In the Spotlight: Jennifer Ricci

With more than 25 seasons at Festival Ballet Providence under her belt, Jennifer Ricci is the company’s most tenured dancer. She will be dancing the role of Juliet in one cast of Romeo & Juliet at The Vets, Feb. 10-12, but first we’re finding out where she started, how things have changed, and how the iconic Arabian costume in The Nutcracker got its signature shimmer and sparkle.

Jennifer Ricci and Boyko Dossev in rehearsal for Romeo & Juliet

Hi Jennifer! Tell us a bit about your background. You have lived in Rhode Island your entire life.  When did you start dancing? 

I have been involved with FBP for 38 years. I started taking lessons with the founders, Christine Hennessey and Winthrop Corey, when I was 4 years old. I had this problem with my elbow – the joint kept dislocating – and my doctor suggested I try ballet to strengthen the muscles around it. My mother had always wanted to dance as a child, so she signed me up, and I loved it from the beginning!

Jennifer (left) and sister Jaclyn

Your sister Jaclyn followed quickly after, right?  What was it like growing up dancing alongside each other?

Jaclyn was three years younger than me.  She started taking lessons at FBP as soon as she turned 4, but she progressed even more quickly than I did.  Soon we were both in the advanced level, taking class together.

You both joined the company at a young age as well.  What was that like?  Were you ever competitive?

Dancing with Jaclyn was an all around awesome experience. We are so different style-wise; I am more dramatic and mellow, and she was the dynamic jumper and turner. Because of our different strengths, we were rarely cast in the same roles.  Our work relationship was much more supportive than competitive.

Jennifer as Tatiana and Jaclyn as Puck in Midsummer Night’s Dream

That’s so lovely.  Are there any experiences in particular that you treasure from the time when your careers overlapped?

I think the highlight for both of us was sharing lead roles in Christine Hennessey’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream. It was the only time we were both cast as principals in the same ballet- as Puck and Titania- so that was a really pivotal moment for us.

Jennifer with sister Jaclyn

Jennifer (left) with sister Jaclyn

So cool that you were able to learn from the founders of FBP.  What was working with Christine Hennessy like?

Awesome! She was the most inspirational person, director, and mother figure.  Every aspect of her class was fantastic, you never wanted it to be over.  She was very upbeat and constantly leading you in a new direction.  Her criticism was constructive and positive- nothing to ever make you feel bad about yourself as an artist.

What was the actual transition from student to company dancer like for you?

Since I had already been taking class with the company, the transition into company life felt very smooth.  When I graduated from high school, I immediately joined the company. I was given an entry contract, meaning my shoes and costumes were paid for. I was 17 at the time, and since then I’ve kept every contract FBP has ever given me. That’s 27 years of contracts!

Your Arabian in The Nutcracker is exquisite.  Can you tell us a bit about what this role means to you?

Arabian was always my dream role as a child.  I would watch the company dancers perform it with my jaw wide open. Tall dancers were always chosen for the role and being petite, I wasn’t sure I’d ever be given the chance to do it. When I was 16, I decided to start learning it myself in the back of the studio, using the barre as a partner.

One day, Christine said to me, “I see you, little one, keep up the good work, you keep practicing!”  One of the company men volunteered to learn it with me, and we actually ended up performing in one of the Discover Dance performance!  It went extremely well, and that’s how I became the Arabian dancer.

Jennifer Ricci as Arabian in Nutcracker. Photo by Thomas Nola-Rion.

What an amazing story!  So how do you keep the role fresh, doing it year after year?

Well, I’ve danced the piece with 17 partners now, so I try to make it different for each person based on their personality. That way it’s never boring. It’s such a different dynamic with everyone!

Can you tell us a bit about that iconic costume?

Well, the first costume was made for me when I was 16 and it never fit very well. A few years later, my sister Jaclyn remade the costume with a smaller cut out on the top and used a few pieces of my grandmother’s costume jewelry to decorate it.  There’s her brooch on the top and a few necklaces on the pants. The costume is very special to me.

So you’ve lent your sparkle to Arabian in more ways than one!  Speaking of that sparkle, you are known for your acting skills. You have even had to do a few death scenes in ballets such as Scheherazade and Lady of the Camellias.  How do you prepare for a character role that involves a great deal of acting?

