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Interviews

a conversation with Judith Fugate
Winter 1999
by Mary Cargill
© 1999

Judith Fugate retired from the New York City Ballet in 1996. She had been part of the NYCB since childhood, starting with The Nutcracker and ending as one of the company’s most classically precise and elegant dancers, with a stylish sence of humor. She was a delightful Coppelia and a wonderuflly deadpan ballerina in the adagio of Western Symphony. Her Aurora, in the City Ballet production of The Sleeping Beauty, was one of my favorite of her performances, both for her strong yet elegant technique and for her rich understanding of the different facets of Aurora. She has formed a new company, DanceGalaxy, and spoke to me recently about the new company and about her years at the New York City Ballet.

DANCEVIEW: Could you describe DanceGalaxy?

JUDITH FUGATE: It was formed by my husband, the dancer, Mehdi Bahiri, and me. In the past, we had put together small groups on an ad hoc basis, and people kept asking us why we didn’t form a permanent company. Once I retired, the time just seemed right. We have about twelve dancers, and there are others who we can use when their schedule allows. Lourdes Lopez, who just resigned from NYCB, is now part of the company, which is thrilling because she is a great friend and a beautiful dancer. There are a lot of really talented unemployed dancers around, and a company like ours can show them off and give smaller places which can’t afford City Ballet or ABT a chance to see live dance. I am so pleased, I just found out that we are going to have a season at the Joyce Theater in New York in spring of 1999.

DV: What will the company’s repertoire be?

FUGATE: We really want to do some twentieth-century pieces that people don’t get a chance to see. We have been in contact with Bejart for an early piece of his, and Billy Forsythe, and Michael Smuin. And on tour we can do Balanchine. Barbara Horgan has been very generous about that. I certainly wouldn’t dream of doing any in New York, but on tour we can show Balanchine to audiences that can’t afford the New York City Ballet.

Of course, we can also do the classics. Not Don Q—we’ll leave that to the Russians! A highlights program of pas de deux after pas de deux, basically the same steps to different music, doesn’t interest me. But a pas de trois or a pas de sept, which isn’t seen often, with interesting choreography, is certainly something we are interested in.

DV: Are you commissioning new works?

FUGATE: Yes. We are really looking forward to working with Ann Marie D’Angelo. She used to dance with Joffrey and directed a company in Mexico. Mehdi worked with her, and she is extremely talented and unusual. And there is a choreographer named Adam Miller. He did a wonderful production a few years ago of a full-length Dracula, which he is redoing for us. We are hoping to do it in California.

DV: To change from the future to the past, how did you get started in ballet?

FUGATE: I grew up in New Jersey, and my older sister was studying at the local ballet school, and I just wanted to do whatever she was doing. I was two and a half, and the teacher finally said “Well, if Judy behaves herself, you can put her in the youngest class.” When I was seven, she told my mother, “You should really bring her to the School of American Ballet. I think she is just the type they are looking for.” My mother didn’t know what the School of American Ballet was, but we did what my teacher said. Diana Adams was the Director of the school then, and after my audition she called my mother to tell her I had been accepted, and said “I also told Mr. Balanchine about her because I think she would be perfect for Clara in The Nutcracker”—it was Clara then, and not Marie. And my mother said “Well that’s great, but what’s The Nutcracker and who is Mr. Balanchine?” We didn’t know anything! And Diana sort of laughed and told us the story of The Nutcracker. I was Clara for four years, and then was a Candy Cane. When I was seventeen, I was invited into the company.

DV: I know you also worked with Mr. Balanchine on Don Quixote. Do you have any particular memories of working with him as a child?

FUGATE: I remember distinctly not being intimidated by him at all. I just felt totally comfortable with him from the word go. He was really good with all the children, patient and kind and generous. I always felt he treated me like a daughter. He was very fond of me. As I look back now, it was incredible to have had a piece choreographed on me at eight years old.

DV: You said that one of your favorite roles was Aurora in The Sleeping Beauty.

FUGATE: I have to admit it is one of the hardest ballets I have ever done.

DV: I know you did it in 1990 before you danced it at City Ballet.

FUGATE: Just one performance. I was replacing Merrill Ashley, who was supposed to go with Lindsay Fischer over to Amsterdam to do a big gala. She got injured at the last minute, and Lindsay asked if I could go. I said of course—I wasn’t going to pass up that chance! So she and Lindsay taught it to me in three or four days. Merrill had danced it in England with the smaller Royal Ballet company, and Lindsay had done that version too, so basically I learned the old Royal Ballet version. We had one performance on New Year’s Eve, and I had a wonderful time with all those enormous tutus, and those big crowns.

