Keeping Them on Their Toes
Principal dancer Ian Hussey brings grace and physicality to the Pennsylvania Ballet.
Dark clouds fill the morning sky as a parade of dancers files into the Louise Reed Center for Dance on North Broad Street in Philadelphia. Ian Hussey and his Pennsylvania Ballet colleagues make the pilgrimage most weekdays for a 10 o’clock class.
The 40 members of the Corps de Ballet carve out tiny spaces and begin stretches to ready themselves for the day’s workout. The company’s upcoming production is Swan Lake, in which Hussey will dance the lead male role of Prince Siegfried.
Dressed in a light-green tank top, black tights and worn ballet slippers, the Pennsylvania Ballet’s principal dancer is warming up at the waist-high barre. He and the others use it as support as they work through exercises on one side of their bodies at a time, keeping tempo with pianist Brian Chronister. The music repertoire ranges from Broadway’s Mame to “Danny Boy” to pop and classical standards.
Dancers perform pliés to stretch all the muscles of the legs and prepare for the exercises to follow. With battement tendus and rond de jambes, they warm up their legs and build muscles.
Next, the dancers move to the center of the room, where their long and graceful limbs glide across the floor in a series of jumps, turns and running leaps known as jetes. The combinations of steps are often used on stage. Instructor Martha Chamberlain, who danced 21 years in the company, prowls the room, gently correcting the placement of limbs and joints.
As the longtime solo pianist for the company, Malvern’s Martha Koeneman guides the dancers from early preparation to dress rehearsals to their on-stage performances.
“Ian is very conscientious—a hard worker who is very tuned into the music,” Koeneman says. “He sets a high standard for himself. I find Ian to be a lyrical, wonderful actor and an expressive dancer.”
A member of the Pennsylvania Ballet for the past decade, Hussey was an apprentice before being promoted to the Corps de Ballet, and then rose through its ranks to become a principal dancer in 2012, in title roles that have included John Cranko’s Romeo and Juliet. He has danced a wide variety of leading roles, from classic full-length story ballets to iconic works by George Balanchine to cutting-edge contemporary works. In May 2014, Hussey was featured in the national PBS broadcast of Pennsylvania Ballet at 50.
Hussey grew up in Westmont, N.J., with his twin, Eamonn, and older brother Colin. His mother Joan was a stay-at-home mom, his father Gene, a financial advisor. All of the boys played little league baseball, soccer, and they also spent countless hours on the tennis court.
“Eamonn and I really went at it—we were really competitive,” Hussey recalls with a laugh. “Our family was also huge fans of Philly’s sports teams. I discovered later that all that sports background was the exception rather than the rule with ballet dancers.”
When he was nine, Ian’s mother took him to see The Nutcracker at the Academy of Music. “He was sitting on the edge of his seat, just mesmerized by the dancing and magic of the production,” recalls Joan Hussey, who lives in Greenville, Del. “Two decades later, to see him in the lead role of Swan Lake is thrilling. It’s the pinnacle of his career. It speaks volumes to his dedication and hard work, his heart and desire. Ian brought such passion to his performance of Swan Lake, a Renoir in motion. It’s gorgeous.”
By age 13, Hussey was faced with a difficult decision: Play sports or study ballet. In 2001, he opted to attend the Central Pennsylvania Youth Ballet in Carlisle, Pa. Marcia Dale Weary, a former ballet dancer herself, founded the school in 1955. It’s the only regional ballet school in the country authorized to perform the choreography of the late George Balanchine.
“Marcia Dale Weary and her talented faculty gave so much to me,” says Hussey who last performed at CPYB in 2003. “She started it in her father’s barn. She has trained more top American ballet dancers than anyone. It starts with technical development and, always, attention to detail. You work really hard. She taught me incredible discipline and work ethic.”
Hussey emphasizes that today’s male dancers are recognized as both artists and athletes. “Absolutely, we’re top-flight athletes,” Hussey insists. “It’s very physically demanding work. We push our bodies every day in those morning workouts, keeping our muscles strong and loose.”
Hussey also cross-trains, lifting weights and swimming. “There is no greater thrill than performing before a huge audience,” he says. “Mentally, it can be tough. You have to keep your confidence up. You also have to deal with injuries. It’s a fact of life for a dancer. Executing those difficult jumps, lifting the girls higher and higher can lead to injuries. It’s all about managing them.”
A male dancer’s pursuit of perfection often results in aching muscles and bloodied feet. The most common injuries are to the foot, ankle, hip, knee and shoulder, says physical therapist Julie Green, who has worked with the Pennsylvania Ballet for 11 years.
“Their pain tolerance is very high, and they have such a passion for what they do,” says Green. “But I try and get them to look at the big picture, look to the future. Dancers live in constant fear of that injury that will take them out, end their careers. I’ve known Ian since I got here, and he is still this humble and sweet guy. He really understands anatomy and takes a lot of responsibility for his injuries, doing self-treatment. Also, he is always helping the other dancers if I’m not here.”
Hussey was one of 14 Pennsylvania Ballet dancers who stepped from stage to silver screen to appear in the 2010 ballet-themed thriller Black Swan. He was one of the few men selected by the film’s choreographer. Actress Natalie Portman scored a Best Actress Oscar for her performance of a tortured ballerina.
“I was so excited because I’m a huge Darren Aronofsky fan,” Hussey says of the film’s director. “Natalie Portman did an excellent job playing the role of a ballerina who has lived her life insulated within her devotion to the dance world. There was a lot of pride and excitement here.”
The Pennsylvania Ballet had its own drama in 2014, when the board executed a complete regime change, hiring the 39-year-old, Madrid-born Angel Corella. He’s regarded as one of the finest dancers of his generation, and his passion has energized the company and its dancers during his first season.
Three days after the morning workout described earlier, Hussey performed in Christopher Wheeldon’s Swan Lake at the Academy of Music. Based on the original Ivanov/Petipa classic, Wheeldon’s show has been re-imagined for today’s audiences. Spectacular costumes, sets inspired by the paintings of Edgar Degas, and the masterful, mesmerizing women’s swan dance combine for a dazzling performance.
As Prince Siegfried, Hussey is an elegant and steady partner to the lovely Brooke Moore, who wowed as the two main characters Odette and Odile. Known for his strong leaps and whirling pirouettes, Hussey executed his solos brilliantly in perfect time with Tchaikovsky’s sweeping score, performed by the 40-piece group of local musicians.
“There are always those pre-performance jitters,” Hussey admits. “But once you’re on stage, the story takes over, and it flows from there. Our goal is for the audience to be transported by all those dreamy swans and our dancers, and to leave delighted and appreciative of our special talents.”