Farewell to a ballerina with Borscht Belt humor and 'Legs of Life'

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Farewell to a ballerina with Borscht Belt humor and 'Legs of Life'
The ballerina Maria Kowroski of the New York City Ballet at the Lincoln Center, Oct. 12, 2021. Kowroski, the reigning principal of New York City Ballet and the last company member to have worked with Jerome Robbins, takes her final bow. Celeste Sloman/The New York Times.

by Gia Kourlas

NEW YORK, NY.- Maria Kowroski is a ballerina nearing the finish line. She is also a ballerina who laughs even when she’s in pain — and as her dancing days wind down, she is in pain.

Her dazzling body, known for its tremendous length and flexibility, has graced much of New York City Ballet’s most challenging repertory for more than 25 years. But now, in her final season, it’s letting her down. She is dealing with an unstable ankle, her neck is acting up and her knees hurt. That’s new. Sometimes she feels like she’s crawling up a ladder.

“I was petting my knee the other day like, ‘You’re OK,’” she said. “I feel like a crazy person.”

Her physical therapist sent her an article about how knees symbolize transition. That brings her comfort. On Sunday, the last day of City Ballet’s fall season, Kowroski, 45, will give her farewell performance, an occasion marking both the end of her performing career and the end of an era.

She is the last dancer to have worked with choreographer Jerome Robbins, whose classical home, at the invitation of George Balanchine, was City Ballet. One reason she decided to dance Robbins’ “Glass Pieces” this season — with a crystalline brilliance — is because he complimented her after a performance.

“He was like, ‘You know, you’re really good in that ballet,’” Kowroski said. “And he didn’t say very much, so I felt like, Huh. OK.”

Much of the dance world was turned upside down because of the pandemic; for Kowroski, it upended her plans to exit on her own terms.

“I think what was hard is that I got injured right before the pandemic,” she said. “It was in December of 2019, so I was supposed to come back for the spring and then I was going to retire in the winter.”

When both the winter and following spring seasons were canceled, she came up with a new plan: to retire this fall. But staying in shape throughout the last year and a half has been difficult. Her 2019 injury, a partial tear to her Achilles tendon, took 12 weeks to heal. And then came the pandemic.

Kowroski’s limbs are long. At around 5 feet 8 inches tall — she’s not exactly sure at this point — she had trouble taking ballet class in her kitchen.

“The floors were awful for my injury,” she said. “I kept having setbacks. It was a very frustrating process, just the challenges of trying to keep yourself motivated.”

It helped knowing she wasn’t the only dancer going through it.

“And look, I’ve had a long career,” she said. “Not everything works out the way you want it to work out. That’s what this year taught us.”

Until recently her farewell program has been in flux, but she decided on the opening and pas de deux from Balanchine’s “Chaconne,” an excerpt from Christopher Wheeldon’s “DGV: Danse à Grande Vitesse” and Mauro Bigonzetti’s pas de deux “Amaria,” created this season. She was never in doubt about how to end it: with Balanchine’s “Slaughter on Tenth Avenue,” originally choreographed in 1936 for the musical “On Your Toes.” (In 1968, he remade it for Suzanne Farrell and Arthur Mitchell.)

Kowroski plays the Stripper; Tyler Angle, her frequent partner, will play the Hoofer. It’s a ballet that takes advantage of her many gifts, notably her playful glamour and flair for humor.

“She’s like a borscht belt comedian,” Angle said.

One reason she’s so impressive in “Slaughter,” Angle said, is because “she has that vaudeville theatricality, which is all over the top, dry, deadpan. She just can do it. Her comic timing hits at the right time and in the right ways.”

Kowroski loves jumping into the character and not having to worry about anything but enjoying herself.

“I want to end on a high note,” she said. “It makes me happy.”

And who doesn’t want another chance to see her legs slice through “Slaughter” one last time? Wendy Whelan, associate artistic director of City Ballet, remembers the first time she saw Kowroski — and those legs. Then a student at the City Ballet-affiliated School of American Ballet, Kowroski was at a bank across the street from Lincoln Center.

