NEW YORK (NYT NEWS SERVICE).-
The brave part wasnt writing the book.
The brave thing, Georgina Pazcoguin said in an interview, is going to be walking into the rehearsal studio Aug. 3.
Like many ballet dancers these days (or so it seems), Pazcoguin has written a memoir. Hers is not timid. In Swan Dive: The Making of a Rogue Ballerina, this New York City Ballet soloist writes candidly about Peter Martins, the companys former leader she refers to him as her psychological abuser as well as staff members and dancers, including Amar Ramasar, one of the male principals who lost his job after a photo-sharing scandal in 2018 and was later reinstated.
Some of the experiences Pazcoguin relates are disturbing; others are just plain weird. She writes that for years, Ramasar would greet her in class by sidling up close, whispering, You look fine today, eyes locked on my chest, and then hed zero in on the goal at hand by surprise! tweaking my nipples. (In an email, Ramasar said, I flatly deny this allegation; Martins didnt respond to requests for comment.)
She writes about the time repertory director Jean-Pierre Frohlich, rehearsing the dancers in Jerome Robbins The Concert, told them to imagine the beauty of spring and women walking around in tank tops and short dresses, shorts! You know
He paused, she writes, before ending with this crazy bomb: Its amazing more women arent raped these days. (Frohlich said he hadnt read the book and had no comment.)
Pazcoguin, 36, discusses her fraught relationship with Thomas A. Lemanski, the director of rehearsal administration. And the time she tore her ACL, and a greedy little principal ballerina literally whipped out her phone while I lay immobile and texted the ballet master and (the slimiest degree of opportunism) Peter Martins himself to pitch herself for the role.
Its true that Aug. 3 the day City Ballet begins rehearsals for its fall season might be awkward for Pazcoguin. But as she sees it, the real story isnt in the book; its what happens next, both for her personally and for the art form.
The companys first Asian American soloist her father is Filipino, and her mother is Italian she is outspoken about her aim to bring equality to the ballet world. Ballet is at a watershed moment, said Pazcoguin, who with Phil Chan formed Final Bow for Yellowface, which aims to rid ballet of degrading and outdated depictions of Asian people. We can either shift and become relevant, or its going to fade off into the distance. That would be such a failure to me.
When she first pitched a book to agents and publishers, Anthony Bourdains memoir Kitchen Confidential was on her mind. I saw myself in him in a very weird way, she said. How he shook up that world and did it so honestly and coming from a place of love. That part was important to her for her book: I love ballet, and I love this company, and I believe in it 1,000%.
She ended up writing two versions. The first didnt dive into anything, she said. I read it, and I was like, Wow, Gina, what a cop-out, and started again.
The second time, she didnt leave out the painful stories, including the affair she had with a married principal dancer and the surgery she had to remove fat from her thighs after extreme dieting and exercise didnt work. (Sad to say, but surgery was safer than starvation.)
The book laced with expletives is not without humor. It focuses on Pazcoguins time as a student at the City Ballet-affiliated School of American Ballet and in the company, which she joined in 2003. She began writing about three years ago, while Martins was still in charge. In 2018, he resigned from his post amid accusations of sexual harassment and physical and verbal abuse. (He has denied the allegations.)
Swan Dive begins with Pazcoguin being summoned to meet Martins, in 2013. She was certain she was about to be fired. It had been two weeks since theyd had a yelling match of epic proportions, she writes. It ended with me screaming as I ran down the hallway.
She braced herself for fat-shaming (it always came down to her thighs) or being told that she was not fully committed. But the encounter turned out differently: Martins promoted her to soloist, the rank she still holds.
Pazcoguin, to her distress, remains the only female soloist who has not performed the part of the Sugar Plum Fairy in George Balanchines The Nutcracker. As for being promoted to principal dancer? Its their move, she said of the companys current leaders, Jonathan Stafford (artistic director) and Wendy Whelan (associate artistic director). Its not my move. I have not given up on being promoted. I want to still think Im in the running.
