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Ballet dancers take on iconic Broadway roles

The New York City Ballet opens its spring

The New York City Ballet opens its spring season with contemporary ballets by Benjamin Millepied, Christopher Wheeldon and other marquee names. Photo Credit: Paul Kolnik

Right now -- on Broadway, in Paris, at Washington's Kennedy Center -- there is strange movement afoot.

For reasons that may be better understood in end-of-season retrospectives, three principal dancers from the New York City Ballet are defecting, probably temporarily, to take major roles in dance-driven musicals.

On Broadway, Megan Fairchild, 30, is making her theater debut in "On the Town," the latest revival of the 1944 musical-comedy classic about three sailors on 24-hour New York leave before shipping out for World War II. Fairchild plays Ivy Smith, crowned the subway's "Miss Turnstiles" and an inevitable love interest.

Meanwhile, in Paris, her brother, Robert Fairchild, 27, is preparing to play the Gene Kelly role in "An American in Paris," adapted from the 1951 movie about a World War II veteran who stays in Paris to become a painter. Christopher Wheeldon, former company dancer-turned-formidable- choreographer, is directing his first musical. It opens on Broadway April 12.

And at the Kennedy Center, Tiler Peck, 25, who's married to Robert Fairchild, plays the title character in "Little Dancer," a new musical about Marie, the poor ballet student who modeled for Degas' iconic 1881 sculpture. Susan Stroman is directing and choreographing, with music by Lynn Ahrens and Stephen Flaherty ("Ragtime"). The show begins previews Saturday and, if things go well, Peck and her husband could be on Broadway together by spring.

Asked about the bizarre coincidence, Peck exclaims, "Oh, it's crazy!," then explained how she spent a chunk of the month dashing between New York rehearsals for the musical and ballet rehearsals at Lincoln Center, then performing some of the world's most challenging choreography with the company at night.

Her husband and her sister-in-law grew up in Utah. Peck was a Southern California girl who studied singing and acting and, at 11, got a part in Stroman's revival of "The Music Man" that moved the family here. She happily gave up all that for the mighty school and company that George Balanchine built, but kept taking theater classes. In a phone interview between rehearsals, she explained that she began working on the new musical "way before" her relatives signed onto their shows.

No one is pretending that ballet stars have never before crossed over to sing and act and dance in Broadway musicals. Natalia Makarova won a Tony Award for the 1983 revival of "On Your Toes," originally choreographed in 1936 by Balanchine.

In 1989, Rudolf Nureyev did a whistle-stop bus-and-truck tour of "The King and I" and, yes, I actually saw him in Toronto barking Yul Brynner's "Hah!" and "Etcetera!" Mikhail Baryshnikov also went to Broadway and, more frequently, Off-Broadway, but he has always been smart enough to pick dramatic projects that didn't expect him to compete with his dazzling young self.

But today's three adventurers from City Ballet are in the prime of their careers, not testing out theater as a midlife extraction from the high of superstardom. Nor are they from the world of story ballets. The company, molded by Balanchine, Jerome Robbins and now Peter Martins, primarily finds abstract narrative in the patterns and rhythms of the body.

I asked Joshua Bergasse, choreographer of "On the Town," how he and director John Rando chose Megan Fairchild as their Ivy. "In the original production, the role was intended for a real ballerina," says Bergasse, choreographer of the TV series "Smash" now making his Broadway debut in a show created by Robbins.

Daring to follow that master is "daunting," he said. "But I have to think about it as a gift and an opportunity and not 'Oooh, God, how am I ever going to live up to it?'"

He talks about Megan as if she is also a gift -- or a player in a star-is-born scene from "Smash." He recalled, "It was really late in the casting, and I had known Megan socially and said, 'There's one more girl I think we should look at.'"

Unlike Peck, she had no theater experience or ambitions. "But we knew we had found our Ivy," he said. "She can be perfectly sweet and innocent. And she has had the best training in the world. Her imagination has no limits. It really frees me up."

He believes her biggest challenge will be the long run, "being fresh eight times a week." He isn't sure whether she started taking voice lessons, "But I told her, 'Don't mess with it too much. What you did in the audition was pretty great.'"

According to Peck, all three have no intention of leaving City Ballet for Broadway. "We all still love New York City Ballet and don't want it to be over," she said, adding that Peter Martins "has been very, very great. He went off and choreographed for Broadway. He knows a dancer's career is very short and that we should get the most out of it. He doesn't want us to go, of course, but he doesn't want to be the one who says we can't."

For Peck, the best and the hardest things about her show involve the same thing -- the storytelling. "You can tell a lot through movement, things you can't actually put into words," she said, "But I really enjoy being able to tell Marie's story. Everybody thinks a dancer's life is so glamorous and so beautiful, but Marie has to overcome so many obstacles because she had this dream of becoming a dancer."

The hard part is "just living her life. She is so lovable, but every day for her has such hardship and is so emotional. At the end of the day, I feel that I've gone through so much with her."

As legend has it, all young dancers were first inspired by the movie of "The Red Shoes," about a ballerina so bewitched that she dances herself to death. "Why do you want to dance?," asks the demonic impresario. "Why do you want to live?," she replies.

And why do these dancers want to be in a Broadway show? Ask them later.

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