Tears welled up in the hazel eyes of 10-year-old Gretchen Smith as she scanned the casting sheet for the Evansville Dance Theatre’s annual production of The Nutcracker and didn’t see her name. Then her mother told her she was looking in the wrong place — her name was at the top, next to the role of Clara, the little girl who gets a toy nutcracker for Christmas that turns into a prince who takes her to the Land of the Sugar Plum Fairy.
From that moment on Gretchen was hooked, and ballet became her passion. Now 22 years old, for the past four years she has been a member of the New York City Ballet (NYCB), one of the nation’s most prestigious dance companies. This year’s spring season, which began April 29, consists of 40 ballets, including seven world premieres. The NYCB is unique in that it performs a different ballet every night, which means that Gretchen has moved from dancing as Clara to performing a different role on stage every week from Tuesday to Sunday. Those roles — in addition to dancing with the corps in almost every performance — have included featured or understudy positions in eight shows such as Rosalia in West Side Story Suite, the Tenderness Fairy in Sleeping Beauty, three roles in Swan Lake, and yes, a demi-soloist in The Nutcracker.
The tall, lithe, dark blonde Evansville native has pirouetted and jetéd not only at the ballet’s home at Lincoln Center but at acclaimed performances in London, Paris, Copenhagen, and Tokyo. But the longest journey was from Evansville to New York, and not an easy one either for Gretchen, or her parents, Will and Lori Smith, who agreed with pride, but trepidation, to allow their young daughter to leave home at 15 and enroll in the School of American Ballet (SAB), the official training academy of the NYCB.
Will Smith, a partner in Universal Operating, a family-owned independent oil producer with rigs throughout the Tri-State, says, “Letting her stay up there at 15 — losing her early — was the hardest decision I ever made. But I have no regrets.”
“It’s not like on the East Coast, where people are used to packing their kids off to boarding school,” says Lori Smith. The decision raised some eyebrows among friends and neighbors, but the Smiths, a family of faith, prayed on it and decided “God had given her a gift, and she had a right to pursue her dreams.”
By that time, Gretchen already had built a solid foundation for dance, thanks to excellent teachers at the Evansville Dance Theatre (EDT), who encouraged her (starting at age 12) to attend summer ballet camps in Indianapolis, Philadelphia, and San Francisco, where she also learned to live on her own.
Gretchen cites former EDT artistic director Don Tolj, ballet master Patrick Hinson, and ballet mistress Adahli Aranda-Corn for teaching her the fundamentals and encouraging her to go further.
Aranda-Corn, who now runs her own ballet school in Lexington, Ky., quickly realized that Gretchen was “very, very special. She put her heart into it every day. She always had a smile on her face, eager to learn and do more.” Aranda-Corn, who danced professionally in her native Mexico before being wooed to Evansville as a principal performer and teacher, says the life of a ballerina is very hard. “It almost chooses you,” she says of a career that from the audience appears all gracefulness and beauty but which results from long hours of grueling, sweating practice, including recovery from injuries.
“There was never doubt in my mind that Gretchen would make it,” says Aranda-Corn, who keeps up with Gretchen’s career via Facebook. “Her body is Balanchine,” she says, referring to the influential choreographer George Balanchine, a co-founder of the NYCB, known for favoring slender, long-limbed dancers.
After her freshman year at Harrison High School, during which she admits she was an “OK” student preoccupied with dance, 15-year-old Gretchen auditioned for summer classes at the SAB. Her mother accompanied her on her first trip to the Big Apple and was pleased to discover that the school was on the fifth floor of the building where her daughter would be housed. Gretchen was assigned to share a room on the 14th floor of the Rose Building, part of the Lincoln Center complex, which also serves as the dormitory for the famous Juilliard School.
Halfway through the five-week session the students were told they could apply to stay year-round. Gretchen signed up but didn’t tell her parents, believing there was “no chance” she would be selected.
Shortly thereafter Gretchen was offered a place in SAB’s full academic year program and given one week to decide. Gretchen never will forget the phone call she made to her parents that day. After explaining the deal to them, there was, she recalls, “no joke — a full minute of silence,” after which her mother said, “We really need to think about this.”
