Jenifer Ringer’s fresh start on the West Coast

“I see myself in them—how hard they work and their dreams,” says Ringer about her students.

When Jenifer Ringer retired from New York City Ballet in 2014, to New York audiences it felt like the departure of an old friend. She had brilliant technique and a raven-haired beauty, but it was the warm radiance and joy that infused her dancing that made ballet-goers feel she’d be as kind and generous, witty and smart offstage as on. Ringer spent more than two decades in the public eye, and her path to principal dancer was not without detours—struggles with weight and self-esteem caused her to lose her NYCB soloist contract for a year—but even those challenges seemed to make her a more interesting, thoughtful performer.

In 2010, The New York Times critic Alastair Macaulay said she looked like she’d eaten “one sugarplum too many” in a Nutcracker review, and the outrage on her behalf was immediate and very vocal. Ever gracious, Ringer appeared on “Today” and “Oprah” to defend herself, by then secure enough not to be rattled by “one person’s opinion.” Ringer, who now had fans nationwide, wrote an honest, revealing memoir called Dancing Through It: My Journey in the Ballet, which chronicled the vicissitudes of her life and career. And now she has created an unexpected post-retirement life on the West Coast, where she is part of the new genesis of dance that is currently underway in Los Angeles.

Performing “Emeralds” from Balanchine’s Jewels

She was planning her retirement when a call came from Benjamin Millepied, a former NYCB colleague who had started L.A. Dance Project (and would later take over Paris Opéra Ballet). Millepied was working with the Colburn School in downtown Los Angeles to develop a pre-professional ballet program. “When Benjamin called me, initially I thought he was crazy, because I couldn’t imagine living in Los Angeles,” says Ringer, a longtime New Yorker with South Carolina roots. Yet after she and her husband, dancer James Fayette, visited the school, primarily known for its world-class music training, and met with president Sel Kardan, they were intrigued.

Kardan gave them carte blanche in designing a brand-new program: “Sel said he’d rather see our dream program and have to be realistic and cut back, than start small,” says Ringer. The opportunity was both a fresh start and a fascinating proposition—to create a ballet program relatively free of financial concerns, thanks to a sizable endowment, and the facilities of a respected institution in a city without any tradition of high-profile pre-professional training.

Rehearsing with her husband James Fayette

Charged with creating a new model of ballet training, Ringer and Fayette considered what they could have benefited from as students, consulted with choreographer friends as to what they were looking for in dancers and drew inspiration from Millepied’s own training in Lyon, France. The Colburn Dance Academy, which opened last fall, is remarkable for its intimate size (currently 12 dancers), its focus exclusively on advanced students and a forward-thinking curriculum designed to create well-rounded, confident dancers who also have impeccable technique. It is also uniquely reflective of Ringer as a performing artist—focused, individual, artistic, thoughtful and both open-minded and classical.

The Dance Academy

Ringer and Fayette structured the Colburn Dance Academy as a rigorous ballet program. Students start with two ballet classes a day: technique, followed by variations, repertory, pointe or a men’s class. Unique in the curriculum is the third class of the day, which rotates among different genres of dance (contemporary, modern, street dance, “untapped” tap without tap shoes), music, drama, strength training, ballet history, nutrition and docent-guided visits to the adjacent Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles. “One thing that James and I came away from our own professional experience with is that ballet dancers today are often exclusively focused on ballet, and we didn’t want that,” says Ringer. “In order to be rich artists and to contribute to the dance world, you need more than just ballet. We wanted a program where we could open up the students to many artistic genres.”

Twelve students, ages 14 to 19, were selected for the inaugural class, from California and around the country. The academy could expand to 15, but Ringer prefers to keep it small. She fosters a warm, collegial environment in which dancers are encouraged to have a voice, something she struggled with as a young dancer. “Dancers are taught to be silent,” she says. “They come into the studio silently, look in the mirror and are told by the teacher what’s wrong. It can be debilitating. We try to have open communication, and we’re able to do that because we have so few students. Even as professionals, many dancers don’t feel they can approach their directors to have a conversation as two adults. That needs to change.”

