By Anne Levin
Among the most accomplished alumni of Princeton Ballet School is Unity Phelan, a 23-year-old Princeton native who is now a soloist at the New York City Ballet. Phelan comes home this weekend to dance the role of the Sugar Plum Fairy in American Repertory Ballet (ARB)’s production of The Nutcracker at McCarter Theatre, Friday, November 23 at 2 and 7:30 p.m. (Princeton Ballet is the official school of American Repertory Ballet).
“I danced so many roles in this production while I was growing up,” said Phelan, who found time to reminisce in between rehearsals for New York City Ballet’s own month-long run of George Balanchine’s The Nutcracker at Lincoln Center’s Koch Theatre, in which she will alternate as the Sugar Plum Fairy and the Dewdrop. It is Balanchine’s version of the famous “Sugar Plum” pas de deux that Phelan, partnered by fellow New York City Ballet soloist Joseph Gordon, will dance at McCarter, though the rest of the ballet is ARB’s own version.
“I started at Princeton Ballet School when I was 4, in a little pink leotard, skipping around in a circle,” Phelan said. “I had a lot of energy. I loved it right away. In Nutcracker, I was in the party scene, and then I was a Bon Bon, and was one of the ‘tea assistants,’ and so on.”
Among Phelan’s teachers at Princeton Ballet was former school director Mary Pat Robertson. “I loved the years in which I got to teach Unity — she was always ‘in the moment’ — ready to give her best over and over in order to master something new, and bringing a freshness and delicacy to her work, alongside an amazing ability to really attack the jumps and quick movements,” Robertson wrote in an email from England, where she and her husband are on sabbatical. “I am so very proud of her accomplishments and wish I could be there to see her this weekend.”
Recognizing Phelan’s unusual talent and individual style, ARB Artistic Director Douglas Martin encouraged her to audition for the summer program at the School of American Ballet (SAB), which is affiliated with New York City Ballet, when she was 13. She was accepted, and felt immediately at home. “I absolutely loved it — the speed, the crazy attention you have to give to everything, the jazzier style — it just felt right to me,” she said.
Phelan returned to SAB for a second summer. She accepted the school’s invitation to stay for the winter term and live in the dorm. Three years later, she joined New York City Ballet. Her career took off almost i.l.mmediately, when former director Peter Martins cast her in the corps de ballet of Balanchine’s Agon, one of the choreographer’s “leotard ballets.” Set to a score by Igor Stravinsky, it is fast and notoriously difficult to count. “It is very classic City Ballet, such genius, and one of my favorites. I got really lucky when I was cast in it,” Phelan said, modestly.
Since then, Phelan has performed the lead in Agon, and numerous other works in the repertory. She graduated from corps de ballet to soloist rank two years ago. “I was shocked,” she said. “The thing is, I really enjoyed being in the corps and getting to do two or three ballets every night. But it was such an honor to have been promoted — validation that I belong here, and that the way I move is the way that they move.”
The past year has been one of turmoil at New York City Ballet. Longtime director Martins retired following accusations of sexual, physical, and verbal abuse. A few months later, three prominent male principal dancers were removed from the ranks following charges of sexual harassment. An interim team of four people — three former company members and the company’s choreographer in residence, Justin Peck — have been leading the 86-member troupe since Martins’ departure.
Asked about the chaos, Phelan said, “The company is actually doing really well. The dancers have bonded. We have wonderful ballets, and more than anything, those have been our guides. Diving into the work has been such a savior for us. Some of the younger boys are stepping up, and the interim team has done an amazing job.”
Phelan said she has no idea who the new director will be. “We’re supposed to have an announcement soon. I’m lucky because I’m young, but I just hope the new director likes me,” she said. “As my boyfriend told me, ‘All you can do is show up every day, do your best, and be nice to people.’ So I’m hopeful.”
In the meantime, there is Nutcracker to perform in her home town. “I’m very excited to be coming home for this,” Phelan said. “I’m really looking forward to it.”
ARB will continue performances of Nutcracker (minus Phelan and Gordon) November 24 and 25 before taking the production to Union County Performing Arts Center, South Orange Performing Arts Center, Two River Theater, and the State Theatre. Starting the annual run with Phelan on stage makes sense.
“We are thrilled to welcome Princeton Ballet School alum Unity Phelan home to Princeton for guest performances as Sugar Plum Fairy,” said Artistic Director Martin. “For over 65 years, generations of wonderful dancers and dance lovers have been trained in the art of classical ballet at the Princeton Ballet School, and we are so delighted to welcome all alumni home for this wonderful event. ARB’s Nutcracker is celebrating 55 years at McCarter Theatre and we can think of no better way to celebrate than to have Unity returning for the opening day of performances.”