So I was somewhat familiar with it when Peter [Martins] staged it. I think he did a wonderful job. He looked at a lot of videotapes and talked to a lot of people to pull together what he thought was the best of everything. It was funny, because when he staged it he would occasionally look at Lindsay and me and ask “And what did you do here?”

I think it turned out quite well. Frankly, I was surprised. When I first heard we were doing The Sleeping Beauty, I thought the company wouldn’t pull it off, but when I went to the opening night I was flabbergasted. It was gorgeous. I think Peter’s production suits today’s society because of the speed and the visuals. I do agree with the critics that some parts are too fast, but the world is so video-oriented now, I think most of it worked really well.

DV: I was especially struck by your vision scene. It was such a Giselle-like entrance. Whose idea was that?

FUGATE: Peter staged it like that. It’s funny that you mentioned Giselle, because that’s what I felt it should be. She’s a vision. She should be like a Wili, without the old-fashioned mist or super-Romantic style. I tried to be a kind of light without really being there. Peter’s staging helped a lot. But it’s really in the music. The music of the vision scene is so other-worldly. But of course the music helped in all the sections. The first entrance is so bubbly and sixteen-ish.

I rely on the music really for everything. One of the things that comes naturally to me is the musicality. I’m not bragging—there’s a lot of stuff that doesn’t come easily, but I never had trouble feeling the music. And I absolutely loved dancing Aurora. It was one of the most wonderful experiences that I’ve ever had. And I was lucky to dance with a lot of different partners.

DV: I especially enjoyed your performances with Lindsay Fischer.

FUGATE: We danced really easily together. I felt very comfortable in his hands. And I was very lucky to have danced with Adam Lüders and Ben Huys and Peter Boal. I think a lot of ballerinas might say “Oh, no, I just want one partner,” but I liked dancing with different people. Things can get a bit stale, no matter what you do, but with a different partner, there was someone new to look at, someone new to be in love with.

DV: Another ballet that I loved watching you in was La Source. Who taught you that?

FUGATE: Sean Lavery worked with me some, and Sara Leland. But I was fortunate to grow up in the company, and all those years I watched the most beautiful ballerinas in the world dancing those beautiful ballets—I can still see Kay Mazzo and Violette Verdy and Patricia MacBride. When I learned that I was going to do La Source I immediately went to Kay and asked her to coach me. She came to several rehearsals and was so helpful. Not that I was going to try to imitate her, but I wanted to take what she had to offer. And I loved La Source. It’s a hard piece, a lot of technique, but it was really comfortable for me.

DV: I know you are doing some staging for the Balanchine Trust. What companies have your worked with and what have you done?

FUGATE: I’ve been staging ballets for about ten years when my schedule permitted. I’ve been to Korea, to the Philippines, to France, to Buenos Aires, and around the United States. I think if someone wants to do Who Cares? Barbara [Horgan] will try to send me if I can go. I have also staged Apollo, Allegro Brillante, Serenade, Theme and Variations, and I’m sure some others.

DV: How to you go about staging them and working with dancers not necessarily familiar with Balanchine?

FUGATE: It’s been my experience that the dancers are so excited about doing a Balanchine piece that they are eager to do it right. I can pick the cast I want, but if I don’t know the company I tend to rely on the director for casting suggestions. I would hate to have someone judge me just by watching a class.

Then I like to teach the steps, whether it’s the big group or a solo. And while I teach the steps I make comments about the style, so that they don’t get in the habit of just dancing the way they are accustomed to. One of the selfish things about staging the ballets is that it keeps Mr. B. alive in my mind and in my heart. I will say “Oh, Mr. B. always used to say this about this step, or about that ballet”, and the dancers are just mesmerized. They all want to hear what he had to say. I feel that this is crucial in order to keep these ballets alive in the way they should be—not just the steps or just as a museum piece. It is vital to stress what he had to say about these ballets to keep them personal.

DV: Do you find people have watched videos or do they learn the whole thing from you?

