As New York City Ballet's principal dancer Russell Janzen prepares for his final revérénce on the stage of the David H. Koch Theater, I caught up with him to review his career with the company. We talked about his early years as an apprentice in 2007, to his promotion as a principal in 2017, and his forthcoming retirement. We chatted about the repertoire that has left a mark on him as a dancer, and the choreographers he has felt akin to understanding his agency as a dancer. Russell has come full circle to Balanchine's Jewels – a ballet that he first performed in his apprentice year, and now closes his career on Sunday 24 September.
Russell, what are your recollections of your early years with New York City Ballet?
I joined the company as an apprentice in 2007. Back then we didn't have a Fall Season, and I started out with a choreographic session with the Choreographic Institute. We also worked on Balanchine's Nutcracker that fall. I was the understudy (second or third cast) to many roles; but I performed more than I expected because different people got injured. We also got to go on tour that Winter (2008) season – we performed at The Coliseum in London. The best part of my apprentice year was that I got to watch the company rehearse ballets such as Western Symphony, and Jerome Robbins' Four Seasons, West Side Story Suite, Watermill (which we danced later in the summer season in New York). Watching rehearsals was such an important lesson. I've also been thinking about [Diamonds from] Jewels a lot; it's the ballet I'm concluding my career with but also it was the first ballet I performed after Nutcracker. I remember watching Wendy (Whelan) and Philip (Neal), and Maria (Kowroski) and Chuck (Charles Askegard). I was so excited to be in the company and be around all these dancers. Nothing was enough; I wanted to be in every rehearsal, learn all the steps.
You become principal dancer in 2017; talk me through your transition to a principal dancer.
My early years in the company were marked by injuries: sprained ankles, herniated disc. It took around five-six years for me to get my body back to being healthy. However, new possibilities and developments in my repertoire began to unfold. When Jennifer Ringer organized a performance of ‘Dancer's Choice' (one of the dancers would cast a show as a fundraising opportunity), I was cast in one of the pas de deux in Peter Martins' The Waltz Project, and then Christopher Wheeldon's Les Carillons. By 2013 I performed the Nutcracker pas de deux, and then after that it all exploded. Before it felt really slow, and then it just went so fast! There was a while there when every role I danced was new to me.
Some of the challenges for me were figuring out how I wanted to be, what it meant for me to be a dancer. I was a principal for less than a year when Peter Martins left the company. Martins' departure left me unsure of my role as a principal dancer. There were also other losses in the company; repertoire directors (including Karin von Aroldingen, and Albert Evans) left or died, and it was a time of figuring out how to do this. I felt I was left unsure on how to do things; it was a little disorienting. Other factors also changed my experiences in the last seven years. When dancers like Amar Ramassar left, I picked up a lot of work. And then with a change of leadership, repertoire directors, and dancers, there emerged ways in which new chances offered me the opportunities to try things out. Jonathan Stafford and Wendy Whelan's tenure has brought about different choices of dance makers, giving us new moments try out different ways of moving.
Let's talk about some of the key choreographers and the works that have inspired you: what are your favourite repertoires? And why do these stand out for you?
I think, to start, a lot of what I did was specifically Balanchine repertoire. The roles were very distinct: a cavalier, or a partner. I was first comfortable being on stage through roles in ballets like Concerto Barocco, Lieberslieder Waltz, and Diamonds, showing off my partners and paying attention to how you frame around her. That was a significant part of my career.
Dancing roles created for Adam Luders – Davidsbundlertanze and Barber Violin Concerto (created in 1988 for the American Music Festival) – allowed me to be different onstage. I watched tapes of Adam in these roles that he originated, and then dancing them myself felt really important at that time. The choreography created for Adam allowed me to evolve on stage, to let go a little more on stage, and be a little more wild. I am grateful for dancing those works in the early days – I think it was a relief to be able to do this repertoire alongside the more ‘placed' work.
The Robbins repertoire came much later in my career. Glass Pieces, which I understudied in my apprentice year, was a work I really wanted to be in. It's an exhilarating ballet and to dance the principal duet with Maria Kowroski was a dream. I grew up in the school when Maria was in the company, I poured over images of her in dance books. So for me, performing Glass Pieces with her was a real gift. Dances at a Gathering was another ballet that meant a lot to me. Like Glass Pieces, DAAG allowed me to be ‘me'; I didn't need to be a prince. I've always wanted to be myself on stage.
I grew up as a dancer working with Justin Peck in the studio since the age of 20. I don't believe I am a ‘Peck' dancer (there are clear qualities as the years and dances unfolded), but it has been an exciting time to be working with Justin. I've danced his ballets at all stages of my career, and I have admired how his career has just soared. When we premiered Year of the Rabbit and Rodeo (Four Dance Episodes), these were most exciting opening nights (and not all opening nights turn out to be exciting).
