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From Orthopedic Shoes to N.Y. Ballet

TIMES STAFF WRITER

When Miranda Weese was almost 8, growing up in Orange County, she got a tiny part in “The Nutcracker” at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion in Los Angeles. The little girl’s face was painted white with bright red cheeks, making her indistinguishable from the ranks of other “cookie soldiers.” Her mother recalls that on the way home, Miranda announced: “That was fun, but next year I’m going to be good enough that nobody is going to paint my face again.”

No one has.

From improbable beginnings--her suburban Orange County upbringing as well as uncertainty during her childhood that she would ever walk normally--Weese has ascended to the summit of the ballet world.

This year, just shy of her 21st birthday, she was promoted to principal dancer with the New York City Ballet, the highest rank of dancers in the nation’s preeminent neoclassical troupe.

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Weese, who was born in San Bernardino and raised mostly in Anaheim and Santa Ana, is a leading hope to become something the City Ballet desperately needs: a worthy successor to the vanishing last generation of great ballerinas trained personally by George Balanchine, who died in 1983.

Her rise, which both her peers and teachers say is due almost entirely to her own drive and search for artistry, rather than coaching, also says a lot about the City Ballet in the post-Balanchine era.

Weese herself credits her arrival as a City Ballet principal to the motivation she forged during a crucial period of self-examination that followed a 1992 injury. That reappraisal also steeled her resolve to overcome fears of expressing her inner self on stage.

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Weese is the first woman named principal at City Ballet since 1991. Her promotion came unceremoniously and as a surprise, just after the curtain descended on “Jeu de Cartes,” choreographed by the City Ballet’s artistic director and top boss, Peter Martins.

Weese recalls that in rehearsal that day, Martins had seen things he particularly liked, and the performance had gone well. As she walked offstage, Martins tapped her on the shoulder, took her aside and gave her the news. At first she couldn’t believe it, asking him repeatedly “Are you sure?” When at last she was convinced, she cried.

It was the apex of a long climb for a girl who entered kindergarten with long legs, but weak ankles, and who was so severely knock-kneed that she fell whenever she started to run.

To remedy the problem, a pediatrician prescribed high-topped corrective shoes and recommended special exercises and a children’s activity class in Anaheim that included dance to help develop strength. A few months later, the school decided to offer beginning ballet, and Weese begged her mother to let her try it. When she liked the ballet classes, her mother made her choose between that and the more general dance class; the family couldn’t afford both.

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One reason Weese says she took to ballet: As a child, she was shy and extremely quiet. Dance, she says, brought her a sense of freedom and a way to be expressive.

The people Weese calls mother and father are actually her maternal grandparents, with whom she had been living since she was a baby and who adopted her as a child. They had no background in the arts, let alone ballet.

Jackie Weese had been a waitress and assembly-line worker; her husband, Gene, is a mechanic on commercial jetliners at McDonnell Douglas in Long Beach. Far from pushing Miranda into ballet, Jackie Weese says that at the time, she had never seen a ballet performance: “I knew absolutely nothing about it.”

But it quickly became the consuming focus of Miranda’s life, and they steadfastly supported her. Jackie Weese still sews all of Miranda’s leotards. Gene was more involved than most ballet fathers, volunteering to transport ballet barres and equipment for Miranda’s first teacher; laying the wood floor when her second teacher opened a studio; and dutifully attending even the most minor of Miranda’s recitals.

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The family left Anaheim for La Puente for a few years, and Jackie Weese credits Miranda’s first real ballet teacher, Catherine Joyce of the Catherine Joyce School of Ballet in West Covina, with kindling Miranda’s love of ballet, recognizing that she had major potential.

Joyce, who also taught City Ballet dancer Teresa Reyes,, recalls that “Miranda had a serious feeling for dance that a lot of children don’t have.” Joyce says that even as a little girl, Miranda also displayed confidence and an ability not to be demoralized by setbacks.

When Miranda was 10, the family moved back to Orange County, this time to Santa Ana, and she found the teacher who was to be the biggest influence on her, Shery Gilbert, who now runs the Laguna Dance Theatre in Mission Viejo.

Gilbert had danced professionally with the National Ballet of Panama and other companies before knee surgery brought an early end to her career.

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Turning to teaching, she took on Weese as her first student. Gilbert recalls that when Weese first came to her, “she had these large feet and these long legs; she looked like a spider.” But “I saw the fabulous physical abilities she had.”

Weese knew little about styles of ballet or the various professional companies, and Gilbert spent much time showing them to her on video. Weese had never heard of the New York City Ballet, a company known for fast-paced dancing and for transforming the look and style of ballet in the 20th century.

Gilbert played a laserdisc for her of the City Ballet doing Balanchine’s “Who Cares?,” a tour de force of classical steps set to George Gershwin show tunes. As they watched ballerina Patricia McBride whip through fantastically difficult turns, “Miranda looked at me and said that’s what she wanted to do,” Gilbert recalls. “So I said, ‘That’s where we’re going to put you.’ ”

Weese eventually passed an audition and spent two summers at the School of American Ballet, the City Ballet’s associated school. At age 15, she accepted its offer to move to New York as a full-time student. Although she would miss her family, she wasn’t sad about leaving Orange County; she recalls her public school days as a dismal experience, with unmotivated teachers and menacing gangs.

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In 1991, just months after coming to the ballet school, she was invited into the company as an apprentice.

