New York City Ballet’s Emily Kikta on Overcoming Challenges, Dancing with Family, and Being Authentic

To join Emily at The Kennedy Center on June 9, 2017, click here.

“I feel like, for this generation of 20-somethings, it’s all about authenticity and being genuine to who you are as an individual.”

Emily Kikta has certainly found a way to harness that notion.

A member of New York City Ballet’s corps de ballet since 2011, Kikta said she struggled early in her career with trying to fit in with everyone around her. It took her a while, she said, to realize that dancers don’t have to be cookie-cutter replicas of one another. Now, Kikta has embraced what makes her unique as a dancer and an artist. From the stage to the screen, Kikta is excelling both on and off the stage. She took time to talk via phone with Ballet in the City recently, and reflected on her career, the opportunity she has had to share her passion with her family, and how she has been able to meld her love of dance with her film major at Fordham University.

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Photo Courtesy of Emily Kikta

Ballet in the City: First, let me say thank you very much for taking the time to talk with Ballet in the City; we really appreciate it. Let’s start off generally by talking about your journey in the ballet world. Tell me about when you started dancing, and when did you realize that this might be a career path?

Emily Kikta: I started dancing – I mean, technically started dancing – when I was two at the Thomas Studio for Performing Arts in Pittsburgh. My mom is the ballet teacher there, so she put me as classes as young as possible. I danced there until I was 15. It was a competition school, so we did all the competing stuff and had that routine.

I knew I wanted dance to be a career after I went to the School of American Ballet’s summer course when I was 13. I had never, in my little world, realized that there was anything besides competition, which is so silly. I saw this whole institution and this whole world where you perform all the time. I also saw how hard it was, and how satisfying it was, when you accomplished something at that level, especially at SAB, with a specific technique and specific style. It was just so gratifying when you were proving that you could be part of the program.

Throughout your career, what would you say has been the biggest challenge that you’ve faced? What has been the most difficult aspect of your career for you, and how did you work through it?

I would say that hardest thing about being in a professional dance company is how quickly everything moves. You find out you’re doing a part, and once you learn it, it’s up to you to get it ready for the stage once the ballet master teaches you the steps. You have to be really diligent, you have to put a lot of time into it and be cognizant of what you know you need to focus on and what you need to make better in order to make the performance ready to perform. I feel like that was a big stressor for me when I first started, not having someone guiding me when I was doing parts that were important, or difficult parts. I often felt like, “I don’t know what I’m doing!” But, you know they trust you, and you know they know that you’re talented enough to accomplish it. For me, that was just so hard, getting the confidence that I could do it on my own. That took a while, and it’s something I still work on, every single day.

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Photo courtesy of Emily Kikta

You mentioned that your mom was your first dance teacher, and I also read that your father has done music for some works that New York City Ballet has done. What does it mean to you to have this family connection coming at you from all angles?

It’s a lot – in the best way. I’m really close to my family, and moving away when I was a sophomore in high school ended my childhood really quickly. Being able to still be connected to both my parents through what I do is awesome. We are opening a ballet that my dad is working on tomorrow, so I’ll be on stage with him tomorrow. It’s so cool to think that, in my professional career, in my job, I get to work my parents. It’s like having a “Bring Your Dad to Work Day.”

A few years ago, you were in Cleveland with the Ashley Bouder Project. Tell me about that experience and what that performance was like for you.

That was really cool for two reasons. One being that it was in Cleveland, which meant that a lot of people from home [in Pittsburgh] could come, since that is much closer than New York. A lot of my old dance teachers came, and some friends from home, and my brothers, who can’t often come up to New York. It was really cool to have so many family members there. And, also, it was awesome because Ashley let me do White Swan Pas de Deux, which has always been a dream of mine to perform. I got to perform it with my best friend, Peter [Walker, another corps member with New York City Ballet], so it was a really cool thing that I don’t know will ever happen again.

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As a dancer, why do you think it’s important to have organizations like Ballet in the City that try to bring a different sort of ballet to audiences? Sometimes they have performances that might not only be about performing, but be a behind-the-scenes look at dancers’ day-to-day lives and routines and careers. Why do you think this more transparent view is important?

I think it’s so important, and it’s something I’m really interested in becoming a part of more. I feel like, for this generation of 20-somethings, it’s all about authenticity and being genuine to who you are as an individual. I feel like ballet performances tend to be so classical, where everyone is the same, everyone is trying to be the same character. Ballet in the City, and even social media, really brings out that individuality and makes you feel like you can relate to the dancer. It makes you feel more invested and makes you want to watch them express themselves and dance. I think it’s important for me – I love seeing people in their element, whatever that is – whether that be a specific dance style, or in their personal world, something that makes them feel very individual. I think that makes you appreciate the art even more because you can connect it to a real person behind it.

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Emily Kikta and Peter Walker dancing in Ballet in the City gear (photo from Ballet in the City Instagram)

I’ve taken a look at your YouTube channel, and you have some and you have some cool, different videos on there that are very impressive to watch. One that got a lot of buzz was the video you did in the empty apartment. Tell me about how you got into the video production side of things, and also talk about that empty apartment video and how you executed that so well.

I’m a film major at Fordham University, and a couple years back, one of my first assignments was to make a news story. Instead of doing that, I made a dance video. I made it with Peter Walker and Silas Farley, who are company members and both choreographers. That video sparked something in Peter and I. This was a little bit of an untapped territory. Dance videos are everywhere, but with our access, living in the city with these dancers, and being able to create it all ourselves, is a very unique perspective. It was something that I always find inspiring in others – them creating something out of the enjoyment of creating. We really liked just having fun, and it’s fun to choreograph and it’s fun to dance, in the city or in nature, to just work with the environment.

That’s the way the apartment video came to be. I was moving, and there was this empty space with a ladder and a windowsill, and all these different elements that you don’t have on stage. Peter choreographed that. We had a lot of fun using all these different ways to show off and do things that you can’t do on stage. You can build it, but then it’s not organic. This is different when you walk into a space, and you’re like, “Okay, this is here, let’s use it.” It was a good brain exercise.

Looking at your career with New York City Ballet or even beyond that, what is your dream role, something you’ve always wanted to dance?

That is hard. That is so hard. I swear, it changes every day. There are so many parts that are so beautiful and so iconic for different reasons. In a classical ballet sense, I would love to do Swan Lake. As a ballerina dork, there are so many different choreographers that we don’t do as much in this company that I would love to explore. We don’t do a lot of [William] Forsythe. I love a lot of Justin Peck’s work and [Alexei] Ratmansky’s work. I would love to do more of those sorts of pieces; I feel like I’m more of a modern-day dancer. I don’t feel like I thrive in the classics or the traditional ballet as much. It’s harder for me.

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Photo Courtesy of Emily Kikta

Swan Lake is definitely a dream role because it’s Swan Lake, and it’s beautiful and it’s so dramatic. I got to be a part of Justin’s “Everywhere We Go,” which is one of my favorite ballets in the repertoire, so that was a really cool ballet to be a part of. It’s just beautiful. The choreography is great. It was just an amazing thing to dance.

What advice would you give to young women and young men who are looking to get into ballet and the world of dance professionally?

Something I always think about is how, during my training, I was trying so hard to blend in and look like everyone else, because there were thoughts of, “This is right, this is wrong.” I still came into being an individual, and it feels organic to me, but I feel like, had I realized sooner that it’s okay to look different, it could have been easier. Being something a little different than everyone else is actually more of an advantage than it is a flaw, because companies don’t need cookie-cutter. Especially in America, everyone wants special dancers. That’s something to start cultivating young – what makes you, you.

 

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