Dreams come true

Stephanie Herman danced her dream into being, and now continues her artistic pursuits

If you're reading this, you have something in common with everybody else: a physical body. Those of us fortunate enough or conscientious enough to also be healthy and fit can also move our bodies and, ideally, not fall down. And so in a way, we dance through life, whether awkwardly or otherwise.

Numbered among the otherwise – the elite of the otherwise, let it be said – is North Fair Oaks resident and former principal ballerina Stephanie Herman. Now in her second career – as a fitness and Pilates instructor – Herman spent 15 years dancing in the professional ballet world, mostly in Switzerland.

She danced for Ballet Zurich Opernhaus and the Ballet du Grand Theatre de Geneve, and with some notable partners, including Rudolf Nureyev and Mikhail Baryshnikov. Her mentor was principal dancer Suzanne Ferrell of the New York City Ballet, and she danced for George Balanchine, the late choreographer and artistic director of the New York company who also choreographed for the Swiss dance companies.

Herman, 68, is the creator of "Ballerina: A One-Woman Play," a 45-minute autobiographical documentary available on Youtube. She relates a tale through spoken word, music and dance, of a ballerina who found a prominent place in the world of ballet despite her height and despite potentially career-ending injuries that she overcame by thinking outside the physical-therapy box.

Her documentary recently won a platinum award from Royal Wolf, "an online monthly awards platform ... dedicated to honoring projects from all over the world." Angelica's at 863 Main St. in Redwood City will screen Herman's film in a dinner-theater event at 7 p.m. on Wednesday, Jan. 30.

Today Herman owns and manages Pilates Ballet. At locations in Menlo Park, Palo Alto and Los Altos, she assesses the fitness of her clients and teaches them, individually and in groups, the principles of movement and muscle strength so as to improve flexibility, balance and coordination.

"As a ballerina, I've learned to operate and control every single muscle in my body," she says, adding that she can help a client hone in on a muscle and learn to turn it on at will. "Find it, feel it, own it and move it," she says. She teaches ballet one night a week.

Go to pilatesballet.com for more information.

Dedication to dance

Ballet was integral to Herman's early life. She regularly attended New York City Ballet performances and became a devotee. "I fell in love with Balanchine choreography and I fell in love with the ballerinas who brought it to life," she recalls.

She put herself on the career path to becoming a ballerina after winning an audition and being accepted to New York City's School of American Ballet, co-founded by Balanchine. She then attended and graduated from the High School of the Performing Arts, also in New York City.

Ballet students on this trajectory often joined Balanchine's company, the New York City Ballet, but Herman had to look farther afield. Balanchine had his quota of tall dancers, she says. Herman is 5 feet 9 inches tall when flat on her feet and 6 feet 1 inch on her toes. "I am very feminine, but I am a tall feminine," she says.

At the time, Balanchine was also adding speed to his choreography and so he was looking for shorter dancers, Herman explains.

So she auditioned at companies in Pennsylvania and New York, including the American Ballet Theatre and the Joffrey Ballet. The responses were slight variations on a theme: You're too tall for our company's male dancers.

After two years of this, she was recruited by and had a choice among dance company directors from Canada, Australia and Switzerland. She chose Switzerland to accompany a friend.

Herman was to spend 10 years in Europe, under the artistic direction of several choreographers, including Balanchine, and the direction of Patricia Neary, a former principal dancer for New York City Ballet. While in Switzerland, Herman danced with Nureyev and with Baryshnikov "on some of the world's most prominent stages," she says. "Ballet was my life," she declares. "It was fabulous."

In Geneva, Herman and Baryshnikov were principal dancers in a couple of ballets together, she says, including Balanchine's "Jewels."

She danced roles performed by one of Balanchine's muses, Suzanne Ferrell. "She was what I dreamed of becoming," Herman says. "I just loved the way she danced. When I grew up, I got most of her roles so it was like a dream come true. She inspired me."

"Suzanne Ferrell had a lot of adagio roles. I loved the way she danced them," Herman says, referring to dances that involve slow movements. "One of the things that made me famous is that I was known as an adagio dancer."

When Nureyev visited Geneva, he brought with him the ballet "Manfred," which he had choreographed. Nureyev picked Herman to play the role of the mother, but it was a role without much dancing, so Nureyev choreographed it again for her, Herman says. "He gave me all of these amazing turns and difficult technical steps," she adds.

Nureyev also gave her some tailoring assistance. Her costume included a 6-foot train and a skirt with six layers of cloth. She complained to him about the costume's weight. Nureyev, scissors in hand, lifted up her top skirt and cut out all the layers underneath. The designer "was going crazy," Herman says, but Nureyev had only this to say: "She needs to dance."

"He was very sweet," Herman recalls.

Her time in Europe was interrupted by an injury to ligaments in her knee, and she returned to New York, where she wore an ankle-to-thigh cast for eight weeks. With Pilates therapy, she emerged stronger, and returned to Switzerland for two years, again with Balanchine as artistic director, she says, adding that she returned to New York when her roles were no longer challenging.

Back in New York and dancing as a guest performer – she was no longer in a company – she injured her back while filling in for a dancer in a role for which she was not physically prepared. She again recovered and focused on teaching. She says she founded "Muscle Ballet," a workout program that was written about in Harper's Bazaar magazine.

But it was a struggle being on her own, she recalls. Unlike actors, who are taught to advocate for themselves in finding work, ballerinas are taught how to perform and how to act, but not how to handle the business of being a performer.

"As a ballerina, you are always a little insecure in some ways," she says. "You're always a pleaser. ... You don't really talk back. If there's something that really bothers you, you ask to meet with the director. ... Sometimes you don't want to communicate because you don't want to step on someone's toes. ... I became more savvy as I got older."

'Love' while dancing

Though she dances in her documentary, Herman says she no longer does much of it. "At my age, I like to be a role model," she explains.

Ballet done well looks effortless. It's not, of course. In her documentary, Herman quotes Balanchine. "Ballet should never feel comfortable," he said. "Comfortable is lazy. If you're comfortable when you dance, you're not pushing yourself hard enough. One hundred percent is not enough. You have to give 200 percent."

As if that weren't enough, ballet also calls on dancers to show emotions. Such scenes at times require dancers to act and at other times to rely on personal chemistry, Herman says. "Chemistry can be seen even though nothing is sexual. If there's chemistry, you feel it."

Was there chemistry when she danced with Nureyev and Baryshnikov? "Yeah, I had chemistry with both of them," she says.

She and Nureyev "had a lot of soul in our dancing," she notes, "and we both were not afraid to give 250 percent of ourselves on stage. I felt like with Nureyev, it was totally real and in the moment. ... Our souls were connected in the moment."

Recalling a comment by Meryl Streep on actors sharing emotions, Herman says that being generous with your emotions on stage allows your counterparts to be generous with theirs. "If you're being honest about what your character is supposed to be, and you're being very generous and honest with your love, it's easy for the other person to be generous," she says.

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