A 'rogue ballerina' gives a candid account of ballet culture
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A 'rogue ballerina' gives a candid account of ballet culture
Georgina Pazcoguin at the David Koch Theater in New York, July 2, 2021. Pazcoguin, a New York City Ballet soloist, has written a page-turner of a memoir. Heather Sten/The New York Times.

by Gia Kourlas

NEW YORK (NYT NEWS SERVICE).- The brave part wasn’t 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 company’s 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 he’d zero in on the goal at hand by — surprise! — tweaking my nipples.” (In an email, Ramasar said, “I flatly deny this allegation”; Martins didn’t 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: ‘It’s amazing more women aren’t raped these days.’” (Frohlich said he hadn’t 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.”

It’s 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 isn’t in the book; it’s what happens next, both for her personally and for the art form.

The company’s 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 it’s 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 Bourdain’s 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 “didn’t 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 didn’t 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 didn’t work. (Sad to say, but surgery was safer than starvation.)

The book — laced with expletives — is not without humor. It focuses on Pazcoguin’s 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 they’d 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 Balanchine’s The Nutcracker.” As for being promoted to principal dancer? “It’s their move,” she said of the company’s current leaders, Jonathan Stafford (artistic director) and Wendy Whelan (associate artistic director). “It’s not my move. I have not given up on being promoted. I want to still think I’m 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.

“I’m 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 who’s 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 Balanchine’s “Ballo della Regina” at the school’s 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 you’re like, what? I can’t correct my features. And that’s when you’re 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 didn’t 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. “She’s like, ‘You need to get out of here. He’s never going to use you how you should be used.’”

Ashley said that she didn’t remember the “Opus Jazz” part of the comment but that it didn’t surprise her. She does remember talking to Pazcoguin, who had been in the company for a couple of years and wasn’t getting very much to dance: “She came to me and asked for my advice, and I said, ‘What’s 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 didn’t 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 Pazcoguin’s control. “I look quite Asian when I have my makeup on,” she said. “I can’t change that. I can’t change my body type, my heritage. I’m never going to be a waif-thin body type. And so that’s where the creation of ‘rogue’ came.

“Sometimes,” she added, “you just need to embrace what makes you different.”

Pazcoguin’s 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 Legacy’s presentation at the Fall for Dance Festival at City Center.

Pazcoguin, who spent much of the pandemic in Los Angeles, hasn’t 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. “There’s no blaming a choreographer. There’s 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.

“It’s 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 that’s 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.

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