After an unprecedented intermission, New York City Ballet is back with an event-filled Fall Season that includes farewell performances by four prominent Principal Dancers. Abi Stafford danced for the final time on September 26. Lauren Lovette performs at the matinee on October 9. Ask la Cour commands the stage the evening of October 9. And Maria Kowroski bids farewell on October 17. Here’s a look at these four inimitable dancers whose artistry has energized the Company and delighted audiences for decades.
As an 11-year-old ballet student in Carlisle, Pennsylvania, Abi Stafford watched NYCB’s 1993 Balanchine Celebration on Bravo and decided that she wanted to dance with the Company. Six years later, as a freshly minted member of the corps, she danced the principal role in George Balanchine’s Valse Fantaisie. “There was a bad flu outbreak, and every- body was sick,” she recalls about the circumstances around her debut in a part she had learned at the School of American Ballet, but had never performed. “I rehearsed it twice and danced it that evening.”
With her grace under pressure and a dazzling technique combining clarity and speed, Stafford mastered a wide-ranging repertory, leaping into roles in a blink as needed. While it was not easy—she speaks frankly about the challenges of overcoming bouts of stage fright—“I wouldn’t have had it any other way,” she says. Stafford made her mark dancing leading roles in nearly 60 ballets for 21 years.
Thirty of those ballets were the Balanchine ballets she loved to dance. “His choreography is so natural, nothing feels like a struggle,” she says. She particularly enjoyed the black-and-white ballets she’d dreamed of dancing as a preteen—Episodes, The Four Temperaments, and Symphony in Three Movements, a favorite she found “physically exhausting but thrilling.”
For her farewell, she’ll dance a role she originated in Alexei Ratmansky’s Russian Seasons.
And up next? Stafford plans to transfer her performance skills to the court room as a criminal defense attorney. “I know how to handle the nerves. I know how to get up in front of people and deliver,” she says. A very different style of performing, but an exciting new channel for her creativity.
It isn’t often that a Principal Dancer at the height of her powers chooses to retire from NYCB at age 29. But from the moment she began choreographing for NYCB five years ago, Lauren Lovette knew the day was inevitable. “My heart felt like it was being pulled in different directions,” she says.
During the pandemic, Lovette had time to think hard about what she wanted. She cut her long, ballerina hair. And by the time she returned, rested and recharged in Kyle Abraham’s When We Fell for NYCB’s Digital Season earlier this winter, the decision to leave the Company felt right. “I knew I could take everything I had learned in my career and carry it forward into a new future that has a little more creative freedom to do the things I love to do,” she says.
A radiant dancer who infuses her performances with drama, humor, and an infectious warmth, Lovette packed a lot into her 12 years at NYCB. She crafted three memorable ballets for the Company, danced leading roles in more than 60 ballets and originated roles in 12 works, including Benjamin Millepied’s Neverwhere, a personal favorite. NYCB’s strong focus on musicality was the perfect complement to her personality and style. “I always had a bit of wildness in my dancing, and I felt that I had found jazz in ballet here,” she says.
She loved dancing Balanchine’s works but felt a special affinity for Jerome Robbins’ creations, citing “the intimacy of how he would create atmospheres and worlds on stage.” The Cage, with its “sharp, strange movements,” was a favorite.
For her farewell performance, Lovette chose a Saturday matinee so she could leave the theater in daylight. “I want it to be a celebration, a thank you to the audience, my co-workers, my teachers, my boss, to everyone in the theater,” she says. And after that? She’s looking forward to more choreographing, more dancing, and more time to let her creativity roam free.
Ask la Cour
In 2002, Ask la Cour joined the NYCB corps, fresh from the Royal Danish Ballet and eager for something new. He planned to stay for five, maybe eight years. Instead, he became a NYCB mainstay, a tall, elegant dancer and perceptive partner who has performed for 19 years with the Company in more than 60 ballets. “Life is what happens while you’re busy making other plans,” he says.
La Cour overcame some speed bumps along the way. In 2007, a devastating ankle injury nearly ended his dancing. He recovered, but his career stalled, and he thought about quitting. Instead, he changed his work approach, deciding he would dance to please himself. Something clicked. New roles came his way, and he was promoted to Principal Dancer in 2013. “I enjoyed my dancing again and it showed,” he says of that breakthrough period. “You really have to love what you do.”
One of his loves was dancing Balanchine’s black-and-white ballets, Stravinsky Violin Concerto in particular, a ballet that showcased his exceptional partnering skills in which he has performed both principal male roles. “I usually danced the second couple, and I love that extreme partnership,” he says. “While there’s no story, there’s a certain feeling in the combination of steps.”
He also gravitated to character roles and the onstage story-telling he learned at the Royal Danish Ballet School. His forte was evil characters like Swan Lake’s Von Rotbart and the deadly Fate in Robbins’ In Memory Of…. “I think of myself as a nice guy, but it’s always fun to play with the other side,” he says.
His next act will be with the Royal Danish Ballet, where he’ll teach and coach the apprentices. He acknowledges, “It’s like a full circle for me.”
“My body was speaking pretty loudly,” says Maria Kowroski, explaining why she chose this moment to close her breathtaking, 26-year career with NYCB. “I wanted to go out feeling good and looking good.”
From her scintillating, teenage debut as the Siren in George Balanchine’s Prodigal Son to a rapturous pas de deux in Balanchine’s Liebeslieder Walzer for NYCB’s virtual 2021 Spring Gala, Kowroski has unleashed her musicality, charismatic authority, and spectacular arabesque in more than 85 ballets.
She left her mark on 30 Balanchine ballets including Symphony in C, Concerto Barocco, and Agon—a favorite—as well as all three sections of Jewels (Diamonds is a signature role). As the last current Company member to be coached by Robbins, she recalls watching him demonstrate her flighty character’s flamboyant entrance in The Concert. Even at his age, “you knew exactly what he wanted,” she remembers. And originating roles in more than 20 ballets allowed her to stretch her gifts in unexpected ways, as in a ferocious solo that Mauro Bigonzetti made on her in In Vento. “I was throwing myself across the stage and felt so raw and real,” she says. “Ballet has given me every emotion in the book.”
She cherishes having the time to grow in different roles over her long career. “When you’ve watched somebody doing these ballets for many years or been coached by someone who did them, it’s really, really hard to make them your own,” she says. Rising to the challenge, she made such ballets as Balanchine’s Chaconne and Mozartiana, two ballets she loves, hers.
Also memorable? Dancing Titania in A Midsummer Night’s Dream with her son in her tummy, as she describes it. “I didn’t know if I’d be able to dance again after he was born, so each performance was special,” she says. “This is such a rare career, and I’m so lucky to have been able to have done it.”
Terry Trucco writes frequently about the arts and travel.