Jennifer Tinsley eyes transition from City Ballet to teaching

"I'm so thankful and humbled that I had my dream come true," says Jennifer Tinsley-Williams, a soloi
Jennifer Tinsley-Williams is making her final New York City Ballet performance at SPAC.
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Jennifer Tinsley-Williams is making her final New York City Ballet performance at SPAC.

Jennifer Tinsley had a dream. She wanted to dance, and not with just anyone. She trained her eye on one company alone: the New York City Ballet.

Luckily for both Tinsley and the audience that had the pleasure of basking in her sunshiny stage presence for 18 years, that dream came true.

But all careers must come to an end. Tinsley, now going by her married name, Tinsley-Williams, will take her final bow with the company on Saturday, July 26. Her last dance will be the first section of Balanchine’s “Western Symphony” at Saratoga Performing Arts Center.

“It’s bittersweet,” said Tinsley-Williams, who sat down to talk about her career last week. “I’m 37. I’ve been dancing for 30 years. It’s hard work. Sometimes my body feels like I’m 60. It doesn’t feel as good as it used to. I still have joy in my heart when I dance. I never lost that, but I’m not quite as capable. I can’t push as hard as I used to.”

Physical setback

Tinsley-Williams, a soloist whose specialty was the Balanchine repertoire, realized the change in her body following two years of convalescing after shredding her Achilles tendon in 2005. She waited one year for it to heal on its own. When it didn’t, she had surgery and waited another year in the wings.

“When I returned to stage at the end of November, the company changed completely. That’s the nature of the company; it’s always moving and growing and changing. Peter [Martins] has a lot of new dancers that he is excited about. I had my time.”

During her time off, she met and married Matt Williams, a musical theater choreographer. She also started teaching ballet as a substitute at the School of American Ballet (SAB), the company’s training grounds, and the New York State Summer School for the Arts, School of Ballet. She is looking for a regular teaching position in ballet schools around the New York tri-state area.

“As I go around to other schools, I use the name New York City Ballet and that helps to open doors,” she said.

Once she finds a permanent studio, she hopes to nurture the students’ creativity and emotional health as much as their technique.

“Ballet can be harsh. Ballet is impossible. Dancers want to achieve perfection. And even if you work your hardest, things might not come your way because one person has all the control,” said Tinsley-Williams. “I’ve seen so many body-image problems, and a teacher’s approach can be emotionally damaging. I never had that problem. I was lucky to be born with small frame and thin structure. I’m thankful for that.”

Bored, then determined

But that doesn’t mean ballet has been easy on her. The native of Dallas said her only natural talent was jumping.

“I was born with the gift to dance and jump. The rest, I had to work hard for.”

When she first started ballet, at age 6, she didn’t like it. The first few classes, she said, were “dry and boring.” But her teachers encouraged her, telling her that she had the aptitude. By the time she was 10 and in pointe shoes, ballet was everything. And New York City Ballet was her singular goal.

“I had a supportive family, even though no one in my family has anything to do with dance. They just knew I wanted to dance — so they supported me.”

She was accepted into SAB at age 13. Seven years later, she was invited into the company. For nine years, she danced in the corps de ballet, and then the next nine years she was a soloist.

“I was so lucky to be in the corps for nine years. I danced a lot every night, a couple of ballets a night, eight shows a week. That’s probably why my body feels the way it does.”

She had hoped she would rise further in the company and garner larger roles.

“There were a lot of things I would have like to do, to be challenged with or thought of more. Absolutely. I never felt I had a particular coach or rehearsal master or mistress that was on my side or wanted to work with me, nurture me and bring out the best of me. I was given wonderful things and did the best that I could. But I can’t leave with regret.”

Balanchine devotee

Her favorite ballets were the stripped-down, leotard ballets by Balanchine. “Symphony in Three Movements,” to Stavinsky, tops the list.

“I love that ballet because I danced the corps, the demi-soloists and the principal parts in that ballet. I love that ballet because it’s athletic, mathematical and complicated movement.”

But she also adored dancing the Lilac Fairy in “The Sleeping Beauty.”

“I only did it one season, but it was my all-time favorite. It was special because the Lilac Fairy is a force for good in that story. And Peter [Martins] gave me an especially kind comment, something like he could see the light within me. I’ll treasure that, because Peter doesn’t hand out compliments freely or often.”

Tinsley-Williams also cherishes her part in Balanchine’s “A Midsummer Night’s Dream,” as Hermia. “I really enjoyed the comedy and the drama.”

And she relishes her hours with Jerome Robbins, who obsessively rehearsed such ballets as “Interplay.” “I was the girl that does a little booty shake. I really liked that ballet because it has a small cast and no fouette turns. I don’t like fouettes. He rehearsed that a lot and I danced it a lot.”

She also worked with Robbins on “West Side Story Suite” as a Jet girl, including the role of Riff’s girlfriend opposite Damian Woetzel and, most recently, with Andrew Veyette.

Bowing out at SPAC

During her last week, Tinsley-Williams will dance with Nilas Martins in “Western Symphony,” Balanchine’s send-up to the American West. She dances the principal part, a role that requires a lot of stamina. She first tackled it last February.

“I like it because I will finish strong,” said the ballerina.

She wanted to take her last curtain call in Saratoga because “I really do love this town, and I love the people and I love the open air and the families.” But a matinee? Most City Ballet dancers dread the afternoon shows as they can see all those eyes peering up at them. Not Tinsley-Williams.

“I love seeing all the faces smiling up at me. I find it relaxing. It feels more like a rehearsal than a performance. I’ll have a lot of friends and family out there. I hope to look out and see them.”

But as she talks about her last days, she tears well up in her eyes.

“I’m so thankful and humbled that I had my dream come true.”

Categories: Life and Arts

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