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The Road Back: ‘How Am I Ever Going to Dance Again?’



What has it meant to be a dancer who can’t perform, not because of an injury, but because of a pandemic?

Dancing alone — and performing virtually — became the new norm.

And, of course, life went on.

We talked to three New York City Ballet dancers — Megan Fairchild, Jovani Furlan and India Bradley — in the months leading up to their return to the stage.

By Gia Kourlas

Photographs by Sabrina Santiago for The New York Times

Dancing is more than a job. It’s all-consuming, and time is of the essence. A body doesn’t last forever, especially one able to express the artistry of George Balanchine, whose ballets make up the bulk of the repertory at New York City Ballet.

Balanchine dancers move big, and company members are used to dancing in studios, not kitchens. How did they cope as the pandemic wore on?

To get a better understanding of what this strange time has been like, I checked in with three City Ballet dancers — a member of the corps de ballet, a soloist and a principal — to track their experiences, both in life and in ballet as they made their way to opening night, scheduled for Sept. 21.

But the fall season was never a sure thing. Would a third wave ruin everything? Each dancer was in a markedly different place, yet for all a positive Covid test would mean the same thing: a pause in dancing.

The virtuoso principal Megan Fairchild, 37, who dances many of the company’s most technically challenging roles, gave birth to twin girls in April. “How am I going to ever dance again?” she wondered at the time. “I’m never going to be able to push all of the skin back into a leotard.” She laughed. But she was worried.

The rising soloist Jovani Furlan, 28, had recently joined City Ballet and was coming off a spectacular season when the shutdown happened in 2020. A visa issue forced him to move back to Brazil overnight, and he was worried about falling through the cracks. “I’m new in the company,” he said. “I feel like I had so much momentum in my career, and I was afraid of losing that.”

India Bradley, a promising 22-year-old member of the corps de ballet, returned home to Michigan with the expectation that she would be there only a week or two. When it became clear that the company wouldn’t be performing anytime soon, she stopped dancing completely.

She had her mind on other things, too. One of just four Black female dancers in the company, she had to process the Black Lives Matter protests of summer 2020 and be a part of conversations at the company, which, like many institutions, realized it must reckon with issues of racism, privilege, representation and bias. To her shock, in May, City Ballet put on a digital spring gala featuring a mainly white cast, particularly in an excerpt from Balanchine’s “Divertimento No. 15.”

“That gala scared me,” she said. “It was like watching a performance of New York City Ballet in 2005 before all of us even got there. And now you have us here and it still looks like this. How could this possibly happen?”

Bradley was, understandably, exhausted; Furlan was isolated and racked with worry; Fairchild, tending to her newborns, was hell bent on transforming her postpartum body back into that of a ballerina.

In April, we started meeting regularly, one on one, mostly on Zoom. What follows are edited excerpts from those conversations.

April

At this point, Furlan was stuck in Brazil, living with his grandmother in Joinville, his hometown, in Santa Catarina; his boyfriend was in Brooklyn. Fairchild was at home with her husband and three children in New Jersey, and Bradley was at home in Harlem. Since March, small pods of dancers were able to take class together in person with virtual teachers.

MEGAN FAIRCHILD Two nights ago, I had this dream that I walked into the studio and everyone had their masks off and I was like, “What is going on? When did we decide we’re not wearing masks?” And I didn’t feel safe. All my dreams have to do with people in the company. And I haven’t seen them in a long time. I’m ready to see everyone.

JOVANI FURLAN There’s a lot of layers to the freaking out. I think first is the ego layer: The whole company is working. It’s already hard to miss out on the digital commissions and the little bubbles that are happening. It’s my job, it’s my career. I want to be there. And also, I’ve been away from my boyfriend for a whole year now. I just feel like I’ve been robbed of my life.

BRADLEY I came back to the city in early June [2020]. I had started doing ballet a little bit, a little bit. All of a sudden I started getting a lot of modeling jobs through Instagram. They definitely paid the bills throughout my summer and even now, and that, I can honestly say, has become more of my primary job than ballet. Unfortunately, but fortunately.

FURLAN I’m creating guided meditations for dancers. Everything is so heavy right now, and our jobs are already so hard. There is so much trauma and suffering in dance: There’s your own with your reflection in the mirror; and there’s also all those egos and personalities and competition.

May

FAIRCHILD There’s a little reservoir near my house and I go around the loop three times with the stroller — it’s a 40-minute walk. The twins can squeeze into a bassinet together. One’s head is this way, and one’s is that way, and they sleep the whole time.

