On Leaving the Life of the Body: A Dancer Reports

It is one of my last ballet classes as a professional dancer. Halfway through barre we do rond de jambes — an exercise in which you paint half circles on the floor with your toes. The teacher, Gonzalo Garcia, sets a combination that sweeps back and forth as we transfer our weight from one foot to the next, our arms swinging to amplify our movements.

Extending through to the tips of my fingers and reaching my legs long I feel expansive. It’s not exactly that I feel free — I am doing a prescribed exercise, holding onto a wooden bar — but the stretch of my body and the rumbling swells of the music create a sense of rightness and liberation. I feel present and energized, my body alive. The pleasure of this moment is a relief; it’s a sensation I am forever pursuing, because at the best of times dancing can make me feel whole and wholly myself.

On Sunday, I will retire from New York City Ballet after 16 years with the company. I have spent over a year preparing myself, and I am ready. But I know that I am about to give up one of my primary ways of being me.

My specific physical capabilities — the particular functioning of my muscles, joints, bones and tendons — have been essential to my livelihood. And to my happiness, too, because in moments of alignment and control my body is not just the vessel for my self-expression, it is the expression itself.

So I wonder: Who will I be when my body is no longer shaped by turning out and jumping and lifting? What will I like to do when I don’t have to save my back or my calves or my feet for the next night, the next week, the next month? And how will I feel after these final shows: Like I’m getting my body back, or like I’m losing it?

Janzen with Sara Mearns in “Diamonds,” part of George Balanchine’s “Jewels.” Janzen will perform the principal role in his final performance.Credit…Erin Baiano

In spring 2019, I danced the central duet in Justin Peck’s “Rodeo” for the first time. The debut came at one of these sweet spots in my career: I was dancing the way I had always wanted to dance. I wasn’t doing everything perfectly, I still had nerves — and I can’t speak to how I looked — but I felt in control in a way I never had before. I just felt good in my body. Settled.

In the first performance, my partner Sara Mearns and I walked out onstage, and when the music started it was slower than we had rehearsed. Much slower. Sara gave me a look like, “Oh, boy.” That look was both an eye roll aimed at the conductor and an invitation to meet the challenge he had set for us. I smiled at Sara as if we weren’t in front of thousands of people and pushed her into the air, higher than we’d practiced — and then I launched myself after her and we danced.

But it didn’t feel like dancing. It felt like living, in a heightened, intoxicating way. It felt like we were the music, and the dance. We were ourselves in the most essential and simple way but also we were something more, something bigger. We were dancing. And I don’t mean that as a verb; I mean it as a noun. We were all that dancing could be in that moment, to that music, on that stage.

Of course we were also wearing lots of makeup and we were sweating and trying to point our feet and stand tall, and I was trying to keep her on balance and she was trying to hold up her leg. But we were not thinking about this trying, we were just being, and it felt so right.

Throughout my career there have been many moments like this, when how I feel in my body makes my dancing seem inseparable from myself. Sometimes these moments are brief, lasting just one entrance or one class, other times I can hold onto the feeling for weeks.

Credit…Jingyu Lin for The New York Times

As dancers, we become our bodies, in ways both gratifying and reductive. We always deal with pain and tightness — navigating physical limitations is a part of this art form — but when muscles cooperate, and choreography feels natural, even grappling with the body’s capabilities offers rewards.

This intense relationship with my physicality has been fulfilling, a gift. And yet being tied to my body in this way has also been restrictive and often disappointing.

I spent my first six years with the company cycling through career-pausing injuries, never staying healthy long enough to gain much momentum. At a certain point my body became more manageable and I gained traction in my career — dancing bigger roles, being promoted to soloist, then principal.

But the injuries continued: a tear in my shoulder, a sticky rib, a trouble spot in my spine that persists, ankle sprains, back spasms. Ballet is punishing on most every body, but at 6-foot-3 I am not compact. My height and length can look impressive onstage, but my body doesn’t always absorb the impact of dancing and partnering well, making me — and my spine especially — susceptible to injury and strain.

