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Amar Ramasar Moves on from New York City Ballet

For years Amar Ramasar was one of the most popular dancers at NYCB, admired for his joyful stage presence and exuberant dancing. He always seemed to be having more fun onstage than anyone, whether he was dancing Phlegmatic in “The Four Temperaments” or the “rhumba sailor” in “Fancy Free.” Choreographers like Justin Peck, Christopher Wheeldon, and Alexei Ratmansky were drawn to him. And colleagues like Sara Mearns and Peck involved him in outside projects like “A Dancer’s Dream,” with the New York Philharmonic, and “Carousel,” on Broadway.

Amar Ramasar takes his final bow after “A Midsummer Night's Dream” by George Balanchine. Photograph by Erin Baiano

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That all came crashing down in 2018 when Ramasar was named, along with two fellow dancers, in a scandal involving the trading of lewd photographs. It was a spectacular fall from grace. All three dancers were at first fired. But seven months later, after arbitration between the company and the dancers’ union, Ramasar and one of the other dancers were offered the chance to return. Ramasar chose to come back to New York City Ballet, not without controversy.

He returned to performing with the company in May of 2019. Gradually, he began to take on many of the roles he had danced before the scandal, and even to perform a few new parts. He was also cast in Ivo van Hove’s “West Side Story” on Broadway. But his reappearance on New York stages wasn’t always smooth. On at least one occasion, he was booed after a performance at City Ballet. As the only one of the three dancers who was still performing in the city, his name and face were often in the press, in articles relating to the scandal. (The fact that he was the only non-Caucasian of the three men made this highlighting by the press particularly awkward.) At first, some women in the company expressed discomfort about sharing the stage with him. And in the summer of 2021, his colleague Georgina Pazcoguin’s memoir, Swan Dive: The Making of a Rogue Ballerina, was published, in which she claims he touched her inappropriately in ballet class, an accusation he denies.

Sterling Hyltin and Amar Ramasar in George Balanchine's “A Midsummer Night's Dream.” Photograph by Erin Baiano

Still, he stayed for two more seasons appearing frequently onstage with many of his former partners as well as some new ones, including Unity Phelan for her début in the pas de deux in “Agon.” His longtime colleague Maria Kowroski chose him to partner a new work created for her own farewell in the fall of 2021, “Amaria.” And on May 29 of this year, at the age of 40, he retired, performing in the gossamer pas de deux from the second act of George Balanchine’s “Midsummer Night’s Dream.” Afterwards there were the usual curtain calls, the streamers, the applause, and the long line of well-wishers offering flowers and hugs. The group that gathered onstage included a large cohort of fellow dancers (including many of his female colleagues from over the years), as well as teachers from the School of American Ballet and from his earlier training; family members; choreographers; repetiteurs; a violinist from the orchestra; and an usher in her maroon uniform. The reception was warm.

In the audience that day, too, was Peter Martins, the company’s former artistic director, who retired in early 2018 after facing his own accusations of misconduct, allegations he also denies. (An internal investigation was not able to corroborate the charges.)

In the midst of the farewell celebrations, Ramasar jumped off the stage to embrace Martins, who was sitting in the audience. It was a striking moment, one that could be read differently depending on one’s point of view. To some it was a sign of possible reconciliation and healing for the company; to others, a worrisome suggestion of the enduring support for controversial figures in the field of ballet. To Ramasar, it had a very specific, very personal, meaning (see below). Whatever one’s position, it was a moment that invited reflection on questions that linger in the MeToo and post-MeToo era, about norms of behavior and the appropriate punishment for violating those norms; about how to evaluate lapses in conduct within the context of the arc of a career; and about whether redemption, amends, and forgiveness are possible.

Ramasar and I spoke on these and other topics at Lincoln Center a few weeks after his retirement in late May. This conversation has been condensed and edited for clarity.

