Lauren Lovette, principal dancer at New York City Ballet
“My choreography was everything that I wanted it to be and more. For me personally, it was a huge challenge when it came to internal virtues, like leadership. Getting up in front of the room and having to own it.”
Lauren Lovette, the doe-eyed, dark-haired beauty who has won hearts onstage and on Instagram, made her choreographic debut this past fall, presenting her work, “For Clara,” as part of New York City Ballet’s 21st Century Choreographers programme at Lincoln Center.
Speaking via phone from New York, Lovette recalls her foray into choreography as a highlight of her year. “I wasn’t easy on myself. I chose 17 dancers; I had to be brave. And I had my ups and downs. It’s a huge challenge in choreographing when you’re dancing, as you have to change gears.”
As principal, Lovette, used to a full day of class and rehearsal, found choreographing satisfying, and tiring, in a different way.
“To dive into the deep end of the pool is scary, but I really had fun. I’m used to being tired in a physical sense, but I felt the days that I was choreographing, I was spent in a really satisfying way.”
Lovette approached her choreography with a quintessentially dancerly attitude: let it flow. “If you’re open to things and let yourself be observant, you never know when its going to hit you. If you’re open, and practice being open, something new comes every day.”
Using chamber music by Robert Schumann, which she found on Spotify, she devised a method of prepared spontaneity. “I couldn’t choreograph the ballet in advance, so instead, in the weeks coming up to the rehearsal I would come up with a new idea everyday; just something, one thing. Even thought I knew I would forget it the next day, I got into the habit of thinking of something new.”
Born in Thousand Oaks, California, Lovette grew up to be the kind of ballerina so many dream of being. Graduating from the School of American Ballet, she joined the company as an apprentice, and, rising to the top quick enough to give anyone the bends, she was principal by age 24.
“I grew up a total ballerina; my scholarship only allowed ballet—I didn’t get to take jazz or contemporary. Already I like to experiment with the knowledge that I have inside of me, but the thought of expanding that and seeing what combinations come from that is thrilling. That’s part of the joy of it, and that’s why choreography never dies.”
With a repertoire rich in iconic Balanchine roles, Jerome Robbins and Christopher Wheeldon, and originating roles in ballets by Benjamin Millepied and Justin Peck, Lovette is formidable artist. Not content to rest on her laurels, she often looks outside of ballet for inspiration. “For me as an artist, to do something else in dance, whether that’s teaching, or modelling, being out of the every day routine shows you that there are a lot of different ways to have this career.”
Recent performances of “La Sylphide,” and learning the role of Princess Aurora for NYCB’s upcoming “Sleeping Beauty” also extend her classical discipline; the streamlined arms and long attitude position departures from Balanchine’s dicta.
“Then there’s choreographers who inspire me to move like them, like (Angelin) Preljocaj, who is so unusual and so different from the dancing we usually do,” she says.
“These days, there’s such a freedom in ballet because of the different styles coming in.”
As a young girl, she dreamed of moving to New York with her dad. “I always loved New York. I think I saw a movie about it, and in my mind me and my dad were going to live here.”
Despite the rigours of company life, her passion for ballet remains undimmed. “I always have loved dancing. It was my first class actually, since I was home-schooled my whole life. So for me, ballet was my first time in a classroom and I think that sparked my interest even more as I love having a teacher. So right away from a very young age I fell in love with the work.”
Lovette came to ballet relatively late, aged 11, taking classes at Cary Ballet Conservatory, North Carolina. It was Kim Maselli, artistic director of California Dance Theatre, and former American Ballet Theatre II dancer who saw her potential. “She was the first person to get me into ballet, some would say, the reason why I dance.”
Early on, she was inspired by Lilyan Vigo Ellis, principal dancer with Carolina Ballet. She recalls being on stage during a performance. “I was a super in the back, holding a pole or something, and I was 12 years old. I remember watching her dance Juliet and that was the first time I saw real acting on stage. She was actually crying; and it was the most beautiful performance. I thought, I really want to do this as my job.
“There was a girl in my studio who went to SAB every summer, Sally Turkel, and she was so perfect, and that brought me to New York, wanting to be like her.
“And then there’s Wendy Whelan. When I got to New York, I said, I want to be that kind of dancer. I was lucky to have a lot of propellers, and people my whole life told me that I had ‘potential’ and maybe being told that I never made it was good for me; I needed to strive.”
Idols are one thing, but she finds motivation in the habits of the day. “I don’t have to see it done to know it’s possible. I don’t shoot for huge goals in the future. For me its more of a daily thing; I want to dance better than yesterday. It’s good because you’ll never get anywhere if you don’t work in the day. I tell my students, it’s good to dream, but don’t get so lost in the dream that you forget about today, which is really all you have.
“It helps me to be happy. And I want to be happy throughout my dancing; it’s such a short career.”
Lovette, unassuming, a woman who prefers thrift shopping and art projects, is no wide-eyed ingenue. Self-possessed, and iron-willed, she’s as tough as they come. “Most of the upsetting emotions are just fear, and stress, and self doubt. If you can weed them out, you can start to enjoy your dancing more. They’re still there, but you have to stretch past them; the hard stuff has to happen to you to get onto the other side.”
A lot of it, she says, comes from learning to trust yourself. Performing at a gala in Buenos Aires, Argentina, she danced “Diana and Actaeon” with Herman Cornejo. “I learned it off YouTube,” she says. “And it was my first time dancing on a raked stage, and it went well. When stuff like that happens it makes you more flexible. You start trusting yourself more.”
It hasn’t all been plain sailing. In her final year at SAB, after injuring her foot, an x-ray revealed a large piece of bone floating free in her foot. Lovette danced on it professionally for six years, with major discomfort. “It was a thorn in my side. It was bringing me down; I was used to having the pain in my foot, but I couldn’t push, and I was working really hard.”
Finally, as a soloist, she opted for surgery. “It was a critical point of my career, but I felt I had no choice.” The surgery was a success, and two weeks later, she was promoted to principal.
Coming back to dance as a principal after six months away from the stage had its own challenges. “It was scary. Ballet is so mental; the tiniest validation can be so great, and the tiniest criticism can be so detrimental. It can be tough to stay balanced and trust yourself. Like, the pirouette doesn’t work if you don’t believe it will first.”
When the going gets tough, Lovette recommends staying grounded. “Going back to why I dance helps a lot; if you drop the pride and stay humble, then you’re not afraid of the fall. Finding the humility is what helped push me beyond my comfort zone.”
She’s thankful for the falls—literal and figurative ones. “They teach you to be ok with anything that happens out there. And you can say, ok, I’m going to go for the best. And even if it doesn’t work out, I’m going to go for the best tomorrow.”
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