Arriving one morning last week in Los Angeles, ballerina Heather Watts was hoping there would be a big sign at the airport reading "Local Girl Makes Good"
"But there wasn't any," the New York City Ballet principal dancer said ruefully. "Los Angeles isn't like a lot of cities. It doesn't welcome you with open arms."
Watts, who was born in Chatsworth in 1953, was on hand to represent the company when an announcement was made regarding the ballet company's engagement in October at the Orange County Performing Arts Center.
"I've never been seen here (dancing) as an adult," Watts said.
"I appeared as one of two demi - caractere dancers in the corps de ballet in Balanchine's Symphony in C when a small group of (City Ballet) dancers appeared at the Greek Theatre (in Los Angeles) in 1980.
"There were two of us, one at each side of the stage, and my parents got into an argument over which one of us was me."
But there's no mistaking her now.
An open, spirited and intelligent woman, Watts has danced major roles in ballets by Balanchine and Robbins and has created the demanding female role in Peter Martins' first ballet, "Calcium Night Light."
During the Orange County engagement, she will be seen in Martins' "Songs of the Auvergne," created for her earlier this year.
Set to Canteloube's settings of French folk songs, "Dances of the Auvergne" focuses on Watts and Jock Soto in ballet re-creating a day in a French mountain village. The ballet also includes 10 children, who will be picked from local ballet schools for the October engagement.
But Watts admitted to initially "feeling dubious" about coming to Orange County.
Said Watts: "For me, Orange County was orange orchards and bean fields and Disneyland. But I'm 32. That was a long time ago.
"I would have said that this tour probably would have been a one-shot deal until I saw the theater. Now I know why we're coming. It's a phenomenal facility."
Watts' association with New York City Ballet began during the company's 1964 western tour when she was picked as one of the children for a production of Balanchine's "A Midsummer Night's Dream" at the Greek Theatre in 1964.
Her role? One of the big bugs that carries Oberon's cape. Her Oberon was Edward Villela.
Watts joined the company in 1970, was promoted to soloist in 1978 and became a principal dancer a year later. Judged by the meteoric rise to the top by some of her contemporaries, Watts' progress was somewhat slow.
"I did spend a long time in the corps," Watts said. "But that's not unusual any more. It used to be, bang-bang-bang, you went from corps to principal. But now you put in your time and earn it. Besides, now there are so many good dancers (at the New York City Ballet school). Training is so excellent. They're all good."
Actually, Watts had developed a kind of "black sheep" reputation during her early years at the school and with the company because she did not take her studies seriously.
"The dance world was so small, and it felt so old-fashioned and ridiculous when I went there on a Ford Foundation scholarship in 1967," she explained.
"I was criticized for wearing blue jeans to the theater. People said that I didn't behave like a ballerina.
"Well, how was I supposed to act? Like a nun or a movie star? I was a real person and acted like one."
The turning point for Watts occurred when a dancer who had been in the corps for a shorter time was promoted ahead of her, she said. "This was when I was about 20, in 1973. I realized that up till then I had just been resting on my talent and potential."
Watts feels that she has just begun to emerge from a slump she has been in for the last two years.
"Partly, it was Balanchine's death, which occurred around my turning 30," she said.
"But most dancers go through a slump. On the way up, everything is very exciting. But later it's hard to maintain emotionally.
"And the most difficult thing of all is to compete with yourself--with what you were like two years ago. It's hard when you do everything publicly. I could smile and pretend, but why?
"I feel fortunate to have come out of it, but I crawled out of it one day at a time. I didn't grow up with respect for my talent. But now I have it. When I was younger, I was more defiant. Now I'm not as upset or as defensive as I was."