Ballet in the City Welcomes Sascha Radetsky, for Whom “Retired” Does Not Mean “Slowing Down”

 

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On September 26, Ballet in the City will welcome Sascha Radetsky to Cleveland for a weekend  of events and classes with the recently-retired dancer, celebrating the fact that “guys dance too.” Though he spent the majority of his career with the American Ballet Theatre (ABT), Radetsky may be most recognized for his role as Charlie in 2000’s Center Stage. Fans of Radetsky will be able to see him on screen again later this year in the STARZ series Flesh and Bone, which Radetsky describes as a “dark” series with serious adult themes. Ballet in the City was fortunate enough to be able to sit down with Sascha a few weeks ago to talk about his career, both on the stage and onscreen, as well as the advice he would provide to male dancers who have aspirations similar to those he had as a young man.

Sascha Radetsky/Photo from cinema.de

Sascha Radetsky/Photo from cinema.de

Ballet in the City: You retired from ABT just over a year ago. How did that decision come about, and was it difficult for you to make that call?

Sascha Radetsky: I had been edging toward the end of my career, and didn’t know if it was going to be last year, or if I was going to keep going for another couple of years. I felt like I had done everything I was going to do at ABT. I was doing a lot of guesting, but, really, my body was hurting and I was ready to move on to something else. My best friends had all retired and had made that transition already, and I was eager to head in a new direction. Then, I got the Flesh and Bone gig and I thought that that might be a nice way to transition out of performing. I think I was already headed toward retirement and I think getting Flesh and Bone might’ve accelerated that choice a little bit.

Radetsky as Von Rothbart in Swan Lake/Photo by Gene Schiavone

Radetsky as Von Rothbart in Swan Lake/Photo by Gene Schiavone

How would you describe the first year of retirement for you?

It’s been a bit of a mixed bag. I think, in general, it’s been great to just be able to take a breath and try to find my bearings again, to explore activities and other interests that I’ve more or less had to put on hold for the last few years. That’s been really fun. At the same time, there’s a certain feeling of being unmoored without having the steady job, the steady paycheck, that purpose underpinning everything you do to be a dancer and perform. In a way, that’s been exciting; in other ways, it’s been confusing. I’ve been dabbling, trying to find my way and figure out what really appeals to me. But without something to transition immediately into, it’s been confusing at times.

Overall, it’s been great. I’m lucky that I have Stella [Abrera, Radetsky’s wife] here to give me a great support system. I’m not going through any sort of crisis; I don’t want to paint the wrong picture. I’ve just been really living it up. But now I’ve started to feel a little bit guilty, like I need to buckle down and figure out what the next step is.

Speaking of Stella, congratulations to her on the recent promotion to principal. Have you gotten a chance to watch her at all since you stopped dancing?

I’ve seen a ton of her shows. It’s been wonderful. Free tickets – one of the perks of being a husband and alumni of the company!

Radetsky and Abrera at Radetsky's final performance with ABT/Photo from NotMyDayJobPhotography, Kent G. Becker

Radetsky and Abrera at Radetsky’s final performance with ABT/Photo from NotMyDayJobPhotography, Kent G. Becker

Is it strange to be sitting in the audience instead of being onstage?

Yes and no. In one sense, it’s kind of startling how easy it is to be an audience member all of a sudden. “Wow, I really used to do that up on the stage?” It seems like another lifetime ago. But then, when I’m watching ballets that I did a thousand times, then it’s kind of weird.

I’ve also been teaching a lot, so I feel like I watch now with more of a critical eye involuntarily. I’m watching a show and thinking, “Oh, that person can do that better,” or, “Wow, that person really nailed that aspect of that variation or that pas de deux.” I’m not trying necessarily to be critical, but more trying to learn from a performance and see how I’m going to integrate that into my own classes when I teach or coach.

[Note: Abrera recently set up a charitable fund called “Steps Forward for the Philippines,” which is dedicated to “serving the educational and creative needs of the children affected by Super Typhoon Haiyan,” the most powerful storm in recorded history to ever make landfall. You can read more about her fund and donate here.]

Looking at your performance history throughout your career, obviously you had the opportunity to dance a number of different roles. What roles stand out to you as your favorite to have danced, and which would you say posed the biggest challenges to you?

There’s a long list, I can’t just name one. In the Upper Room has got to be in the top two or three. I really loved that ballet, and I got to do it quite a bit. It was just a supreme challenge mentally and physically, and it’s just one of those ballets that takes you to another place through exhaustion, through trance-like music, through the movement – it can be a transcendent experience.

Other favorites are Fancy Free, which is a ballet I saw when I was a kid and was one of the motivators of me getting into a studio; the role of The Champion Roper in Rodeo; Antony Tudor’s The Leaves are Fading – I got to do that central pas de deux with Stella a couple of times; Albrecht in Giselle; probably the Son in Prodigal Son; and Tybalt from Romeo and Juliet.

