CHARLOTTE — “Ballerina” is hardly the profession that comes to mind when one thinks of work-life balance or “having it all.” The women in the spotlight conjure images of beauty, but also sacrifice, single-minded devotion and lofty standards, impossible to reach. It’s a story line abetted and reinforced by films from “The Red Shoes” – with its angst-ridden conflicts between love and art – to the dark mother-daughter histrionics of “Black Swan.”
But then there’s Patricia McBride, the New York City Ballet icon who has been awarded a Kennedy Center Honor. (The 2014 honorees also include Al Green, Tom Hanks, Lily Tomlin and Sting.) In a three-decade long dancing career, McBride brought to life the works of George Balanchine and Jerome Robbins (both already honored by the Kennedy Center) with a list of partners that included Edward Villella, Arthur Mitchell, Jacques d’Amboise and Mikhail Baryshnikov (all with Kennedy Center awards, as well).
Her ballet gifts and contributions are impeccable, of course, with a long list of honors that preceded the Kennedy recognition since she first joined NYCB as an apprentice and was named a principal dancer, the company’s youngest, when she was just 18. She was beloved, noted for her onstage personality and wit and showered with thousands of roses during her final, lengthy standing ovation.
As important to her is her 41-year marriage to dancer-choreographer-teacher Jean-Pierre Bonnefoux, the Paris Opera Ballet star who joined NYCB in 1970. They have two children and three grandchildren and live in Charlotte, N.C., where Bonnefoux is president and artistic director of Charlotte Ballet and Charlotte Ballet Academy and McBride is associate artistic director of the company and master teacher with the academy.
“Sunny” is one word you’d use to describe McBride. “Humble” is another. While some greeted her latest honor with “it’s about time” celebration, McBride, 72, said that when she got the news, “I had so many emotions,” happy and delighted being two of them. “It’s one of the greatest awards that a dancer can receive. … This was such a gift; I was very moved, after the shock.” She said meeting President Obama and the first lady would be “very exciting.”
“I’ve had an extraordinary life as a dancer. You tour the world, you see all the great capitals of the world, the beautiful old opera houses all over Europe — you go everywhere. As a teenager, I would always say I can’t believe this is happening to little me because it was always a dream, to dance. I didn’t know about being a professional dancer. I just knew I loved it.”
Her road to achieving that dream and the balance in her life was filled with role models — the female ballerinas who also had children and families, the generous teachers with a gentle touch, the mother who pinched pennies and sewed costumes at their Teaneck, N.J., home. Their spirit will be with McBride in the Kennedy Center box of honor (the public ceremony is Dec. 7, with the show airing Dec. 30 on CBS).
In the Charlotte Ballet’s home, the Patricia McBride and Jean-Pierre Bonnefoux Center for Dance, McBride spoke with She the People about the influences in her life, her advice to the dancers she teaches and mentors and the fact that she has no plans to see “Black Swan.” (Excerpts from the conversation have been edited.)
STP: After he returned from the war, your father left the family when you and your younger brother, Eugene, were toddlers. Your mother, Margaret, was a working mother at a time when it was not as common, and lived to see your great success before she died in 2002.
PM: My mom was like a father and mother all rolled into one. She worked as an executive secretary. She was only 19 when I was born. We had a roof over our heads, living with my grandmother and grandfather.
My grandfather died when I was 10 years old, and my mother really supported my grandmother. She paid the mortgage for the house and worked. I never felt she wasn’t there for me. I am just so thankful that my mom was a fantastic mom. She wasn’t a stage mother; she didn’t push me. She was happy if I was happy. We are so different. I was very shy; my mom did all the talking. She was my strength. She never expected that I would be this ballerina.
STP: Your mother gave you ballet lessons and your brother piano lessons.
PM: She and my grandma looked for the best recitals in Teaneck. She did ballroom dancing — big bands were her generation. Ballet class cost 75 cents; that was a lot of money in those days.
STP: How did you get from Ruth Vernon’s school in Teaneck when you were a child to studies in New York?
PM: My first teacher, she gave me such a love of it. When I was 12 she asked my mother and me, “Do you want to be a professional? Because if you want to be a professional, I can’t teach you anymore, and I want you to go to New York City.”
It was an amazing thing for a teacher to do that for her student, to let me go.
STP: George Balanchine was in the first group chosen to be honored by the Kennedy Center. You are now staging his “Four Temperaments” for the Charlotte Ballet’s October show. How did he influence you?
PM: He was such a gentleman. He was humble; he would never raise his voice. It’s not what you see in some of the movies where the director is so hard and strong and difficult. He was the easiest, gentlest person. He was such an inspiration, and you just wanted to please him. There was no doubt of his genius. I respected and admired him.
I’ve had a few teachers who were very negative, tore me down. I always envision a gentle touch and a positive word can help the dancers. We’re so insecure anyway. We have to face ourselves and look at our imperfections in the mirror every day. I’ve had so many gentle teachers in my life. He was a wonderful role model.
STP: Society and women are still having discussions about combining work and home, though several Charlotte Ballet dancers have had children and returned to the company, and you are an example for them. How did you feel when you had children?
PM: I was really torn. I was 39 when I gave birth to my son [Christopher]. My daughter arrived when I was five months pregnant with my son. We adopted Melanie from Korea; she was 2 years old, almost 3. I always wanted to have a family. I had a good example because Melissa Hayden was a ballerina in our company and she had two children and danced afterward, and Allegra Kent also did. In my generation, years after them, I was very nervous when I had my children almost at the same time. You know, you want to do it well.
Jean-Pierre is the one who said, “You’re a dancer, you should dance.” I think I was the one who would have wanted to stay home, but he said. “You’ve got to dance again.” I’m so happy that I went back. It just took a lot of organization. I did have my mom every weekend. For five years she would come Saturday mornings and she would leave on Sunday evenings.
Being a mother is such a revelation. It isn’t exactly what you think it’s going to be. I read a lot of books before the birth, but afterwards you sort of hope for the best. Then, you reach a point when your children can come and see you dance and they can understand why you’re going.
STP: Has it changed in other ways for today’s ballerinas?
PM: I wasn’t that interested in my salary. I was doing it because I loved it. It wasn’t important to me that I would get the same salary. I just felt blessed to be doing what I loved, and dancers never make a lot of money.
I feel that there definitely has to be an equality with women because they work as hard as the men. There has to be a fairness – always. We were always put on a pedestal. You didn’t feel you were put down. I feel so much for the women today, and I feel that they are right to be wanting equal pay for the same job.
STP: You work with your husband. How is it?
PM: Jean-Pierre was one of my partners when he joined the company [New York City Ballet]. It was Jean-Pierre’s premiere. We were dating. He was supposed to do the “Tschaikovsky Pas de Deux”‘ with Melissa Hayden, and I had had the ballet right before, and they said Melissa Hayden hurt herself and you have to dance. I had done it many, many times with many different partners, but I had never partnered with Jean-Pierre.
It’s not always easy, husband and wife working together. Sometimes it’s like when we first danced — it was like. “Oh, my goodness.” We worked it out. We learned how to work it out.