FUGATE: Sometimes they have watched videos. It can be a problem and I don’t use them when I teach in the studio at all. I have my notes, and I have my memory, and I have my body. Videos are good for certain things, but if someone is off that day, it can be a problem if the person watching thinks that is the real choreography. I actually had that happen to me in Apollo once. The dancer had seen a video of Suzanne when her knee was really bad. I’m sure Mr. B. said, “Oh, just do what you have to”, but the dancer argued with me about the choreography. She was convinced what she had seen was right. So I don’t use videos, except to prepare myself.

DV: I know you worked with Maria Tallchief when she was taping for Nancy Reynold’s Balanchine Tapes. What was it like working with her?

FUGATE: She is unbelievable. I worked harder that I ever dreamt I would, but she worked just as hard. She was coaching Peter Boal and me in the pas de deux from Scotch Symphony, and so much of what we worked on is different from the way we do it now. I don’t mean that we do it wrong now—I know Mr. B. changed things for different dancers. But she was so generous, and I was thrilled that I got to work with her before I left the company. It is a shame that more dancers don’t get a chance, but I guess there just isn’t time. Though I do think, and I don’t mind if you print this, that the City Ballet repertoire is too big. The ballets are not rehearsed enough—most are rehearsed just enough to get the steps on stage, but a lot gets lost along the way.

DV: I interviewed Maria Tallchief a few years ago, and remember her really stressing the importance of the hands and the upper body.

FUGATE: Yes. Her attention to detail is spectacular. I remember Balanchine emphasizing the position of the fingers. Sometimes when you are dancing, you might not have your hand exactly where he wanted it, and she could see that in an instant. I know people always used to say to me “You don’t look like a City Ballet dancer,” and I always took that as a compliment, considering the stereotype of the flailing arms and the ugly claws, and the flat upper body. That is something Maria could offer because I know Mr. B. didn’t like anything flat at all.

Sometimes we would do a whole center of class just on port de bras. We would stand in fifth position and do small port de bras, medium, big, both sides, time after time. And the shoulder, and the neck, and the head and the proper tilt, and épaulement—all of it. Balanchine isn’t all waist down, it’s waist up, too. In fact, I would rather watch a dancer who has a wonderful upper body and charisma on the stage that one who can only do 32 fouettés. The stress now is no much on technique, and I think it is unfortunate. If all I want is technique, I’d rather watch a gymnast, because they do unheard of things that we can’t even come close to. But when I watch dance, I want to see an art form, and that is sometimes missing, not just in New York, but everywhere.

DV: Details are so important. I remember a friend of mine has never forgotten you as the little girl in Coppelia who finds the key.

I can’t believe someone remembered that! Mr. B. did that piece on me. It’s a bit of a long story, but a couple of years before we did Coppelia, we were rehearsing A Midsummer Night’s Dream. There is a part where Titania is going to sleep and one fairy comes forward and goes “Shhh.” That’s the part I learned, and when we had the rehearsal, I came forward in front of Mr. B. and did my “Shhh.” He said “Oh, I should have known it would be Judy the actress.” I got all embarrassed, but he made a big deal out of showing me how to do it so the whole audience could see what was happening.

Then when he was staging Coppelia, we got to the part with the key. All the friends were standing around, and he said, “Well now, someone has to find the key.” And he looked around and he said “Judy, Judy the actress,” and he showed me exactly how I had to pick it up and look at it and show it so the whole audience could see what it was, and then do the whole action, reaction thing.

I don’t know why he thought of me as an actress, maybe because I had been Clara as a kid, but his nickname for me was Sarah Bernhardt. I remember rehearsing Tombeau de Couperin, and there’s one step that’s called the Sarah Bernhardt step, because Mr. B. said “Here’s where Judy walks around and does this”, and the pianist said, “Well, what do I mark it as?”, and Mr. B. said “Sarah Bernhardt.” I’m not sure if it is still in the score.

DV: Your retirement was very quiet.

FUGATE: Yes, I wanted it that way. I had been out for about a year with an injury, and came back too soon, and reinjured myself. When I did get back, I did some things, and decided it was time to leave. I had done my scheduled Nutcrackers, and I went to Peter and said I was quitting. I think he was surprised and asked if I wanted a farewell. I really didn’t. I just wasn’t that kind of a dancer. All the flowers and things are lovely, but that just wasn’t me. Oh, I know I had my fans, but I wasn’t Merrill Ashley or Darci Kistler. And then he said, “Well, what about another Nutcracker, at least?” But I had already done mine, and just wanted to leave. The whole conversation was over in about ten minutes, and that was that. But it’s nice to think people haven’t forgotten.

 

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