Sara Mearns is a Badass Ballerina By Cynthia Boiter
Sara Mearns walks into a Columbia coffee shop in shorts and sandals, no make-up, hair doing whatever it wants to do, with about as much artifice as a puppy coming in to play. Long-legged and strikingly beautiful, yes, but possessing the stereotypical postures of what The New York Times calls “the great American ballerina of our time” – not so much. Then she speaks and her voice is nothing like what you might expect from a dancer who many say will change the face of ballet with her career. There is nothing prissy or delicate about it. It isn’t affected or lilting. It is authentic and strong, like the New York City Ballet principal dancer herself, solid and real and ready to show the world that ballet dancers are badass and this one, in particular, takes her art form and her responsibility to it more seriously than anyone ever before.
Things looked good for Mearns from the get-go. A student of Columbia’s legendary dance instructor Ann Brodie, Mearns was identified early on as a child with talent. When she was 7-years-old, Brodie began dancing Mearns en pointe, teaching her all the great classical pas-de-deux, and preparing Mearns’ mother, Sharon, that her daughter would eventually need to go to New York to get the dance instruction that her degree of talent would require
“I give Miss Ann a lot of credit for that,” Mearns says. “Had she not started challenging me early, I wouldn’t be this strong. She made me aware of and comfortable with the classical repertoire so when I went other places to study, I already knew the variations, and I knew the stories. I was ready to dance.”
Mearns believes the relentless work ethic that Brodie taught her is still evident in her dancing today. “We had so many recitals,” she says. “We were always on the stage, and you just couldn’t be nervous. That has stayed with me. The safest and calmest place for me to be today is on the stage, even in front of hundreds of people. …When I’m there I don’t have to deal with anything or anybody but myself and the music. It’s incredibly liberating.”
At the age of 13, and with Brodie’s illness and subsequent death, Mearns began searching for a somewhere to continue her dance education, and she found her way to Patricia McBride, former principal dancer with George Balanchine’s New York City Ballet and associate artistic director of North Carolina Dance Theatre in Charlotte. “I had been spending my summers at SAB since I was twelve, and that, combined with training with Patricia, took me in a whole new direction.” SAB – the School of American Ballet – is the educational arm of NYCB. It offers summer programs for young dancers as well as a year-round residency program. Entry to both programs is highly competitive.
“Learning from Patricia was like being taught by Balanchine himself,” Mearns says. “I knew she had so much to tell me and so much to give – she just wanted to give it all. That’s when I really began to learn the Balanchine way. She would teach me the variations that were made on her when she was at New York City Ballet. I didn’t want to miss any classes because I didn’t want to miss a thing she had to give.”
Mearns returned to New York’s SAB session the next summer and was disappointed when she wasn’t asked to stay for the year-round program. But the young dancer bucked up, vowed to work harder, and applied to the SC Governor’s School for the Arts and Humanities in Greenville to study with dance department chair and artistic director Stanislav Issaev.
“Sara is such a complex dancer, and she was even back then,” Issaev says. “Of course she is a beautiful dancer, but she has unlimited musicality. At the age of 14, she already looked like a 25-year-old ballerina. She was amazing.”
“It ended up being a really good year for me,” Mearns recalls. “It was a great program. We did a full-length performance of Coppelia, and Stas made a ballet on me and my partner Bucky Gardner. There were good, talented people there who challenged me,… people like Joseph Phillips and Rachel McKeever. I made progress.” Phillips, also from Columbia, is currently a member of the American Ballet Theatre’s corps de ballet; McKeever went on to dance with Boston Ballet, American Repertory Ballet, and Atlanta Ballet.
By the next year, however, Mearns was more committed than ever to staying in New York once the SAB summer program had ended, but by the last week she still hadn’t been asked to stay. “So I went to them and I basically said, ‘Can I stay? I want to stay. I have to stay.’ Finally, on the last day of the program, they said yes, but they only offered me a scholarship that was half of what my brother Keith, who was already in the year-round SAB program, was getting. It didn’t matter. I was staying.” Mearns was 15 years old at the time.
It wasn’t an easy climb to the top for the young dancer. A week after she moved to New York, the twin towers of the World Trade Center were bombed in a terrorist attack on September 11, 2001. Mearns recalls being evacuated from Lincoln Center, where SAB is located, and walking to the homes of faculty members for shelter. The rest of the year proved uneventful, and surprisingly, sometimes Mearns questioned whether she actually belonged at the ballet institution she had dreamed of attending all her life.
“There were so many incredibly talented dancers there, and, while I was having a great time, I didn’t really feel like I fit in,” she says. “The teachers didn’t seem to like me – they weren’t showing any interest in me at all.”
