Energetiks talks with Megan Fairchild

Megan Fairchild is one of the New York City Ballet’s star attractions. This coming year will mark fifteen years since the Utah-born dancer first graced the stage as a NYCB company member, and almost as long since she advanced to the role of principal dancer. Combine this with the fact that Megan is regularly joined on-stage by her brother (fellow principal dancer Robert Fairchild), and his wife and it becomes apparent that the New York City Ballet really is ‘home’ for the venerated performer.

As a soloist by nineteen and principal artist by twenty, it’s true that Megan’s career has the kind of trajectory most dancers dream of. Yet these rapid promotions for such a young performer just freshly initiated into company life must have come with substantial pressures. Less than two years after joining New York City Ballet and Megan was thrust into the spotlight as a principal artist at one of the highest profile ballet companies in the world.

The pressure didn’t stop Megan from thriving though, and the talented performer actively seeks out challenges as a result. Making the leap from ballet to Broadway in 2014 with a starring role in ‘On the Town’, for which Megan was nominated for an Outer Critics Circle Award and received a Theatre World Award for her portrayal as ‘Ivy Smith’. Proving to audiences and critics alike that she's as diverse as she is dainty.

We caught up with Megan earlier this year to talk about ballet, Broadway, and life outside dance. 

How did your dance journey begin?

Megan as a youngster at dance

Megan as a youngster at dance

My mom says I was kind of dancing around the house as a young kid, so at the age of 4 she took me to a tap class at a local studio. Soon they were having me do ballet, tap and jazz once a week.

When did you know for certain that you wanted to pursue ballet as a career?

My mom took me to see the Nutcracker when I was 8, and I was so jealous there were other little girls dancing up on the stage. I think the Mother Ginger (we called her Mother Buffoon) divertissement was the real kicker, getting to see the other kids come out of her skirt and dance. I was insistent that I audition the next year, at the age of 9, the earliest year you could try out. I think when you get to start performing professionally at the age of 9 and you see that what you have been doing after school, is something that could be a real job, it is really motivating. I enjoyed those professional experiences at Nutcracker so much, my mom had to ask the advice of a doctor one January because I would often go through a post-Nutcracker mini-depression. I enjoyed it that much.

Your ascent to principal artist with NYCB was incredibly fast – was it daunting being thrust into the spotlight so young?

Bingo. I would never want to go through the ages of 19-23 again. I was offered an apprenticeship with NYCB during my senior year of high school at the age of 17. I was promoted to soloist at 19, and less than a year later promoted to principal at 20. I was a very hard worker and had a lot of potential, but in no way was I ready to be a principal. I needed a couple more years to brew before I was listed in the program as principal dancer. Once you have that title, you are judged by critics to a certain standard; you are no longer the underdog that people are rooting for anymore. And I just didn’t have the actual physical experience yet of performing enough, to be able to tackle the ballets that the boss started throwing my way. A lot of my meteoric rise was because our company had just hired Joaquin DeLuz, a soloist from ABT, and he was incredibly talented and needed a short partner. Our first couple years dancing together was super scary for me. He was wonderful to look across at when we were onstage, he has a magnificent stage presence that I think helped me develop mine quickly, but we had a lot of figuring out to do in the partnering department. He had an ABT style of partnering so he was having to change and adapt all of his skills to fit NYCB and the different repertoire we do, and I had literally just never partnered much before. So the first couple years where Peter gave us all the big ballets that we have been doing now for over a decade, were very scary. I can definitely say my reaction was to want to curl up in a ball and cry, not to go out onstage and be a beautiful ballerina. I quickly adopted the 'fake it till you make it' mentality, cried a lot when needed, and hired a therapist. Thank God those years are over.

Who inspires you – both artistically and otherwise?

Well first I should say, I look up to anyone in this business, that doesn’t use their artistic talents as an excuse to not be polite, caring, nice and decent to everyone around them. I have incredible admiration for people that trust and know that being nice doesn’t take any of their artistic genius away. It is easy to get caught up in the competitive nature of our industry and think you are truly pitted against each other— each man for himself. But I try to remember that there is enough space in this world for all of our talent, and when someone else gets a special role or opportunity, it doesn’t take away from what might be around the corner for me. Or to put it in another way, one person’s successes, or failures for that matter, don’t say anything about my career.

