Embodying Sweat and Beauty

An Interview with Soloist Joseph Gordon

By Elisabeth Donnelly

At 26 years old, Joseph Gordon has established himself as one of the rising dancers of New York City Ballet. Originally from Phoenix, Arizona, Joseph moved to New York in 2006 to attend the School of American Ballet as a full-time student. Joining the corps de ballet in 2012, Joseph was promoted to Soloist in February 2017. Joseph has tackled a wide range of NYCB’s repertory, performing featured roles in ballets from such masters as George Balanchine (Agon, Coppelia, Symphony in C) and Jerome Robbins (Dances at a Gathering, Fancy Free, The Goldberg Variations) and from modern choreographers including Christopher Wheeldon (Polyphonia) and Alexei Ratmansky (Concerto DSCH, Russian Seasons, and Pictures at an Exhibition). Later this fall, he's scheduled to debut in Robbins' Afternoon of a Faun, and kicked off the season with featured role in Matthew Neenan's Fall Gala premiere, The Exchange.

We talked with him in August about the artistry and athleticism that drives him as a dancer and performer, and the fine line that artists need to walk these days.

What does this Balanchine quote mean to you? First comes the sweat. Then comes the beauty, if you’re very lucky and have said your prayers.
It means that you can’t have success without putting in the work. You have to sweat — in our case, sweat — or in any profession, you can’t take shortcuts. Obviously luck plays into it, but you have to put in the work. 

Who in the dance world inspires you the most, and why?

When I was a kid, [Mikhail] Baryshnikov was probably the main reason I started dancing. He’s really inspirational and he kind of created the modern male ballet ideal. I guess [Rudolph] Nureyev did too. [Alexei] Ratmansky has become more of my main source of inspiration now. I’m really intrigued by him. He brings something out of me. He creates such a world and atmosphere with his work, and it’s so cool. It’s a lot of interceptions of athleticism and emotion.
Is there a performance that resonated with you in a significant way?
This year I had some pretty big achievements, but what comes to mind is doing Coppélia, my first story ballet. It just felt like this kind of dream I had since watching those tapes of Baryshnikov and being that male ideal prince or protagonist in that way. It felt monumental because it’s something I wanted my whole life.

What is your favorite music to perform to?
Tschaikovsky. Also I really like performing to Chopin. They’re both Romantic-era composers, I think something about romanticism speaks to me as an artist, and I find that music so rich and so beautiful. I feel most at ease dancing to romantic composers.
Tell us about a personal or physical challenge you’ve had to overcome in your career. How did you approach it?
It’s been a learning experience physically. You get in [as a dancer] when you’re really young, and you push your body to its limits and you learn through trial and error what you have to do to have the longevity that you want in your career. Mentally, for me a big aspect of the ballet world that I have to overcome or distance myself from is the comparisons that we all make. It’s always easy to go into a place of why does this person have this and I don’t, why are they getting more visibility than I am, why do they have more followers than I do, what am I doing wrong? That has been a struggle but I think I’m getting better at just focusing on myself.
Social media has not helped this aspect of the ballet persona because what used to be kind of more of a private art form has been turned public. If you feel that way, you have to get off all social media because it’s not going to help those feelings.

Ballet is mentally demanding as well as physically grueling. How do you maintain your mental strength on top of your physical strength?
Practice, doing it my whole life helps, and also having time away helps. You have to have a fine line – because as a dancer you do always have to be doing it – but you don’t want to get so tired and so burnt out to the point of causing injury or mental frustration or fatigue. I think as an artist you want to have other experiences in your life to enrich your dancing, intellectually or spiritually, or however you want to search for that experience.

What kind of cross-training do you do to support your dancing?
Pilates, swimming, biking, general weightlifting. That’s pretty much it. It depends on what I’m doing as a dancer and what I feel like I need. Generally on vacations I try to do long swims if I’m by an ocean or lake.
Do you play any sports?
I used to be, very briefly, on a swim team. That’s kind of the extent of it – I don’t really want to play sports. Never really been into sports. Love swimming.
Have you ever struggled with a particular step, variation, or role? How did you overcome it?
The third act in Coppélia has those crazy double tours to second, those are pretty daunting. I don’t feel like I really struggled with them everyday, but it was one of those mental pushes that you had to overcome. That first performance, something just happened, where I knew I had to do it and that happened and that felt really cool. There are certain ballets stamina-wise that are just really hard, Le Baiser de La Fee was like that and in rehearsals it was more of a struggle to try to push forward. In performance, you have no choice, and you have adrenaline and all these other energies factoring into it.
How has the discipline of ballet shaped your identity?
Since a ballet dancer relies on the structure that’s provided for them, I find that I do really well when I’m provided that organization in my day, and when those expectations that I have for myself but that others have for me – to show up for this rehearsal, to do this performance – I rise to the occasion. I’m not so good at self-discipline all the time. Maybe it’s the energy of the city, it’s been more of a struggle to create a schedule for myself. I’m getting better at it and I think ballet undoubtedly will help me conquer whatever comes up next in my life. It certainly shames you for being lazy, so I guess that’s a good skill to have.
As a dancer and an athlete, when do you feel the strongest? When do you feel the most artistic?

I feel that way when I’m dancing on stage. It’s so grueling everyday, but it takes you to that release and that excitement and thrill of just being on stage, feeling beautiful or perfect or alive or however you want to describe that feeling. That’s why I do what I do.

Interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.

Joseph will be performing throughout the 2018/2019 season. Fall programming begins on SEPT 18 and runs through OCT 14 at the David H. Koch Theater at Lincoln Center. For tickets, visit the Fall 2018 page.


Photos ©  Gabriela Celeste