relate to me, coming from a very typical American upbringing of modest beginnings and dreaming beyond the means presented in front of you. An American success story. Also the detailed, intimate nuances of a dancer’s life. I wanted to be true to the ballet terminology to expose this world to people who aren’t knowledgeable of it and for the dancers to connect to it.
You describe the fact that you were poor, that your mother wasn’t always the best at choosing fathers for you kids, how you lived in motels, and at one point petitioned to become free of your mother’s care. How did where you came from prepare you for where you ended up?
My rocky upbringing gave me a very thick skin that is a tool every dancer needs. I also think it helped me to build character from a young age, which helped me to be able to bring my life experiences to the stage through the characters I portray.
You are curvier than most ballerinas have been since the Balanchine effect took root in ballet in the 1960s. How have you avoided the edict to be thin, and how do you think body types are changing in ballet today?
I wouldn’t be capable of carrying out the duties of an athlete if I were thinner than I am now and looked like the dancers did in the Balanchine era. Choreography today has become so extremely athletic that it has forced the ballet world to adapt to the way our muscles develop doing the more contemporary works we do today.
You once told me that racism is still very much practised within ballet and that you have had to work harder than your white counterparts to get ahead. Is that still the case?
I have seen a shift in the way companies look today. There are more dancers of colour because we have opened a dialogue to the world beyond ballet. It’s as though the ballet world has been exposed and forced to make changes. I think because minority dancers are few and far between we have to be that much stronger and talented to be accepted in a company where we are going to stand out. I still hear from ballerinas from previous generations who say I’m going about my career in the wrong way. They see me as a self-promoter using my voice to be seen and force the artistic staff to promote me to principal. It’s hurtful but I have to accept everyone’s opinions when I’m this visible in the media. I think I will be proving myself and talent for the rest of my career.
Your goal is to become the first black principal dancer in the United States. How close are you to achieving that?
Actually having the opportunity to go on stage and perform principal roles in Coppélia, Manon, La Bayadère, Firebird and now preparing Swan Lake, make it seem much more real, attainable and possible. This is the first time that it feels like more than a dream.