We had a night nurse for the first six weeks just because it seemed insane with three kids under 3 to not have one — that’s actually the best money that you could ever spend. She helped them get on a good sleeping schedule. Marika [Molnar, a physical therapist and director of health and wellness at City Ballet] gave me some great exercises that I actually do in the middle of the night while I’m waiting for them to go back to sleep. I was like, this is weird! I’m doing exercises at two in the morning! But it just seemed like a good use of time.

June

Preparations began for small-group performances in July, including the company’s Saratoga season, July 14-17, and the Vail Dance Festival, featuring dancers from several companies, beginning July 30. Additionally, open in-person classes were offered.

FURLAN The embassy denied me an emergency appointment even though the company wrote it needed me for Saratoga. This was the seventh time, and it sent me down a spiral. It made me think, how I am going to end up?

BRADLEY I got back from L.A. for a shoot for Victoria’s Secret, which is so unrelated to ballet, but they brought me in quote-unquote as a ballet dancer. Ballet-wise, I’m just like trying to get in shape. It takes so much. I’m getting released from City Ballet for the first two weeks of rehearsals to go to Vail. I’m kind of nervous to miss opportunities and things I would have been cast in. I feel like that’s just old worries settling back again.

FURLAN The plan is to keep getting stronger and keep doing my classes and controlling what I can. But as the days go by, my energy starts going down and I lose a lot of perspective. I was on the phone with my boyfriend who was asking me, “So what are we going to do?” I just lost it. Like I lost it. I sobbed for a good 15 minutes. Every time I run into someone — my city is fairly small — it’s like, “Oh, so when are you going back? You’ve been here for so long.” Like, I know.

July

FAIRCHILD They opened my pool in the last couple of weeks. I’m at 16 laps, but I feel really good there, and then I do my ballet barre at the side of the pool. It’s that opposite resistance: If you can do fifth position and tendus in the pool, you have fantastic articulation of your fifth position on land.

FURLAN My life has turned upside down in the most amazing way possible. It just happened so fast. My boyfriend dug up an ambassador’s email in Brazil; the [office of the] minister of cultural affairs in Brazil said “under new rules they can now move forward with your application.” I leave July 12.

BRADLEY I sound close to awful, but I’m not sick. It’s just my [hoarse] voice. I’m so tired. I’ve started working with [the City Ballet principal dancer] Tiler Peck on a project. We are rehearsing from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. every day — none of us have had that sort of schedule in a very long time. Everyone’s like triple booked every day. It’s, like, back to normal.

FAIRCHILD I’m going to the studio every weekday. We’re only open weekdays, otherwise I would go on the weekends, too. You basically have New York City Ballet summer program going on: They’re offering morning, afternoon and late afternoon classes to allow us to simulate our work environment before we’re really back. They don’t want to fork out any money for anything right now, but it’s definitely necessary. To have a successful season, we need something to bridge this gap.

BRADLEY I don’t want to say it’s been overwhelming [returning to the studio], but definitely whelming. So much of being in City Ballet is the social aspect. There’s a lot of possible tension that could be in the air — there are people who are friends with people who don’t want to get the vaccine.

FURLAN [On leaving Brazil] Oh my God, my family. My grandma has already cried. The difficult thing is that I’ve been away for 10 years. So the first goodbye was very difficult and this feels like the first goodbye again. Of course, the thing I wanted the most was to return to New York, but there are so many sacrifices. It gives me more grit and eagerness that this is what I want, but it’s hard. My family is not financially well off. So far, the only people in my family that have come are my parents — once.

BRADLEY I’m nervous that I will go back and Jon [Stafford, City Ballet’s artistic director] will give me roles that we’ve talked about, and maybe I will do well, but no other Black person will do well. Or maybe it’ll be some other Black person getting the roles. And then they’ll take that as being, “See we’re promoting Black people. We’re doing it.”

August

On Aug. 3, rehearsals began for the fall season, which included the creation of two new ballets: one by Sidra Bell, in which Fairchild has a leading role and Furlan is an understudy; and one by Andrea Miller, which features a part for Bradley.

FURLAN I landed in New York at 7 a.m. on July 13, and I got the vaccine at noon. In the beginning, it was a little overwhelming to get used to the city and all the noise because it was so quiet where I was in Brazil. But in two days, it felt like I had never left. I found an apartment. Last week I started taking class with the company. Now we have to wear masks again; everyone has to also come in with a PCR test. Of course, things are not 100 percent better. There are the risks of the season not happening.

FAIRCHILD It’s been immediately, like, bam. I’m in a new ballet. Actually, I missed the first day because my toddler was in the E.R. the night before; she had some little bumps removed at the dermatologist’s office, and her eye was burning and we didn’t know what to do. Then I woke up early and gave the wrong amount of medicine to a baby. We were calling poison control at 5:30 a.m. after we’d been at the E.R. Obviously, I need to take a minute. But I recomposed myself. Everyone’s alive and I made it in on Day 2.