For these reasons, I truly admire Jenny Ringer and Yvonne Borree. They were principals at NYCB when I was a newbee, and helped me through my difficult and stressful years in the company. Not only were they uniquely talented artists, but they have wonderful souls. They maintain perspective in this dramatic business we are in, they don’t let themselves get carried away with casting or drama or nonsense. They are well-rounded and able to be happy for other people’s successes. It’s something I am constantly striving for. It is being able to push yourself and be your best, instead of pushing yourself to be better than others. A lot of people get their ambitions satisfied in this way, but I don’t thrive in this environment. That’s why I really enjoyed Broadway. There was this utopian sense of community, everyone able to be incredibly happy for each other’s special moments in the sun. It was something I wanted to remember and take back into the ballet world when I came back from Broadway: this wonderful sense of community and support.

What was it like sharing your love of dance with your brother growing up, did sibling rivalry ever come into the mix?

I have to say we are incredibly close. Growing up, he always followed me and did what I did. There was no rivalry. It was cute. Now that we are adults and sharing our professions, it is super special to be able to share this crazy journey with him. Fortunately we have both had a lot of success, and similar success at that. But I think it would be much harder if we were both the same gender. I would find it hard to differentiate myself from a sibling of the same gender in our company. I don’t know how people do that. Also Robbie and I are physically talented in different ways. I specialise in the classical/technical ballets in the NYCB repertoire, and my brother is more of a smooth mover, specialising in the jazzy sides of the NYCB repertoire. We both have our little niches, and I think we also inspire each other to excel in what the other is good at. My brother inspires me to travel and move in a compelling way, not just executing the steps properly. And I think that my technical abilities kind of push him to think of himself as a more proficient technician. There is this thing of knowing we share genes, and thinking, wow, if he can do that, maybe I have something in me that can? I know that is the only reason I auditioned for Broadway. I had seen my brother do his workshop for American in Paris, and I thought 'I wonder if I have it in me too?' In that way, we are able to inspire each other to look for sides of our dancing we might have never known existed.

How would you describe the atmosphere at the New York City Ballet?

The atmosphere at NYCB is very down to earth and kind of like one big family. It is a unique company because we all joined from School of American Ballet as apprentices, and have had the same experiences in that way. I think that makes for one big common denominator between us, no one is that different from anyone else in terms of their story of how they got there. And that is unifying. There is lots of laughing, and lots of socialising when we get a chance. We work long hard hours, and we survive by making sure that work is fun. And it truly is. That might be my favourite thing about work, going and getting to be with all of these people that are so similar to me. We understand each other’s sense of humours, and we all have this insane drive and push. We just get each other.

What's another goal or ambition you'd like to fulfil?

Another goal of mine? It’s hard, I have had a lot of success by not making goals, but seizing the opportunities as they presented themselves. I kind of think goal making in this business can set you up for disappointment. The way our careers go is not always how we imagined, because after all, we are cast in our parts that we get. We don’t choose them for ourselves. If I had set certain goals, and then my career went another way, I might not be properly appreciating the kind of success I am having. I think instead it is best to work hard everyday and keep an open mind. Don’t close any doors on your path of ambition, but instead keep them all unlocked, and see who knocks.

Megan Fairchild in George Balanchine's Coppélia. Photo credit Paul Kolnik

Megan Fairchild in George Balanchine's Coppélia. Photo credit Paul Kolnik

What makes you laugh? 

Probably a lot of things. I have a very easy, loud laugh. I laugh at the drop of a hat. I like to laugh a lot at work, it eases the tension and stress that happens when you are trying to perfect something. It is super healthy in this business to have a sense of humour about things. It is hard sometimes on a really tiring day, but I try.

What (if anything) would you change about the dance industry if you could? 

What a fascinating question. I think I would change certain critics. I think ballet critics should be elevating the art form and exciting people to come see the ballet, not putting people down and suggesting that certain shows are not even worth watching. I had a moment in my career where I had to decide either to quit ballet or just stop reading reviews. They were making me so unhappy. Once I was able to not give them any weight, I haven’t looked back. I never read reviews anymore, and it is incredibly liberating. I make sure I am staying on track through feedback from peers, ballet masters, and especially my boss. Other than that, I have learned that what these critics today are doing is their own form of entertainment, that really has nothing to do with me personally, and so I truly have no business reading or buying into their articles. I remember the Kirov came to NYC a couple years ago and I had non-ballet friends that had read the NY Times reviews and decided it wasn’t good enough to go see. When it comes to that kind of critique, you have to ask yourself as a writer, maybe I am going a bit too far. I mean the Kirov for God sakes, what a shame that people think that isn’t worth seeing.

