When asked what drew her to a career in ballet during her visit to Chapin last week, Rachel Rutherford '94, a former soloist at the New York City Ballet, focused on family. "My parents were both dancers, so they knew the ballet world, and they didn't necessarily want me to be a dancer," she explained. "They wanted me to take ballet for two years, from eight years old to ten, for posture and discipline. That was going to be it," she laughed. "But I was good at it. And it was a challenge. In a way, you could say that ballet chose me."
During her visit with students in the New York Arts Now course, Ms. Rutherford showed them photos of some of the standout roles that she had performed over the course of her career: the girl in mauve in Jerome Robbins' "Dances at a Gathering," Summer in "The Four Seasons," the lead in Balanchine's "La Valse," and Hermia in "A Midsummer Night's Dream." "That was a fun role," she said of dancing as Hermia, "Because I got to take out my tattered copy of 'The Midsummer Night's Dream' from Chapin fifth grade." Ms. Rutherford also showed students a video clip of her last performance with the New York City Ballet in 2011, dancing in "Emeralds" from Balanchine's "Jewels." "My favorite roles were the ones with drama," she explained in articulating her disagreement with the old Balanchine adage– "don't think, do"— that informed the crisp formations and rigid motions of his most iconic ballets. "I preferred roles that required some depth and interpretation. I liked getting to die on stage, and dancing in long skirts."
Alongside her career highlights, Ms. Rutherford was frank in discussing the challenges that professional dancers faced in her time in the company, and that they continue to face today. "Change comes very slowly in the ballet world," she said in discussing the persisting lack of diversity with regard to race and body type in ballet. When asked about racial diversity in particular, Ms. Rutherford described the double standard that women dancers often faced in relation to their male counterparts. "When I was in the company, there was always a lot of diversity among male dancers. With women less so— we were wearing pink tights, pink shoes, there was this fear of altering the traditional 'look.' And I always thought that we [dancers] all turn, point our toes the same," she continued. "That differences in skin tone wouldn't affect the uniformity [of ballet]. I think it's great that today we have dancers like Misty Copeland, who has a different body type, and is darker-skinned. But we still have a long way to go."
Ms. Rutherford added that for her, forming strong bonds with fellow dancers was important as a way of insulating herself against the rigors and demands of her profession. "Now I see that young dancers, the ones coming up, are more welcoming and more comfortable in their own skin. When I was there it wasn't always like that – but I and a couple other dancers had a nice community [at NYCB]. That was very important to me."
Ms. Rutherford's visit was one of the last in a month-and-half-long series of artist visits, called Arts Alive, organized by Chapin's Music, Drama and Dance departments. Additional guests included cellist Laura Bontrager and violinist Louise Owen, Vice Media creative Charlotte Japp '09, playwright, musician, and author Larry Kirwan, and fashion designer Kim Mesches.