FURLAN When things happen, it will be a test: How much of the last year are you actually carrying with you? The lessons we have learned and the ways of coping? And this thing of work-life balance — I think people are seeing how important it is. You have to have a life.

BRADLEY It’s a weird time, and you just can’t depend on New York City Ballet to make you happy or to bring you peace. You’ve got to find it somewhere else. I feel like I’m on my way to being happy that everything worked out, or happy that everything didn’t work out — and then I’ll be somewhere else in five years. Not that I’ve told anyone that like, “My five-year plan is….” [unless] I’m doing things that are pushing me. But performing in the “Diamonds” corps is not really going to do much more for my dancing.

FAIRCHILD We’re all a little bit nervous. We have been waiting this long, and your impulse as a dancer is to think, oh, finally we have these shows to rely on. But I had a moment of real frustration and depression about it. Like damn, even that’s not for sure. And so I rerouted my thinking, and I was like, there’s no end goal this time. This is not about getting to a show. This is about coming in each day and having the opportunity to get to dance and be here with each other.

September

With rehearsals in full swing, opening night seems within reach.

FURLAN I’m not doing very much this fall season, which I’m a little annoyed about if I’m honest with you, but it’s just how things are working out. So much is up in the air. I try to navigate it, but I get a little crazy in my head. I just want to dance more.

BRADLEY Everybody’s trying to make it to opening night, and it seems like it’s so hard to get there. We’re just hanging in there. Everyone’s exhausted already, but the days are a lot.

FAIRCHILD I didn’t get to take class yesterday because this one [she gestured to one of her twins in our Zoom interview] was sick. I was at the doctor’s office. So I quickly warmed myself up today and did “Serenade,” and then in another rehearsal, I ran Bizet [“Symphony in C”]. I’m like, whoa! I’m doing it. But there was a little bit of me that was stressed and overwhelmed and the repertory director, Katey Tracey, was like, “This isn’t ‘go and be stressed out doing Balanchine.’ It’s ‘go and dance and have fun to this beautiful music.’” I was like, oh.

BRADLEY We had a “Serenade” complete in costume with lights onstage. Oh my gosh. All of the people who’ve done the ballet for years and years were sobbing. It made me tear up, and it was our first time dancing with masks off.

FURLAN I was just an understudy in the third cast of [Alexei Ratmansky’s] “Russian Seasons.” It was amazing: I got thrown on in a rehearsal onstage. They were going to run the ballet, and I had never touched Gina [Georgina Pazcoguin, his partner in the dance] before. And it’s wild. In front of everyone, Ratmansky was like, “Jovani’s a star.” Finally, it’s here! I was coming to work very motivated every day, even without having anything to dance the first two weeks. But I’m a much better version of myself when I know I’m going to be onstage.

The day after their first performances, on Sept. 21 (Bradley and Fairchild) and Sept. 22 (Furlan).

BRADLEY I felt so exposed. I’ve been dancing all summer, you know, and it still felt so vulnerable. I think we forgot what it was like to be on that stage. It made time seem so not real. We were sitting in the middle of the pandemic, like, gosh, this is the longest, most depressing time of our lives, and then we made it to last night. I was like — wait, weren’t we just saying that we’d never come back to work? I’m so confused. Where did all of that time go? Did it even happen? It felt unreal. It felt like a fever dream.

FAIRCHILD I didn’t know I had so much emotion. We did the final pose and before the curtain went down — as soon as I heard the audience roar — I just lost it. The emotions of all of this time, it all came out, and I ugly-cried and bawled out loud until we were done with all of the bows. It was ridiculous.

It was just too much to hold it in. The pandemic was frustrating for us, and my pregnancy was very stressful and not easy. When I first got pregnant with twins, some people were expecting me to retire. I kind of got defensive, and I never let myself realize — I never even went there — that this was a big deal until last night. I was like, oh my God, I made it, like, I proved it to myself. I’m proud. I will never forget that show for the rest of my life.

FURLAN I felt the way I felt for my very first show when I was the new guy coming in, like I was just getting my bearings. I wanted to scream “thank you so much” to the people, to the stage, to the theater, to the spirits that are around us. Gratitude for the art form, for Ratmansky’s direction with the ballet, for my partner. To my body for carrying me through a pandemic.

Produced by Alicia DeSantis, Jolie Ruben, Tala Safie, Rachel Saltz, Josephine Sedgwick and Helen Verongos.

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