A City Ballet Star Bids Farewell to the ‘Crazy Ballerina Life’
New York City Ballet’s fall season came and went, and if Teresa Reichlen was being honest with herself, she wasn’t feeling it. This was concerning. What kind of dancer wasn’t itching to perform after 18 months off the stage?
“I had a few shows that were wonderful and felt like they’ve always felt,” she said, but “I was struggling a little bit. Everyone was so, so, so excited to be back and I just wasn’t at that level.”
An injury kept her from performing in “George Balanchine’s The Nutcracker.” One night in December as she played on the floor with her son, Ozzie, now 11 months old, she said a thought crossed her mind: “I should be at the theater performing right now, but I wouldn’t want to not be here with Ozzie at night.”
At that moment, she knew what to do. “I’ve had the crazy ballerina life,” she said. “I’ve traveled all over the world. I’ve had the crazy schedule, danced until 11:30 every night. I loved it. I’ve never just been a normal person before, so that’s kind of thrilling to me.”
On Feb. 19, Reichlen will dance her farewell performance in Balanchine’s one-act “Swan Lake” before moving on to her next career: director of Shrine, a Lower East Side gallery with a focus on outsider and self-taught artists that her husband, Scott Ogden, opened in 2016.
If Reichlen is matter-of-fact offstage, the sort of person who doesn’t suffer fools, onstage she is mysterious, understated, remote. Wendy Whelan, City Ballet’s associate artistic director and a former principal, said that her husband, the artist and photographer David Michalek, calls Reichlen one of the company’s Hitchcock blondes. This season she even brought a dash of Grace Kelly to the Stripper role in Balanchine’s “Slaughter on Tenth Avenue” — elegant, knowing and a little sly as she sliced her long legs into the air.
“She’s got this underrated glamour that pops out, and you’re just like, ‘Whoa: look at those legs, look at that body,’” Whelan said. “She’s got incredible facility, and she can shape it in so many different ways: angular, curvy, classical, contemporary.”
Russell Janzen, one of her partners and a friend, calls her selfless, the kind of dancer who puts the ballet first. “There is a little bit of a cool detachment,” he said. “It’s not judgmental. Sometimes it’s amused, which I think is really fun, especially when it’s one of those works where it’s so in her wheelhouse — it allows you to enjoy the choreography with her.”
Reichlen, 37, has been dancing as long as she can remember. She didn’t know much about Balanchine, a founder of City Ballet, when she was growing up in Virginia, but the City Ballet-affiliated School of American Ballet was on her radar because no one from her dance school had ever been accepted. “I was kind of scared to try out for it, and then I did and I got in,” she said. “I was like, I should probably go — like I’m the only person that has gotten in.”
After that summer course, she was invited to stay for the year. In 2000, Reichlen became an apprentice and in 2001, a member of the corps de ballet, where even dancing in the last row, she was a standout. She’s tall — around 5 feet 9 inches — which has led to her being cast in many coveted Balanchine roles: the tall girl in “Rubies,” the glittering lead in “Diamonds,” as well as in “Firebird,” “Symphony in C” and “Prodigal Son”
But she is rare: Despite her height, she can jump. “We always said Tess had the best saut de chat in the company,” Jonathan Stafford, City Ballet’s artistic director, said of the large leap. “She would fly through the air. I would joke with her that I had no chance next to her.”
One of his favorite memories of dancing with her is when she was thrown onstage in Balanchine’s “Firebird” at the last minute in 2007.
She had around an hour and a half to learn the entire ballet. “She knew every phrase, she just didn’t know the order,” Stafford said. “She would look at me onstage during the performance, and I would say the first step of the next phrase and she would just go into it and get it completely right.”
Stafford is going to miss her as a person, too. As an officer at the American Guild of Musical Artists, or A.G.M.A., she fought for dancers’ rights; when Stafford took over as City Ballet’s artistic director, in 2019, he relied on her as a sounding board. “Who am I going to call randomly any time of day and be like, ‘I need your advice?’”