Megan in Jerome Robbins' Dances at a Gathering. Photo credit Paul Kolnik

Megan in Jerome Robbins' Dances at a Gathering. Photo credit Paul Kolnik

Would you describe yourself as a homebody or a social butterfly? 

At work I am a social butterfly, it's hard to shut me up! But when we are not on work hours, I am happy to leave everyone and do my own thing. I have always lived far away from work. I like to have that separation, I find that my emotional happiness depends on it. The literal distance helps me put the work day behind me. I do enjoy a social gathering of intimate friends, but I am not a party person. I think I am too much of a morning person to enjoy myself too much at night. It is always past my bed time. Haha!

Is there a particular move or exercise you always feel at home doing?

Well there are certain ballet steps I love. I absolutely love an enormous Jeté Battu, the kind we do in Ballo della Regina. It fits well on my body. I also love a good cabriole fouetté jump. Not just a jump fouetté, but where you cabriole the legs, and then fouetté up and over that. We do them in Krammy’s company class. Always my favourite.

Megan Fairchild in George Balanchine's Tschaikovsky Pas de Deux. Photo credit Paul Kolnik

Megan Fairchild in George Balanchine's Tschaikovsky Pas de Deux. Photo credit Paul Kolnik

How do you de-stress after a tiring day?

Eat! Drink a glass of wine! Be normal. Don’t talk much about ballet.

Dance is such an incredibly immersive career, what helps you stay passionate, and keep a work/life balance?

I greatly value my 'regular' life. I come from a really normal/down-to-earth family, even though both kids are principal dancers with NYCB. I think my parents instilled in us a lot of normality. My mom wasn’t a stage mom, although now she knows a lot about the business. But growing up I was always told, "If you decide at some point that you don’t want to do this anymore, it’s totally fine. You are always welcome at home.” Even when I was in the company, my mom gave me that out. And so I have been able to do what I do, purely because I want to.

My brother and I try to keep our family traditions going back in NY. We both really try to make sure we properly celebrate Thanksgiving and Christmas together, like we did growing up - since the Nutcracker severely affects holiday family time. We can’t fly home, we kind of work through the holidays, so we have found our own ways to have those same traditions we grew up with.

I also really cherish the friends I made on Broadway. It is wonderful to be able to have outside friendships from the ballet, and until I did Broadway I was stuck in a NYCB bubble. Getting out of that bubble was the best thing that ever happened to me. And outside of ballet life, I really only hang out with my Broadway friends. It gives me balance.

Fairchild performing on Broadway as Ivy Smith in ' On The Town'

Fairchild performing on Broadway as Ivy Smith in 'On The Town'

On a personal level, how would you describe the experience of performing?

Performing is kind of crazy. You work hard on something. And then the show is like a final test. You just really want that performance to be as good as your best rehearsal. So right before you go onstage, there is this, “Ehhhh…. I don’t want to!!!!” moment for me. And then as soon as I am out there, I am at ease, and in my element. It used to be a scary place for me onstage, mostly because I was given really hard ballets at a young age, but after enough experience performing, it has become where I feel truly alive. Because it is a live performance, every moment is unsure, unexpected and precious, and it gives this great importance to each movement that you make.

And finally, do you have any words of advice for aspiring dancers?

Yes! It is hard—but, don’t compare yourself to others. What is unique about you might be what makes you stand out in an interesting way to a director or choreographer. So stop wasting time staring in the mirror and seeing how you measure up to those around you. Put your nose down, and just perfect you! I was always worried about being too short, but it ended up being what promoted me so quickly. A talented short guy needed a partner!

Also, I would say be ready for any opportunity around the corner. Don’t get discouraged because things didn’t work out today, or you didn’t get into a certain school, or whatever. If you let the disappointment of today, creep in to tomorrow, you just missed your next chance at something special. I have seen it happen in the company with people that were hoping to be part of the next group of promotions. And they either leave the company or stop working hard. And if they just kept pushing, they would eventually get there. No one ever knows when their next opportunity will come. You have to be ready to fill in when someone gets injured at a moment’s notice, or accept the offer to audition for a Broadway show. You truly never know! So keep an open mind, and be easy on yourself. Don’t get discouraged! Keep working hard!

Follow Megan on Instagram: @mfairchild17

Header Image by Cole Haan Courtesy of Megan Fairchild.
Interview by Elly Ford.