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Sara Mearns in “Night of 100 Solos: A Centennial Event” with choreography by Merce Cunningham. Photograph by Stephanie Berger

Nothing to Prove

Sara Mearns on her daring program of new work at the Joyce Theater

Sara Mearns has never been afraid of hanging up her pointe shoes for the night: In recent years, she’s thrived in the work of Merce Cunningham, Jodi Melnick, Isadora Duncan, Honji Wang, Martha Graham and others. But Mearns’ latest project, a weeklong engagement at New York City’s Joyce Theater, will be a new test of her capacity to work outside of what she calls “the ballerina bubble.”

“I don’t put on pointe shoes in the show,” says the New York City Ballet star, “but I have every other type: I’m barefoot, I’m in socks, I’m in sneakers, I’m in jazz shoes, I’m in flat shoes.”

“Sara Mearns: Piece of Work” will feature four new pieces—by Melnick, downtown staple Beth Gill, National Ballet of Canada luminary Guillaume Côté, and emerging choreographer Vinson Fraley—plus a Cunningham “MinEvent” and a new dance film, all curated and danced by Mearns.

“It’s a very vulnerable place to be,” she says. “I’m basically exposing six different versions of myself.” I spoke to Mearns ahead of her shows about the personal relationships that drove her curation, how the pandemic changed her approach to the program, and why she feels like she has nothing left to prove.

I want to start with the title of the engagement—Piece of Work—because it made me chuckle.

It came up in a rehearsal I had with Guillaume. We were making fun of each other, and he said something like, “You’re such a piece of work.” And I was like, Yeah, I know. And then we were both like, that needs to be the title of the show. I had a note on my phone of all these different words and phrases that I was writing down over the past year or so. I was hoping that out of that I would come up with a title that was not just my name. And nothing really grabbed me, and I didn’t want something to sound dramatic or too pretentious. I just wanted the work to speak for itself. So when this happened, we were both like, wow, that’s kind of great. Because the whole evening is a piece of work. And I’m sort of making fun of myself, because I can be a lot.

Sara Mearns performing in her program, “Beyond Ballet” at Jacobs Pillow. Photograph by Christopher Duggan

You’re working with such an interesting mix of people. How did you put the program together?

It was almost like New York curated this evening for me. It feels like every opportunity I opened myself up to led me to these people. That’s what’s really personal about it to me. And I didn’t pick these people to prove something, either. I created personal relationships. With Guillaume, I met him at the Park Avenue Armory gala, where he had choreographed something. I happened to be going with a good friend of mine, Marc Happel, who is the costume director of New York City Ballet. And it just sort of snowballed from there. Jodi Melnick I’ve known for years, and I just knew that she had to be part of this evening because she had a huge impact on me stepping out of the ballerina bubble. Someone spoke to me about Beth Gill and said, I think you guys would be an amazing collaboration. It was someone that knew me really well, and knows my dancing really well and knows her really well. But it took a while—we had to create a relationship before we could even make the piece. I saw Vinson in the first in-person dance show I saw during the pandemic, in Bill T. Jones’ work at the Armory. I was like, I have to dance with this person. And then I found out he was a choreographer, so this is one of his first big things in New York. And then Cunningham. When the Centennial happened in 2019, it was a huge moment in my career. It was something I never thought I could accomplish. I knew that I wanted to continue that and have some of the dancers that I thought were incredible. I think it’s important for it not just to be about me, it’s about people that I’m really inspired by.

You are also showing a dance film.

We made it the day before the shutdown. And it was actually the first dance film I’ve made. Now I’ve made like, 20 more. But that was one of my things that I wanted to accomplish with this project—I’d never made a dance film like that. The dancer I’m dancing with, Paul Zivkovich, I saw him perform in London many years ago, and he was so incredible. And then all of a sudden, I met him in New York, because his partner, Austin Goodwin, was a choreographer at a festival that I was in. I was like, I have to dance with you. So this was the opportunity to do that. Now, when I watch the film, it’s sort of creepy—there’s this feeling that we all knew something was going to happen. Something was lurking. It gives me goosebumps.

Reid Bartelme, David Norsworthy and Sara Mearns in “Night of 100 Solos: A Centennial Event” with choreography by Merce Cunningham. Photograph by Stephanie Berger

You’ve talked about how the pandemic shifted your approach to this program. What changed for you?

