PITTSFIELD — Ryan Jolicoeur-Nye’s improbable backstory has been recounted before, but his ascent in the world of ballet dancing has now become even more incredible.
A tough, football-playing kid who grew up in Waterville’s North End and was a high school dropout, Jolicoeur-Nye is now a 25-year-old professional who recently achieved the highest ballet-dancer rank possible, and at an earlier age than most.
And, at the top of his ballet game, he’s also returning to his dancing roots. Jolicoeur-Nye will take the stage in the leading male role of Prince Siegfried in Bossov Ballet’s performance of “Swan Lake” July 29-30.
Jolicoeur-Nye is the first to admit he never thought he’d be where he is today. His mother performed several styles of dance for nearly 30 years and his brother and sister both danced at a local studio; they all had ideal physiques for ballet.
But Jolicoeur-Nye was overweight, inflexible and had terrible feet.
After dropping out of high school and transferring to Maine Central Institute in Pittsfield, the 15-year-old student also enrolled with Bossov Ballet Theatre, which is based at MCI. He came under the direction of its Russian choreographer, Andrei Bossov.
“Honestly, I had no clue guys could be professional dancers,” Jolicoeur-Nye said. “When I was dancing with Andrei — maybe after a year and still knowing nothing about dance — there was an older boy here at the program. I remember sitting in the car, asking him, ‘Do you think maybe someday I could be a professional?’ And he looked at me and was like, ‘Buddy, that is like reaching for the stars; you might as well go to the moon. At your age, starting when you started, the chance of you becoming a professional dancer is nearly impossible.’”
Becoming a dancer
Jolicoeur-Nye danced under Bossov for 2 1/2 years before deciding to head to the Royal Winnipeg Ballet School in Canada on a full scholarship. At age 17, he aimed to be accepted into the school’s year-round program, but Jolicoeur-Nye’s instructor warned him that he may have started his ballet training too late.
Many of the boys in the intense six-day-a-week program had been training since age 12, so they had the flexibility, physique and strength that Jolicoeur-Nye lacked. He had a lot of catching up to do.
Jolicoeur-Nye first tried to tackle the issue of his developed football shoulders, which he couldn’t push back far enough. At night, he’d sleep with a pool stick tied to his wrists behind his back, to stretch his back and shoulders. He’d place a television on his feet during sleep to stretch his feet. And he tried falling asleep in a split — his legs pressed against the walls.
“The first time I did that split thing, I woke up and I couldn’t walk,” he said. “I had to call the front office and tell them that I couldn’t go to class. I had a meeting with the artistic staff and they said, ‘Don’t try to do it all at once; it has to be a slow process, otherwise you’re going to kill yourself.’”
His patience paid off. And, he got a lucky break.
The lead male dancer in a school performance was injured. Jolicoeur-Nye, as an understudy, would not normally have been remotely considered to take his place to partner with the lead female dancer. But during a rehearsal one day, the artistic staff watched Jolicoeur-Nye dance with her, and they huddled together: He’d perform.
Jolicoeur-Nye was shocked; he thought the staff was going to kick him out.
“They were impressed at my age, the ability and level of my partnering. None of the other boys of that age had partnering experience. I was the only one; that was something I got exclusively from Andrei,” Jolicoeur-Nye said. “Andrei really put an emphasis on character, artistry. So when it came to performances throughout the school, I was getting cast in lead roles, above the other kids who had been there since they were 12, simply because on stage I could make a character happen and partner with a girl.”
So, while his training at Winnipeg was important in learning to become a technically proficient dancer, he said the skills he learned from Bossov those first few years “are what saved my career.”
“There’s a big difference between standing there and looking good and moving and looking good. I think that what made my career happen is my ability to partner. Andrei sort of taught me to be able to look at things and duplicate them and give the choreographer what they want,” he said.
After graduating from Winnipeg he headed to several ballet companies: Festival Ballet in Providence, R.I., Eugene Ballet Company in Oregon, and his current employer, Ballet Idaho in Boise.
In 2007, he competed with Shelby Dyer, a former Bossov student and Colorado Ballet soloist, at the New York International Ballet competition.
Reaching his peak
Every so often, Jolicoeur-Nye returned to Bossov in the summer to perform in lead roles. The last time was in 2007, when he performed in Bossov’s Don Quixote.
Jolicoeur-Nye has been at Ballet Idaho for six years now and this past season he was promoted to the rank of principal.
“It’s pretty much where every dancer would aspire to be by the end of their career,” he said. Most male dancers don’t achieve peak status until they’re between 28 and 32. “So I’m very young to be promoted at this stage.”
“There’s a certain level where your physique is really at its peak when you’re young; you’re youthful, you’re strong, you can sort of beat on your body without a lot of repercussions. But your artistry — because you’re not developed on the stage, you don’t have a lot of experience — is sort of low,” Jolicoeur-Nye said. “There comes a point in your career where your body starts to decline but your artistry starts to go up, and for a short time those two meet. Most dancers are principal dancers by then, and you’re at your peak, and then it starts to decline and your body starts to go down.
“But where I’m a principal now at such a young age, I feel I have an opportunity to hang out in that area for a while and build up my artistry while my body is still strong. And, if I can dance until I’m 35, then I have another 10 years to develop my personality on stage.”
Bossov contacted Jolicoeur-Nye and asked if he’d like to return this summer to dance just in Act II of “Swan Lake” in a role that isn’t technically challenging. Recovering from a hip injury, Jolicoeur-Nye thought that would be a good chance to take a nice relaxing summer break in Maine and give his body a rest. But then Bossov had other plans: He told Jolicoeur-Nye that he’d also be dancing “Coppelia,” which has more jumping and partnering, as well as “Carmin.”
Two weeks ago, Bossov brought Jolicoeur-Nye into the MCI dance studio “and he choreographed this impossible, incredibly hard solo, that I do nothing but tricks and turns. It’s full-on testosterone for three minutes,” Jolicoeur-Nye said. “I guess I’m back at it, full tilt.”
Still a student
Despite the pain of getting back into shape, Jolicoeur-Nye is grateful for the opportunity to come back to his Russian-style roots under Bossov. Jolicoeur-Nye already feels the change.
“It’s always great to work with Andrei because he never will let me stop feeling like a student. If I come back three years from now, a seasoned principal dancer, I’m still going to be a student to him. And I think that’s a good thing, because a lot of professionals get their head full of this idea that, ‘I’m done learning, I can’t be taught.’ But Andrei doesn’t really care about that; he doesn’t care about an excuse or why you can’t do something. So it sort of humbles you a bit to be back in the situation of learning.”
The experience is also helping prepare Jolicoeur-Nye for that day when his career as a professional dancer will come to an end and a new chapter will begin.
“I’m taking a beginner partnering class because he (Bossov) doesn’t have a lot of boys. So I’m in the beginner partnering class, doing the things I did in my first two months of dancing ever here, and I’m learning not only new things about myself as a partner — going back to the basics of how it should be done — but I’m also learning that if I become a teacher someday, this is where I want to start,” Jolicoeur-Nye said.
“This is where you have to start as a teacher, explaining to boys how to partner a girl. So, I’m also learning what I’ll do when I’m done dancing.”
Scott Monroe — 861-9239