There was a point, while Cassandra TrenaryJuliet’s debut last summer at American Ballet Theatre, when it became easy to forget she was performing the role at all. She just was Juliet: furious, despondent, at her wit’s end.
It was wildly raw and vulnerably human. And after she stabbed herself in the final moments of the ballet, she died with shocking suddenness. Typically, in Kenneth MacMillan’s production of “Romeo and Juliet”, that moment is drawn out, where Juliet deeply arches her back in a cambré derrière over the grave. Trenary simply collapsed, her body deflated and broken. Better than graceful, it was gorgeous.
Trenary, a 29-year-old principal dancer with Ballet Theatre, is on a mission to be authentic — to make it seem like, as she put it, “life is unfolding before you through this vocabulary that’s very disparate.”
That approach lends a modern sensibility to her roles, many of which have been passed down through generations. For her first “Romeo and Juliet,” a classic she’ll revisit this month during the Metropolitan Opera Ballet Theater season, she imagined: What if it was a movie and not a ballet?
“Maybe it was — I mean, I don’t know, I didn’t see it — a little bit stripped,” Trenary said. “Now I’m trying to find a balance between being the most human and the most stripped down and keeping it as a classical ballet. That’s an interesting fight for me.”
Trenary was named principal dancer in 2020, when theaters were still closed. Returning to the stage was a process: she became a more fully formed person during the pandemic, she said, but when it came to classical ballet, “a lot of fear and self-doubt started to creep in, mostly in my technical skills. .”
“And I felt like I had such a fire under me,” Trenary said. “How can I make these stories resonate with me? How can I believe and personalize the stories I tell on stage and acknowledge that there is cultural appropriation strewn throughout this art form and that there is a lack of representation?”
During the shutdown, Trenary, who grew up studying dance in Lawrenceville, Ga., found ways to be creative. She has choreographed herself and performed in projects outside of the ballet world, including Molissa Fenley’s “State of Darkness,” a digital project at the Joyce Theater in Manhattan. In the midst of this, in 2020, Trenary and her husband, Gray Davis, a former Ballet Theater dancer, ended their marriage. “He was ready to move on, and I had just arrived,” she said of their artistic paths.
She found herself questioning everything. “Who am I when I don’t have the ABT identity?” Trenary said. “And what do I want from my life? What else do I have to offer?”
Through the pandemic and her separation, she said, “I found myself leaning into these very different creative projects that introduced me to different kinds of artists and inspired me to want to ask more questions as I returned to ballet.”
This season, she feels more confident as a dancer. Ballet Theater also aims to show her: She opened the company’s engagement at the Met dancing Tita, a leading role in “Like Water for Chocolate” by Christopher Wheeldon in June, and she closes the season with “Romeo and Juliet,” opposite Herman Cornejo, July 22nd.
Susan Jaffe, Ballet Theatre’s artistic director and longtime former principal, said she admired Trenary’s intelligence.
“She approaches her characters analytically,” Jaffe added. “Not to be analytical to the point that you can’t move; she needs to really connect the dots and feel that they are authentic to her. But what’s also so beautiful about it is that when she’s fully moving, when she’s working on something or dancing in rehearsal, it’s in every pore of her body. She can embody the emotion of a character through every limb. It’s not just in the face. It’s in the whole body.”
Trenary feels stronger this season in part because of her experience working with choreographer Twyla Tharp at New York Center last fall with an all-star group from various companies and dance backgrounds.
“She had this belief in all of us that helped us believe in ourselves,” Trenary said of Tharp. “When you feel encouraged to really let go of everything, you feel free and you feel like there are no wrong decisions. The goal was to keep exploring. I think we all got stronger. I miss her a lot, and I miss that group. “
To accommodate the dancers’ varied schedules, rehearsals included 10 am runs of the program, which raised Trenary’s technique and stamina. Just after these performances, she made her debut in Frederick Ashton’s “The Dream” at Ballet Theatre. She felt in control of the situation because she danced a lot; feisty and exuberant, she was a vision.
Trenary joined Ballet Theater in 2011 and was promoted to soloist four years later. Now as a principal, she navigates her career at a company undergoing many changes. Last year, Jaffe took on the role of artistic director, and it was recently announced that she will take over as the company’s interim executive director after Janet Rollé, Ballet Theatre’s chief executive and managing director, abruptly resigned.
And Alexei Ratmansky, the company’s former artist in residence who was instrumental in shaping Trenary’s career, moved to New York City Ballet. “He was my champion and is someone who really fueled my desire to just do ballet really intentionally,” she said. “I’m also very excited to see what he does at City Ballet because they do his movement so well, like, so well I think it’s going to create a really incredible body of work.”
As for Ballet Theatre’s change in artistic leadership, Trenary said it’s too early to say what it will bring, but that she’s enjoyed her time in the studio with Jaffe so far. “I appreciate that she literally knows what it’s like to be in my shoes, pun intended,” Trenary said. “I didn’t know how much I needed that from the top position at ABT”
Earlier this year, while dancing the first act of “Giselle” with Ballet Theater in Lincoln, Neb., Trenary fumbled his jumps. In her dressing room, she was excited. “I was so embarrassed and disappointed in myself,” she said. Then she heard a knock on the door: Jaffe, along with Irina Kolpakova, the esteemed principal repetiteur at the Ballet Theatre, was there to tell her how beautiful her performance was.
“I was like, ‘What?'” Trenary recalled. “I was like, ‘No, no, no, no, no, no,’ and then the tears started coming, and I said, ‘I’m so sorry. I’m very sorry. I felt like I had it, and then I didn’t.’ And she was like: ‘The oops? It’s just a coordination thing. We will work on it. It’s not a big deal.’”
Instead, she recalled Jaffe telling her, “‘If you did a perfect variation and didn’t have a good performance, I feel sorry for you.'” That moment, Trenary added, “says a lot about who she is as a person and a director. So for that, I’m excited.”
As Trenary prepares to dance Juliet again at the Met, her head has been filled with the memory of another ballerina: Lynn Seymour, the dramatic Royal Ballet star on whom MacMillan created the role. She died in March. In 2019, upon hearing that she would be cast as Juliet, Trenary traveled to London to work with the Royal Ballet, and she wanted to meet Seymour.
In an email exchange, Seymour told Trenary that she didn’t know how much she could help; her eyesight was poor, and she rarely left her house. But after Seymour invited her for coffee, they spent two weeks together.
“Some days it would be 85 percent ‘Romeo and Juliet,’ and she’d be standing in her bedroom showing moments from the potion scene,” Trenary said. “At the end of the trip, she said, ‘Okay, I think we should go into the studio. I think I’m ready.'”
As they mapped out different scenes in the ballet, Trenary learned that there were differences between the way the role was taught in Ballet Theater and the way Seymour experienced it with MacMillan. “Of course, with time and with Kenneth coming to ABT and restoring it, things change,” Trenary said.
Seymour was perplexed by the way Juliet died in the Ballet Theater production. She told Trenary that it was too nice that all the dancers in her day did something different with each performance as long as the die landed on the right count.
Now, Trenary is searching – as usual – and trying to find a way to convey that spontaneity and honesty while striking that last arch pose. It’s part of what Seymour instilled in her about artistic freedom, about having the ability to be exactly where you are in the moment.
“I felt very seen by her,” Trenary said. “I noted that she let me know that it’s okay to worry an embarrassing amount. Because I do.”