NYCB Principal Amar Ramasar
A Boy from the Bronx Who Belongs on the Ballet Stage
Pictured above: Amar Ramasar in George Balanchine’s Symphony in Three Movements.
It's been quite a year for Amar Ramasar. Always a favorite with the choreographers who create new works for New York City Ballet, he was the engaging hero of the most invigorating (and critically acclaimed) new work of 2015 – Justin Peck's Rōdē,ō: Four Dance Episodes. During NYCB's spring season, he brought joy and verve to Bournonville Divertissements and made his debut in one of Balanchine's glorious and serenely romantic pas de deuxs, A Midsummer Night's Dream.
This fall, he had central roles in two premieres – Troy Schumacher's Common Ground and Kim Brandstrup's Jeux. He gave a newly authoritative performance in one of his finest roles – 'Phlegmatic' in The Four Temperaments, dancing with particular focus and intensity. The day after NYCB's season closed, he was on a very different stage – the Apollo Theater, where he accepted a Bessie Award for Sustained Achievement in Performance. In his acceptance remarks, he thanked his teachers (including Bessies co-host Jock Soto), as well as Peter Martins “for believing that a boy from the Bronx belonged on the ballet stage.”
That boy was 11 when he was introduced to ballet via a video of Balanchine's Agon pas de deux. At that point, his familiarity with dance came from the musicals he performed with TADA! Youth Theater. The choreographer there, Daniel Catanach, showed Ramasar that video and encouraged him to audition for the School of American Ballet.
Ramasar's initial impression of ballet was “I thought it looked easy,” he said during a recent interview between rehearsals at the David H. Koch Theater. “But at first try, I was quickly put in my place and brought down to earth. But I still fell in love with it.”
He was accepted to SAB just as a boys' program, through which scholarships were offered to encourage greater attendance by male students, was established. “The program was quite new when I came,” he said. “The beginning years were extremely challenging and difficult. But the love and joy of it kept me going. And the challenge was my real spark – to continue this career.”
He arrived in time to still take some classes with the legendary Stanley Williams, and also mentions Olga Kostritzky and Andrei Kramarevsky – but his primary teachers were Peter Boal and Jock Soto -- leading NYCB principals at the time. “They were the main focus for us, “ he recalled. “We'd go see the perform at night, and the next morning in class, we'd joke about their rep. It was great. Jock and Peter were very encouraging to me.”
By the time he danced lead roles in the SAB Workshop performances, Ramasar was getting encouraging words from New York Times critic Jennifer Dunning. After praising his dancing in Valse-Fantaisie and other works in 1999, she wrote about his performance the next year in the lead of Danses Concertantes: “Mr. Ramasar, a workshop favorite last spring, has gained immensely in control and polish without losing any of his endearing eagerness.” He became a NYCB apprentice the following month and a full company member in 2001.
Ramasar is very much a 21st-century ballet dancer – versatile, adventurous, deeply respectful of those who preceded and taught him, and open to all stylistic and technical challenges. One thinks of him as a quintessential interpreter of many of the Balanchine “leotard ballets” that remain central to NYCB's repertory. He seems at home in those roles – such as the Agon pas de deux, Phlegmatic, Stravinsky Violin Concerto, Symphony in Three Movements, and Kammermusik No.2 – with their intricate scores, complex partnering, and bracing sophistication.
His performances offer others a chance to experience what that first look at Agon did for him. “I think I already had a connection to the black-and-white ballets that really intrigued me, and touched my heart. For some reason, I just relate to those. I find those more natural to my movement. Also, you find such depth in doing those roles over and over.”
Recent additions to his rep, such as the lead in Emeralds and the Midsummer pas de deux, show him extending his range and refining his technique and presence with a new maturity. “Those roles both took me in a new direction,” he said. “Going back to the basics and really working on classical ballet was very new – also, extremely intimidating, I have to admit, because I wasn't that confident in my classical ballet technique yet. But those roles were so fulfilling once I had the opportunity to perform them.”
Ramasar also shines in a large Jerome Robbins repertory (notably Dances at a Gathering, Fancy Free, Goldberg Variations and West Side Story Suite), but it is in new choreography that he has really been making his mark. He created lead roles in Russian Seasons, Alexei Ratmansky's first work for NYCB, and last year's Pictures at an Exhibition.
“When he first came in, the creativity just poured out of him,” Ramasar said about Ratmansky. “He's the most musical when he dances himself. To watch him move is surreal. Pictures was a blast, to get in there and have him go as crazy as he wanted to go – and me being up for it. Anything he asked for, I would do. I just love his creativity; I think he's absolutely fascinating.”
Ramasar has been prominently featured in three of Peck's ballets, and mentioned he'll be in his upcoming winter premiere. They've clearly forged a rewarding collaboration. “His vision is so clear. He thinks about ballet so much that when he comes in, it's almost all prepared,” Ramasar said. “It's a weird balance between knowing exactly what he wants, and also allowing you to be flexible, letting your personalities come out in that movement.
“He's a really phenomenal mover – he moves at a really rapid speed. That was one thing I had to get used to. Now that you know his vernacular, it's easier. There are sequences where I think, I don't know if I can do that many steps within that amount of counts! He pushes us to do it, and it winds up working out. He's a ballet genius. He has endless ideas – and he's a fun guy.”
Clearly, the spell that ballet first cast on that eleven-year-old has not diminished, and he brims with love for his chosen art form. “It's indescribable, how much it fulfills me.”
Amar Ramasar will perform with New York City Ballet Moves, a touring ensemble, in Santa Barbara, Oct. 26 & 27 and San Diego, Oct. 30.