Soloist, American Ballet Theater

Cassandra Trenary. Photo © Dane Shitagi.

Interview – October 2015

American Ballet Theater soloist Cassandra Trenary leaves an impression. “That girl! Yeah, she’s going to go far,” praised her colleague, Principal Dancer James Whiteside, when I spoke with him earlier. “Yes, I know of her, she seems to be doing great things,” said a longtime dancer of New York City Ballet. And, Trenary was about to leave an impression on me.

Trenary, known as Cassie to her friends, met me at a popular cafe on Broadway, just down the street from the American Ballet Theater studios and where its artists often grab a bite. She was between rehearsals, and ordered a brownie and an iced coffee. “I need to be awake for my next rehearsal!” She said, as she tilted her head down to sip her coffee, showing the nest of bobby pins that secured her hair.

Trenary has been cast in a leading role in American Ballet Theater Principal Dancer Marcelo Gomes’ first commission for the company – a 35 minute piece called AfterEffect – to be performed as part of the company’s mixed repertory program at the David H. Koch Theater later this month. “It’s a cast of 24 dancers. I’m partnered with Cory Stearns (a principal dancer of the company),” Trenary said enthusiastically, “and I’m this ghost pulling him out of his gloomy state, maybe like someone from his past.” Then, Trenary did what most dancers do whenever I ask them to describe something – she animated the description with her whole body as she spoke, curling her shoulders inward while demonstrating a pulling motion with one outstretched arm.

Cassandra Trenary. Photo © NYC Dance Project.

Perhaps Trenary’s intuitive expressiveness inspired Alexei Ratmansky, American Ballet Theater’s artistic director, to create the role of Princess Florine for her in his restaging of the Russian classic, The Sleeping Beauty. This happened March of this year when she was still in the Corps de Ballet.

“Ratmansky has his own style,” said Trenary on working with the admired choreographer. “I think he’s really inspired by the style of the era when Beauty was created. He comes into the studio knowing what he wants – he’s a great coach, and he’ll work with you to get it right. He has so much energy and he gets right in with the dancers doing the steps with us – I don’t know how he does it!” She continued, “Ratmansky would tell us the backstory of the characters to help us understand that era. For example, at the time Beauty was created, men in the audience would give jewels to the dancers they liked. Keeping this in mind while we dance influences our expression.”

Trenary explained how she approached the role of Princess Florine. “To connect with the piece and the character, I need to connect with the people who are on stage with me; it’s important that I make eye contact with them. In a piece like this, I don’t have a big connection with the audience – I can’t even see them! So, the story is played out with the people who are onstage with me. For example, as Princess Florine, I’ll gesture to the King and Queen and look around to the other dancers who play the people in the court. That connection when I interact with them is what makes my character real for me.” She spoke assuredly, articulating the nuances of her craft. “If I mess up, it’s usually because there’s a lot in my head and I’m thinking too much. But, when I’m confident and I know the role well, then I can enjoy it and play with it. I might linger a little longer or make a little accent here and there. I just let the character take over. ”

But, it’s not always easy to get into character, as Trenary recounted. “One of my most memorable moments with this company was my first variation. It was at a gala, and the variation was an excerpt from Raymonda. It was a huge deal, because it meant that the company had confidence in me. Being onstage alone is very scary because the whole performance relies on you. And, you have to hold that character within you – there’s no one you can interact with! Also, when you’re performing an excerpt, there’s no build up in the story leading up to the variation. You’re just put onstage and you’re expected to be in character already – it’s like a dance competition!”

Cassandra Trenary. Photo © Rod Brayman.

I accompanied Trenary to her next rehearsal at the company studios. It was for Paul Taylor’s Company B, and her role was “the ‘Rum and Coke’ girl! I flirt with the boys who play soldiers stationed abroad during World War II, and well, they miss the sight of a beautiful woman! It’s really fun, and best of all, my husband plays one of the soldiers!” She gushed over her husband, Corps de Ballet dancer Gray Davis – they married over a year ago on Davis’ dad’s farm. “We’re both from the south so we really connected on that, and he was sooo sweet – you know I joined the company when I was 17, and he waited until I had turned 18 before asking me out on a date!” She continued, “I love that I’m able to share my life with him and to travel together when we tour. We understand this world we are in that is such a big part of our lives.”

When I asked her about her career goals, she responded with a pragmatism I’ve come to expect from her now. “My goals? Well, I love story ballets, and I’d love to be the principal in a story ballet. But, it’s not up to me, it’s up to the directors, and they know who’s right for the roles and when. There are a lot of strong dancers in the company, but if it’s not your time, then it’s not your time…At this point, I’m happy with the roles I’m given, and the challenges presented to me. I really don’t have time to think of anything else at the moment. Maybe in the future, if I’m not being challenged, or not growing, then I’ll look for something else. But now I’m learning so much, it’s very exciting.”

In fact, since the time of this interview, her dream has already been fulfilled – Trenary made her debut, to rave reviews no less, as Princess Aurora in Ratmansky’s The Sleeping Beauty that was performed at the Metropolitan Opera in New York City in June 2016.

We said our goodbyes as Trenary rushed off to her next rehearsal. She has an easy warmth of a familiar friend, yet beneath that, I sensed an incredible depth that inspires all the characters she portrays onstage. Whether she is playing a character or being herself, she has certainly left an impression on me.

Cassandra Trenary, as Princess Aurora, and Company in The Sleeping Beauty . Photo © John Grigaitis.