Going It Alone : Dance: Prima ballerina Cynthia Gregory, who is no longer attached to a professional company, finds being her own boss quite interesting. She’ll dance this week in San Diego.
Cynthia Gregory would like to dispel the myth of the aloof ballerina. Her monumental celebrity as principal dancer with American Ballet Theatre, where she had danced for 26 years before leaving in June, set her apart in her professional and personal life. But she considers herself a regular person, just someone with a talent for dancing.
“Ballet dancers are seen as ethereal creatures who don’t live in a mundane world--you know, the Russian accent, cigarette holder, swathed in furs,” she said jokingly in a phone interview from her home in Connecticut. “Dancers buy groceries and do laundry. I do.”
Her first free-lance engagement since leaving ABT was in San Diego in August, when she performed at the San Diego Symphony SummerPops. She returns this week as guest artist with BalletMet for Thursday and Friday performances at the Civic Theatre.
Gregory, who is married and in her middle 40s, is also raising a 3-year-old, working regularly with her dance coach in New York City and continuing her career--on her own.
She also hopes to finish her memoirs, in which she recounts the “glamorous and hard-working” years at ABT and the “ups and downs” in her personal life, as she put it. The book is due for publication in a year by Pocket Books. She wants to keep writing after that, preferably children’s books. “And I’ve always wanted to be a movie star, too,” she said, laughing, “but no one’s asked.”
For now, at least for a couple of years before retiring, she intends to dance and enjoy being her own boss.
“I don’t want to dance forever, but I wanted my last two years to give me more time at home. So far so good. I can pick and choose when and where I perform. With ABT, I had to go according to their schedule. I loved ABT, it was home for so many years, but now I’m freer.”
Being unattached has its difficulties. It means being in charge of everything--having to find your own studios, music and costumes. And having to find work.
“It’s easier for a male dancer to free-lance; men are in greater demand in ballet companies,” she explained, since fewer males seek careers in ballet.
Margot Fonteyn was the only woman Gregory could think of who chanced dancing without a home company. Fonteyn could do it, based on her international reputation. Like Fonteyn, Gregory’s celebrity will make a difference. Yet, for many years, that fame caused her to worry constantly.
“I’d worry that people only liked me because I was a ballerina, that they didn’t like me for me,” she said.
That concern created such an inner turmoil that Gregory quit dancing for a year at the height of her ABT glory. That was more than 15 years ago. Even now, she is torn between the two worlds, she said, the dance world and the “real” world, but tries to make both worlds work for her.
Nevertheless, she doesn’t believe young dancers should abandon the drive to be the best.
“I think audiences would miss the superstars,” said a charming and personable Gregory. “They really draw an audience, get them excited. The audience will respond if you dance full out to the best of your ability. Every dancer should strive for that--to be the best they can possibly be.”
And once at the top, Gregory knows it isn’t easy staying there.
“After I danced with the Symphony, I came back home for half a day, then was off to Columbus, Ohio, to rehearse with BalletMet. For five days, we worked on ‘Divertimento No. 15.’ I’d never done it before. I’d never even seen it. Thank God for videotape.”
One of George Balanchine’s masterworks of the 1950s, “Divertimento No. 15" is not often performed.
“It’s a lovely tutu ballet to Mozart’s music, " Gregory said. “Quite classical, no story, with very quick movement--very Balanchine, with his style and musicality. I’ve seen most of Balanchine’s ballets. I would always go and watch the company dance,” she said, referring to New York City Ballet.
“John McFall (artistic director of BalletMet) asked me if I wanted to do ‘Divertimento’ and sent me a videotape. I love it. The Mozart is so beautiful. Moving to the music--that’s why I dance.”
Gregory’s San Diego appearance with BalletMet is the season opener for the San Diego Foundation for the Performing Arts and the beginning of a brief Western tour. The company’s 25 dancers (“enthusiastic, lovely dancers,” Gregory commented) will perform James Kudelka’s 1989 “There, Below,” choreographed to Ralph Vaughan Williams’ ever-popular “Fantasia on a Theme of Thomas Tallis,” and “Great Galloping Gottschalk,” by Lynn Taylor-Corbett of Chicago’s Hubbard Street Dancers.
Gregory’s famous technique and stage presence will be showcased in “Divertimento” and in the pas de deux from the 19th-Century classic “Le Corsaire,” with partner Serge Lavoie of National Ballet of Canada.
“He’s tall, strong and has a clean, exacting technique,” she said. McFall first brought them together a few years ago for a BalletMet gala. At Gregory’s recommendation, Mikhail Baryshnikov, as head of ABT, brought Lavoie to New York in 1988 to dance with her in a full-length “Swan Lake,” her signature ballet.
At 5 foot 7 and with her show-stealing talent, Gregory requires a strong partner. She has danced with all the great contemporary male dancers (including Rudolf Nureyev, Fernando Bujones and Baryshnikov), and her career has included principal roles in nearly 80 dances, several of which were created for her.
Gregory was raised in Los Angeles and started dance lessons at age 5. At 14, the San Francisco Ballet accepted her on scholarship, and in five years she had progressed to leading roles. In 1965, ABT took her to New York. Even now, though, she calls herself “sort of a California girl”; she had wanted to return from Connecticut when her ABT era ended.
“I tried to get my husband to move to San Francisco, but all his business contacts are on the East Coast,” she said, referring to Hilary Miller, an investment banker and her manager. “Someday, I hope to be bi-coastal.”
In the meantime, she is content to debunk the myth that brands ballerinas as exotic and imperious.
“I want people to know the well-rounded side of being a ballerina so they can identify more easily with me.”
BalletMet with Cynthia Gregory and Serge Lavoie will perform at the Civic Theatre at 8 p.m. Thursday and Friday. Tickets ($35, $25, $17.50 and $10) are available at the Civic Theatre box office, 236-6510, and at TicketMaster locations (278-TIXS). For information, 234-5853.