It’s easy to see why Kathryn Morgan describes the last year of her life as “a dream.” In 12 months, the New York City Ballet corps dancer went from doe-eyed School of American Ballet grad to critical darling with a major lead in a brand-new full-length ballet.
Last October—a week before the company launched into rehearsals for its winter season—Kathryn, 19, sat down with DS at the New York State Theater to reflect on the whirlwind start to her professional career.
It all began at the 2006 School of American Ballet Workshop Performance—an annual affair that often culminates in company contracts for a select few. “She had that sparkle that stood out completely,” recalls longtime teacher Sean Lavery of Kathryn’s performance in Bourée Fantastique. “She has a quality that is very appealing onstage. It’s fulfilling to watch her.”
A few days later, Co-Chairman of Faculty Kay Mazzo and NYCB Ballet Master in Chief Peter Martins offered Kathryn an apprenticeship. But as chance would have it, Kathryn was chosen for a lot more that summer.
At the end of NYCB’s NYC season, Lavery needed a dancer for the role of Juliet in his Romeo and Juliet pas de deux, scheduled for the company’s summer season at Saratoga. “I wanted someone who was young and naïve but had some imagination—not someone who could just do the steps and wear the dress,” says Lavery. As he looked down the roster, he saw Kathryn’s name as one of the new apprentices. “I thought, I can’t throw this pas de deux at this girl. It’s so early. She doesn’t have experience. But I kept coming back to her.”
Lavery brought his idea to Martins, who gave him the green light. When Lavery gave Kathryn the news, “her eyes popped out of her head,” he recalls. She had one week to review the choreography on videotape. On the first day of rehearsal, Lavery introduced Kathryn to her partner, Tyler Angle. “The pianist started, and she got halfway through it,” says Lavery. “I was sitting there with my mouth hanging open. She had looked at the videotape, and knew it!”
Two weeks later, Kathryn performed the role. “She absolutely pulled it off,” says Lavery. “I thought, this girl’s got guts, she’s got brains and she’s got talent. She’s going to go somewhere.”
From Mobile to Martins
Like many young dancers, Kathryn had dreamed about dancing for a world-renowned professional company. But she knew the moment she saw NYCB’s Nutcracker, at age 8, that this was the company for her. “Everything was fast and exciting,” she says. “I enjoyed watching the corps. In Balanchine ballets, the corps does so much—every person is dancing.”
Kathryn studied at the Mobile Ballet School in her hometown of Mobile, AL, and spent her summers at the Joffrey Ballet School in NYC and at Central Pennsylvania Youth Ballet. She attended the SAB intensive at ages 13 and 15.
After two summers there, she left Mobile permanently to attend SAB’s year-round program. She and her mom currently share an apartment across the street from the State Theater. (Her dad, a dentist, visits every other weekend.)
In February 2007, after only half a season as an apprentice, Kathryn was promoted into the corps de ballet. Martins had been working on his much anticipated full-length Romeo + Juliet since the prior October, so Kathryn had no expectations of being cast in anything out of the ordinary. Then in March, her name appeared on the rehearsal schedule for Juliet! “I was shocked,” she says. “I’d always said to my mom, you know the one thing NYCB doesn’t do is a full-length Romeo and Juliet, and I really wish they would! I grew up listening to the music and pretending I was Juliet.”
Kathryn jumped into rehearsals with Martins right away: “There was no time to soak it in!” The Romeo to her Juliet was Seth Orza, who had already danced with her in Christopher Wheeldon’s Carousel A Dance. (Orza now dances for Pacific Northwest Ballet.)
Unlike the quick pace of rehearsing ballets that have been in the company’s repertory for years, having a ballet choreographed on you is a slow but thrilling process that few novice professionals get. Kathryn and the rest of the cast (which included Tiler Peck, Sterling Hyltin and Erica Pereira as the other Juliets) spent a lot of time developing their characters and discovering how to imbue Martins’ intricate choreography with intent.
Playing Juliet is no easy task, especially considering how many famous ballerinas have portrayed her over the years. “I tried to be myself in the part so it was more natural,” Kathryn says of her interpretation. “I tried to show each emotion in each scene, how she changes from the innocent girl to the emotionally distraught girl who ends up killing herself.”
Her interpretation rang true for the critics. She danced with “a remarkable blend of bloom, spontaneity and rapture,” said Alastair Macaulay in The New York Times. “Ultimately, you want to please the audience,” Kathryn says of the feedback. “Reviews help you see how you’re touching them and how you’re coming across.”
The critics aren’t the only ones singing her praises. “The way she dances is rich, full and lush,” says Lavery. “She doesn’t look like a delicate kid anymore. She’s a beautiful dancer with a maturity that’s amazing for her age.”
Kathryn, meanwhile, remains focused on her future, especially happy to tackle the numerous ballets on the lineup this season that she’s never performed. Her number-one goal is to build strength and improve how she articulates her feet.
So what has she learned from her first season? “This is so hard, but don’t compare yourself to anyone else,” she says. “Everyone is different. You might see someone and say, ‘Oh, they have beautiful feet’ or ‘Oh, they have beautiful legs,’ but focus on your strength and what you need to work on.”
Want to see Kathryn perform? She’ll be at the New York State Theater during NYCB’s winter season, starting January 3. For more: nycb.org