I find you need to know a little more about the character to take it to the next level.   Every character is different. For example, as Juliet, I’m supposed to be a young girl.  She’s not very experienced and has not yet been exposed to the pitfalls of life. What it really comes down to is experiencing a wide range of different roles, and really learning about the character before you begin.

Jennifer as Zobeide in Scheherazade

You’ve been with the company for quite some time.   How has the company changed over the years?

It’s changed drastically! When I joined, we were a much smaller company, primarily focused on classical ballets. I like the fact that these days we work with more modern and contemporary choreographers. It makes things a little more edgy and real. Sexy, sassy, you name it, bring it on! It’s a new age, and this kind of choreography is what the audience wants: something raw that they can relate to.

What are some of your favorite roles to dance?  What would you love do again?

Scheherazade, I love Scheherazade!  Oh, and I love Carmen!  I can’t wait to perform that again in a few months.

Jennifer Ricci & Mark Harootian, VIktor Plotnikov’s Carmen, 2005, photo by Thomas Nola-Rion

Jennifer Ricci & Eivar Martinez, VIktor Plotnikov’s Carmen, 2005, photo by Thomas Nola-Rion

Jennifer will alternate with Vilia Putrius as Juliet in Ilya Kozadayev’s Romeo and Juliet, February 10-12 at The Vets. Casting is subject to change without notice.

In the Spotlight series is edited by Kirsten Evans and Dylan Giles.

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In the Spotlight: Tegan Rich

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Tegan Rich dancing Spanish in The Nutcracker

Tegan Rich is in her sixth season with FBP, having started as a Trainee and risen through the ranks to become a company dancer. She has recently performed leading roles in ballets like Viktor Plotnikov’s Sharps & Flats and Andrea Dawn Shelley’s For Saskia. We sat down with Tegan to learn a bit about her background, some of her memorable roles, and more…

Hey Tegan!  Let’s jump right in.  You grew up in Florida and moved from home to train at the Miami City Ballet School.  What was that like?

Yes! My mom and I moved down to Miami for my sophomore year of high school. We had spent the second half of my freshman year driving two hours each way every Saturday for classes at the Miami City Ballet School. The training totally opened my eyes up to what the professional world of ballet is like. Like FBP, Miami City Ballet uses the same studios as the students do. Being that close to professionals was very inspiring for a young ballet student. I idolized the company and was able to watch them work, sweat, rehearse, cry and anything else that comes with a life of  professional dance.

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The Miami City Ballet is a Balanchine based company, and in that technique the steps are quicker, the musicality is different, the arms move differently, and the way you work your feet is much different than a Russian based training. I really loved this training, however. I like to jump and move quickly, both of which are often highlighted in Balanchine’s choreography.

The training and the teachers were very intense and demanded a certain level of professionalism, even as a student. I learned serious classroom etiquette and a sense of professionalism that I don’t think I would have learned if I had not made the move. I loved every minute of my time at MCBS and am so grateful for all of my teachers that I had while I was there.

You’ve been exposed to so many different dance environments!  After graduating from Miami City Ballet School, you were accepted into Fordham University.  Can you tell us about your time there and your decision to leave to focus on a more classical training?

While my time at the  Ailey/Fordham BFA program was very short, I truly believe that the classes I took, the choreography I learned, and the dancers I shared classes with really opened my eyes to a different aspect of the dance world and changed many of the ways I approached my dancing.While I totally loved living in New York City, going to college, and dancing at the Ailey School, as I got further into the semester, I started to realize that it wasn’t the best fit for me. I just felt that the ballet world was where I wanted to be.

And we are so glad you did!  Now, what brought you to Festival Ballet?

I actually had a teacher at MCB,, Alexandra Koltun (you might know her from those two giant pictures of her behind the front desk at FBP) who had guested with FBP for a few seasons and a massage therapist who used to dance with FBP as well. They both had mentioned Festival to me. When I left Ailey, I went back to Miami City to continue to train and get my ballet legs back underneath me.

I auditioned in Orlando for FBP’s Summer Intensive, and I was accepted on full scholarship. At the end of the program, Misha hired me as a trainee.

What was that transition into company life like?