Mearns came close to leaving the city after the next summer when she was offered a position in the year-round school of the San Francisco Ballet, but she decided to give New York another try.
“Suddenly,” she says, “it was like it was out of nowhere and they could see me. I was at the barre one day and I could feel it. They saw me and it felt wonderful.”
That year, Mearns was nominated for the Princess Grace Award for dance, cast as the lead in two workshop performances, and finally, asked to join NYCB as an apprentice in 2003 at the age of 17.
Within the next year, Mearns was invited to join the corps-de-ballet but admits that the first couple of years in the corps were rough. “I didn’t really know what I was doing,” she says. “I had body issues, and for some reason I questioned whether I was really serious enough about being in the company. I didn’t know my place. The company wasn’t happy with me either. They came to me and said, ‘what’s going on; … we don’t really see your talent.’”
And then, just as suddenly as before, something clicked. “It was like I remembered that I had to be there,” she says.
That year, out of nowhere, and to the surprise of no one more than Mearns herself, NYCB Ballet- Master-in-Chief, Peter Martins chose Mearns from the ranks of the corps to learn the Odette/Odile part for Swan Lake. “People thought he was crazy,” Mearns says. “I had three weeks to learn the part, and I was placed in the last cast behind people like Wendy Whelan, Jenifer Ringer, and Ashley Bouder; but I got to perform the part two times and it all felt so right to me – like that was what I was born to do.”
Her reviews were uniformly favorable, and by the next season she had been promoted to soloist, followed two years later by a promotion to principal dancer.
This was it. By anyone’s standards Mearns had arrived, and she had done it before she was barely old enough to legally raise a toast to celebrate the occasion.
But the drive to excel didn’t subside in her with the accomplishment. “You can’t stop working,” she says. “You can’t stop having a dream to aspire to. It was my dream to dance Swan Lake for New York City Ballet and I had done that. So I had to find something else to up the level.”
Rehearsal plays a large role not only in the dancer’s work ethic and ideological approach to her art, but also in the hours of her life. “I rehearse like crazy,” she says. “If I’m not scheduled for rehearsal then I find a space that I can use and I run my parts over and over again. I feel like it prepares me for whatever is going to happen on the stage so that I’m not surprised by anything. The more confident I am about the time I’ve put into working on a dance, the more I enjoy dancing it, and the more I can devote to the emotionality that I need to put into it. I spend hours and hours dancing every day.”
Mearns explains that another particularly proven method of upping the level of her dancing is for her to emotionally commit each performance to a specific person or cause. “I dance for people,” she says. “When my uncle Jeffrey died, I performed for him. I sometimes dance for Suzie (Hendl), my coach – she’s been through a lot, and she came back, so I dance for her. It’s not about me – it’s about the people I love and the people who are watching.”
“It’s not just about the technique and the turns either,” she continues. “It’s about taking the performance to a whole new emotional level. You have to go in and figure out something you didn’t do or didn’t see in the part before.”
Mearns had the perfect opportunity to do precisely that earlier this year when she was once again cast as the lead in Peter Martins’ Swan Lake, partnering with Jared Angle as Prince Siegfried. “It was the second show,” she remembers, “and everything just happened. We didn’t know why – maybe it was because we were completely exhausted and we couldn’t worry about anything. But it was like magic. We looked at each other and said, ‘Oh my God.’ I knew I had danced at an emotional level that I had never danced at before. It was like I broke down a wall inside myself.”
The critics agreed.
Dance Magazine Editor-In-Chief Wendy Perron called Mearns, “authoritative, fearless. … She cut the cloth of the choreography on a wild winging bias.” Noted dance bloggers spoke of never having been so moved before by a performance and collapsing into tears. Alistair Macaulay’s review for the New York Times, citing Mearns’ phrasing to the music, the “heroic scale of her dancing,” and her “remarkable interpretation,” stated “Ms. Mearns … lead me back to much of what moved me in the ballet decades ago.” In another review Macaulay declares that Mearns “has suddenly become the company’s most remarkable dancer; I’m inclined to think she is now also New York’s finest ballerina, even America’s.”
That’s high praise for the dancer and a subsequently higher self-assigned bar to aspire to.
But that’s OK. Mearns is not afraid of the hard stuff; she relishes it and uses it to separate the girls from the women with a strength and drive to take on challenges that would leave a lot of other dancers shaking in their pointe shoes. “The great American ballerina of our time” is from Columbia, SC, and she has a job to do in the world of ballet. There is little doubt that she will get it done.