Ballet Born

Former NYCB Principal Lauren Lovette takes inspiration from the American Dream (and her own) on a World-Premiere for Nevada Ballet Theatre

by Michelle St. Angelo
January 18, 2022

Before she discovered her knack for choreographing, before she became a Principal Dancer at New York City Ballet, and long before she made headlines as one of the youngest stars to retire from the world-renowned company, Lauren Lovette was a ten-year-old girl playing in her aunt’s dance shop and dreaming of being a performer.

“I knew I wanted to be a ballerina,” she dotes, with her alluring combination of grace and assuredness. But a career in performing was unlikely for a shy young girl born in California and raised in North Carolina by a conservative family of humble means.  Somehow, a ballerina she became. “My path was extraordinary,” Lovette shares. “My parents didn’t have a lot of money growing up. Someone saw my feet, saw my body, and gave me free classes… and I was always on full scholarship as a student.”

Almost immediately after being discovered, Lovette was whisked away by the ballet world, her natural talent and fierce dedication ushering her to the top. She began studying at the School of American Ballet at age 14, earned an apprenticeship at New York City Ballet by age 18 and climbed the ranks until becoming a principal dancer at age 23. Trained in the lineage of Balanchine, Lovette has danced some of the industry’s most coveted titles from Swan Lake to Serenade. The New York Times has hailed her as “a radiant presence at City Ballet” and called her style “lush” and “versatile”.

It seemed she had stepped into every little girl’s dream: A path that was both destined and earned. But a nagging feeling of misalignment plagued her.  While dancing felt right to Lovette, being on stage was often difficult as she has been known to suffer from horrible stage fright. “It was so meant to be and I knew that. But I didn’t feel cut out for this career at all. Everything about my anatomy, my emotionality just didn’t fit.”

Luckily, more than thirteen years prior she signed up for a choreographic workshop, on a dare of sorts. “I only did it because I read a book that said ‘do something scary everyday’.” Lovette’s mentors immediately noticed her aptitude, though it took her some time to recognize it in herself.  Soon after her first piece was staged, NYCB’s then-artistic director began a years-long quest to turn Lovette on to choreographing. It took several projects and a few ups and downs, both from critics and peers, before Lovette caught the choreographic bug. And certainly, the pandemic-forced performance break caused Lovette to reevaluate her next steps. Finally, in spring 2021 she stunned the dance world by announcing her retirement from City Ballet to pursue new artistic endeavors. She was only 29 at the time, and in the prime of her performing career.

When I met Lovette in November of 2021, she was stepping into her new venture, creating a world-premiere on the dancers of Nevada Ballet Theatre. The piece marks her first commission since retirement, and fifteenth work of choreography overall. Executive Director and CEO Beth Barbre, and Artistic Director Roy Kaiser — who were among the industry giants keeping a close eye on Lovette — selected her in a demonstration of NBT’s cultural leadership. Investing in the evolution of ballet with pieces created by vibrant, up-and-coming voices — especially female ones — is a main focal point for the company.  “New works are critical,” Kaiser says, “because they create a unique artistic identity for us at Nevada Ballet Theatre. Plus, they feed the creative soul of our dancers.”

Lovette echoes this sentiment. “My favorite moments as a dancer were the ones that were made on me. I didn’t have to be anyone else or do it like anyone else… so that’s what I like to do.”

Indeed, she does. In the studio, Lovette sets all of her movements live in the present moment, rather than pre-planning the steps. She’s fascinated by how each dancer portrays movement differently and gains inspiration from their one-of-a-kind qualities. “There is no dancer that’s the same as another dancer,” she explains. “It’s this conversation that keeps happening between me and the dancers. You won’t just see me, or see them, you will see us together.”

The work, Back When, follows a group of pioneers as they embark upon a quest for the American Dream. It’s a classic story about an arrival, a struggle and what Lovette calls “a lush meeting of two souls” who fall in love. Set to a vintage but newly-revived score by Florence Price, the piece is meant to be a marriage of the old and new — the cultural past and our hopeful future.  “To me, doing something classic in a time when everything (else) is sort of modern and edgy, is sort of edgy.” she asserts.

And, whether or not it’s intentional, the ballet’s central story arch is one that echoes Lovette’s own life. You know, the one where a shy, young girl from North Carolina moves to the big city, embarks on struggle, finds love, and boldly conquers her dreams?

Lovette states it more humbly. “I know from experience how much a person can change and grow.”

At the end of the day, Lovette prefers her artistic work to be a communal rather than personal meditation. “There’s enough of a narrative that people will see themselves in the work,” she hopes. “But then there are plenty of modern and new elements as well. I think there’s room to create your own story.”


Lauren Lovette’s piece is part of NBT’s Two World Premieres program
February 5, 2022 at The Smith Center