Amar Ramasar and Sterling Hyltin in Ramasar's farewell performance, “A Midsummer Night's Dream” by George Balanchine. Photograph by Erin Baiano

It looked as if you were dancing through pain at your farewell.

Absolutely. I sustained a quadricep tendon tear in my knee a few days earlier. They had me on medication from the moment I was injured, but in the last push, I felt the pain. I said to myself, “oh, Amar, please don’t drop Sterling.” [Sterling Hyltin was Ramasar’s partner in the pas de deux.]

How did you get injured?

It was during Robbins’s “The Four Seasons” the week before. The tempo was really fast and in the last entrechat six–double pirouette right at the end, when I came down from the six and pushed off, I felt the pop.

What has last year been like mentally?

It was a roller coaster, I have to say. The decision to retire now was mine. I’ve always joked that I’m not going to keep wearing mascara and tights after 40. And I was content with what I had done with my career. So that was the huge upside of this.

Maria Kowroski and Amar Ramasar in “Agon” by George Balanchine. Photograph by Paul Kolnik

But you were probably aware that there were people who thought you didn’t deserve to be there.

I think that feeling will probably never go away. It’s gonna be a part of my life forever. But is it going to define my life anymore? I don’t know if I can let it.

Why do you think so many people came out for your farewell?

I hope I showed some kind of improvements in my behavior and that they felt that I had become more sensitive to people’s feelings. At the end of the day, that was a huge flaw of mine. I always thought, you know, everybody’s fun, everybody feels the same way. And I wasn’t really being considerate about the fact that everybody has their individual feelings.

So you feel you were careless in your relationships with people.

Yes, I admit to that. It’s another one of my flaws. I try to make everybody feel happy. But, you know, that’s not what everyone feels. And I realized I had to change my actions and be a little more aware of those things.

Did you apologize to your colleagues when you returned to the company?

I did. But now when I think about it, I feel like maybe it wasn’t enough of an apology. At the time I was given the advice not to say the words “I’m sorry,” because of the legal situation. I did say that I felt bad about the effect the scandal had had on everyone. In my mind I had violated the trust of the person I was with; I had no idea of the impact that it would have on everyone. And I was still a bit defensive.

Have you moved beyond defensiveness?

Yes, I got past it. I’ve had the opportunity try to make amends through my actions. To go back and do the work every day. I love the people I work with, and the tradition of the company, and I know I can do better.

How did you get yourself into this mess?

It was a whole bunch of things, including alcohol and other substances, things I had struggled with. Having to deal with this career and not always making the right decisions. You know, I’m a really happy guy, but I’ve had my dark moments, and sometimes I let those dark moments get out of hand. And in those dark moments, I made stupid decisions. I will always be sorry for it.

There has been a theory floated that your former boss, Peter Martins, may have made some people in the company, including you, feel as if they could do no wrong. Do you agree?

No. I was suspended three times by Peter Martins over the course of my career, and I had parts taken away from me. For not showing up to work or not being in my best shape. He definitely disciplined me, in many ways, more than my own father. He wanted me to do better. And he believed in me. But sure, sometimes he made mistakes, said the wrong things. One of our biggest arguments was one time when I wasn’t showing up to class. And he said, “No more.” But he also said, “Are you lazy because it’s in your genes?” I was an apprentice at the time. And I said to him, “that’s the most racist thing I’ve ever heard in my life.” And he looked at me and said, “You’re absolutely right. I can’t believe I said that.” He apologized.

Why was it so important to you to have Martins at your farewell?

He’s part of our history. I can’t erase him from my life. And on a personal note, you know, my father was not part of my life for ten years after he and my mother divorced, when I was eleven. He lived in Queens, but I didn’t talk to him. One day, when I was a soloist, he bought a ticket to see me dance the Cavalier in “Nutcracker.” I invited him backstage and introduced him to Peter. Peter shook his hand, and said, “Where have you been? Your son is a beautiful dancer, and you’re missing it.” My father broke into tears. It was the first time I had seen him cry. And ever since, he’s been to as many performances as he can. He’s part of my life. Peter did that.

