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Studio Visit: India Bradley

A Dewdrop Debuts

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Though the second act of George Balanchine's The Nutcracker® features an array of characters and choreography cherished by dancers and audiences alike, from the acrobatics of the Candy Cane dance to the mysterious enchantments of Coffee, one role ranks particularly high in the hearts of many: Dewdrop. With her sprightly, solo footwork and coterie of pink and purple flowers, Dewdrop's divertissement brings one of the most well-known pieces of the Tschaikovsky score to dream-like life; technically challenging yet whimsical and sweet, hers is a singularly magical section of this most beloved ballet.

Since joining the Company as a member of the corps de ballet in 2018, India Bradley has taken on a number of featured roles in the George Balanchine repertory, from Emeralds to Walpurgisnacht Ballet to Tschaikovsky Piano Concerto No. 2. This year, she'll be donning the graceful, gossamer Dewdrop costume for the first time. We caught up with her as she prepared to make her historic debut, the first Black woman in the Company’s history to do so.

Please share a little bit about your history as a dancer—how did you end up dancing with New York City Ballet?

My mother was a dancer, so she knew the basic ropes of how to train a young, developing dancer. The first place that she thought of as the most logical place to take me was Dance Theatre of Harlem, because I was interested in ballet. She has many friends that were once in DTH, so it was a no-brainer. I had an audition in Detroit and received a full scholarship to the summer program. That first year, I was 13, and my mom said I was way too young to stay there for the full year. We came back the next summer, and I was like, “Mom, come on. This is it.” So I stayed the rest of the year, and my mom moved here with me. We lived in Harlem, near DTH, and I met many incredible, inspiring teachers and colleagues there.

Andrea Long was the first Black woman I met who had spent time as a dancer in New York City Ballet, and the first person to tell me to seriously consider NYCB and the School of American Ballet as an option for training. DTH was the furthest goal I had set for my 13-year-old self at the time. Andrea was the first person to say, “You really have something; I think you could go a little further and break another box, and you could be successful at New York City Ballet.” In 2014, after a year with DTH, I auditioned for SAB and received a full scholarship to the summer course; they asked me to stay, so I stayed. The whole thing was really new to me. I didn't know who George was. I didn't know who Peter was. I didn't know who Kay Mazzo was. A lot of the kids that take SAB summer courses have gone for multiple summers before they come to the winter term. I remember feeling like, “I have no idea what's going on. I just don't know as much as these other kids do.”

Before I auditioned, Andrea took me to see NYCB, and the program was Agon, Symphony in Three, and Bizet [Symphony in C], and I remember thinking, “Oh, this is how I want to dance. No one told me that ballet could be like this.” It was like freedom in ballet form. It was the most incredible, eye-opening experience. And I will never forget, Andrea made me remember exactly which ballets were going. She was asking, “Who's the composer?” I was like, “Strav-eye-nsky... or something?” I just didn't know anything. But I knew enough to think, “This looks like the real deal. And I would love to be involved.” I had YouTubed and watched a lot of what other companies performed, but once I’d researched City Ballet, I thought, “No one else is doing this.” Everyone does a version of Nutcracker, everyone does a version of Swan Lake. But this is very different. Very, very, very different. I think that was the beginning of it all.

What has been your trajectory in The Nutcracker? Is it a ballet you particularly enjoy or look forward to?

My first year in the Company, I did what we would call the basics. I did Boy Doll. I did every single Snow and every single Hot Chocolate corps. I remember thinking to myself, “How do people do this? This is the hardest thing I’ve ever done in my life.” I think any dancer who's had to perform every Snow would tell you that it's a really, really difficult phase in your career. Some days you just want to cry. Some days you do cry. It’s a really tough experience, but it builds the skin that you need to continue. Then, the rest of the year feels almost like a breeze. 

After my first year I did Dolls and every other Snow, because I went into every single Flowers, which was a completely different ballgame. It's hard in a different way. It's not as bouncy, it's not as push, push, push, but it's eight minutes long, which is longer than Snow. Some days you feel like people aren't watching you because there's so much happening onstage—the demi flowers, and, of course, the Dewdrop, which is the main “thing” of the whole ballet. It can be hard to motivate yourself. 

I did that for my first few years in the Company. Those years are crucial because they teach you so much about yourself. The older you get, the smarter you get, so you know when to push. Performing in Nutcracker as a corps de ballet dancer is such a great time for improvement, because you’re really tired, but there are little things you can work on; when everything is so familiar, you can be on autopilot choreographically and think about other things that really help your dancing. And, it's such an important time to get familiar with the stage.

This is the first year that I haven't had either every Snow or every Flowers. My goodness, it feels so good. Now I am in every other Snow. I've got four different girls switching out with me for Flowers. And I’m back in Hot Chocolate, but the lead, which is a cool full-circle moment. And I’m debuting the Dewdrop on Sunday. So there are new things and old things and cool things. This has been a fun Nutcracker so far, I'd say.