The value in this approach was reinforced by choreographer Christopher Wheeldon, who participated in a Skype chat with students after they had studied his work. Wheeldon told the students he could find plenty of technicians who can do 32 perfect fouettés, but finds it harder to find dancers with something interesting to contribute. Ringer, whose nuanced performances embodied Wheeldon’s ideal, agrees. “Choreographers today are looking for individuals, for people who let their spirit come out in dance,” she says.

Transitioning to Educator

Ringer led the ballet program at New York State Summer School of the Arts from 2008 to 2013, a formative experience in her career transition. “Before NYSSSA, I wasn’t sure I wanted to teach after I stopped dancing,” she says. “But learning the personalities of the individual students and getting involved in their training for just those four short weeks was so rewarding. I cared so much for these students. It underlined for me that I was ready to be more outwardly focused in the world of dance, rather than as self-focused as a ballerina often has to be. Now at the Dance Academy, I get to have the students year-round and we can be so patient with the details as we polish them up. It has been a great experience so far.”

Colburn Dance Academy student Anna Barnes, 17, was starstruck the first time she was in the studio with Ringer, but says Ringer was so kind that it quickly abated. “She always has a smile on her face,” says Barnes. “I love taking her class. She’ll come up with these insanely hard yet great combinations that make us work but are still fun. When she demonstrates, you can see exactly what you need to do. I learn so much from her.”

“I see myself in them—how hard they work and their dreams,” says Ringer. “The perfectionism that creeps in with ballet can be so difficult. We’ve been trying to manage that, to get them to strive for excellence, but realize that not only is it not going to be perfect, but that real artistry comes when it’s not perfect.”

Taking a bow after her final performance with New York City Ballet

Ringer and Fayette are still fine-tuning. Originally they had coordinated early-release programs with two local high schools so dancers could be at Colburn for a 12:30 pm start (studios are shared with Colburn’s Trudl Zipper Dance Institute, which starts at 4 pm). But since most of the students now do their academic coursework through online high schools, Colburn’s fall classes will begin at 10 am, making online school a necessity. “That, I’m not thrilled about,” Ringer says. “James and I both value academics highly. It took us a long time, but we both have college degrees. Unfortunately, it’s how the ballet world is going right now. You have to do this intensive training in your teenage years because of how early companies want to take dancers.”

Loving Los Angeles

Moving from a dance capital to a city formerly known as a dance wasteland, from polar vortex to beach days in January, and from subway to car culture has been an adjustment, but Ringer and Fayette are embracing Los Angeles, having bought a home and their first car. “As long as our family is together, happy and settled, I can go and do my job well,” says Ringer, who has two young children. Getting around town can still be a challenge, however. “The freeways terrify me,” she says. “I’ve lived here a year and have yet to drive on a freeway. I take back roads. If something’s far away, I tell people I’ll be an hour and a half, turn on my radio and sing and drive slowly.”

Ringer and Fayette arrived in Los Angeles at what seems a pivotal time for dance. “L.A. is on the edge; dance is starting to bubble up and blossom,” says Ringer. “There’s a great deal of interest and support. It feels like there’s a turning point in Los Angeles for dance in general and ballet in particular.” Fayette, who also works as the managing director of L.A. Dance Project, has found a refreshing enthusiasm for collaboration and experimentation. “Right now, I think experimentation happens more easily out here in Los Angeles,” he says. “We couldn’t pull off L.A. Dance Project or the Colburn School in New York City—it’s more rigid and people would be insisting on following the old models. But out here people are like, ‘Let’s give it a try; that sounds exciting.’”

As Los Angeles becomes a dance destination, Colburn students have benefited when dance luminaries (and friends of Ringer and Fayette) stop in to guest-teach (a recent roster included past and current NYCB dancers Wendy Whelan, Jared Angle, Justin Peck, Jonathan Stafford and Ailey’s Hope Boykin). Bringing in successful artists is another way that Ringer encourages her students to master technique, then think beyond it. “We’re trying to empower them as dancers, but also as people,” she says. “We want to give them the tools to be successful wherever they go.” DT

A SoCal native, Caitlin Sims is a freelance writer in California’s other great dance hub, San Francisco.

Photo (top) by Rose Eichenbaum; photos (3) by Paul Kolnik, courtesy of New York City Ballet

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