Honoring This Year’s Retiring Dancers: Interviews With 7 Soloists and Principals

In addition to cancelled shows, the coronavirus pandemic has disrupted final performances for many retiring dancers. To give them a chance to reflect on their careers and offer advice to the next generation, we compiled a collection of interviews with seven company artists who had planned to give onstage farewells this spring. Click on the links and photos below to read more about these inspiring artists, and to absorb what you can from their extraordinary careers.

Want to honor a retiring ballet dancer? Please leave a tribute in the comments!

Kayla Rowser, Nashville Ballet Kayla Rowser  says her decision to retire from Nashville Ballet after the 2019-2020 season came peacefully. So too, she says, was her coming to terms with how the COVID-19 global pandemic forced her to end her 13-year career there early, without a final onstage farewell.

“I have found so much comfort in looking back at all I’ve been able to experience in this art form,” says Rowser. “My career may not be ending exactly as I always pictured, but it still surpassed my wildest dreams. For that, I will be forever grateful.”

Originally from Conyers, Georgia, Rowser trained at the Magdalena Maury School of Classical Ballet and with Georgia Youth Ballet before dancing professionally with Charleston Ballet Theatre for one season. In 2007 she joined Nashville Ballet’s second company, NB2, and in 2010 was promoted to the main company. The award-winning Rowser has performed a multitude of roles, including Odette/Odile  in Swan Lake, Aurora in The Sleeping Beauty and the title role in Paul Vasterling’s Lucy Negro Redux. Sheltered at home in Nashville with husband Nick Tazik, the 31-year-old opened up about her career, being a social advocate and what’s next for her.

Benjamin Griffiths, Pacific Northwest Ballet

Pacific Northwest Ballet principal Benjamin Griffiths was supposed to celebrate his final Seattle performance on June 7 before the coronavirus pandemic forced the company to cancel its season and summer tours. A native of Boise, Idaho, Griffiths trained with Lisa Moon and later at the School of American Ballet before joining PNB’s corps de ballet in 2005. A principal since 2016, Griffiths has performed an impressive range of leading roles. “Technical prowess marked his roles in William Forsythe’s Vertiginous Thrill of Exactitude, Ulysses Dove’s Red Angels and Oberon in A Midsummer Night’s Dream,” says PNB artistic director Peter Boal. “His Sarabande in Agon seems cast by Balanchine himself.”

Griffiths, who is married to former PNB dancer Jordan Pacitti, also developed the curriculum for PNB School Professional Division’s Men’s Strength Training Program and graduated summa cum laude from Seattle University with a BA in Interdisciplinary Arts with a focus in Arts Leadership. Below, he talks about missing out on a final performance, his most challenging roles and his next steps.

Chandra Kuykendall, Colorado Ballet

After 23-years as a professional dancer, 22 of those with Colorado Ballet, Chandra Kuykendall  felt it was time for change. The 41-year-old principal dancer, who officially retired this season, did so to spend more time with her husband and two small boys and to do all those other things being a full-time ballerina curtailed. A native of Parker, Colorado, Kuykendall trained at the Academy of Colorado Ballet for 9 years before joining Colorado Ballet in 1997. She was promoted to principal in 2007 and has performed leading roles from Odette/Odile in Swan Lake and Aurora in The Sleeping Beauty to ballets by George Balanchine, Antony Tudor, Twyla Tharp and Jíří Kylián. Kuykendall took time to talk about balancing career and family, and on missing out on a final onstage farewell.

Eris Nezha, Los Angeles Ballet

Eris Nezha, has been a principal dancer with Los Angeles Ballet since 2018, but that is just one aspect of his long international career. He began training in his homeland at the National Ballet Academy of Albania in Tirana, later attending Milan’s Teatro alla Scala Ballet School. In addition to dancing as a principal at La Scala Ballet and Boston Ballet, he has traveled the world as an international guest artist, performing with Staatsballett Berlin, Zagreb National Ballet and Tirana National Ballet, to name a few.

Nezha was set to retire at the end of this season in Thordal Christensen’s The Sleeping Beauty, which has since been postponed until summer of 2021. His last performance was in February opposite his wife, fellow principal dancer Petra Conti, in George Balanchine’s Agon. Pointe caught up with Nezha to talk about his life onstage and his exciting plans for the future.

Lara O’Brien, Carolina Ballet

Carolina Ballet principal dancer O’Brien planned to retire from the company she has spent her entire 19-year career with this spring. Her final onstage appearance, as Lady Macbeth in Robert Weiss’ Macbeth, a role she originated in 2016, was supposed to happen in May but was cancelled due to COVID-19. Luckily, the production was rescheduled to November 19-22  in Raleigh and she will delay her retirement until then.

A native of Crystal Lake, Illinois, O’Brien trained at the School of Ballet Chicago and School of American Ballet before joining Carolina Ballet in 2001 as an apprentice. She was promoted to soloist in 2004 and principal in 2011, and is also a mother and the owner of two dance studios. The 38-year-old O’Brien spoke to Pointe about about her career in Raleigh, as well as what it takes to balance dance, family and a business.

Gabriel Gaffney Smith, BalletMet

For 35-year-old Gabriel Gaffney Smith, retiring from BalletMet is more about switching focus than a bona fide farewell to dance. A modern-day Renaissance man, Smith is also a choreographer, composer and visual artist. His road to being a dancer began at age 12 at New York’s Saugerties Ballet Center. He then attended Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre School before becoming a member of the main company in 2005.

In 2008, he joined BalletMet, where he has not only danced but has had opportunities to choreograph and compose music for the company. He has also collaborated with musicians and choreographers, composing works created for The Washington Ballet, Kansas City Ballet, Cincinnati Ballet and Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre. As a visual artist, his woodcarvings have been shown at the Columbus Museum of Art and in galleries across the United States. (See samples of his artwork and music at Gabriel GaffneySmith.com Smith, at home in Columbus, Ohio, with fiancée and fellow BalletMet dancer Carly Wheaton reflected on his career and talked about why he’s shifting his attention toward his other artistic loves.

Let’s get one thing straight: Margaret Mullin is not retiring from dance just yet. But the longtime Pacific Northwest Ballet soloist is saying goodbye to company life. A native of Tucson, Arizona, Mullin has spent her entire career at PNB, rising from apprentice to soloist over the course of 12 years. Her dream to dance there started early as a student at Ballet Arts Tucson, and she eventually moved to Seattle to train at PNB School full time.

In addition to dancing leading roles throughout the years, Mullin has also choreographed works for PNB’s NEXT STEPS choreographer’s showcase, as well as Lost in Light for the main company and Saccade for PNB Professional Division students. She is also the director and producer of the documentary film No Dominion: The Ian Horvath Story, following the life of late dance champion and AIDS awareness advocate Ian Horvath, and hosts her own podcast, “Bce champion and AIDS awareness advocate Ian Horvath, and hosts her own podcast, “Beyond the Barre”.

Below, she opens up about what she’ll miss about PNB, why she’s cultivated interest outside of dance and her big dreams for the future.

 

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