By Mary Hierholzer
Erica Cornejo, Rie Ichikawa and Sarah Wroth wouldn’t quite call it retiring, and they’re not a state of denial. Though these three dancers conclude their long and celebrated careers as ballerinas of Boston Ballet in just a couple of weeks, none will withdraw from their beloved world of dance.
The Boston Dance Journal interviewed Ms. Cornejo, Ms. Ichikawa and Ms. Wroth in a series to hear about their plans, their aspirations and the meaningful moments of being professional ballerinas. This is the third and final installment, featuring Corps de Ballet Dancer Sarah Wroth.
If everyone had an attitude like Sarah Wroth, this world would be a much happier place. The Boston Ballet corps dancer of 14 years has not only graced the stage with strong and charismatic dancing, but has bestowed kind wisdom and candid reflections with her colleagues through her weekly Facebook posts, “Corps-de-Ballerina Lessons”; with the dance community by writing op-eds for Dance Magazine, and by teaching youth at Boston Ballet School and in the Adaptive Dance Program.
What’s next? Ms. Wroth takes her wisdom to the Midwest as associate chair of the Indiana University Ballet Department, where she studied ballet as a student, and also as a part-time ballet master at Cincinnati Ballet. “I want to be an artistic director someday, so I’m looking for my next steps for learning all I possibly can about the intricacies of management and my career, and what the world needs in terms of the next generation of ballet dancers.”
What gives Sarah her positive attitude? Family. “It comes from an upbringing of appreciation,” Ms. Wroth says. “I was taught growing up that you have to be thankful, and I think not enough people are thankful in general in their lives… Giving thanks is a cornerstone in your happiness. It’s the ability to see that there is always something good in your life, and that has really helped me because anytime I’ve felt downtrodden or if I didn’t get the role I wanted, I would either return to ballet and take a class in the school… There’s always something in just going back to the ballet—get rid of the casting and the bureaucracy and going back to ballet.
“The same is true outside of ballet. I was taught there always has to be a well-roundedness that has to be a full picture to your life. That’s helped me to stay positive, because ballet isn’t my one and only. I love it and I’m passionate about it, but there’s a lot of ways that ballet can affect your life… If you really look at that and what a great thing that is for the world and the life we’re creating, you can’t ever get sad or down because you’re part of this bigger, important picture.”
Who has been an influential figure in her career? “Any career is built upon the exchanges you make, the experiences and choices you make, who you end up listening to in terms of corrections you’re given,” she says. “That’s generally, everyone, but most important to me in my career has been the relationship with the women that I’ve met in the corps de ballet. We suffer a thousand tiny cuts together, we get each other through hard times; we’re all in the same boat, we’re all tired, we try hard to see past the competition of things and champion each other’s’ successes. You have a lot of women who have to share a dressing room together and that takes an incredible amount of empathetic skill, and I think empathy is a big portion of successful relationships.”
“The artistic staff has always been great because as dancers, all we search for are corrections; we want to get better,” she continues. “Any peer that’s ever given me a correction, I’m thankful for. Anyone who has given me positive reinforcement or championed one small success in my life has helped. Anyone who can just believe in me. They say it takes a village to raise a child, and it takes a village to raise a successful career.”
How do the bonds you make with fellow dancers translate onstage? “In those moments of extreme fatigue, the thing that gets you through and puts a smile on your face is making eye contact with somebody on the stage. Find somebody and smile at them, and they’ll smile at you, and that creates a genuine reaction for both of you and a visceral experience.
“In terms of pas de deux work,” she says, “I find that there is something very sensual about a pas de deux, no matter who you’re working with. You’re entrusting your performance to another person. You want that to be the most shared, positive energy you possibly can have. When you’re dancing a pas de deux, be what the other person needs, and if both parties do that, the shared empathy is what really creates that special bond. You have to give somebody your trust, and you have to give somebody your whole body and that’s like a whole relationship in itself right there!”
What’s the most meaningful aspect of being a ballet dancer? “I say this without waver and without any question—the ability to do what you love is the greatest gift,” Sarah says. “There are so many people who go through this world looking forward to that whistle at the end of the day where they get to stop doing what they do for a living, and I get to do what I love to do for a living. At the end of the day when I leave, I’m still thinking about what I do for a living. That’s the most meaningful thing about being a ballet dancer—it’s not that we are these gods and goddesses of the world, it’s that we represent what everyone could have: commitment to something that really means something special to them.
“If everybody found something in their life, a talent they have, … if everyone could feel satisfaction with what they’re doing every day, the world would be a peaceful place and we would not have to worry about this negative energy. Everyone would just be knowing their true self and embodying it in what they do for a living. There you go, the world’s problems are resolved!”
What was a career-changing moment? “Definitely performing Bella Figura (by Jiří Kylián) was transformative. It’s a very vulnerable ballet. It was my first opportunity to really prove, I feel, that I was a mature artist who could command the stage and really bring something super special,” Ms. Wroth says. “I’ve always tried to do that, but I really felt like I was trusted with a treasure when I was allowed to perform that, and I was first cast.
“It was kind of this revolutionary ballet for the city of Boston, knocking it on its head with its avant-garde-ness, so I felt an incredibly responsibility and an incredible sense of triumph after I finished it. Jiří Kylián’s work has always meant so much to me, and that was a great moment for me. It was a very scary, wonderful, glorious, exciting experience.”
After years in the corps de ballet, many dancers would move to a new company for a higher contract—why did you stay in Boston for 14 years? Boston Ballet has provided Ms. Wroth with professional goals, and the career stability to earn her master’s degree in nonprofit management (she aims to become an artistic director someday) and also become a mother. “You can take these opportunities to be a complete human and not feel like you are taking a step back artistically or risking your life when you’re young,” she says.
“I’ve always said I want to be in a place where I feel like I’m learning something new, and I can honestly say there’s never been a day in Boston where I haven’t learned something new,” Ms. Wroth says. “At Boston Ballet we perform such a fantastic repertoire, and the dancer community here is so wonderful in its camaraderie and in the fact that everyone sticks together in a really beautiful way. You’re always looking up to somebody, and there are such great dancers that you’re always trying to learn something from… Casting can be disappointing, but I’ve never felt like I didn’t have something to improve upon, and I would find extra opportunities to challenge myself if casting wasn’t going my way. There’s always something to work toward in ballet, and there was always something here for me to work on, and I’m very thankful for that.”
See Sarah Wroth perform with Boston Ballet in The Sleeping Beauty, May 25 and 27, and in Robbins/The Concert (Balanchine’s Stravinsky Violin Concerto) May 26 at the Boston Opera House, 7:30 p.m. For tickets, visit the Boston Ballet webpage.