Tiler Peck and Amar Ramasar in “Allegro Brillante” by George Balanchine. Photograph by Paul Kolnik

Why did you decide to come back to NYCB?

I am a pure product of that place, from Boys 1 class to the company. As a kid, I fell in love with the ballets. And on top of that, I’ve built bonds with people, so the idea of getting a chance to communicate with them and work through things with them, if we could, was important. And I feel very, very fortunate and grateful that I had that opportunity.

You grew up in the Bronx and I know you started ballet late, at 12 or 13. What made you fall in love with it?

I fell in love with it right away. I had never seen anything like it. “Agon” starts with four guys standing there. And then their footwork is like hip hop. I was like, this is ballet? And then, as you watch the rest of the ballet, you see those relationships grow and grow, and the steps grow and grow in intention. It reminded me of things I grew up with in the Bronx. And then you start taking class and you realize ballet is one of the fucking hardest things to do. And you think, why did I agree to do this? You look around, and everybody has this and that, and you know you're never gonna have that. That’s the real challenge.

What were the hardest things for you to get together?

Obviously, the technical aspect: I don't have great feet or beautiful legs; I have long legs, but not straight knees. And I was very turned in. And the whole classical aesthetic was completely foreign to anything I’d known. I knew salsa, bachata, but I didn’t know ballet. But I fell in love with it right away and knew this was what I wanted to do.

Amar Ramasar in “Fancy Free” by Jerome Robbins. Photograph by Paul Kolnik

What roles have meant the most, and what are the roles that got away?

I've always wanted to do the “Diamonds” pas de deux, but that’s okay, I got to do “Emeralds.” “Fancy Free” was a big one. And “Dances at a Gathering.” I’ve always loved it. I have to say too that as a person of color, the classical ones I got to do, like “Allegro Brillante,” are important to me. Those were the scariest because I wasn’t secure in my ballet technique. But they were the most gratifying.

You’ve also worked with a lot of choreographers, Justin Peck and Alexei Ratmansky in particular. What do you feel they’ve given you?

I can still hear Alexei correcting me about my tendu. And this was in the middle of a solo that is supposed to depict a sorcerer [in “Pictures at an Exhibition”]! But he always emphasized technique and quickness. I didn't think I could move that fast. And story. Ratmansky has the ability to tell different narratives that come from a random place but somehow make sense.

You recently set “Pictures at an Exhibition” in Vienna and Munich. What was that like?

It’s a different way of working. You really have to focus on casting, which I never had to worry about. It makes you appreciate all aspects of the ballet: costumes, lighting, music, tempo. What I found extremely unexpected was the gratification I got from the shows. It’s not you anymore. But I felt like I went through it with the dancers.

Amar Ramasar in “Pictures at an Exhibition” by Alexei Ratmansky. Photograph by Paul Kolnik

What are your short-term plans?

To set ballets and learn as much as I can from that process. I'm going to set “Glass Pieces” in Copenhagen and Zurich next year, “Agon” at Miami City Ballet, and “Emeralds,” “The Concert,” “Agon,” and “Faun” at Carolina Ballet.

Do you want to dance more?

I don't want to wear tights! There’s a respect you need to have for that. But, more generally, dancing is not my main focus anymore, I think.

Do you feel you’ve changed since being given a second chance?

You know, I feel young at heart still. But I think I have matured, and I think that’s important. I think more about how what I do or say can come across. I want to communicate openly with people. I’ve always avoided confrontation. I'm not a combative person. But I’ve learned to talk to people even when it’s hard.

Marina Harss

Marina Harss is a dance writer in New York, a frequent contributor to the New York Times and the New Yorker Magazine, as well as to Dance Magazine and Fjord Review. She is the author of a book about the choreographer Alexei Ratmansky, scheduled for publication by Farrar Straus and Giroux in 2023.



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