The transition into company life was relatively seamless for me. I moved in with Kirsten Evans (hey, Kirsten!) we became fast friends and everyone else in the company was very warm and welcoming. It definitely took some time for me to find my own stride… I was injured the first three months of my first season so I didn’t feel like I was diving in head first with, but rather slowly easing in from the shallow end. As a trainee at Festival, you are required to take additional classes and it was these classes taught by Mindaugus that really helped me to better understand the technique that Festival was going for. Mindaugas allowed me to feel like I was still receiving training and guidance while also figuring out how to be my own teacher and critic, both of which are important things to learn in this line of work.

It must have been a pretty huge change to move from Florida to Rhode Island.  Did you have to adapt to a new culture here in Providence? 

Providence definitely has a different culture than South Florida. But I have never felt home sick since moving here. I think I was meant to be a New Englander. The only time I have second thoughts about that is mid-March while shoveling snow off of my car before work. The biggest difference I’ve noticed is how much less I sweat through the majority of the season. I’ve always been a “sweater,” ask my barre-mates, or anyone else, for that matter, but in the middle of the winter I find it is MUCH harder to get my body as warm and sweaty as I was used to feeling in South Florida. I found that socks, and heavy warm ups were not just a studio fashion, but a huge necessity for my muscles to feel as warm as I like them to feel.

Did the big move have any affect on your artistry as a dancer?

I’m not sure Providence alone changed any artistic aspects of my dancing, but with Misha’s direction and the inspiration of my colleagues, my dancing has definitely changed in a way that I can’t really put into words.

In terms of technique, did you have to make any major changes in your style coming from the Balanchine-based school at MCB to the FBP company?

The best part about this job is that there is no end to your technique or training. Yes, at some point, you can worry less about your technique and focus more on your artistry, but I don’t think you can find a professional dancer anywhere in the world that will say they have stopped working to improve their technique.

There is no settling or finality in ballet and I think that’s one of my favorite parts about it. The slower, more controlled, aspect of the Russian based training at Festival was definitely a shock to my system when I first joined the company, but I am so grateful for what it has taught me. I believe that it made me much stronger, and gave me a different way of approaching steps that proved to be very beneficial for me in the long run. But getting to do things like perform Allegro Brillante, are really special moments for me. It’s almost indulgent. I get to revisit some of my old “bad-habits,” and boy, does it feel good for a second.

 

And done! Cheers to a fabulous run, FBP! #AllegroBrillante

A photo posted by teganrich (@teganrich) on

Speaking of special moments, what has been a memorable role or career highlight for you so far?

I would have to say that Mother Goose was a very memorable role for me. I thought I was just dancing a goofy, bird, storybook character, but it turned out that I was taking on an acting role that I was completely unprepared for. I finally realized that I was going to have to be more “over the top” than any other role I’d danced before.

Also, getting to perform the role of Adela in Viktor Plotnikov’s The House of Bernarda Alba was a definite highlight. I had never performed a lead role in a contemporary ballet before, and one of the most challenging parts of Viktor’s work is to not indulge in the character aspect of the role and instead let the movement tell the story. Bernarda was such a different ballet than anything else I have ever done, I felt very honored to get to dance that role.

You were so fabulous in both of those roles!  In general, what sort of work do you enjoy doing most?

I really love contemporary work. It’s always fun to learn new choreography and learn how far you can push your body and explore movement that you didn’t know your body was capable of doing. I love more character based roles that challenge my acting ability. It’s always fun to become someone else on stage for a night! But I also love the classical work. Swan Lake gets me every time, the music is so beautiful and the corps work is so gratifying. And like I said earlier, anytime I get to do some Balanchine is a great day in my book!

Looking ahead now, what are you looking forward to in the 39th Season?

This season I was really looking forward to Allegro Brillante, and now I can happily cross that one off my bucket list! And now, I am really excited for Carmen choreographed by Viktor Plotnikov. Carmen is a ballet that I have always wanted to perform, and I have only heard wonderful things about Viktor’s interpretation of it, so all I can really is say, Ole!

When you’re not dancing, what are you doing?

When I am not dancing, I am usually whipping up something yummy in my kitchen, nannying for a couple of cuties, or exploring the wonderful little local shops at restaurants that providence has to offer.

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Tegan Rich and David DuBois dancing Spanish in The Nutcracker

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