For a ballerina, a point shoe is a second skin. “I wasn’t even thinking about it, because I was dancing,” Mearns said. “Someone joked with me and said, ‘You become a modern dancer on your layoffs.’”
Mearns, a principal with New York City Ballet, sprawled out on a floor in a downtown studio after a recent rehearsal for yet another new project — a dance in sneakers — and laughed. “I do,” she said. “I never think twice about, ‘Oh, God, I’m not doing ballet.’ It’s always about the people I’m working with and the project.”
At City Ballet, Mearns, 33, is lauded for her musicality, daring and indelible old-school glamour. She moves so big, yet without sacrificing delicacy. But although she is one of the most celebrated ballerinas in the world, she isn’t tethered to ballet. She’s curious; she wants to experience as much as she can in the body that she has now.
To find another ballet dancer who expanded his or her range with such fortitude and ferocity, you’d have to go back to Mikhail Baryshnikov. But he transitioned into modern dance after his ballet career ended. Mearns is still going strong as a classical dancer.
Beginning Wednesday, she will show off her contemporary side in “Beyond Ballet,” a program presented by Jacob’s Pillow that includes “Opulence,” a new duet by Jodi Melnick; “No. 1,” a duet with Honji Wang of the French hip-hop duo Wang Ramirez; and “Ekstasis,” a 1933 solo by Martha Graham, reimagined by Virginie Mécène, a former Graham company principal.
For Pamela Tatge, the Pillow’s director, Mearns is “a rare dancer,” one who is “able to realize any movement that a choreographer — as far as I’ve seen — puts in front of her.”
It’s getting to the point where Mearns could have her own branch on the modern dance tree. So far, her repertoire has included dances by modern masters like Graham, Isadora Duncan and Merce Cunningham, and contemporary choreographers including Melnick, Pam Tanowitz and Christopher Williams.
“Every time I say yes,” Mearns said, “I’m like, I don’t know if I can do this, but I’m not going to say no. I’m not going to say no to Cunningham. I’m not going to say no to Martha Graham. I’m just going to try and do my best.”
As a classical dancer, Mearns has a power and command that few share; in modern works, she is more contained but still glitteringly present. The only thing that seems to scare her is the possibility of not trying hard enough.
For “Night of 100 Solos: A Centennial Event,” which celebrated the centenary of Cunningham, Mearns shared the stage with accomplished contemporary dancers. From the start, she was remarkable in material that is almost impossible to master — her fearlessness and precision shifted the mood: Suddenly, the stage was a place of a heightened, incandescent alertness.
After performing her third solo, Mearns went into the hallway and cried. (She isn’t the type to hide her emotions on or off the stage.) “It was out of pure joy,” she said. “I put everything I could into it and I took chances, and I couldn’t believe it when I came off. I haven’t had that feeling in a very long time.”
As she looks beyond ballet, Mearns’ artistic path is more internal, more personal. “It’s not a PR thing; it’s not a way to get attention. It’s, ‘What is a collaboration that no one has done before?’ It doesn’t have to be commercial and it doesn’t have to make money for it to be successful.”
She would rather unleash her creativity with choreographers like Melnick, who inspired Mearns to expand her dance horizons in the first place. (They met at Danspace Project in a 2015 platform that paired contemporary dance artists and those with backgrounds with Cunningham and City Ballet.)
Melnick comes out of postmodern dance and has worked with artists including Twyla Tharp, Trisha Brown, Sara Rudner and Baryshnikov. Her finely wrought movement is a chain of complex articulations and shifts of weight that have an effortless way of peeling or slipping silkily off the body.
Melnick’s sophisticated choreography is neither flashy nor full of the indistinguishable posturing often found in contemporary ballet, and Mearns is obsessed with it. But it’s not just the dancing: Through her exposure to Melnick, Mearns’ taste has become more refined.
“Jodi is a mentor,” Mearns said. “Totally.”
She took a long pause while considering if she had any others as important in her life. “I guess not,” she said with a laugh, “if I have to work this hard at thinking about it.”
After they collaborated on “Working in Process/New Bodies” for Works & Process at the Guggenheim, Mearns asked Melnick to choreograph a duet for the two of them. “She was very adamant and serious about dancing with me,” Melnick said.
Although she prefers to work alone at the start of any process — “that loneliness factor is really important to me,” Melnick said — Mearns wore her down, and she had a partner in the studio last fall.
As they worked together, Mearns would follow along behind Melnick. “When something happened that I felt was of interest to her or to me, I would stop and teach it to her,” Melnick said. “It kind of reminded me of processes that I’ve been in with other choreographers where you don’t question or judge.”
But in late December, Melnick was involved in a motorcycle accident; her ankle was severely damaged. She didn’t start walking again until the end of March and remains in considerable pain.
“I was like, OK,” Melnick said. “Kind of like, game over, and then after talking to my surgeons and Sara — she was like, ‘Don’t make a decision; let’s just get back into the studio and see what happens.’ If it wasn’t for her, I’d probably still be not dancing or not even doing this well in my recovery.”
For the duet, they will perform in sneakers; Melnick is exploring the word “opulence” and how seemingly simple movement can have many facets. “There’s something that feels very opulent in cutting things down and keeping it very minimal,” she said.
Melnick isn’t interested in having Mearns copy her; rather, she gives her information and then sees what she can do — and, more important, what is left out of her interpretation. Melnick said: “She always sees what she’s missing and that forever fascinates me. She says, ‘I see that I’m doing 18 of the things that you’re doing, but you’re doing 300 things in that one moment, and I know that I’m doing a lot but I’m not doing that.’”
Mearns loves challenges, and Melnick’s work is full of them. “She’s helped me be more in tune in my own body and to not just move through things and throw things away — because she never does that ever,” Mearns said. “It helps me move better in ballet. After doing all of this, I feel like I am feeling things differently and improving as I’m getting older.”
And they have become friends. “Half of our rehearsals are therapy sessions, and then we dance at the end,” Mearns said. And Melnick’s influence expands beyond her own work. Now, in both her work at City Ballet and beyond, Mearns can grasp the allure and power of simplicity. She also relishes the ability to stay open, which, for her, is what any ballerina should be in the modern age.
But what is not on her list at all? Broadway — although she starred last spring in the Encores! production of “I Married an Angel,” which was choreographed and directed by her husband, Joshua Bergasse, who works in musical theater. That was a labor of love and, it turned out, an important step in her artistic development: She learned that she can speak onstage and that she has comic timing. “When you hear that laugh, you’re just like, that’s good,” she said, her deep voice lowering another octave for emphasis. “That is good.”
But the politics and the commercial aspect of the Broadway world trouble her. “It’s not successful unless you make money, unless your investors are happy and unless you get a laugh out of the audience,” she said. “That, for me, is not fulfilling. But my husband loves it, and that’s what he grew up on. And also he likes to make good theater. He doesn’t just want to do huge moneymakers. Right now that is really hard because everything is just taking movies and making them into musicals.”
In the coming months, Mearns will perform a new duet by Kim Brandstrup alongside her City Ballet colleague Taylor Stanley at the Fall for Dance Festival and work with Melnick and filmmaker Charles Atlas as part of a residency at Baryshnikov Arts Center. There’s more; she just can’t talk about it yet. But she did bring up an ultimate dream: to work with Baryshnikov.
“I don’t even know how that would happen or how that would work,” she said. “We chat and we talk, but I don’t even know what it would be.”
She paused and a panicked expression washed over her face: “How do I make that happen?”
Mearns will stay open. She will remain patient. And then when the moment comes, she will seize it.
This article originally appeared in The New York Times.