Cory Stearns, the 28-year-old Long Island native and principal dancer with the American Ballet Theatre (ABT), is just the kind of guy you’d like to set your younger sister up with: charming, serious and, yes, handsome (Stearns’ chiseled looks have won him modeling gigs for the likes of Louis Vuitton and Dolce & Gabbana). But, talking to Stearns in the spectacularly unimpressive location of a bland, midtown juice bar, the quality that shines through brightest of all is something else: focus. Scratch the surface and there’s that steely determination at his core so often possessed by athletes and performers, the 20/20 vision that separates the talented from the brilliant in all walks of life. As a dancer Stearns is of course a hybrid of sportsman and actor, his physical prowess channeled into movements that exude an unmistakable poetry. It’s such finesse that has made Stearns one of the most exciting names in the ballet world. We began by talking about the foot injury that has recently taken him out of the game for a few weeks.
Laura: You’ve been out with an injury recently. Since what you do is so bound up in your physicality that must be really frustrating.
Cory: It’s really frustrating and actually it’s funny because you don’t understand how much of yourself is involved in ballet until you don’t have it anymore, how much fulfillment it provides you.
What have you been doing with this time?
I’m dating a girl who’s in the Royal Ballet in England so I flew to London for a few days. That was amazing but it was interesting because that’s when I really noticed how much of a difference it makes when I don’t dance compared to when I do. Our relationship is quite new, we were still in the honeymoon phase, but while I was there it really shifted and forced it onto the next stage of the relationship.
Let’s go back to the beginning. How did you get into ballet?
When I started I had no interest in being a dancer. I started when I was five and that was because of my mother, she forced me! She put my brother and sister in class as well but it was too disciplined for me; I was an athlete, I wanted to run around and play sports. So
I felt like I wanted to quit for many years, up until I was 11 or 12. Then I started developing an ability to dance, so I enjoyed it more. When I was thirteen I went to a summer program in Pittsburgh and that’s when I decided I wanted to be a professional dancer.
Can you remember that moment when ballet really captured you?
In 1999 I was watching this video, ABT Now, and I saw José Manuel Carreño, a former principal with ABT and Susan Jaffe performing the Black Swan and when I saw José do his variation it hit me. That was the first moment of inspiration; I couldn’t believe what I was seeing. I understood the impact that dance could have if you hit a certain level and I wanted the ability to influence people like they had.
What is the difference between a good dancer and a great dancer?
If you’re at a wedding and on the dance floor, [you’ll see] there are people who really try and it looks awkward. Then there are people that close their eyes and don’t worry about it. They just move – and you notice it. It’s the same aspect in ballet, there’re people that do really well with the technique but they’re not really natural dancers; they don’t let it run through them. That’s a huge aspect of it, letting the movement come through you, not forcing anything. The interpretive aspect of it is allowing emotion, not technique, to inspire the movement. You can be very technical and really dry. It has to come naturally.
So you can be a technically imperfect dancer but still brilliant?
Do you have to dedicate as much time to interpretation as you do to physically rehearsing?
That’s where the warm-up class in the morning comes into play, how you approach that class. Class is really purely about technique, there’s no interpretation, but if you put quality in your movement in class then when you’re on stage and you want to be a prince or a villain or whatever, your body already understands how to express those things without really thinking about every step.
What’s the best advice you’ve ever been given? What advice would you give to a younger you?
The best thing that ever happened to me was seeing that video and so I guess the best advice I would give somebody else is: research and educate yourself as to what makes an impactful dancer. Hard work is useless unless you know what you’re working towards. I think knowledge is the most important part of understanding where you are going, [not having that knowledge] is my biggest regret in quite a few aspects of my life – in sport, as well as dance. When I was younger I was on the soccer team and I loved soccer. When I was five or six, I was easily the most talented athlete on the team and then as I got older I didn’t really develop, as I didn’t know where I was supposed to go, I didn’t know what made a star soccer player. I could have researched that.
Interesting you say about soccer because when you see a brilliant soccer player there is something very dance-like about their moves.
Barcelona is my favorite soccer team just strictly based on almost the dance of their play. When they pass it’s incredible. It’s like when you see Federer play, it’s so effortless and graceful.
Do you still get nervous before you go on?
Every time. Most people I know do. My director there’s a small difference between excitement and nervousness and it’s just your interpretation of it. It’s about letting those feelings allow you to do things more expressively and with more energy. It’s the difference between helping and hindering the show. [You have to think] ‘What am I worried about? I’m just performing; I’m not a soldier’. But it’s a real battle sometimes.
When the curtain comes down after a show, how does it feel? Is it a bit of a comedown?
I went through years where I was not that comfortable on stage. I felt like I didn’t have much support or an ability that deserved the roles I was getting. I felt insufficient; I didn’t own the stage and was worried about the outcome before I did it. I wanted to be perfect. When you approach anything that way it’s very inhibiting and I was inhibited for years. So at that point, when I finished a show I’d be relieved. Later on, when I was made principal, I started to push in a different way, allowing myself the possibility of making a mistake. Then I started enjoying the performances more, and afterwards if I felt like I had really gone for it without worrying about making it perfect, I felt fulfilled, I felt satisfied.
So how do you unwind?
It’s very rare that I clear my mind, I get bored if my mind’s clear. I like focusing on things. I guess my mind’s most clear when I go see my girlfriend and my focus is just on her.
Is there a strong social aspect to dancing as part of a company?
You’re surrounded by artists, and beautiful artists, so there’s that kind of sensual aspect to being at work, where you’re interacting with women and it really does something to you. It’s exciting and it fulfills that social aspect of you where you can flirt a little bit.
When you dance with a partner does there have to a natural chemistry there?
That’s a huge part of it and a lot of it stems from how you interact in rehearsal. You can be dancing with someone gorgeous but if you don’t respect them it’s extremely difficult [to partner with them]. In rehearsal if you have a good rapport with someone, if you talk and you flirt and have fun together, then when you dance with them you take more care of them. There are more spontaneous moments that’ll make a performance more refreshing; instead of looking rehearsed it’ll be a new thing every time you do it. I would really like to dance with my girlfriend eventually, but currently my favourite partnership is with a girl I do partner with, Polina Semionova. When I met her I could see what she really felt just by looking at her.
What ambitions do you still have for your career?
To develop my confidence more and be on stage and feel more free. Those performances where I don’t feel any pressure, I don’t feel the audience, I don’t feel expectation for myself or my partner - those are amazing, fun performances.
Is that what makes the best kind of performance, that obliviousness?
Yes, absolutely, when you’re free. But most of the time there’s some pressure that I feel and I feel some kind of inhibition that I need to fight through.
Do you have any dream roles you’d still like to do?
I’ve done a lot of the roles I aspired to do from when I was just a child. Manon is my favourite one. I’m going to do that in Japan, it’s actually going to be my first show back [after injury], so that’s nerve racking. There’s a ballet called Mayerling, also by Kenneth MacMillian, that I would really love to do. Petit Mort I’d love to do too.
How would people describe you as a dancer? What is your style?
People who don’t like me say I look like ‘sloppy mashed potatoes.’ That’s a direct quote! No form, too soft. Those who do say I have very good port de bras, which means how you use your upper body and arms.
And what about you as a person?
It depends who you talk to. Some would say I am very competitive, but when I compete, I compete with myself; I don’t necessarily want someone else to lose so I can win. I am intense, so when I approach something I want to do it the best I can, I don’t just do it because it’s fun. I like to be in control, that’s how I approach activities and it’s the way I am in general.