Lauren Lovette. Photograph by Nicholas Mackay

Moving Forward, Toward the Light

A Conversation with Lauren Lovette

Even when Lauren Lovette was in the corps de ballet, standing somewhere on the side of the stage, somehow you just couldn’t miss her. Her eyes and face always seemed to find the light. The quality never left her, as she took on an increasing number and range of roles in ballets by George Balanchine, Jerome Robbins, and, more recently, Alexei Ratmansky. Her performance of the dopey princess in Ratmansky’s “Namouna” was unforgettable, not just because of the go-for-broke quality of the dancing, but because of the imagination and personality one could sense behind every step. She seemed to be discovering the story even as she danced it. The same was true in the solo Ratmansky created for Lovette in his 2020 ballet “Voices,” in which she became a clown, a marathon runner, a tightrope walker, a silent movie diva, all in the span of a few minutes.

Lovette recently retired from New York City Ballet, at only 29. She has already made serious inroads as a choreographer, and plans to free-lance. She has three works for City Ballet under her belt, and her “La Follia Variations”was just performed during American Ballet Theatre’s fall season. There are good reasons for her to seek her fortune beyond the company where she has danced since 2009. Still, her departure felt like a loss to City Ballet and to the New York ballet scene as a whole. Fortunately, as she says here, she is still planning to dance. The next few months and years will be about finding a balance between these two loves, dancing and choreography.

I spoke with Lovette in mid-October, soon after her farewell performance.

I thought your farewell program was so well chosen, especially the idea of closing with Balanchine’s “Serenade.” At the end of the ballet you go through this transformation, rising toward the light. I thought, this is the choice of a choreographer.

Yes, I definitely thought about that. I love “Serenade.” It was the ballet I danced at my Workshop performance at the School of American Ballet. It’s where I started. And “Opus 19: The Dreamer” has a wild recklessness that I love, which you don’t always get in ballet. It’s the jazz dancer in me that gets to come out. I know that I’m not ready to hang up my shoes and I’m not done dancing. I know that for sure now. I wasn’t so sure when I made the decision to leave New York City Ballet. I thought maybe I was done with the stage.

I’m so glad to hear that you plan to continue dancing. Your stopping would be such a loss, and twenty-nine seems too young for a dancer to quit, especially a dancer in her prime. What made you decide one way or the other?

I was really battling the idea of returning to the stage during COVID, especially after my experience of dancing “Swan Lake” [in Feb. 2020]. But then I went to Jackson Hole with the NYCB Moves tour, and to the Vail Dance Festival. I always fall back in love with dancing when I go to Vail. And I realized there’s more I want to do on the stage.

What were you struggling with?

I think I’ve always struggled a little bit with the stage. But the past three years, I’ve been struggling more than ever. It’s a mental thing that is hard to describe. Before, even on my most nervous day, I had the confidence of the person that put me in the role. [Company director Peter Martins] And somehow, and for reasons I don’t fully know, something shifted in me, and I found myself getting out there and feeling defeated on the stage for the first time in my life.

“Swan Lake” was tough because I was told that the only reason I was learning it was because of the choreographer [Martins]. And I was told that other dancers were wanted ahead of me. So already, I felt sort of set up, not for failure, but for a mental challenge. It was challenging not to know whether I was going to get to perform the role until two weeks before the performance, and feeling like I was in this audition process for it. It was a really hard experience.  

Lauren Lovette’s final performance with New York City Ballet. Photograph by Erin Baiano

It sounds like you didn’t feel supported in the company.

I didn’t. I felt like I had reached my ceiling there in terms of roles, and I had asked about choreographing another ballet for the company and was given an answer that wasn’t very hopeful. It was just made clear to me, even at my exit meeting, that I could be easily replaced in my roles, because there’s so much talent in the company. And it’s true, especially with big companies, we all know that we’re disposable, from a very young age. I realized that there wasn’t really a plan for how I could grow at the company. And I care about my growth as an artist, I care about learning new skills.

You bring up a complicated subject. Because in many ways the departure of Peter Martins was an important turning of the page for the company. But it sounds like that transition was difficult for you, and I’m sure you’re not the only one.

It was. I don’t think I am the only one. I think a lot of the dancers have had their own experience, and those experiences fall on a spectrum. I never spoke to this issue because I don’t believe as a woman and as somebody who’s been through my own fair share of things that I’ve held on to and maybe will never feel right about sharing, I didn’t think it was appropriate to come forward on a side when I didn’t know what happened. I don’t think it’s appropriate to say, well that wasn’t my experience. But for me, I had a really good relationship with my boss. My last conversation with Peter, he said he really believed I could be a choreographer and a ballerina and he said he would help. He said it would be really hard, and I would have to choose what jobs to take, because you can’t do everything. And then, two weeks later, he was gone. But I agree with you that a lot of what’s happened with the company is good. It’s just hard to detach the personal from what’s best for the artform as a whole.