I think Prince Charming in James Kudelka’s Cinderella is probably the hardest. It was one of the few leading, leading roles I danced – I did a lot of the second leads in ABT’s productions, but this was one of the first leading roles in ABT I danced. There is a lot of tricky partnering and it challenged my technique and variation, and that was tough. As far as sheer stamina, something like In The Upper Room would probably be the most difficult. It also depends on how you attack it. I would always try to leave it all out on the stage.

Radetsky and Abrera dance Antony Tudor's The Leaves Are Fading/Photo by Cherylynn Tsushima, courtesy Michelle Tabnick Communications

Radetsky and Abrera dance Antony Tudor’s The Leaves Are Fading/Photo by Cherylynn Tsushima, courtesy Michelle Tabnick Communications

 

Radetsky in Fancy Free/Photo by Marty Sohl

Radetsky in Fancy Free/Photo by Marty Sohl

Not only did you have the opportunity to dance with ABT, but you also spent some time overseas dancing in Europe. What led to that career move for you, and what do you think you most took away from your time overseas?

I felt like my career had plateaued at ABT. I had been there for a while and I was ready to shake things up with my life. I thought it was time. I had spoken to my director about doing different roles and he said he couldn’t offer them to me. Sometimes, I think, some really talented dancers don’t get the opportunities that they want, but then they stay in the company and just complain about it. There are so many ballet companies around the world, and it’s a really subjective art form. If it doesn’t work out in one company, try your luck elsewhere. That’s the philosophy I embraced at the time and went over to Dutch National to be a principal there.

I was at that point where you shake things up or you stagnate at the same place. As far as the biggest takeaway, I got to work with a really wonderful coach, Guillaume Graffin, who was a principal at ABT and a ballet master, and he left to go to Dutch National. My year at DNB was a real period of growth and learning from him. I think also being in that top position as a principal and having the director, having everyone, put their confidence in me, I think it made me rise to the occasion and I think I probably did some my best dancing over there. It sounds cliche, but a good coach can really elevate his or her pupil to another level. It’s amazing, in his presence, what I felt I could accomplish. It was the fusion of our personalities. I’m not the only one. Anyone who works with him really grows as an artist.

Another very noteworthy chapter of your career has to be filming Center Stage. I remember, growing up, that was one of the quintessential dance movies that you had to watch. Did you think while filming it that it was going to become the iconic dance film that it has?

No, I really had no idea. I was really just along for the ride, taking it day by day and not considering the impact the film would have. I think we had a really awesome team. The executive producer, Larry Mark, is a really sharp, capable, brilliant guy who did some great films. With him, and then with [director] Nick Hytner, another brilliant guy, I knew that we were in really good hands. We knew that something good was going to come out of it. But you can’t predict a movie is going to have legs like Center Stage had. It’s so funny. It’s a movie that I can’t outrun, not matter what else I do in my career. At the same time, that’s fine. I’m proud to have been part of it.

Radetsky, Schull and Hytner discuss a scene in Center Stage/Photo by Barry Wetcher

Radetsky, Schull and Hytner discuss a scene in Center Stage/Photo by Barry Wetcher

What lead you to audition for it? Had you always wanted to try your hand as an actor, or was it something that fell into your lap and seemed like a good opportunity?

The latter. It fell into my lap in that the casting directors came and scouted a few professional companies because they knew at least a few of the actors had to be able to dance. They would invite promising candidates to audition, and I was one of those who was invited. I initially auditioned for the role of the Russian guy and, clearly, didn’t get the role. I thought that was that. The role that I did get, Charlie, was initially written as Carlos and he was an Hispanic dancer. I think the writer had Angel Corella in mind, and I remember he got injured. I think that injury formed the reshaping into Charlie. I was called back, auditioned for Charlie, and that’s that.

I had a little bit of acting when I was a kid – commercials and TV shows, a TV movie – but I was really young then. I stopped doing any acting and just focused on dance when I was 12 or 13. I had no aspirations to be an actor after that. It was just kind of by chance.

Tell me a little about the filming experience of the movie and your most vivid memory from your time on set.

Most vivid memory. First of all, it was a long time ago so all the memories are a little bit fuzzy. It was such a whirlwind. The shooting took six weeks, and often we worked really late into the night. Shooting TV or film, they work crazy hours. Adding dance into the mix makes it an extra challenge, and I was game for the challenge. I remember time on stage with Ethan (Stiefel, who played Cooper Nielsen in the film); that was a lot of fun. Just watching him bust it out every take, just rocking it, that was really fun and certainly inspiring. We’d been friends since we were kids, and we bonded further during the shoot.

I remember my first day of shooting, I was late. My call was five or six a.m. I said I was going to self-report to the set. It just happened that my alarm malfunctioned, just one of those mornings and I was just mortified, my first day. We had to go out on a boat for a ferry ride scene. I think I was maybe an hour late. They didn’t have to hold the boat or anything for me – everything takes a long time anyway. I remember being really embarrassed and then having to go out on the boat and had to film a kissing scene with Amanda Schull who played Jody – I think the scene was eventually cut out. There was this whole make out scene and she had motion sickness. I think she was throwing up and taking Dramamine, and then we were making out and – it was a rough day for her. I enjoyed the kissing nonetheless, of course, she was beautiful. It was pretty funny.