Working with Pam Tanowitz was truly wonderful. She had made A Dance in a Day (bringing together NYCB and Cunningham dancers) in 2015. I always wanted to work with her again. I had never worked with a choreographer who had asked dancers to think in the same way that she did. When I finally got to work with her again, we created Solo for Russell: Sites 1-5 for the digital season of New Works Festival (2020). It was a gift. Being part of the process (from dancing through Covid process, injuries, and then back on the stage), was such an important part of the last few years. The extended process – through Covid and wellness – was the most enriching in my professional career. I had an agency in her process that I had never experienced before.
In 2016 you contributed to the Dance Studies Association's Contemporary Ballet Conference, talking about your presence in the studio and on stage. You then wrote about the choreographic process in the final chapter of The Oxford Handbook of Contemporary Ballet (2021). What were your leading thoughts on finding your writerly voice?
I got involved as a result of taking a class at the New School with professor of history, Julia Foulkes, around 2010-11. In that class I could challenge that dancers didn't have a voice. Writing about ballet offered me a new way, maybe more ways, to engage or relate to what I was experiencing in the studio and making sense of that. I was also interested in the role of the male dancer. Years later, in creating work with Pam Tanowitz, my writing gave me a way to engage in the process of creating new work. I found my connections to my presence, my voice, and my contribution to the ballets created in recent times.
The last few years brought some challenges: during the pandemic you created site-specific work around the Lincoln Center for the 2020-21 digital season. What are your recollections of these times?
The first performance that was cancelled at the start of the pandemic in March 2020 was around my return to stage after an ankle injury. I wasn't feeling connected to myself as a dancer. During the pandemic, my fellow dancers and I talked about what we missed but what work could look like after the pandemic. We talked about many contemporary American moments (including George Floyd's death) and had many conversations that we never had before. One thing we gained at City Ballet was the ability to have conversations about stuff, about things we didn't talk about before – meaningful conversations on DEI (diversity equity and inclusion). The pandemic offered us a time to rethink – how we can be as dancers, and what it means to have a voice, to be represented and exit in a way in the studio that feels good. There were other changes – my ankle healed, I finished school, I ran (and did things that I didn't do as a dancer). When we returned to work, I appreciated just how much I do love dancing and now just how much I do love being on stage. I appreciated the new adventures – creating the solo with Pam, a Choreographic Institute residency at Martha's Vineyard, interviews for the company's YouTube channel, and so much more. I appreciate how these opportunities kept me part of the company during that period.
Finally, let's talk about creating Justin Peck's Copland Dance Episodes. What did you enjoy most about the process and performances in last season?
I was second cast for the central couple (all the material was created for Taylor Stanley and Sara Mearns), and I performed this duet with Miriam Miller. When I first saw Copland Dance Episodes, I wasn't sure I related to the material created for Taylor. But the benefit of the first full-evening work created by the company in recent times is that we had a lot of studio rehearsal time. Miriam and I worked around the original material, making these movements ours, and we moulded the work around our bodies. Justin let us do it in our own way.
In the group sections of the ballet (like in any of Justin's ballets), we explore the typical ‘Peck' signature of a group of friends on stage: youthfulness, joy and team-mentality. In the early days, the wonderful thing about being in Justin's work was that we all grew up together – we went to school together, we rehearsed together, we created ballets and showed audiences what ballet can look like in today's culture. Copeland Dance Episodes is just that. So getting to be a part of that was really fun. There is also a lot of time backstage for everyone – there are lengths of time when we alternate on or off stage. And so watching City Ballet dancers, some new to the company and others who have been there for a long time, revealed what the company is capable of doing. It was so exciting to watch principals Megan Fairchild and Roman Meija (who is very new to the company and has such a future ahead of him); they highlight the diversity in the company. Lastly, exploring a new partnership with Miriam Miller was also very special for me.
What are you looking forward to most as you take the stage for your retirement performance on Sunday 24 September?
I have three shows that week, but while I know there's one farewell, I'm thinking of the final week as a series of performances. My last performances at Saratoga didn't feel cathartic in the way I expected. I found these last experiences, performing with Miriam, wonderful opportunities to have new experiences in something familiar. This summer I realised that I had made it through my career, often wondering how many times there will be to dance, to return to dance. This is a time to celebrate this sixteen-year chapter in my life. I've done everything I have wanted to do, even with stress of injuries. How amazing I got to dance ballets such as Concerto Barocco and create wonderful new contemporary ballets with NYCB!
Dr Kathrina Farrugia-Kriel is a dance scholar, educator and published author. She is a graduate of the Royal Academy of Dance (2003), the Universities of Durham and Surrey, and London Metropolitan University (2013). Her doctoral research focussed on Bronislava Nijinska's Les Noces (1923), and the re-imaginings by contemporary choreographers Angelin Preljocaj and Mauro Bigonzetti. Kathrina is a former director of the Society of Dance History Scholars (now Dance Studies Association). Her scholarship on ballet histories has been published in peer-reviewed anthologies and journals, as well as newspapers, high-end magazines, and online blogs. She has authored a book on the legacy of Nathalie Poutiatine and ballet in Malta (Fondazzjoni Patrimonju Malti, 2020) and co-edited an extensive and pioneering anthology titled The Oxford Handbook of Contemporary Ballet (Oxford University Press, 2021).