BALLET IS A PRECIOUS THING: AN INTERVIEW WITH NEW YORK CITY BALLET SOLOIST MEGAN LECRONE
When Megan LeCrone began ballet as a child in North Carolina, she enjoyed the challenge of it, but wasn’t sold on it being something that she would turn into a career. After stints of wanting to be a veterinarian and an ice skater, Megan began to realize that ballet was actually something she could pursue as a real profession – even though she wasn’t convinced it would work out.
It wasn’t until Megan attended the School of American Ballet and was hired by the New York City Ballet that she really fell in love with ballet as a career. Now starting her eighteenth year with New York City Ballet, Megan says that ballet is something she is so glad she never gave up, and is an art that form she often times she views metaphor for life.
Between Nutcracker rehearsals and performances, Megan took some time to talk with Ballet in the City about her journey, which you can read below.
Ballet in the City: First, Megan, we’d love to hear a little about you. Where did you grow up, and when did you first get into dancing?
Megan LeCrone: I was born in Winston-Salem and grew up between North Carolina and Ohio. I can’t remember the exact point in my life when I first became interested in ballet; I remember it always being a part of my life. My mother put my sisters and I in classes at a local school in Greensboro because it was really important to her for us to be educated in the arts. We also took piano lessons and painting lessons, and we were in the choir and school orchestra; I played viola. We were also really involved in many local performances, especially musical theater ones. My dad worked for the ACC, whose headquarters are in Greensboro and, at that time, I remember athletics being big part of southern culture – but I wasn’t really interested in it. I appreciated it, but I loved music and expressing myself through that and through story telling.
Ballet was the one thing that really clicked with me and also worked with my schedule; I could do it after school and on the weekends. I liked that it was physical, and that there was an element of problem solving involved (like athletics), but I also liked that in a way it was solitary. There was no team involved, per se, and I could just fall into the music and wherever it took me. It was challenging yet very freeing. I was never bored and it captured my attention and heart like nothing else. I also loved doing it because it involved my entire body, all the way to the finger tips and toes.
SerenadeChoreography George Balanchine © The George Balanchine TrustNew York City Ballet Credit Photo: Paul Kolnikstudio@paulkolnik.comnyc 212-362-7778
Did you always want to dance professionally?
When I was little, I wanted to be a veterinarian. When you’re young, I don’t think you really think practically about exactly what it takes to be what you want to be, and you’re drawn to the fantasy of something. Being a vet was a little bit of a fantasy for me; I did well in school and I knew that you had to do that to become a vet, but I wasn’t naturally drawn to anything else that would really prepare me for it. I had pets and my uncle had a farm, so I was around horses a lot and I have a sensitivity for animals, but I wasn’t doing anything in in my life that would lead to being a vet. I was at ballet so much, but at the time not aware how much preparation and training I was getting under my belt.
When I got a little older, my parents divorced and my dad moved back to the Midwest. Whenever I would visit him and my grandmother, they would take us ice skating – so then I decided I wanted to be an ice skater. But I never took ice skating lessons; I would just play around and copy what I saw on TV.
I don’t know… l always just loved and did ballet. It just seemed to come organically in my life. But I was never thinking I want to be a ballerina.
In high school, when everyone starts to think more about their future (college, dating, career, etc.), I realized that being a ballerina was a real thing that people could do and it was a career I could try to pursue. I didn’t really fit in with anyone anymore socially because most kids in my area gave up ballet when they got into high school. So although continuing was lonely, that was okay with me because I was sort of bored with everything that most people my age were doing.
So, I transferred schools and became a resident student at the North Carolina School of the Arts, where I really started to have more serious training. I lived there and trained six days a week for at least six hours a day. In the beginning, it was simple; I was just happy to be around other people who were artists, people with passions like mine. Everyone there was working on dance or acting or film or costume design or visual arts or music opera conducting… and we were all under 21!