I got away from trying to prove something to people. I didn’t give the choreographers any rules or expectations of what I wanted the pieces to be, which I was sort of still doing before the pandemic, because I had this vision of what the evening should be. But after what we’ve gone through, I’m not going to put restrictions on people to make something they don’t want to make. Because everybody’s different now. And the pieces shouldn’t be the same as they were before the pandemic. They’re pieces for now.

What has it felt like to have all these different pieces in your body at the same time, especially coming right off your season at New York City Ballet?

Well, in 2019 I did something at Jacob’s Pillow where I was in five different pieces. It was sort of dipping my toe in to see if this is something I could do on a larger scale. And afterwards I was like, alright, I got through that. It’s hard—like, really hard, but I did it. So in that way I’m like, I’ve done something like this before and I know how to manage it. You have to be really efficient. I feel like I’m in really good shape right now to do something like this. And also it’s a very different type of work than my New York City Ballet stuff. It requires a different stamina; more of a stamina of my focus.

Which of the pieces feel the most challenging, or take you out of your comfort zone the most?

All of them. I mean, Jodi, because I’ve worked with her so much, it still takes me out of my comfort zone, but I’m very familiar with what she’s giving me. Vinson’s piece is going to be a hard one for me, in all ways. I don’t want to give too much away, but it’s sort of about what New Yorkers went through during the pandemic. It’s been great because he’s younger, and he comes in every day with new ideas and new things he wants to try. And sometimes I get really anxious and nervous. But then I’m like, no, let him do this. Beth’s piece will be the most intense focus-wise, because her work is so detailed. It’s about how you move an arm, how you move a finger, how you look from one corner to the next. It takes so much focus, and she sees every single little thing. And she knows exactly what I’m thinking. So that’s scary to me. Of course, Cunningham’s always really difficult. It never gets easier; you always fall. And with Guillaume, I’ve had many partnerships in my career, but this one is really at the top. It’s very special how we dance together.

Beth Gill’s name popped out to me on this list. What has collaborating with her been like for you?

We started our collaboration two and a half years ago. I’ll never forget that first coffee where she didn’t understand me at all. She was like, Who are you? Why are you asking me to do something? She was so confused. She was like, I have to go away and dream about this. But I’m glad she had a good dream, because we ended up working together. But it’s been a long, slow process. She joked that this takes the award for the longest time it’s taken to make one minute of material. But like I said, for her, the movement of one finger is so important. It took me a while to appreciate that and to understand what that means, because I’m so used to dancing on a big stage where those things don’t necessarily matter as much. She deals with small spaces, and you see every little thing and she wants the audience to see how you’re thinking. It’s not just about moving. It’s like, what are you actually thinking here? This past week has been monumental in our rehearsals—I feel like I’m finally getting it.

Sara Mearns and Jodi Melnick perform in “Beyond Ballet” at Jacobs Pillow. Photograph by ChristopherDuggan_016

With Jodi, who you have such a long history with, how have you approached making a new work? Does it feel like building on things you’ve already done together, or have you given yourselves a new challenge?

I would call a continuation of our partnership. She works with so many other people that I feel like when she asks me to collaborate, I’m like, Oh my God, okay, I got a slot. I got a slot in her creative process. I feel like she’s like my sister that I never had, and it’s incredible to have something like that. You see it on stage, too. I know her timing of how she approaches things now. So we don’t really have to talk about when we’re going to move together, we just move together.

Earlier this year, you shared about your experience with burnout and depression. What was this past season like for you?

Now that I see what I was putting myself through, it was sort of inevitable for it to happen. So this season, I was definitely nervous going into it. I just didn’t know if I could handle the schedule again, or if I would slip back into what I was doing before, because that’s the most dangerous thing; getting back into your old habits. But I was really smart in how I scheduled everything, and I have to be in charge of that, because everybody will always want everything from you. And I was always giving, giving, giving and never taking care of myself. So I think I’ve started to get better at that. So, by the end of the season, I was really, really happy. And I was enjoying every moment of it.

Is there anything else that you want to share?

I just don’t want anybody coming in with preconceived notions of what it’s going to be because it’s going to be the opposite. People are so used to seeing me in these firework productions. But the challenge for me was to go the opposite way, and see if I could do that and see if it works. Who knows? We’ll see. I think it’s going to be good.

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