You shared some of your dream roles with Dance Magazine in an interview last year, including Agon pas de trois, which you debuted earlier this year, and Dewdrop, which you’re debuting very shortly. What does that feel like?

That's so crazy! You know what they say—manifest. I am a realistic kind of gal. I have goals for myself, but they aren’t so crazy that they don't make sense or that they're extremely out of reach. They're things that I know I can achieve, eventually, and that I truly want to do.

At first, I was in the Agon corps and I didn't learn any other roles in the ballet. I thought, “I'm already halfway there. Doing this ballet is a dream in itself. If I just go hard in this corps spot, I think I can somehow psychically convince Katey [Repertory Director Kathleen Tracey] to let me learn a principal part in it.” The next time Agon went, I was still in the corps, but I learned the pas de trois. So I thought, “You never know if you'll do it or not. Just learn it really well, as best as you can, in the back.” When I saw that I was on the schedule, I was like, “We did it.”

That role was a little daunting. Everyone who's done Agon says that the first pas de trois is the most difficult one, stamina-wise. I felt like it was something I needed to do in order to overcome some of my fears. I was also coming back from a sprained ankle injury, which made it even more challenging, but it made me so strong. Katey always told me, Agon is one of those ballets like Nutcracker, it helps you become a better dancer; just doing the steps is enough to improve. George did that on purpose. It's pure pointe-work technique. Now it’s one of my favorite things to do. It's so crazy that Agon was one of the first things I saw NYCB perform. And now I'm doing it.

Dewdrop is one of those special roles that I've seen many of my favorite ballerinas perform in the past—Heather Watts, Kyra Nichols, Tiler Peck. It's hard to get into a role like Dewdrop because there are only a few open spots, and soloists and principals take priority. Some people learn it for years and never get to do it, some people learn it for a year and it's still up in the air. I was like, “I will not get my hopes up. I'm just going to learn it with [Repertory Director] Christine Redpath and see what happens.” It feels surreal. But at the same time, this is what I hoped and planned for and what I've thought about for a very long time. I just turned 25 a couple of months ago; I'm getting to an age where I'm mature enough, mentally and physically, to do roles like this. So, let's do it.

Are there particular challenges or highlights to dancing this role that you're looking forward to or thinking about as you prepare to debut?

What I love about the role is that it moves so much, from stage left to stage right, back and forth, diagonal this way and diagonal that way. You're all over the place. How often do you get to fly across the stage like that? Since I've been rehearsing it, that's what I love the most. You're exhausted at the end, but for good reason. You've taken up every single part of that stage. And, you don’t have a partner, it's just you out there—you just worry about yourself, but you still have the support of all the flowers behind you.

Tiler was the first person at City Ballet to tell me that I should be doing Dewdrop, and I was like, “Well, girl, I'm an apprentice.” She's really mastered the dance of the Dew to a point where I feel like she barely even thinks about it when she goes on stage. She has watched a couple of my rehearsals and has given me helpul things to think about. We have opposite strengths and weaknesses, so it's been really great to talk to her about it. She's been such an inspiring friend to have in these past few years, especially since I've entered this era of sharing roles with her. She's got some of these things under her belt 10-plus years now. I'm excited for her to watch.

You’ve also added modeling to your resume in recent years. How does that relate to your dance practice?

Modeling really came about by accident. It filled a void in 2020, in terms of needing to work, and my mental health; it was so nice just to be doing something that meant anything. And it stuck. I'm obviously busier than I was in 2020 and 2021, so there's less of it these days, but when I do have the opportunity and the time, I just love it. I've noticed while working with different photographers, crew, or directors, that they tend to love the fact that I'm a dancer, because it means that I know how to move and there's not too much direction needed in that respect. I'm not calling myself Naomi Campbell or anything like that, but there is an automatic response to the movement. The way that a ballet dancer or any dancer is trained is to please whoever is in the front of the room. In a modeling job, what you want is for the client to be happy, you want to get the point across. That's something that dancers do very well: listening to what's needed from them, and taking direction, physically; it’s something that we do for a living. I think it is really beautiful that dancers know how to get the job done as best as possible and as quickly as possible.

Modeling has been really fun, and I'm definitely open to all of it. But I would also love to see what it would be like to be behind the camera and direct or photograph or style.

What are you most looking forward to about the remainder of the 23-24 Season? Are there any ballets or collaborators you are particularly excited about?

Tiler Peck is choreographing a new ballet premiering in the winter of 2024 and we're all really excited about it. It's a relatively large cast, and the music is incredible. Working with Tiler is an honor and a gift. She's one of the most inspiring women I know. She knows how to keep a professional room, but also a fun room, while being efficient, all at the same time, which are very hard things for people to do simultaneously. I'm really happy for her and happy that she's included me in this huge milestone and new chapter for her at City Ballet. I'm also excited for all the new Justin Peck ballets coming back because I'm such a huge fan. And, of course, I'm excited for the classic Balanchines.

 

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