I still thought about going to college after high school. That was the norm in society in the South, but I really wanted to see what would happen if I just stayed with ballet.
After my first year of high school and after participating in my first serious summer program at School of American Ballet, I thought, “Wow. Okay, I want to do this but, if I’m going to do this, I need to focus on the practical part of it right now,” which meant thinking about what companies to audition for, or finding a school to train at that was connected to a company
College became Plan B. I thought, if if I don’t get hired anywhere by 20, I’ll go to college. It was very practical.
I was invited to join the New York City Ballet in the fall of 2001, after attending SAB for the first two months of my senior year (I had transferred there for my senior year of high school).
How long have you been dancing professionally?
I started my 18th year with NYCB in November 2018. I joined New York City Ballet as an apprentice in the fall of 2001, which was the same year I came to SAB full time. I finished high school in two and a half years instead of four, and came to SAB in what would have been my senior year. I thought I would do a year there and then audition places. The school told me that I probably would not get into the company.
It was really a wonderful surprise when Peter Martins invited me to join for Nutcracker 2001. It was a dream come true, I must say. I was an apprentice for a year and I got my contract the following year. I think I danced another year or two and then disaster struck. I suffered several injuries and sicknesses which required me to take about a seven-year injury and medical leave. I was in and out of the theater, doing some rehearsals and performances, but mostly I was at the hospital or the doctor’s office or on the operating table or in physical therapy for most of my in my 20s.
I still had my job, but I wasn’t dancing consistently and I missed a huge and important part of my career. I had to say no to so many opportunities, which was heartbreaking and drove me crazy in a way.
I returned to dancing full time in about 2010 and was promoted to soloist in 2013.
So even though I have been in the company for little over 17 years, I feel like I’ve really only been here for 10 or so.
Megan LeCrone in Agon Choreography George Balanchine © The George Balanchine TrustNew York City Ballet Credit Photo: Paul Kolnikstudio@paulkolnik.comnyc 212-362-7778
What are some of your strongest memories or most notable moments throughout your professional career?
A lot of them have happened recently in the last couple years, because that’s when I finally felt stable and consistent.
One is rehearsing and performing Peter Martins’ Chairman Dances, which I debuted in the fall of 2017. I worked with Peter on it, which was nice because I had missed getting to work with him early in my career and he adapted the ballet for me which was also nice.
Doing the Sugar Plum Fairy in December 2016 was also special. I got to work with Peter on that as well, just him and his wife, Darci Kistler, which is rare for that role. Most dancers have another ballet master or mistress and then Peter comes to check on the progress. But he and Darci rehearsed me. I’ll never forget it. They were my first ballet masters for Sugar Plum and Ask LaCour was my partner. I think Peter knew I needed a solid and experienced partner and I could not have been happier.
I’m really fond of Peter and Darci. Peter hired me and he was really loyal to me throughout all my injuries. Doing the The Nutcracker pas in 2016 was an interesting time for me because I was reflecting a lot on my past and career then. I was cast for it really, really late in my career and I was cast without having any rehearsals or ever learning it.
Most people in City Ballet learn the pas de deux in their teens or twenties and rehearse it a lot then they are cast and they do it for years. I was 32 when I was cast for it and I had only two weeks to prepare. Earlier in the season that year, when they were rehearsing all the new Sugar Plums, I saw that I was still not called to learn it. So I thought, “Maybe it just won’t happen, Megan. You just won’t be a Sugar Plum, but you will do other things in your career.” So I just accepted it. But then I got a very nice Christmas present that year. Peter just cast me. I had a few rehearsals and then I performed it. I think my debut was Christmas Eve.
I also did the Agon pas de deux in the beginning of my career. It was the first principal role I ever danced. I was in the corps, and it was right before I had a big injury. I danced it with Albert Evans. My debut was at our theater at Lincoln Center and, then, we were scheduled to go to London with it later in the year. I was cast for opening night in London and I remember having to call the Company the day before we were left, in tears, because I had to tell them that I couldn’t go to London and that I needed surgery… it was a heartbreaking moment for me.