Weese’s ballet teachers in California say the reasons for her success are twofold: She has impeccable technique--in particular, superlative turns combined with a naturalness of style--and she has the self-confidence and initiative to make things happen for herself.

When Balanchine ran the company, he focused obsessively on new dancers who interested him, giving them attention, placing technical demands on them, bestowing his faith and enabling his chosen few to evolve.

The company is different now; Martins is saddled with enormous administrative and fund-raising duties that Balanchine never had to deal with, and dancers are left much more on their own to develop.

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Asked if young ballerinas in the company get enough help, Weese said, “I don’t think they get as much as they could be getting.” She says that’s because the company’s frenetic schedule now doesn’t allow for it.

City Ballet dancer Ethan Stiefel says Weese “moved up very quickly because she just had it naturally, and she took the initiative and really made it happen for herself. She knew she had to make it on her own and not wait for them to make her something.”

Stiefel, named principal last year, is regarded by some as the most talented male dancer since Baryshnikov. He chooses Weese as his partner when he dances outside the company. (The pair are dancing this weekend in Moscow.)

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Weese has wavy brown hair and brown eyes with long eyelashes; her long legs make her seem taller than her 5 feet 5 inches. She notes with pride that she has some Native American blood, including Cherokee and Blackfoot ancestry.

Between rehearsals recently for her debut in the balcony scene of “Romeo and Juliet,” Weese took time out to meet with a reporter, sitting with a ballerina’s perfect posture at a little coffee table on the promenade of the New York State Theater, the City Ballet’s home.

Her civilian clothes that day were a black V-necked shirt, royal blue velour stretch pants imprinted with golden cherubs, and earrings with little winged fairies. But her seriousness of purpose quickly belied the whimsical get-up.

She says a turning point for her came in 1992, just months after she became an apprentice, a preliminary step to becoming a full-fledged member of the corps de ballet.

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She had been dancing for weeks with pain in one foot, and then during a rehearsal pushed off on it and found herself in agony. “My foot had had enough, and it just broke,” she says. Weese was devastated when told that the fracture meant she could not dance for at least five months.

But dance, as she put it, “was my entire identity,” and without it, she became depressed, spending hours alone in her dorm room with the television on. She was afraid that her career already might be over.

Realizing that she had fallen behind other dancers who became apprentices when she did, she resolved to come back and try harder and, she says, “to start growing up as a person.”

“I sort of became newly motivated, and it made me look at a different aspect of myself and my dancing as well.”

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As she reentered the company and progressed, she began to examine her own performances closely. She looked critically at videotapes of herself and remembers seeing a dancer who had technique but who wasn’t revealing her personality or taking risks. “I saw a closed person. I started to feel like I was missing an aspect, that I wasn’t feeling something or something wasn’t there that needed to be there as part of my performance.”

She also studied videotapes of ballerinas she admired, analyzing their qualities, and began coming to performances and watching closely on nights when she wasn’t dancing.

“It was a very poignant time for me. I really had discovered something on the inside that I wanted to project. But for a long time I had been scared to really show the creative part of myself. You know, you sort of fear judgment from your peers, and people around you. . . .

“But I needed to be able to feel I could go out on the stage and just create. I had to let go of my fears of what people were going to think about me. And so I really just started to explore.”

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Martins evidently noticed. In 1994, he promoted her to soloist, the middle rank of dancers, and began throwing her into principal roles, often with little notice, to substitute for dancers who were injured or ill. She was reliable, unflappable and learned quickly--which is vital in a company that performs an enormous repertory every season.

(There was one terrifying exception--when she was thrown into the lead ballerina role in Balanchine’s “Walpurgisnacht” ballet, with only one rehearsal to learn it and one to practice. She recalls that in the middle of the performance, she blanked and stood stock still on stage “for about 16 counts, freaking out.”)

After Weese debuted in February in Balanchine’s demanding “Theme and Variations,” New York Times critic Jennifer Dunning called her “the New York City Ballet’s exquisite wunderkind. . . . Ms. Weese is very much immersed in the moment in her dancing. But in her entrances and in repose, the way she holds her body and opens it to the audience defines the classical ballerina and makes the lineage plain.”

Critic Anna Kisselgoff, also writing in the New York Times, said of Weese’s performance in “Jeu de Cartes”: “With her sharp-featured glamour and sparkling energy, she recalled, more than once, the chic of Balanchine’s most witty muse, Tanaquil LeClercq. That she always mixes strong technique and contrasting naturalness is clear.”

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The quality of the City Ballet’s dancing has been high lately, as noted repeatedly in reviews for the recently completed winter season. Still, fans have consistently complained that no ballerina of undisputed star quality has emerged. They are waiting for the next ballerina who not merely dances beautifully, but also defines her era.

In 1991, Martins promoted two women to principal: Margaret Tracey and Wendy Whelan, and both have done well. But the two ballerinas still most relied on to draw crowds, and on whom the fortunes of the City Ballet still largely depend, came of age under Balanchine.

Darci Kistler, who in 1982 at age 17 became the company’s youngest principal ever, is married to Martins and now is on leave, pregnant with the couple’s first child. The other, Kyra Nichols, by some critics’ reckoning the greatest ballerina currently dancing anywhere, has been a principal since 1979.

Weese acknowledges that for her, being named principal is merely a starting point. And if she is to reach what she hopes for, to be not just a performer but a master artist, she will be largely responsible for molding herself--as she has all along.

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“Bringing artistry to [dancing] requires a lot of personal thinking, a lot of work on your own,” she says. “I have a long way to go.”


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