One of Reichlen’s most impressive moments onstage involved speaking, not dancing. It was after a photo-sharing scandal, which had come just after the resignation of the company’s longtime leader, Peter Martins, who left amid allegations of sexual harassment and verbal and physical abuse. (He denied the accusations.) Reichlen delivered a speech that she had written with Adrian Danchig-Waring, another principal dancer. It began: “We will not put art before common decency or allow talent to sway our moral compass.”
Whelan, who likened Reichlen in that moment to Lady Liberty, said the speech felt seismic. It was as if she had pushed away a cloud and signaled “the start of a new hope, a new way forward,” Whelan said. “It made everybody rethink the old and how we need to shift all these parts that have been cemented in place for so long. She cracked it open.”
Reichlen said she had never been so nervous in her life. “I feel like that defines me more than my dancing in a weird way,” she said. “Like that’s more my personality than ballerina.”
She wanted to be involved with A.G.M.A. because of frustration with a lot of things at City Ballet. “It was just the only way I could see to fix things or try to fix things,” she said. “When I first got in, we used to get our daily schedule at 7:30 p.m. the evening before. Which is insane. It’s insane. So that’s one of my proudest achievements — we get our schedule a day and a half in advance now.”
But despite how important her career has been on- and offstage, Reichlen almost left the company during her time as a soloist. “I was doing the same things over and over again,” she said. “I was extraordinarily restless and really unhappy.”
She decided to stick around for a year or so and to continue with school — she was also a student a Barnard College, studying biology. “I was just like, OK, you better have fun, you’re only going to do this for another year or so,” she said. “I tried to let go a little bit. And then also there were a bunch of injuries, so all of a sudden I was dancing a lot, and then I was happy.” In 2009, she was promoted to principal; including her apprenticeship, she’s been with the company 22 years.
Now, with her performing days winding down, she said: “It’s bizarre having a finite amount of dancing left. I’m trying not to put pressure on myself and to be kind to myself in these last few weeks. I’m trying to just be like, you’re a good dancer. You look great.”
And she’s excited about her future at Shrine, which is opening a Los Angeles branch in summer. During our video interview, she sat under a painting by Sanford Darling; later she grabbed her laptop for a tour of some of the other works that fill their apartment: “Hawkins Bolden is actually my favorite,” she said of the blind, self-taught artist as she aimed the camera at “Untitled (scarecrow),” made of metal wheelbarrow, garden hose and wire. “To live with these pieces? I used to think it was crazy. But when you live with them, they kind of take on this life that’s really joyful.”
She has also loved getting to know artists and “to watch the success happen and know that you were maybe a small part of helping that happen,” she said. “My husband’s like, ‘Wait til you have your first sale, you’re going to feel amazing. You get an adrenaline rush.’ I was like, ‘Oh, so it’s kind of like performing.”’
But before she can begin her new life, her farewell performance is looming.
It will be “typical Tess fashion: low key,” Stafford said. “During the bows, she doesn’t want bouquets. She just wants single roses, and she doesn’t want it to be a parade of all the principal dancers who feel like they have to do it. She just wants anyone who wants to give her a rose to give her a rose. And she’ll gladly accept it.”
He added, “She’s pretty popular. I imagine a bunch of dancers are going to want to do it.”
Clearly, this stresses Reichlen out. “I just really enjoy dancing,” she said. “The recognition and the pouring on of praise just makes me feel very uncomfortable. And in retirements in the past, when I’m at them, the whole time I’m thinking, this is my worst nightmare.” Well, maybe not her worst nightmare — she paused, clearly agonized.
“It’s not me,” she said. “I’m the dancer who stands in the back corner of the studio. I enjoy being onstage, obviously, but it’s funny: I would be happy if the curtain came down and we didn’t have to bow.”