Dewdrop is also a special role for me because it was my first principal role in The Nutcracker and I’ve been doing it for a long time. Yet, each year it still feels like the first year. Dewdrop is similar to Chariman Dances in a way – not aesthetically, not musically, and not choreographically – but they are similar because there is just one woman on the stage dancing her steps alone. And they are both hard for stamina, I think.
Yes, you have company, you are surrounded by all these other beautiful women, but your steps stand alone and the preparation for the role can be lonely. It’s just you and a pianist and a coach in the room when you rehearse. Its you versus yourself. I think you have to be very comfortable in your own skin to be able to rehearse that way a lot. That is how I rehearse mostly now – alone. I’m much better at it now, but in the beginning I hated it.
When I was young, I never knew the choreography well enough to be comfortable being the only one in the room being watched, and I just wasn’t comfortable in my own skin. I was almost embarrassed. But now I feel more at ease. I think that just came with age and also trusting myself and body more and more after all the injuries, and building the trust back with my coaches.
What roles are you dancing in The Nutcracker this year?
I do the role of Coffee a lot. I have the look for it, but it’s not my favorite. I find it really hard to get into that character. It’s not who I am inside, even though my look for it is right (long legs and a body that looks nice in a bikini). It’s challenging in a different way because the steps are not that difficult. I’m also doing Dewdrop once or twice a week, and I’m doing Sugar Plum again.
How did you get connected to Ballet in the City?
I was at the airport once and these little girls recognized me and asked if I was the ballerina Megan LeCrone. I was shocked that I was recognized because I’m not that well known. I said yes and then started talking to them and their mother. They were based in Ohio, and that’s where my parents are from. She asked me if she could give my information to people in Ohio that may want me to teach a class or do a performance if I was ever back there visiting my extended family (who still live there), so I said sure.
It was through this woman (Ballet in the City Auxiliary Committee Member and Director of Bella Rosa Dance Academy, Cydney Byron, whose daughter Ava is a Ballet in the City Ambassador) that Jessica (Wallis of Ballet in the City) found me.
We then started a conversation over phone and email about my coming to do a master class or talk, and it kept falling through.
Finally, last summer, Ballet in the City was in Saratoga Springs, which is one of the places City Ballet goes on tour. I was there dancing at the same time Ballet in the City was there and Jessica asked me if I could teach. I taught a few classes, and it was a wonderful experience.
Why do you think organizations like Ballet in the City are important for young dancers?
These organizations are important for two reasons. First of all, there’s the obvious reason: exposure. As I said before, I grew up in the South on the 90s . At that time, there was little economic, social or cultural interest in the art world, especially ballet. I had to travel to find really experienced elite level professional and inspiring teachers, choreographers, etc. I had nothing like Ballet in the City, which brings all of that to you wherever you are.
My exposure came through my travels, which my teachers took me on, and throughthings I found at the library, which were limited. There were a few books and dance magazines and VHS tapes. I didn’t use the internet or even have a cell phone. Now that’s all changed, which brings me to my second point.
We live in an age where, even if you don’t have access to a great teacher or the ability to travel, you can find that online. You don’t even have to go to the library. And that’s wonderful, but I think it lacks something really really important.
You can do master classes online now. You can rehearse via FaceTime with a coach. You can watch performances on Instagram, and on and on. This is incredible, but… I still really think that person to person contact is the most valuable thing, for most things in life. And this is why: when you’re in the room with a person or with other people, you can’t check out. They know if you do it and you are also aware of it right away. There are noticeable consequences right away for both sides.
You don’t have the luxury of unliking or unfriending someone, or unfollowing them or blocking them or turning off your screen without any explanation. This what a lot of us do now when we are annoyed or tired or jealous or bored or angry or at a loss for words of insecure or too secure: we check out. Technology makes that easier and easier for us. It’s self-serving. Ballet and life are not in the end ultimately.