One point Pazcoguin makes in Swan Dive is that she has not been considered a classical dancer in terms of her roles, which tend toward the more theatrical and contemporary. (Her portrayal of Anita in Robbins West Side Story Suite, a version of the musical that City Ballet performs, is astonishing.) She said she would love a shot at performing lead roles in Symphony in Three Movements and La Valse, Balanchine ballets with inherent drama.
Im not saying I want to be White Swan, Pazcoguin said, referring to the role of Odette, the princess in Swan Lake. She burst into laughter. I have a good handle on what I could have an interesting spin on, and it might not be whos inhabited it before.
In considering the path her dancing career has taken, Pazcoguin thinks back to when she was a student at the School of American Ballet; it coincided with the attacks of Sept. 11, which left her traumatized. She developed an eating disorder. It was just a way for me to process this grief; it had nothing to do with weight, she said. That messed with my body. It really set it up for me to be a mess for the coming years.
At the time, her poor health led to a stress fracture, which prevented her from performing the lead in Balanchines Ballo della Regina at the schools annual Workshop Performances. Merrill Ashley, the virtuoso ballerina for whom it was made, coached her in it. If she had performed Ballo, would Martins have later cast her in more classical, technical roles? Or worse yet, she said, would I still have the same career?
In an interview, Ashley said she agreed with Pazcoguin that things might have gone differently had she been able to perform Ballo. Her foot was so bad, and Ballo is about the worst ballet you could try and dance with a bad foot, Ashley said.
Pazcoguin now believes that part of the reason she was held back in the company had to do with race. A lot of feedback is presented in a correction, she said. Like, you should correct this. Then you get the off comment, and youre like, what? I cant correct my features. And thats when youre like, what just happened?
If she had said anything at the time, it would have turned out very badly for me, she said, though, in retrospect, she realizes she was having some of those conversations behind the scenes.
One was with Albert Evans, then a ballet master. Evans, just the second Black dancer to become a principal at City Ballet (he died in 2015), recognized that she was in pain. He was like, You just keep working, Pazcoguin said. I see you. I didnt realize we were having a conversation about race, but we were.
She recalled that after Ashley watched her perform in Robbins NY Export/Opus Jazz for the first time, she told her, You have no idea how many people are asking me who the woman with the black hair was, Pazcoguin said. Shes like, You need to get out of here. Hes never going to use you how you should be used.
Ashley said that she didnt remember the Opus Jazz part of the comment but that it didnt surprise her. She does remember talking to Pazcoguin, who had been in the company for a couple of years and wasnt getting very much to dance: She came to me and asked for my advice, and I said, Whats your goal? What kind of dancing do you really want?
She thought that Pazcoguin could be a star on Broadway but that classical ballet was a different story because, I didnt think that she was going to be automatically given classical roles, Ashley said. She would be given things that were more contemporary, more dramatic. I was trying to be upfront with her.
There were many things that were out of Pazcoguins control. I look quite Asian when I have my makeup on, she said. I cant change that. I cant change my body type, my heritage. Im never going to be a waif-thin body type. And so thats where the creation of rogue came.
Sometimes, she added, you just need to embrace what makes you different.
Pazcoguins career has expanded beyond many of her fellow dancers. She took a leave to perform on Broadway in Cats and also appeared on the FX show Fosse/Verdon. In October, she will dance a trio of works originally performed by Gwen Verdon as part of the Verdon Fosse Legacys presentation at the Fall for Dance Festival at City Center.
Pazcoguin, who spent much of the pandemic in Los Angeles, hasnt had an easy time over the past couple of years; leaving New York temporarily helped her focus on her mental health and prepare herself for the publication of her book. I knew that this was going to be the biggest roller coaster ride of my life, she said. Theres no blaming a choreographer. Theres no blaming a director. This is all me.
And as much as it seems like an examination of her workplace, Pazcoguin sees Swan Dive as a deep look at herself as a person and as an artist.
Its a necessary step in trusting myself and the ability that I can be front and center and own it, she said. I can stand here as an Asian American woman, multicultural, and be the queen. And be the rogue ballerina. And be a mess. And be completely put together. I have a narrative thats interesting, and I have something to say, and what I have to say has weight. I can be the leading character.
This article originally appeared in The New York Times