A New Juliet Blooms as a Ballerina

Indiana Woodward has had two life-changing moments in her relatively young career. One was a summer spent at the Bolshoi Ballet Academy in Moscow when she was 15. The other was when she was 9 and found herself in a class that, as she put it in a recent interview: “Made my love for ballet dim. So intensely.”

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A New Juliet Blooms as a Ballerina
, New York Times

Indiana Woodward has had two life-changing moments in her relatively young career. One was a summer spent at the Bolshoi Ballet Academy in Moscow when she was 15. The other was when she was 9 and found herself in a class that, as she put it in a recent interview: “Made my love for ballet dim. So intensely.”

She doesn’t remember what went wrong exactly — “everything’s the end of the world at 9,” she said — but it was enough to make her quit.

After a couple of months, her mother intervened: She took her to see a performance of “Romeo and Juliet” featuring the delicate, passionate Romanian ballerina Alina Cojocaru.

Woodward said she was so sad she’d quit ballet that she cried the entire time. “I remember one moment when Alina ran up the stairs, tripped and she fell up them,” she said. “It was so perfect — she was so in it. She gave everything on the stage.”

It was Juliet — both the part and Cojocaru — that convinced Woodward, now a 24-year-old soloist at New York City Ballet, to take another stab at ballet. And now the role is hers. On Feb. 21, Woodward will make her debut as Juliet in Peter Martins’ production of “Romeo + Juliet” opposite Taylor Stanley.

“That ballet really did change my life when I was young,” Woodward, the only new Juliet this season, said. “To be doing it is a pretty insane feeling.”

This has been a standout season for Woodward, who has made alluring debuts in George Balanchine’s “Apollo,” as Calliope; and as the shivering, fetching lead in the “Winter” section of Jerome Robbins’ “The Four Seasons.” But “Romeo + Juliet” — because it is a full-length ballet and requires such emotional layers — is another matter entirely.

Woodward possesses the requisite emotional breadth and more. Trained by Yuri Grigoriev, who danced with the Stanislavsky Ballet in Moscow, she has the precision of classical ballet and the speed and attack of Balanchine’s neoclassical tradition. Her footwork and turns aren’t just properly placed, they sparkle with fluid musicality. It’s lovely to watch because it’s so natural.

“I was always a bit of a kamikaze as a ballerina as a kid,” she said, adding that she still tries to channel that, “but if I’m too excited it can overpower my actual show. That’s definitely something for me to work on. I just get so happy when I dance that it explodes.”

Martins, who retired under pressure last month as ballet master in chief of City Ballet after allegations of sexual harassment and abuse, chose Woodward as Juliet before he left. Kathleen Tracey, a former company member turned ballet master, has coached Woodward in several roles including this one. She said she has come to realize how right Martins was to pick Woodward.

“Indiana has depth,” Tracey said. “While on the surface she is a very bubbly, lovely, charming kind of person, she is starting to be able to find her way through the harder scenes, which are when she refuses Paris and when she actually has to be faced with ‘Do I drink this potion, do I not?’”

Tracey says this is a ballet for a dancer to evolve in, asking a profound question of its lead: How much do you do for love? “It’s about finding those real human feelings and showing the pain she would feel or the despair,” she said. “We’re getting there.”

It’s a matter of braiding dancing with nuanced acting, in which a quick glance or hesitation can make the story come alive. As a coach, Tracey is understated and deceptively casual. When, at one point during a recent rehearsal, Woodward was struggling with spacing, Tracey told her: “Center schmenter. Be where you are.” The two have a lighthearted back and forth, which was evident as Tracey, who is known as Katey, focused on helping Woodward give her reactions more texture. In an early scene in which Juliet’s parents tell her that marriage to Paris is on the horizon, Tracey wanted Woodward to show how Juliet was part girl, part woman. “Don’t be afraid to use your face,” she said. “I love the moment when you cross over and pause, like, no, I’m just a kid.” She smiled encouragingly. “I’m just planting seeds.”

Tracey mimicked pouring from a pitcher and added, “Water.”

Throwing her arms in the air, Woodward said, “Blooming. Hopefully.”

The next day, Woodward talked about emotions of the role. “There’s the sense of being trapped in your own skin and within your family,” she said. “There’s no escape. So in theory the potion and waking up and running away is the best thing that could ever happen. But it’s also scary. What if you die?”

Woodward has a particular mix of good cheer and glamour that comes partly from her upbringing. She was born in Paris, where she lived until she was 3 1/2 with her French filmmaker father and her mother, a dancer from South Africa who performed with choreographer Roland Petit among others.

Her parents, who met on a dance-film set, relocated to Philadelphia, where Woodward’s brother was born. But when they split up — Woodward was 7 — her father returned to Paris. Until she was 15, she lived in Los Angeles with her mother and brother.

“We were in Europe with my dad for every vacation or holiday, and in America, we were always with my mom,” she said. “Sometimes it was hard, because you’re just growing up. You don’t want to leave.”

But she’s grateful now. “I feel like I have two cultures ingrained in me — and South African culture too,” she said. “I’m very open to everything.”

Woodward, who lives in the West Village neighborhood of Manhattan with her rescue dog, Luna, may have been partly raised in America, but she’s not exactly an American girl. Her gracious manners have a European ease, and her spirit and frequent smile bring to mind the French ballerina Violette Verdy, who danced with City Ballet from 1958 to 1977. All of that shows up in her performances.

And if the ballet world can seem small and closed in — the work it takes to thrive in it requires total focus — Woodward dances like she knows that the real world is a big place. Her time at the Bolshoi Ballet Academy helped her realize that. “It’s about being able to adapt wherever you are,” she said. It was while she was on her way to Moscow that she decided to stop in New York and audition for the City Ballet-affiliated School of American Ballet, which she had learned about through a friend. She was accepted on scholarship. “I’m so thankful,” she said. “Otherwise I don’t think I would have discovered this style.”

She joined City Ballet in 2012 and was promoted to soloist a year ago. It’s been a transition. Soloists perform less often than members of the corps de ballet. “Not being in the corps every night makes you a little tentative when you do go on stage,” she said. “You have so many emotions. Katey helped me find a way to channel them in a more calm way.”

And that is seeping into her Juliet too. “Katey does say, ‘You can just be free — when the time comes for you to dance the whole ballet, you can do what you want to do,'” Woodward said. “That’s crazy. Having the whole stage to do the interpretation of my dream role?”

She was uncharacteristically speechless. “Whoa.”

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