When there is a real person in front of you, you have to deal with them, and that person (or the whole group), they have to deal with you. You have to problem-solve, compromise, learn, submit, and create something beautiful all together. Ballet is and has always been something that needs to be rehearsed and presented live, in real time, and in front of real people.
I think you miss out on something really important when you just learn off a screen. The exchange between two or more people, that dynamic between student and teacher, or director and dancer, or dancer and dancer, or choreographer and dancer, or dancer and conductor or musician, you can’t get that digitally. It has to be real, and Ballet in the City tries to bring as much of that as they can to you.
What advice would you have for young dancers who may be interested in pursuing ballet professionally?
I would tell young dancers to educate themselves as much as they can. Find out what kind of training opportunities are available to you and figure out what your taste is. Then, go for the best one.
It’s important to be practical as well. Try to make decisions that work for you, your family, your geographical situation, and economic situation. It’s always a good idea to seek out the best schools and teachers and really focus when you are young because companies hire at 17, 18 years old. And they expect you to be mature beyond your years in a way, so make sure the foundation is good and that you have a good support network around you.
Train well, train hard, and work hard, especially when you are young and vibrant and healthy. Push, push, push yourself! Work on everything: technique, musicality, flexibility, turns, jumps, etc. Really try to be better each day.
Also, learn about what kinds of companies are out there and where you could logically see yourself dancing. They have to like and want you, and you should like and want to be there, too, and be willing to serve them well.
When I was young, I didn’t know that there were so many companies or that one could dance in several in their career. And I wasn’t really really aware of the differences between each ballet company. I know about them now because of learning I did later in my career and because I have more experience now than I did when I was a teenager
But, as a young dancer, I could have been more researched or “well-read” regarding the ballet world. And I think could have trained better before high school, but I didn’t know it was possible, and, also, with my family situation, it wasn’t feasible.
What else would you like to share with Ballet in the City blog readers?
For me, ballet is a big metaphor for life. It’s so, so wonderful, but many, many times, it’s not easy. I’m not trying to sound negative, I’m just explaining the reality of it. But, like life, you just sort of have to keep going and solving problems and trying to be a better version of yourself, regardless of how hard and lovely it can be.
For me, ballet started out being this really fun thing I liked to do. It was like this fantasy world that I could escape to – and because it is so magical, like an opera or a good story or a good piece of music, it can that transport you somewhere else, anywhere.
But being a ballet dancer, being a professional, is not at all a fantasy; it’s real, very, very, real. And very, very hard. It’s hard, physically, mentally, and emotionally. But it’s so worth it. I love it. It’s such an incredible thing to do.
The thing about it is, you can’t escape yourself or others. You constantly see yourself in the mirror (the literal or figurative one), and you examine yourself and you say, “Okay, I could do this and this better – who can and should I listen to for help on making that better? And then this part, it’s pretty good – how can I pass that down to someone else or help them with the knowledge I have?”
You learn about respect and discipline, humility, all these big life lessons, and you are learning about managing relationships that can be incredibly intimate even if you just perform together or rehearse together.
You have to learn how to take care of yourself, your body, your spirit, and to take care of others, like a gardener. You tend to yourself and to people around you and to the work and the ballets that you’re doing.
It’s a serious, and precious thing and I hope that, as we go into a more technologically advanced, commercial world, that feeling isn’t lost.
It’s not just about perfecting the product you’re putting onstage. Yes, this is a huge part of it, and very important, but all these other things besides that are really important, too. Being in a theater, for example, for me, it’s my home. Everyone is important there – the stage hands, the lighting and costume team, musicians, pianists, therapists, coaches, the director… Everyone matters. And it’s important to treat them with respect
I think the more time you spend in a theater and as a ballet dancer, the more you learn. Like life, it never stops giving you lessons and gifts. You just have to keep your ears and eyes and, most of all, your heart open.
Photos by Paul Kolnik and Sean Suozzi