Ballerina Jenifer Ringer may never have had an opportunity to write a book if the New York Times’ chief dance critic had not used some indelicate language to describe her appearance.
Ringer, who at that point (2010) had been a principal dancer with the New York City Ballet for a dozen years, was making her opening-night debut as the Sugar Plum Fairy in the company’s production of “George Balanchine’s The Nutcracker.” Maybe Alastair Macaulay came hungry. Maybe he was in a bad mood. Maybe something had been eating at him for quite some time. At any rate, here is what he wrote: “This didn’t feel . . . like an opening night. Jenifer Ringer, as the Sugar Plum Fairy, looked as if she’d eaten one sugar plum too many.”
In the days, weeks and months that followed, both Ringer and Macauley braved the public fallout that resulted from a big-name critic calling a ballerina fat. Macauley held his ground in another column. For Ringer, there were trips to Oprah and the “Today” show, tabloid headlines, and stalker television crews. Then, sometime later, came an opportunity to write a book, in which she has devoted a chapter to “Sugar Plumgate.”
Ballet memoirs, particularly by City Ballet dancers, come out at a fairly steady clip. “Dancing Through It” will not take its place among the best-written (Jock Soto’s lively “Every Step You Take”) or the most revealing (Suzanne Farrell and Toni Bentley’s “Holding on to the Air”), but it does provide a glimpse into the fragile psyche of a dancer. Ringer credits religious faith with helping bring her back to the top of a field where, as she puts it, “ballet is god.” For local readers, her memoir offers a look at her pivotal years as a teenage ballerina in Northern Virginia.
“Dancing Through It” opens with a five-page reminiscence of Ringer’s first professional performance: dancing Balanchine’s “Serenade” with the Washington Ballet at the Kennedy Center. “If I were to distill into one event what made me want to dance, I would say that dancing in ‘Serenade’ was what ultimately led me to a career in ballet. . . . The moment I heard the music and began to learn steps that fit the music so well that they seemed inevitable, I knew my life had been changed.”
Ringer was born in New Bern, N.C., to a nurse and a marine biologist, who in 1985 went to work for the Naval Criminal Investigative Service in Washington. Ringer was 12 when her family settled in West Springfield, and she says that, until that point, ballet was just “an after school activity”; neither she nor her parents knew if she was any good. For a while, she took classes at both the Virginia and Washington ballets. In Fairfax, she experienced the thrill of learning lifts under Oleg Tupin, a former dancer with the Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo, but she ultimately preferred the more rigorous Washington Ballet, even though that meant her terrified mother had to drive her from Fairfax County to Tenleytown.
Ringer’s local instructors included Patricia Berrend, Julio de Bittencourt and Suzanne Erlon, but she writes most fondly of the late choreographer Choo San Goh. Ringer describes Choo San as a “quiet and gentle” teacher who was unable to understand her Southern accent. Company founder Mary Day lived up to her tyrannical reputation; Ringer says she was “cause for extra nerves and more attention to how our hair was fixed.” Nonetheless, Day picked Ringer as one of three students to join that memorable 1987 “Serenade” performance, which Ringer returns to throughout the book.
In 1988, Ringer’s family relocated to New York after her father got another transfer and a generous “hardship” housing allowance. Briefly, Ringer became a full-time student at the School of American Ballet, and because of injuries in the company she was cast in a series of performances. She became a member of the City Ballet corps in 1990, when she was just 17.
Until this point, Ringer’s book is a small-town-girl-makes-it-big story. In subsequent chapters, the tone is darker, and the details are less specific. Ringer’s father was transferred again (to Europe and then back to Washington), and she was alone in New York battling anorexia, then bulimia. She doesn’t attribute her problems to life in a ballet company but to having had little life experience and no support system. “There was only me and my obsession with food and failure,” she writes, noting that she was also spiritually alone because she had put God “up on my shelf.”
Coming out in a dance memoir as an evangelical Christian is nearly as rare as coming out as gay in the NFL. Performing on Sundays made it hard for Ringer to attend church, but she finally reconnected with her faith through a Manhattan congregation. Unfortunately, many of her religious reflections come off as platitudes. She never discusses how her faith was received by members of the company, except for one late-night exchange with James Fayette, a dancer who later became her husband. They were driving back from a gig with other dancers when she vowed to never have sex before marriage. Fayette was the first man she kissed, on New Year’s Eve 1997.
The closest Ringer comes to a major disclosure about the culture of dance is to note that before ballet master Peter Martins dismissed her from the company because of her weight gain, he told her to “stop eating cheesecake.” It’s a telling line that indicates how out of touch he was about eating disorders.
Ringer’s 1995 comeback was fueled by faith and Fayette, and in 2000 she was promoted to the rank of principal dancer. For the past 14 years, ballet fans have savored her performances in romantic roles, most notably Jerome Robbins’s “Dances at a Gathering.” The chapter she devotes to this ballet includes stories of rehearsing with Robbins, screaming the first time she was thrown by Soto and improvising when the pianist completely screwed up. These are accounts to cherish.
On Feb. 9, Ringer performed “Dances” one last time and took her final bows as a dancer in the New York City Ballet. “What City Ballet fan doesn’t love Jenifer Ringer, and who won’t be sad to learn that she is retiring from the company?” Roslyn Sulcas wrote in the Times, perhaps taking a shot at her colleague Macauley. She went on to say that Ringer is “gentle, lyrical, romantic, and above all, able to infuse her dancing with a rare warmth and humanity.”
Sulcas’s assessment is on point — and just the sort of sentence that Ringer is too modest to include in “Dancing Through It.”
DANCING THROUGH IT
My Journey in the Ballet
By Jenifer Ringer
Viking. 274 pp. $27.95