The next week Lori Smith flew to New York, sat in on the classes, talked to the registrar and after observing the tight security in the building felt assured about her daughter’s safety. (It’s the kind of tony neighborhood where Bed Bath & Beyond has a doorman.) The clincher was lunch with the ballet school’s director of development, Carrie Wenger Hinrichs, who also is from Evansville. She asked Mrs. Smith, “Do you know how much of a big deal this is?” (Yet another former Evansville resident, Dara Faust, works in the NYCB’s costume shop.)
Two days later Gretchen’s parents, in a decision accompanied by tears and cheers, told her she could stay. “You’ve got to let them go at some time,” Lori Smith reasoned. (The Smiths’ other children, two older boys, live in Santa Monica, Calif.)
Elizabeth Wallace, a friend of Gretchen’s since second grade, says she “always danced.” Gretchen’s move to New York was “a huge decision — like the end of the world — but a step she needed to take.” Wallace stays in touch with Gretchen and has visited her in New York. “She’s still the same person,” Wallace says, “but she grew up a little faster” than her peers and is more independent.
For her sophomore year Gretchen attended the Professional Performing Arts School, a New York City public school, and then switched to the private Professional Children’s School because of smaller classes and its location adjacent to Lincoln Center.
“It was surreal and exciting,” she says of the schools, whose students included up-and-coming singers, artists, actors, musicians, and even a tennis player. While the schools follow a regular academic schedule, they excuse students for practices, auditions, and performances.
One month into her senior year, Gretchen was offered an apprenticeship with the ballet, a vital stepping stone toward making the NYCB, as 90 percent of the company trained at SAB. For the next five months, Gretchen practiced with the NYCB and took a Saturday class with Peter Martins, the company’s ballet master-in-chief. Then on Feb. 14, 2006, Gretchen received the best Valentine possible: a contract to become one of 20 new members of the company’s corps de ballet. (About half of the company’s 93 members are in the corps; 15 are ranked as soloists, and the top 29 are principals. The company has its own 65-piece orchestra.)
Gretchen received her high school diploma in the spring of 2005 in a ceremony that showed off the talents of its graduates. Among PCS’s many famous alumni are the legendary NYCB ballerina Suzanne Farrell, cellist Yo-Yo Ma, opera diva Beverly Sills, and actress Sarah Jessica Parker.
A downside of becoming a professional performer at such a young age is postponing, or forgoing, college. Gretchen hopes to enroll part-time at Fordham University or Columbia University in the future.
In the four years since joining the company, in addition to dancing with the corps in nearly every performance, she has earned featured or understudy roles in nearly a dozen shows. She also danced in NY Export: Opus Jazz, a film adaptation of choreographer Jerome Robbins’ famous “ballet in sneakers” that locally aired on WNIN earlier this spring. She’s living the fairy tale life and being paid well for it. (NYCB dancers start at about $50,000 a year and, with annual raises and overtime — it’s a union shop — can double that within several years.)
At such a high level, ballet requires the talent of an artist and stamina of an athlete, and the NYCB’s repertory is the largest in the world. To memorize and perfect the choreography, the company practices from 10:30 a.m. to 7 p.m. and then works 10:30 a.m. to 10:30 p.m. during the 150 performances.
Performances are held in the David H. Koch Theater, a stunningly grand 2,500-seat, five-level hall that it shares with the New York City Opera. (The other major buildings at Lincoln Center house the Metropolitan Opera and the New York Philharmonic.)
After living in the dorm four years, Gretchen moved to a one-bedroom apartment on the Upper West Side, a 10-minute walk from the theater. The proximity is valuable in keeping pace with the ballet’s rigid schedule, which includes an annual summer season at Saratoga Springs, N.Y., and foreign tours, making it difficult for Gretchen to come home often. “That’s hard,” her mother admits. The Smiths, who moved from the East Side to Newburgh a few years ago, make frequent trips to New York, including a Christmas tradition that includes bringing an artificial tree from Evansville for their hotel room.
When Will Smith brags about his daughter, he describes her achievement to his friends in a sports term: “I tell them she made the Yankees of the ballet world.”
Has Gretchen’s success made a ballet fan out of her father? He hedges: “The New York City Ballet is spectacular. The stage, the music, the scenery. I sit through the whole ballet the first time.” If his wife wants to go back a second or third time? “I’ll slip out for the parts Gretchen’s not in,” he says. “I guess I’m not a 100 percent fan, but I do appreciate it a lot more.”