There was a point, during Cassandra Trenary’s debut as Juliet last summer at American Ballet Theater, when it became easy to forget that she was performing the role at all. She just was Juliet: furious, despondent, at her wit’s end.
It was wildly raw and vulnerably human. And after she stabbed herself in the ballet’s final moments, she died with a shocking suddenness. Typically, in Kenneth MacMillan’s production of “Romeo and Juliet,” that moment is drawn out, with Juliet deeply arching her back in a cambré derrière over the tomb. Trenary simply collapsed, her body deflated and broken. Better than graceful, it was gorgeous.
Trenary, a 29-year-old principal dancer with Ballet Theater, is on a mission to be authentic — to make it seem as though, as she said, “life is unfolding in front of you through this vocabulary that is very not humanlike.”
That approach lends a modern sensibility to her roles, many of which have been passed down from generations. For her first “Romeo and Juliet,” a classic that she will revisit this month during Ballet Theater’s Metropolitan Opera House season, she imagined: What if it were a movie and not a ballet?
“Perhaps it was — I mean, I don’t know, I didn’t see it — a little stripped down,” Trenary said. “Now I’m trying to find a balance between being the most human and the most stripped down and keeping it like a classical ballet. That’s an interesting struggle for me.”
Trenary was named principal dancer in 2020, when theaters were still shuttered. Returning to the stage has been a process: She became more of a fully formed human during the pandemic, she said, but when it came to classical ballet, “a lot of fear and self-doubt started creeping in, mostly in my technical abilities.”
“And I felt like I had such a fire under me,” Trenary said. “How can I make these stories resonate with me? How can I believe and personalize the stories I’m telling onstage and acknowledge that there is cultural appropriation sprinkled throughout this art form and there is lack of representation?”
During the shutdown, Trenary, who grew up studying dance in Lawrenceville, Ga., found ways to be creative. She choreographed herself and performed in projects outside the ballet world, including Molissa Fenley’s “State of Darkness,” a digital project at the Joyce Theater in Manhattan. Amid that, in 2020, Trenary and her husband, Gray Davis, a former Ballet Theater dancer, ended their marriage. “He was ready to move on, and I was just arriving,” she said of their artistic paths.
She found herself questioning everything. “Who am I when I don’t have the A.B.T. identity?” Trenary said. “And what do I want from my life? What else do I have to offer?”
Through the pandemic and her breakup, she said, “I found myself leaning into these really wildly different creative projects that introduced me to different types of artists and inspired me to want to lean into asking more questions as I come back to ballet.”
This season, she feels more confident as a dancer. Ballet Theater is making a point of showing her off, too: She opened the company’s engagement at the Met by dancing Tita, a lead in Christopher Wheeldon’s “Like Water for Chocolate” in June, and she closes the season with “Romeo and Juliet,” opposite Herman Cornejo, on July 22.
Susan Jaffe, Ballet Theater’s artistic director and a longtime former principal, said that she admired Trenary’s intelligence.
“She approaches her characters in an analytical way,” Jaffe added. “Not to be analytical to the point that you can’t move; she needs to really connect the dots and feel that they are authentic to her. But what’s also so nice about it is that when she does move full out, when she’s working on something or dancing in a rehearsal, it’s in every pore of her body. She can embody the emotion of a character through every limb. It’s not just in the face. It’s in the whole body.”
Trenary is feeling stronger this season in part because of her experience working with the choreographer Twyla Tharp at New York City Center last fall with a stellar group from a variety of companies and dance backgrounds.
“She had this belief in all of us that helped us believe in ourselves,” Trenary said of Tharp. “When you feel encouraged to really leave it all out there, you feel free and you feel there are no wrong decisions. The goal was to keep exploring. I think we all got stronger. I miss her a lot, and I miss that group.”
To accommodate the dancers’ varied schedules, rehearsals included 10 a.m. run-throughs of the program, which elevated Trenary’s technique and stamina. Just after those performances, she made her debut in Frederick Ashton’s “The Dream” at Ballet Theater. She felt in control of the situation because she had been dancing so much; feisty and lush, she was a vision.
Trenary joined Ballet Theater in 2011 and was promoted to soloist four years later. Now as a principal, she is navigating her career at a company undergoing a great deal of change. Last year, Jaffe assumed the role of artistic director, and recently it was announced that she would take over as the company’s interim executive director after Janet Rollé, the chief executive and executive director of Ballet Theater, suddenly resigned.
And Alexei Ratmansky, the company’s former artist in residence, who was instrumental in shaping Trenary’s career, has moved to New York City Ballet. “He was a champion of mine and is someone who really fueled my desire to just do ballet really intentionally,” she said. “I’m also really excited to see what he does at City Ballet because they do his movement so well, like, so well. I think it’s going to breed a really incredible body of work.”
As for Ballet Theater’s change in artistic leadership, Trenary said that it’s too early to tell what it will bring, but that she has so far enjoyed her time in the studio with Jaffe. “I appreciate that she literally knows what it’s like to be in my shoes, pun intended,” Trenary said. “I didn’t know how much I needed that from the top position at A.B.T.”
Earlier this year, while dancing the first act of “Giselle” with Ballet Theater in Lincoln, Neb., Trenary fumbled her hops on pointe. In her dressing room, she was distraught. “I was so embarrassed and disappointed in myself,” she said. Then she heard a knock on the door: Jaffe, along with Irina Kolpakova, the esteemed principal répétiteur at Ballet Theater, was there to tell her how beautiful her performance had been.
“I was like, ‘What?’” Trenary recalled. “I was like, ‘No, no, no, no, no, no,’ and then the tears started coming, and I said: ‘I’m so sorry. I’m so sorry. I felt like I had it, and then I didn’t.’ And she was like: ‘The hop? It’s just a coordination thing. We’ll work on it. It’s not a big deal.’”
Instead, she remembered Jaffe telling her, “‘If you did a perfect variation and didn’t have a good interpretation, I would be sorry for you.’” That moment, Trenary added, “says a lot about who she is as a human and a director. So for that, I’m excited.”
As Trenary prepares to dance Juliet again at the Met, her head has been filled with the memory of another ballerina: Lynn Seymour, the dramatic Royal Ballet star, on whom MacMillan created the role. She died in March. In 2019, after hearing that she was going to be cast as Juliet, Trenary traveled to London to work with the Royal Ballet, and she wanted to meet with Seymour.
In an email exchange, Seymour told Trenary that she didn’t know how much she would be able to help; her eyesight was poor, and she rarely left her house. But after Seymour invited her over for coffee, they spent two weeks together.
“Some days would be 85 percent ‘Romeo and Juliet,’ and she’d be standing up in her bedroom demonstrating moments from the potion scene,” Trenary said. “Toward the end of the trip, she said: ‘OK, I think we need to get in the studio. I think I’m ready.’”
As they mapped out different scenes in the ballet, Trenary learned that there were differences between the way the role was taught at Ballet Theater and the way Seymour had experienced it with MacMillan. “Of course, with time and with Kenneth coming to A.B.T. and restaging it, things do shift,” Trenary said.
Seymour was perplexed by the way Juliet died in the Ballet Theater production. She told Trenary that it was too pretty, that all the dancers in her day did something different with each performance as long as the death landed on the right count.
Now, Trenary is searching — as usual — and trying to find a way to convey that spontaneity and honesty while hitting that final arched pose. It’s part of what Seymour instilled in her about artistic freedom, about having the ability to be exactly where you are in the moment.
“I felt very seen by her,” Trenary said. “I wrote down that she let me know that it was OK to care an embarrassing amount. Because I do.”