A Ballet Hamlet Becomes a God (Apollo, That Is) | Modern Society of USA

A Ballet Hamlet Becomes a God (Apollo, That Is)

A Ballet Hamlet Becomes a God (Apollo, That Is)

To spend some quality time with Taylor Stanley is to realize that this New York City Ballet principal dancer — bold and forthright onstage — is as sensitive as they come. When he dances, he soars; in life, he swerves into self-doubt.

Yet Mr. Stanley, a shy and self-effacing mixed-race 27-year-old gay man, has become one of the company’s most valued principals, both for his dancing and for what his presence means. He is a bridge between the staid, mostly white traditional ballet world and a new, more open one. When he performed a solo to Jay-Z and Kanye West, deftly blending fragments of hip-hop with classical ballet in Kyle Abraham’s “The Runaway” last fall, the audience erupted in the kind of whoops and cheers you don’t usually hear at Lincoln Center. It was a star-making turn.

But it’s not easy being a bridge. Mr. Stanley is a ballet dancer, yet he’s curious about the experiences he could have with other dance forms. Is City Ballet even the right fit, he wonders? And now he has another reason to question himself and his abilities. When the curtain rises on the first ballet of the first night of the winter season, he will be center stage in a brand-new role: Apollo.

The central part in “Apollo” (1928) — the oldest George Balanchine work that the company performs — is one of the most difficult male roles in the repertory, requiring athleticism and dramatic depth. Jacques d’Amboise, the former City Ballet star, once described the role, in which the young god is guided to adulthood by three muses, as having “more in it than any dancer is capable of doing.” For Mr. Stanley, it carries even more weight. City Ballet has had only one African-American Apollo — once. Craig Hall performed the role in 2011 as part of a Dancers’ Choice evening in which casting was not assigned by the artistic staff but by peers.

And then there’s his luminous musicality and razor-sharp technique. “He’s a gentle tornado in a way,” Mr. Hall said. “He’s quiet and he’s so calm until he’s destroying your heart.” He added: “And then the minute you tell him how great it was, he runs away from it.”

It’s true that Mr. Stanley’s self-image could use improving. He has the weight of trying to please everyone, and that is beautiful and humbling,” Mr. Hall said, adding: “He’s like the most perfect knight.”

Tiler Peck, a fellow principal who will dance Terpsichore opposite Mr. Stanley’s Apollo, sees it too. “I am super hard on myself, but he takes it to another level,” she said. “Sometimes I’m like, ‘You’re allowed to think that one thing you do is good.’”

At the same time, Mr. Stanley is restless. Last summer, he traveled to Tel Aviv to participate in a Gaga intensive led by Mr. Naharin, along with dancers from Batsheva Dance Company.

“It just opened me up and put a mirror to myself in ways that the mirror here does not,” he said. “It caused me to sense everything without even scratching the surface.”

If Mr. Stanley radiated a deeper intensity in his stage-stealing solos in Mr. Abraham’s “The Runaway,” that was in part because of his Gaga immersion. “I’m more focused on trying to feel what I want to feel,” he said, “rather than trying to be somebody, which is why ‘Apollo’ is challenging. I get to choose my path in ‘The Runaway.’”

But Mr. Stanley is less sure of his actual dancing path. The uncertainty at City Ballet, which has yet to name a new artistic director, can, he said, “start to eat away a little bit on the inside.”

Will he stay at City Ballet? Will he leave? Mr. Stanley took a slow, deep intake of breath and laughed nervously. “It’s a daily question,” he said. “It’s like I’m trying to observe how much love I have for ballet — how it feels physically and what it does for me emotionally. If it’s worth the love, if it’s worth the relationship or if it will just continue to make me more calculated and more unsure of myself?”

Ms. Peck said, “I keep telling him to stick it out,” and Mr. Hall said it would be devastating if Mr. Stanley were to leave. “But that’s out of a selfish feeling,” Mr. Hall said, “and I know that artists need to go and discover and find themselves.”

Mr. Stanley clearly misses Tel Aviv and the bonds that he formed with dancers there. “Something right below your sternum is aching and the whole point of Gaga, especially, is to explore that and to open that up and invest in that,” he said. “I’ve done too much suppressing and repressing.”

On the final day of the intensive, there was a Champagne celebration in the studio. He described it as one of those special moments when, “You’re around your own campfire and people are just giving you the tea that you need.”

And he wants more. “Am I allowed to feel that here?” Mr. Stanley wondered. “It comes in increments, as it should. But I don’t want to feel like I can’t feel that here. Being out of New York for a period of time could be healthy, and I think that’s being more respected too, now — dancers listening to themselves and listening to their needs.”

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