When Ballet West’s Artistic Director Adam Sklute decided to present Swan Lake he immediately knew he would invite America’s most famous tall Ballerina Cynthia Gregory to work with the artists, especially the lead couples.
When I asked Adam ‘Why Cynthia Gregory?” his reply was something like this: Though the heights are indeed varied at Ballet West, we are notorious for being on the tall side and I want America’s most famous tall Ballerina to coach my ballerinas.
The great Cynthia Gregory was very kind in allowing me to ask her a few questions about her career to share with you.
Mark: Who were your first or favorite teachers before you became a professional dancer and throughout your career?
Cynthia: It’s very interesting about my first teachers because in addition to ballet they taught yoga and acting. When I was nine years old I studied with Camelita Marraci in Hollywood. She was very unorthodox and she choreographed her classes, so I learned how to work with a choreographer. All the steps had meaning. San Francisco Ballet, my first professional engagement was a Balanchinesque company but again my teachers especially Lew Christiansen prepared me to tell a story thereby getting me ready for the story ballets I would later dance at American Ballet Theatre.
Mark: Can you recall your feelings upon seeing your first performance of ‘Swan Lake’?
Cynthia: I don’t recall my first viewing of ‘Swan Lake’, but it must have been The Royal Ballet from England. They toured to California a lot in those days. I know I did not see Margot (Fonteyn) in ‘Swan Lake’. I saw her in ‘Ondine’ and ‘Giselle’. But seeing The Royal Ballet in ‘Swan Lake’ was good preparation for the David Blair version I would later dance with American Ballet Theatre.
Mark: Who was your role model for Odette/Odile? Who was your most influential coach?
Cynthia: When I was a young student I saw film of Ulanova in the 2nd act and Plisetskaya in act 3. So I’m sure they were a starting point for me. My coaches were DeMille, Tudor and Robbins. Dancing their works prepared me for story telling. They wanted a dancer to be natural, have the human component that would touch the audience in a real way. My favorite coach of all was Dimitry Romanoff at ABT. Though he was famous for his very strict coaching, he gave me freedom to develop the truth in my roles. From the moment we started working together on my character for ‘Giselle’, I trusted him completely.
Mark: Do you have any stories about your first performance of Odette/Odile?
Cynthia: I found out that I would be dancing the dual role Odette/Odile just two weeks before my first performance. We were in L.A. and Lucia (Chase) called me in to her dressing room, not office, because she was still performing in those days. “Is it your birthday?” she asked. “Sit down dear I have a wonderful birthday gift for you”. I knew the role because I was fifth understudy but I hardly believed I’d be dancing Odette/Odile on that tour so I had worked at it very little. As it turned out there were principal dancer injuries and I was moved up to third cast. Lucia provided opportunities for me to dance the 2nd and 3rd act pas de deux in cities before my premiere but my only run through was not even on stage. We finally got to San Francisco, where many people knew me so I had numerous people in the audience. My family was there. Also many of my former San Francisco Ballet colleagues were in the audience so my first ‘Swan Lake’ was not something I could try out under the radar. It was a matinee. I danced “Two Tall Swans” that night and it was not my birthday.
Mark: Did you have a favorite or ideal partner?
Cynthia: My first Prince Ziegfried was Gayle Young. He was wonderful. But people always said “Cynthia is tall and she is searching for the ideal partner.” I’m happy I never found the one ideal partner because I had so many wonderful partners. Ted Kivett, Ivan Nagy, Jonas Kage, Peter Martins, Rudolf Nureyev, Fernando Bujones. They were all ideal in their own way.
Mark: It is wonderful watching you at work and getting to know you after all these years of being a fan. Thank you Cynthia!
Cynthia: You’re welcome.