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Retiring From Ballet Theater, a Dancer Gets What She Needs

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Why do some dancers rise in a ballet company while others become stuck?

At American Ballet Theater, Melanie Hamrick seemed to be on the path to becoming a leading ballerina. A gracious, willowy dancer, Ms. Hamrick’s combination of line, warmth and a rare kind of transcendent beauty — it always reminded me of Julie Kent, a former Ballet Theater star — made her the kind of dancer you’d want to see as Juliet, say, or Giselle.

Early on, Ms. Hamrick, who started studying ballet as a child in Williamsburg, Va., danced prominent roles in “Apollo” and “Les Sylphides,” but gradually her debuts started to peter out. Ms. Hamrick said that Victor Barbee, the company’s former associate artistic director, used to tell her, “‘You’re just the best corps dancer we’ve ever had.’

“I was like, is that a good thing or a bad thing?” she continued. “Is that holding me back?”

Now after 15 years as a member of the corps de ballet, Ms. Hamrick has decided this fall season will be her final one with Ballet Theater. Her final performances — in “Apollo” last Sunday afternoon and as a demi-soloist in “Theme and Variations” on Tuesday and Saturday are in ballets by George Balanchine. It’s fitting: As a dancer, she is sleek, musical and in possession of a great jump. “I love the feeling of ‘Apollo,’” she said. “It feels like coming home. It feels natural.”

One afternoon, before Ballet Theater’s fall season at Lincoln Center, Ms. Hamrick showed how true that was as she prepared in the studio for Calliope, a role she has danced before in “Apollo.”

Two other dancers learning the part were following along. As the steps came back to Ms. Hamrick, 33, she used her elegant limbs extravagantly to cover space. “It’s so musical,” she said, rosy-cheeked and panting.

“I feel if she wasn’t there,” said the soloist Cassandra Trenary pointing to Ms. Hamrick, “I wouldn’t have a clue.”

During a break in between rehearsals at a cafe near the company’s Lower Broadway studios, she recalled her first performance of “Theme” — specifically, the moment right before the show when she discovered that her dressing-room spot had been decorated with gifts and notes that said things like, “You can do it!”

She had only been in the company for a couple of months. “I thought everyone hated me,” she said. “To see my spot decorated and so much love — just from the beginning, it was really special. That is hard to leave.”

But Ms. Hamrick’s life has changed. She has a son, Devereaux, 2, with her partner, Mick Jagger. She also wants to pursue choreography, which she explored earlier this year when she and Joanna DeFelice, her friend and creative partner, produced “Porte Rouge,” set to music by the Rolling Stones. That experience, she said, allowed her to shed some of her fears.

“I got all this confidence that I wish I had had during my years at A.B.T.,” Ms. Hamrick said. “I had a really great season last spring: I felt like this is who I am as a dancer. This is my style. Before, I felt like I was always just trying to make everyone happy.”

She also wants to keep dancing — but in a more contemporary vein.

In a recent interview, Ms. Hamrick discussed the ups and downs of her career, the importance of the corps de ballet and a spectacular spill she took — with young Dev — at a Rolling Stones show. Here are edited excerpts.

Why did you decide to stop now?

It feels time to close this chapter and open the next. The schedule of A.B.T. is great, but it’s hard when you have a child and the life I have now. I feel like superwoman some days, and other days I feel like I’m head above water just phoning in being a dancer — coming to rehearsal and not being my best. That’s not fair. I love it. But sometimes my head is not there. And I’ve done enough “Swan Lakes.” It’s O.K.

When you were starting out in A.B.T., you had real promise, but you didn’t rise beyond the corps de ballet. What happened?

I don’t think I realized what I had to offer. I was constantly, When am I going to mess up? Everyone was saying, “She’s a ballerina, she’s so amazing” and praising me, and I didn’t understand why or what I had done.

I was so hard on myself. I was nervous all the time. I was so nervous to walk into the studio even. I still enjoyed all the shows, because when you get onstage it’s great, but I didn’t feel comfortable in my skin. My father got ill. It was awful.

Did you get to spend time with him?

I was going home every other weekend to see him and sleeping in the hospital and coming back here and trying to work. I was tired and sad and not dancing well. After that, my mind switched. I was like, I want my family first, and I’ve kept that.

Did you talk to the artistic staff about your place in the company?

Yeah, we had chats, and it’s always positive. And I’m inconsistent. If I have a rough day, a tiring day outside, it’s hard for me not to bring it to the studio and then my work isn’t very good. People have been promoted and it’s politics. I’m not so good with that. I just say what I think. So I feel it’s all of those combinations.

Does your son dance?

He dances a ton. I don’t have him in classes yet. He plays the ukulele and he makes up songs. He’s got the gene. Definitely. I really want him to take tap. For a little boy to make some noise with his feet? He loves music classes. I’m a little bit like [whispers], “Did you see that? He’s picking up the guitar.” [Laughs]

He loves going onstage. I brought him onstage for one of Mick’s concerts before they opened the door. They had a few people in. I was like: “Let’s go down the ramp — no one’s here. Let’s run!” And the two of us were running down the ramp and he tripped and I tripped and we both face planted and rolled over, and there were more people there than I thought.

Did people film it?

They did, but no one posted it. I’m supposed to be a professional dancer and I’m out there rolling with my son. I was like, this is going to be a horr-ible video. I was cringing. I grabbed Dev and we ran off the stage. I warned Mick, though. I was like, “This is what happened. I’m so sorry, there’s a video.”

Are you developing “Porte Rouge”?

I’m creating a new show that’s going to be a rock-dance festival. I want people to get excited about coming to the theater. I want you to feel that feeling when you leave a concert. Mick inspired me. After his concert, you’re awake for hours wanting to dance.

What are your weeks like?

This weekend, I went to London. I came back last night and then I got up and brought Dev to school this morning and then I’m here at work. Why don’t I just calm down? Kevin McKenzie [Ballet Theater’s artistic director] and I have always had a great working relationship. I’m like, “I’m sorry — I’ve taken three long weekends in a row.”

What does he say?

He’s like: “I understand, but — try not to. Be at work.” He understands that I struggle with the pull. He let me finish with “Apollo.” Sometimes in the corps, you’ve spent all of these years dancing, but you don’t get a very nice goodbye. I feel he’s really giving me one.

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