A Ballerina Who Adds to the ‘Palette of What’s Possible’

At the end of November, when Boston Ballet returned to live performances with “The Nutcracker,” the first Sugar Plum Fairy was Chyrstyn Fentroy. The role wasn’t new for her, but the honor of precedence might have been a good tiding. On Wednesday, the company announced it was promoting her to principal dancer, its highest rank.

This isn’t exactly a surprise. Since Fentroy, 30, joined the company in 2017, she has been promoted nearly every year. In the words of Mikko Nissinen, the troupe’s artistic director, “The trajectory has been very clear.”

And not only to him. “I knew it was going to happen,” said Virginia Johnson, the artistic director of Dance Theater of Harlem, the company that gave Fentroy her start.

The esteemed choreographer William Forsythe, who has worked with Fentroy extensively in Boston, said that she figured largely in his “palette of what’s possible,” and that he had been wondering why she wasn’t a principal already.

Fentroy rehearsing the role of the Sugar Plum Fairy, which she danced on opening night of Boston Ballet’s run of “The Nutcracker.”Credit…Brooke Trisolini, via Boston Ballet

What makes her distinct? Colleagues and critics praise her relaxed ease and lightness, her generosity of spirit onstage and off, her uncommonly subtle and individual musicality. “It’s her ear,” Forsythe said, likening her to the famously musical New York City Ballet star Tiler Peck.

“She’s such an intelligent artist,” Johnson said. “She works very hard, but not just as someone trying to dance well. She’s trying to say something with her dancing.”

Forsythe also noted the high demands Fentroy makes on herself, and the sophisticated results. “She learns, she goes away, she works, she comes back with something more interesting than what I proposed,” he said.

Fentroy’s ascent may not be surprising, but it’s still news. For a Black woman to become principal dancer at an American ballet company remains a rare feat. The first at Boston was Tai Jimenez, who joined as a principal in 2006 after a 12-year career with Dance Theater of Harlem. After she retired because of injuries the next year, the company had no Black women at all until Fentroy joined. And she was the only one until this September, when Michaela De Prince arrived as a second soloist. (As for Black men, who have historically had less difficulty in being hired and promoted, the company has five, none of them principals.)

The significance of Fentroy’s promotion is not lost on her. “I wouldn’t call it a responsibility, because that sounds weighted,” she said on a recent video call. “I actually feel so lifted knowing that my dancing matters more. For the people who maybe think that because they are Black they can’t get to this level, I can make them feel like they can do it too.”

But Fentroy’s sense of her racial identity and her awareness of its significance in ballet have changed over time.

Fentroy with Roddy Doble in Boston Ballet’s production of William Forsythe’s “Blake Works I,” in 2019. Credit…Angela Sterling, via Boston Ballet

She grew up mostly in Los Angeles as the daughter of dancers. Her father, who is Black, taught jazz and hip-hop. Her mother, who is white, taught ballet and performed with regional troupes. Her parents divorced when she was 7, and she was raised mostly by her mother.

“Dance was something I did because my parents were always at the studio,” she said. “Putting me in class was a way to keep me out of trouble.” If she felt that she stood out, it was as the teacher’s kid, not because of how she looked.

“I think my mom did a great job of raising me to see myself as just another person,” Fentroy said. “But I was going to audition once and she made a comment I didn’t understand at the time. She said, ‘You have an advantage over everyone else because your skin is golden so you glow.’ She was trying to protect me.”

Fentroy didn’t really imagine ballet as a profession for herself until she was 18 and attended a summer program in New York. “It sounds really strange,” she said, “but I fell in love with the work, with how hard it is — the chase for perfection or the chase for growth.”

She moved to New York and studied at the Joffrey Ballet School for two years, touring with its student company and auditioning for professional ones. The best offer she got was an opportunity “that I don’t think anyone could have turned down,” she said: Dance Theater of Harlem.

Founded in 1969 with a mission to prove that Black dancers could master ballet and to give them a home, Dance Theater of Harlem grew into a major institution but was forced by debt to go on hiatus in 2004. (That’s one reason Jimenez moved to Boston.) In 2013, Johnson, one of its former stars who had recently taken over as director, was restarting it in much smaller form, mostly with new dancers. Fentroy wanted to be part of that.

And Johnson wanted her. “Chyrstyn was the kind of artist you could build a company with,” Johnson said, adding that she often chose repertory with Fentroy’s growth in mind.

Fentroy grew. “I learned who I was as an artist and what matters to me,” she said. “It came from the company mission. I dance for other people. I want to change people’s lives, especially people who might not feel like they belong in the theater.”

“Chyrstyn was the kind of artist you could build a company with,” said Virginia Johnson, who hired her at Dance Theater of Harlem.Credit…Tony Luong for The New York Times

Her identification with that mission made it hard for Fentroy to consider leaving the troupe, she said, even as she began to feel that staying wouldn’t allow her to grow “fast enough for the hunger I had.” She wanted a bigger company, with more people to learn from. She wanted to dance in more works by European choreographers and the full-length classical ballets that the new Dance Theater couldn’t afford to mount.

Boston Ballet offered all that. “And I thought, I can take these values and carry them with me,” she said. When she moved to Boston, she didn’t realize that she would be the only Black woman, or that it had been so long since the last one. “And being different can be hard when you feel you don’t have anyone to express your concerns to or who will understand,” she said.

For example: hair. In George Balanchine’s “Chaconne,” women wear their hair down, “and my hair was different from everyone else’s,” she said. “I didn’t know what was right or how to ask the question.” For a couple of shows, she chose to wear a wig. And then she decided to go out with her natural hair. “It was one of the most freeing moments of my life,” she said. “It was an acceptance of me onstage.”

Her swift rise seemed to be slowed by the pandemic shutdown. “When I wasn’t dancing, I felt I lost a part of my identity,” she said. “I wanted to put that passionate energy into something that mattered.”

In the downtime, she had ankle surgery, but when she saw the protests after the murder of George Floyd, she felt she had to join them, even on crutches. That June, she wrote an article for Pointe magazine entitled “My Experience as Black Ballerina in a World of Implicit Bias,” educating readers about what Black dancers were going through and how they might help.

At a Boston Ballet town hall, she encouraged people to talk about race, and this outspokenness (for which she credits Dance Theater) led to her being asked to join the company’s diversity, equity and inclusion committee. “I learned that the staff respected my concerns,” she said. “I felt empowered to have that voice and help others.” She started Color Our Future, a mentorship program.

“I’m also recognizing how important identifying myself as biracial is,” she said. “Two of my mentees were biracial, and we talked about people always putting us in a category that we didn’t know if we identified with.”

Heading into 2022, Fentroy said she has “a lot of faith and hope” — about ballet changing for the better, about her blossoming career. While she has dabbled in choreography, she’s most excited about dancing.

“My ultimate goal is always just growth,” she said, “but lately I’m trying to be happy with what I do because it dawned on me how short this career is.”

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