“She was at the cash machine and I just saw the legs of life,” Whelan said. “I thought I was going to die. I was like, who is this girl? I didn’t know anything about her. I just thought, Oh, my God. Wow. Wow. And then she gets in the company, I’m like, Oh, that’s that girl.”

Kowroski, born in Grand Rapids, Michigan, had a rapid ascent at City Ballet after joining in 1995. Just four years later, she was named principal. While still a dancer in the corps de ballet, she was cast in Balanchine works like “Prodigal Son” and “Apollo.” Whelan, an experienced dancer, was cast in “Apollo” as Polyhymnia, one of three muses who visits the young god (a “side girl,” Whelan called her). Kowroski was to make her debut as Terpsichore.

“It was a principal, me; a soloist, Diana White; and then this baby corps girl, Maria, who’s like the queen of the ballet,” Whelan said. “But Maria could not have been more humble. She looked at us both, and she’s like, ‘I can’t tell you how awkward this is for me. I’m really uncomfortable, and I just feel like I shouldn’t be here.’”

Witnessing Kowroski’s humility was everything.

“She knew right away that it would be a challenge for us to dance next to her,” Whelan said. “All guards went down and I was like, I love you for the rest of my life. I just knew it. There’s no diva in there.”

At the time, Kowroski was overwhelmed.

“You can’t even be present almost because it was just so much and I was so tired and also doing my corps ballets as well,” she said. “And just trying to feel like I hope everyone doesn’t hate me. Because that was also hard. You’re getting to do these leads that everybody wants to do.”

An injury allowed her to step back and process what had happened, to help her come to terms with her quick success; she also began studying with Wilhelm Burmann, a master teacher, whom she credits with helping her “figure out how to navigate what I have,” she said, “all the hyperextension and the big feet and trying to move fast.”

A strong influence on her career has been Christopher Wheeldon, a former City Ballet dancer and its first resident choreographer, who created three works with her at the company and cast her in many of his ballets.

“There’s a regal kind of coolness to Maria that I’ve always found incredibly appealing,” he said. “She has always had this sort of slightly removed, mysterious quality that kind of makes you lean forward a little bit.”

The death of Kowroski’s mother, in 2005, ushered in a difficult period for her. She began questioning her place at City Ballet yet was unsure of whether — or where — to make a move. While still dancing with City Ballet, she joined Morphoses, Wheeldon’s newly formed company, and was revitalized.

“It definitely reawakened something that I think was missing from inside for a few years,” she said. “Because it’s not easy to stay in a company for as long as I have. You have to keep reinventing yourself, and new people are coming in and getting exposure, and then you’re like, OK, am I in the past now?”

In 2008, on tour with the company in Vail, Colorado, she met her husband, Martin Harvey, an actor and dancer who was a member of Morphoses, too.

Their first time dancing together was in a pas de deux called “Je Ne T’Aime Pas,” and it required drama — more than Kowroski was used to.

“He was pushing me really out of my comfort zone,” she said. “During the whole rehearsal process, I was kind of like, who is this man? Why is he being so crazy? Why is everything going wrong? Why can’t we do anything? But he was trying to really get me to do more.”

Kowroski and her family — she and Harvey have a son, who at this point in his 5-year-old existence clearly needs a yard — will be relocating to New Jersey. But her ballet days are not behind her. On Nov. 8, Kowroski will start her next job, as acting artistic director of New Jersey Ballet.

She’s excited to begin. “It’s a small company, and I’m totally fine with that because I have always felt drawn to a more family-orientated company,” Kowroski said. “It’s all new to me.”

But first comes her farewell, the culmination of a rough year and a half.

“I had moments where I was really down and out,” she said. “I cried a lot this past year. I think it’s also part of the grieving process of knowing that it’s the end. The most important thing to me is having the closure.”

In the second week of the fall season, she said: “It hit me. I was like, OK, this is it. This is my final moment.”

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

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