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Portrait of the Artist as a Young Woman: Abigail Simon

Capezio athlete Abigail Simon Abigail Simon coaching a dance student. Photo by Piret Puusepp.

By Leah Gerstenlauer of Dance Informa.

“Dance is your pulse, your heartbeat, your breathing.” - Jacques D’Amboise

“We live only to dance. If living were not an essential prerequisite, we would abstain.” - Toni Bentley

“Dancing is my obsession; my life.” - Mikhail Baryshnikov

Dance as life, dancer as art — noble ideals, perhaps. But for Capezio artist Abigail Simon, a seemingly contradictory philosophy carries more weight:

“Patricia McBride once told me, ‘You’re a human being before you’re anything else.’ I was sick and upset and crying because I had to miss a big rehearsal, and what she said just clicked. I mean, she worked for [George] Balanchine, and he wasn’t the most... you know. But she has always kept that spirit of being human about her.”

After seven years with Joffrey Ballet, four with American Ballet Theatre and 10 at the School of American Ballet, Simon finally has the chance to fully embrace McBride’s admirable ethos as she launches into life as a freelancer. From teaching and travel to driving lessons and love, this dancer has discovered that an artist can be so much more than her art.

Ballerina Abigail Simon

Abigail Simon wearing Capezio. Photo by Matthew Wagemann.

You parted ways with Joffrey in May 2013. What have you been up to since then?

“Right after I left the company, I started teaching a lot in Chicago and I love it. Now I have five girls that I’m coaching privately for Youth America Grand Prix, so I decided to continue to teach and to travel for dance work. I did Barak Ballet in L.A. and worked with Ballet Next in New York. I went out to Kentucky, Maryland, Texas… I’ve been doing a lot of guestings and galas. Next month, I’m headed back to New York to work with Ballet NY, then I’m off to London to rehearse the balcony scene from Romeo and Juliet for a gala in Vienna later this spring."

“It’s been interesting because I’ve lived the company life for so long. Making your own decisions and picking what you want to do versus what you’re told to do… You have to be really motivated and get into class every day. That’s the only issue with living in Chicago. If you miss your class, you miss your class, whereas in New York, there are classes at 10, at noon, in the evening. You really have to be on it out there.”

“And then, of course, there are the shoes. Two to three pairs a week at $90 per pair adds up. So, I started modeling for Capezio and was offered a sponsorship. I’m very fortunate. I’ve worn the same shoe — the Prelude 190 — since I was 14 years old and I still love it. I’ve tried others, but this is just… my shoe.”

It’s amazing that you dove right into coaching. As a working dancer, that must be pretty valuable for your girls.

“Yeah, it just made sense to me. All the time I spent training and building a career at SAB and with ABT and Joffrey made me feel that I had something to offer. I also studied privately from age 14 on. I don’t think I would have been able to dance with the variety of companies I’ve worked with if I hadn’t done that. Summer programs pushed me to try new things, more contemporary movement... I knew that I needed to step outside my comfort zone, which is really hard to understand when you’re young.”

“My parents are artists and they saw that I had talent, but they didn’t necessarily know if I’d get into New York City Ballet. My mom was very open-minded and took me to see a lot of other ballet, while a lot of SAB moms were like, ‘It’s NYCB or nothing.’ But I never thought that was all that was out there. They never pushed anything, which I really appreciated. It was always just support because the only way you’re going to be successful at something is if you’re really passionate about it. You have to come to it yourself.”

Ballerina Abigail Simon

Abigail Simon. Photo by Michael Smith.

You’re originally from New York. Do you feel like Chicago is your home now?

“Well, my boyfriend is there, and we’re a team. With his background in arts marketing, he has been so helpful to me in landing these bookings all around the country and the world. He really has my back. He’s also launching a charitable living membership rewards program called Selfless at the end of the month (http://iamselfless.com). Selfless is membership-based — it’s $9 per month, and 80% of that goes to charity. He actually wants me to join the division that runs benefit galas for the company. I’m really excited about that.”

Now that you’re a free agent, do you have travel aspirations?

“Yes! Once my boyfriend’s company is up and running, we’re going to explore more opportunities in Europe. I believe in him and believe in us, and I don’t think that taking a year to teach and freelance here will set me back. I don’t want to go overseas without him, so if I have to wait, I think it’s worth it.”

“I’m also doing other things. This summer I’m going to take acting classes at the Steppenwolf Theatre. And I’ve learned how to drive the last couple of months! I’m from New York and was always busy in school, so I never had the time or need to learn.”

Since taking a step back from company life, has your perspective on what it means to be a dancer changed?

“Definitely. Because money is so tight for the arts right now, companies are going with younger kids, and the older dancers are disposable. You put in your time somewhere, and then your career stops advancing. It wasn’t always like that. There’s nothing wrong with knowing your strengths and your weaknesses, but that’s not respected anymore. It’s less about artistry now than about how quickly you can do what you’re told. If you take more time, it’s on to the next person... What is ballet going to be?”

“I think Romeo and Juliet is what really inspired me to be a dancer. The first time I saw it was with Baryshnikov and Leslie Brown in The Turning Pointe, and I knew that was what I wanted to do. That artistry will always be important to me.”

See and read more on Abigail at www.abigailsimononline.com.