You’re going to be stepping back on screen with Flesh and Bone coming up. How did this project come about for you?

I think it was similar to Center Stage. The producer and production agency went to ballet companies and watched class and advised some people to audition. I actually wasn’t there when they watched class at ABT but they invited me to audition. I initially didn’t want to do it for a few reasons. I was a little wary of the whole project, but then I learned who was involved and I was a huge Breaking Bad fan – so that’s Moira Walley-Beckett, the creator. Then John Melfi, who’s the executive producer, has done some really wonderful shows, and Lawrence Bender, Kevin Brown, they all had great resumes, and Ethan was involved again. My agent encouraged me to audition, saying “What do you have to lose?” So I went in and, it’s funny how when you don’t want something you get it, but when you really want something it doesn’t work out. I laugh about this now with Moira – she’s like, “I really had to convince you!” The more I went back to read for them, the more invested I became, the more into the project I got.

Can you tell me a little bit about the premise of the series and how it’s been different than anything you’ve worked on in your career?

I’ve never worked on a TV series. The only other real screen credit I can claim is Center Stage and it’s different than dancing and performing live. It’s a whole different ball game.

The show tracks a young dancer who has a troubled history and a dark past. She leaves her hometown to escape that life and tries to make her way in a top-level ballet company in New York. Her past catches up with her. In the ballet company, there are a few characters who have their own backstories and plotlines. It’s quite dark, it’s definitely adult-oriented. There are some pretty heavy themes explored. It’s less a ballet series than it is a dramatic series and ballet is one of the characters; ballet is just the milieu which it’s set within.

Tell us about the event you will be hosting in Cleveland when you make your trip out later this month for “An Evening with Sascha Radetsky.”

There is going to be some speaking involved, about my career and my journey, some video will be shown, and a live show will occur. I’ll also be teaching some classes the next day.

One thing that Ballet in the City is really big on is the idea that “guys dance too.” What got you into dance as a child, and was there ever any grief you experienced being a guy who danced ballet?

Radetsky/Photo from dancemagazine.com by Renata Pavam

Radetsky/Photo from dancemagazine.com by Renata Pavam

I got into dance as a kid because my older sister is a dancer and I was dragged along to her classes. I was hanging out in the studio, running around and getting into trouble, so I was put into dance and I enjoyed it. Our folks took us to see ABT when they would come on tour to San Francisco and once I saw Baryshnikov, Julio Bocca, all these great, iconic male dancers, I was inspired and kept at it. Getting to go away for summers – it was an exciting thing to do.

I got a lot of grief, absolutely. Eventually, I just learned to not tell anyone that I was a dancer. It was a survival mechanism: you just keep your mouth shut about it because you’re going to get to harassed.

Radetsky as the Son in The Prodigal Son/Photo by Angela Sterling, vogue.com

Radetsky as the Son in The Prodigal Son/Photo by Angela Sterling, vogue.com

What words of wisdom would you pass along to aspiring, young male dancers who might be nervous to get into the world of ballet because it’s something “girls do?”

It can be a wonderfully rewarding path to walk down. I’ve touched on this in an article or two, but the ironic result of the harassment and the place of male dancers in our society, the scorn a lot of people hold for male dancers, the ironic result of that is those who persevere and fight through the teasing and the misconceptions, it makes them stronger people. That might seem obvious, but it’s funny – the stereotype of male dancers is, what, they’re weak or something, it’s not a “manly” thing to do? That produces stronger guys who make it through. It has nothing to do with sexual preference. I know gay guys whom I would consider tougher than a big, macho dude who never had to encounter the kind of adversity that young male dancers often have to.

I would say there’s certainly a light at the end of the tunnel. It might seem like it’s really far away when you’re a kid, but anything really rewarding is going to involve adversity. Boys should keep their eye on the ball and try to weigh whether they love it enough to fight through the teasing or whatever they might encounter. I had friends who were beat up in school; I got in some fights at school, but I had a friend who every day would get beat up at school. And not just here, elsewhere, overseas.

The flip side is that, since there’s a smaller pool of male dancers, it’s easier for guys to be successful in the ballet world. There’s less competition. There’s a special bond that we all share, a certain camaraderie, kind of like soldiers in the trenches. We all have our stories of what we went through as kids, and it makes us relate to each other on a deeper level.

Make sure to check out Ballet in the City’s program, “An Evening with Sascha Radetsky,” on September 26 and attend his classes on September 27. You can read more about the programs and find out how to buy tickets and register here.

Written by Laurel Wilder, blogger for Ballet in the City. You can also find Laurel’s work at, “Did The Tribe Win Last Night?” here.

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