Lauren Lovette. Photograph by Henry Thong

And it’s also difficult to combine choreographing and dancing at a very high level in a company with so many performances.

I don’t know of another principal ballerina—and this doesn’t mean they don’t exist—but I don’t know of another one, who also wants to choreograph to the degree I want to choreograph.

Are dancing and choreography equally important to you?

Yes, and that’s what’s so tough. It hasn’t always been equal. I thought I wanted to be a ballerina more than a choreographer when I first started out. But that was also because I was terrified. I didn’t think I had genius ideas. And if I didn’t have genius ideas, I thought I didn’t belong out there. But the more I choreographed, the more I loved it. The hours completely dissolved. I can work for four or five or six hours, and the hours just melt away because I’m having the time of my life. I’ve only felt that way about dancing.

When did that shift happen?

Probably after my fellowship at the Center for Ballet and the Arts at NYU. I took some time away from the company and dove into choreographing. I hired freelance dancers that I looked up to and just tried things. That was it. It was time to play. I remember being frustrated most days—I had to fight my way through it. But after that, I started trusting myself more and when I got a commission I knew that I could come up with an idea. I trust myself now, that is what changed.

I know that I’m not ready to hang up my shoes and I’m not done dancing

But you plan to keep dancing.

Yes, I know I want to continue dancing. But I don’t know where my dance home is, or if that exists in a company. I know what I want to do choreographically and I know what I need to do from a physical standpoint to reach the next level as a ballerina, and those two things don’t usually mix. How do you keep your training up when you travel for weeks at a time? Yes, you can get a studio space and give yourself barre. But I can’t see where I’m slacking or if something’s not right. You need constant eyes on you as a dancer to reach that level you want to reach.

But I do have a plan. There is this Russian coach I want to work with full-time. You know how people hire a private chef to follow them around? Well, I’m getting a coach to follow me around. I want to go back and start from scratch, to reorganize myself as a dancer, and that’s really exciting. I’m still working on getting the rest of the funding together. My next step is getting my non-profit off the ground.

What an interesting idea. So how would you ideally plan out your year?

I want to travel more for work. I don’t know if there’s ever going to be a time like now in my life where I don’t have any kind of obligation anywhere. I don’t have any ties. I don’t have kids. I’m completely free. What I’m hoping is to plan three or four shows of my own per year, and also do guest performances. If there is a place at a company for me that would allow that kind of freedom, I’m also very open to that, as open as I can be.

Are there ballets you would really love to dance?

I love “Manon,” and “Onegin.”I love acting, playing the characters. I would love to do more story ballets.

Have you thought about trying other styles of dance as well?

I have thought about it. I can add other things into my dancing. At one point I was thinking, is it ballet that’s the problem? Maybe I want to try more contemporary types of movement, and learn how to improvise. That could be great for my choreography. Maybe I could go into a totally different style. But I love ballet. And I also care very much about it surviving and being preserved. There’s so much beauty in it.

Jose Sebastian, Abbey Marrison and Kiely Groenewegen in “La Follia Variations” by Lauren Lovette. Photograph by Todd Rosenberg Photography

You just had the premiere of your piece “La Follia Variations”with American Ballet Theatre. What’s next for you?

I’m making a work for Paul Taylor right now. It premieres at City Center next year. It’s not on pointe, and they are totally different dancers from what I’m used to working with. They’re all very unique and move in totally different ways. And I’m making a ballet for Nevada Ballet Theatre. I also want to continue putting on choreographic evenings. That’s part of the plan.

I put on a show last July. I choreographed four or five pieces, and we put it together in three weeks. I raised a lot of the money myself. I found dancers who were crazy enough to do this with me. The question behind it all was, why does ballet matter to you? Why do you want to dance? What is it you want to say? It was a real coming together of minds.

Do you ever think you might want to direct a company?

I think I would like directing from the perspective of looking at dancers and crafting futures for them. In my choreographic work, the thing that excites me most is finding the dancer that might be kind of shaded or a little bit undefined, a little out of view or misunderstood. I love finding those people and figuring out, how do you want to dance? What’s in there?

I also like programming. And I like meeting with supporters of the arts too. I very much enjoy building relationships and collaborating with people. I’m better on a team than I am alone. I just prefer having a lot of voices at the table. The thought of a job like that doesn’t scare me.

What is your state of mind as you embark on this new chapter?

At the end of the day, and I am a worst-case-scenario kind of person, I have thought out all the scenarios: if nobody wants to hire me as a dancer, and all my choreography fails, and I don’t have any money, then what? I get a job that the 7/11 or wherever I can get a job. And then I work hard, which is in my nature. I’m kind to the people around me because that’s how I want to be in the world. I know who I am. I’ve lived with a lot and I’ve lived with a little. I didn’t grow up with a ton of money. I know what it’s like to be on a rice and beans diet, that’s fine. So, I know I’d rather follow my gut. Even if it fails, I know that I did what felt true.

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