It’s thanks to a fleet of physical therapists and movement specialists that I danced as much as I did. I spent hours each day doing exercises, taking preventive measures to protect my back and prepare my body for what I had to do each night. In order for me to dance, my body — its needs, aches and peculiarities — dictated everything: how long I sat, how I slept, how I traveled, how I dated, how I spent time with my family, how I relaxed, how I lived.

Relying on my body in the way I’ve needed to has meant sacrifices and pain. Sacrifices and pain that were frustrating but worth it because of onstage experiences like “Rodeo,” because I got to dance ballets I always dreamed of dancing: Jerome Robbins’s “Dances at a Gathering”; George Balanchine’s “Agon,” “Swan Lake,” “Diamonds.” And because of the dancers with whom I shared the stage.

Since late fall of 2019 I have had two new injuries — one in my ankle and one in my knee — that again kept me from ballet. Now that my dancing body has been going for decades, the recoveries have been challenging. I’m 34; healing takes longer than when I was 19, and when I am deemed ready to go back onstage my body doesn’t feel like it did before. I’m told it likely won’t again.

Martha Graham famously said that a dancer dies twice, the first time when they stop dancing — when the body can no longer do what it once did. It’s this first death, she said, that is more difficult.

And this is where I am now. No longer able to do what I once did.

With the latest injury, a patellar tear, I chose to dance until it proved too painful and so had months to prepare myself for the time off. I made plans, I gave myself projects, I had a loving support system. And yet while I was healing there was a part of me that felt like I was waiting for my life to restart. So much of my life as a dancer has been spent waiting to live, biding time or saving myself for when I am out onstage again dancing. Waiting for my body to once again be able to do what I need it to do to feel like me.

I have had enough rewarding shows in the last year to know that I could continue dancing — shift how I approach the work and find new meaning in a more limited repertoire. But I’m ready to stop. I am ready to pay attention to something new, to reorient my relationship to myself and to those around me. My body, my dancing body, has been the part of me I have prioritized above all else for over 16 years — the part to which I have given the most attention and care. And I don’t want to pay attention to my body in this way anymore, with my physicality and ever-increasing limitations dictating how I live both onstage and off.

There is much loss in this first death. I will not diminish the grief and sadness of this time, but as I’m nearing the final moments of my dance career I’m also thinking about how this ending means I get to have another life, one with different kinds of freedom.

After finishing dancing I plan to pursue a degree in social work. I don’t have much of a sense of what this will look like or where it will lead me, but I know that it will offer me an entirely different framework through which I might understand and experience the world. Rather than narrowing in again on something specific, my hope is that this will be a time of exploration, an opening up of possibilities.

“As dancers, we become our bodies, in ways both gratifying and reductive.”Credit…Jingyu Lin for The New York Times

As I am writing this, I have three remaining performances including my retirement show. I’ll be dancing “Diamonds” in Balanchine’s “Jewels,” a ballet that has taken me through my entire career. It was my first ballet with the company (aside from “TheNutcracker”). And in 2014 the principal role, which I’ll be retiring with, was one of my first really major parts.

“Diamonds” ends in an epic display of grandiosity and classicism. Thirty-six dancers move in shifting patterns — turning, jumping, and polonaising around the stage. In one of the last moments the entire cast moves in unison. All the dancers unfurl a leg into an extended line in front of them, foot pointed and rotated, displayed for the audience: Look at our feet and our legs, look at these bodies of ours. Watch us dance and see how this life, our dedication, and our passion has shaped us.

On Sunday, while my back might be tight, and my knee might not bend as pliantly as it once did, my body won’t be failing me. This is my body now, after 16 years dancing the greatest ballets. In these last shows I will get to support a treasured partner, dance with people I’ve known for much of my life, and propel myself into the air and around the stage. I will get to be in my body, in whatever state it is in, in a way that I love, using it to take me through the contours and shapes of one of my favorite dances. Then the curtain will come down, and I will move on to something new.

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