Marianna Tcherkassky, giving her last performance with American Ballet Theatre tonight after 26 years with the troupe, isn't expecting emotional meltdown as she takes those final few steps. She's got a dancer's workhorse attitude about it.
"My concentration and focus are still on putting together the performance," she said, speaking by phone from New York last week. "I'm not sure when it will hit."
Tcherkassky, 43, has two outings on tonight's schedule, the second of ABT's six-performance run at the Music Center. She will dance a pas de deux excerpted from "The Leaves Are Fading" (Tudor) and lead the ensemble in "A Brahms Symphony" (Lubovitch). Distinguished by sensitive musicality as well as a strong technique, she's best known as a poetic interpreter of Romantic leading roles.
She delivered a "sterling" rendition of Juliet for her final New York performance two weeks ago, wrote the New York Times' Anna Kisselgoff, and "will be remembered as a sublime Sylphide and one of the greatest Giselles that American ballet produced."
Producing a child with husband and ABT ballet master Terry Orr will be among her first plans after tonight, Tcherkassky said from her suburban home. She'll also teach at ABT this summer and would like to coach. And she doesn't rule out guest appearances or joining a concert group, but first, she says, she wants to gain some perspective with a clean break.
Forty-three is actually a rather young age for a ballerina to retire. Bolshoi Ballet legend Galina Ulanova called it quits at 52 and the Royal Ballet's Margot Fonteyn stepped down even later. And no one has suggested that Tcherkassky has lost her touch, which is just what she had in mind. "I wanted to stop when people are asking why and not when," she explained.
But, she added, that's not the whole story: "My career has been incredibly rewarding and fulfilling, [but] I've come to a point where there doesn't seem to be a place for me at ABT."
In fact, during the company's eight-week New York spring season, Tcherkassky danced the lead only once in a full-length ballet, her farewell "Romeo and Juliet," and appeared in three other works.
"The less you do," she said, "the harder it is to maintain your standards, especially as you get older."
Early in her career, she danced more in part because the financially stronger company toured more, guaranteed its dancers 40 weeks of work a year (compared to 26 today) and had a more diverse repertory, rather than staging, as it does these days, lots of crowd-pleasing full-length works.
Tcherkassky looks back with special fondness to the years when Mikhail Baryshnikov dominated ABT, first as star dancer in the '70s, and after 1980 as artistic director. He provided "lots of opportunities for me," she said, including casting her as the original Clara in his "Nutcracker" and selecting her as his partner for her long-dreamed-of first "Giselle."
"The fact that he believed in me made me feel there wasn't anything I couldn't do," she said.
If Baryshnikov tended to promote in-house talent, other artistic directors have sought to boost sales by importing new faces.
"The public [comes] to expect new blood, new quote-unquote stars," New York dance writer Robert Greskovic said, "so if you are the local girl or the house ballerina, the public yawns at the sight of your name."
Current artistic director Kevin McKenzie doesn't refute that idea. Box-office pressures figure in, he said: "One has to generate excitement about the company and develop those personas."
In addition, he said, "Marianna's strength is as a Romantic dancer, and that's about a third of the classical repertory. Any director has to look at their whole company and play the strengths."
Tcherkassky had a "lean" year last year, McKenzie acknowledged. "So we sat down together and said, 'How can we design a [satisfactory] season for you this year while you're dancing really well rather than letting things dwindle?' " He admitted that even this season was not a "huge" one for Tcherkassky.
Nonetheless, her roles have been a fitting finale. Juliet is one "upon which she has left her distinctively poetic mark," wrote the New York Post's Clive Barnes. "Brahms Symphony," a modern ballet, allows her to stretch out of the Romantic-lead mold.
Over the phone, Tcherkassky's voice carries a greater heft than her ethereal stage presence might suggest. Still, she's never had to struggle for much, she said.
"I literally was born into [ballet]," the New York native said. "My mother was a dancer and my first teacher, my dad was an opera singer and worked in ballet management, and they just started exposing it to me from the time I could stand."
Raised outside of Washington, D.C., Tcherkassky got her first job from her godfather, Andre Eglevsky, who had a company in New York.