Leaping to great heights with American Ballet Theatre

GENE SCHIAVONE PHOTO | American Ballet Theatre principal dancer Cory Stearns performing as Siegfried, the lead male role in ‘Swan Lake.’

This is the story about a boy who grew up in Mattituck and became a prince.

Cory Stearns — a tall, angelic 26-year-old with dark, soft, curly hair —  rose last year to the highest level (principal dancer) in the American Ballet Theatre and has traveled the world performing lead roles since joining the company in 2004.

The Manhattan-based classical ballet company just wrapped up its summer performance of “Swan Lake,” starring Mr. Stearns, a former Mattituck-
Cutchogue High School student, as Prince Seigfried. The character is in love with a beautiful princess who fell under an evil spell that turned her into a swan. Mr. Stearns has most recently been playing von Rothbart, a wicked sorcerer who cast that spell.

During ABT’s last Swan Lake performance June 30 at the Metropolitan Opera House at Lincoln Center, Mr. Stearns, wearing purple thigh-high boots and a cape, entered the stage as von Rothbart, whose daughter, the black swan, seduces the prince.

“It’s a very difficult role,” Mr. Stearns said during an interview at the Met. “You come out in the prologue and then you don’t come out until the end of the third act … Then, as soon as you come out, that’s your whole solo. It’s an immediate solo, and that’s always difficult when you have to come out and dance like that right away without becoming comfortable first.”

Another discomfort he feels when playing von Rothbart comes from wearing the villain’s costume, which Mr. Stearns said weighs about 10 pounds. The female dancers wear heavy dresses, too, so it becomes tiresome to lift them during performances, he added.

It is the same role Mr. Stearns played when he was first rising in the ranks at ABT.

“I was coming back to something that was memorialized as something uncomfortable for me,” Mr. Stearns said about his recent von Rothbart performance. “Siegfried I’m much more comfortable with. When you train as a young child, you train, pretty much, to be a prince.”

The local dancer’s fairy tale started when he was a youngster growing up in Mattituck. He was a passionate athlete but didn’t necessarily have an inborn passion for ballet.

Mr. Stearns took lessons as a child in Seiskaya Ballet’s performing arts and academy programs in St. James and stuck with it at the urging of his mother, Beth Stearns, a former Mattituck schoolteacher.

He has said in numerous interviews with other publications, including in a 2008 story in The Suffolk Times, that his mother nudged him into ballet because “she didn’t want her kids to just be jocks.”

But it wasn’t until about a year ago that he actually asked his mother why she put him in dance.

The closest activity she found that would provide a strong foundation in athleticism was ballet, he said, since there weren’t any professional opportunities to learn soccer, baseball or hockey programs in the area.

“What she finally told me — this is the real reason — is that she wanted her kids to experience a professional level of activity,” Mr. Stearns said. “She thought it would help our discipline and give us a nice, different perspective of the kind of commitment professional level activities require.”

Mr. Stearns likes ballet because he finds it challenging, he said, both physically and emotionally. He first decided to pursue dance as an actual career when he was 13 after watching a video called “ABT Now” while he was in a ballet summer program in Pittsburgh, Pa.

“I realized the power that you have as an instrument of dance and how you can inspire others through it,” he said. “The most important thing is having your own personal goals and striving toward those goals.

“In that respect, I’m really no different from anyone from Mattituck because I’m sure they do the same thing.”

He said his current goal is mastering his next leading role: Prince Albrecht from the classical story “Giselle.”

Aside from dancing, Mr. Stearns likes kicking back and playing computer games at home in Jersey City, mostly with his girlfriend, also an ABT dancer. He also skis, scuba dives and is learning how to fly an airplane.

He’s also trying to overcome the stress and anxiety that goes with being a burgeoning ballet star.

“In the past, when I was soloist and corps member, I had a hard time sleeping and eating the night before,” he said. “But now I understand that if I’m going to do well the next day I need good sleep.”

Not everyone has been able to appreciate what dance has to offer, Mr. Stearns has found, especially in a rural high school like Mattituck-Cutchogue, where there had long been a barrier between himself and other students, he said.

But something changed when he was in tenth grade, his last year at Mattituck before heading to London to study ballet at the Royal Ballet School.

“Maybe I stopped having a chip on my shoulder at the same time they stopped caring about trying to make me feel different because I was doing dance,” he said.

Mr. Stearns’s former English teacher, Susan McGinn, who saw him perform in “Romeo and Juliet” earlier this year, said although she knows he had a hard time in school, she recalls some instances where he was popular because he was a dancer.

“When we had a swing dance, all of the girls wanted to dance with him,” Ms. McGinn said. “I think the boys in the high school would start to appreciate Cory, now that they’ve grown up a bit.”

Although Mr. Stearns has fond memories of former Mattituck athletic director Mike Huey — now the varsity tennis coach — he does have memories of him playfully teasing him in gym class.

Mr. Stearns recalled one instance when he complained about having to play gym volleyball.

“He would be like, ‘What are you talking about, ballet dancer?’ and, of course, everyone would start making fun of me,” he said.

In a telephone interview last week, Mr. Huey recalled joking with his former student, but said he only did it because he wanted to recruit him to play school sports.

“He was a great athlete, a good tennis and soccer player,” Mr. Huey said. “Then he went to dance.”

Before leaving Mattituck in 2001 to attend the Royal Ballet School in London, Mr. Stearns gave a speech to fellow students about his career choice at the urging of then-principal James McKenna, who is now the district superintendent.

Mr. Stearns joined a few other students who spoke throughout the day about their dream professions.

After Mr. Stearns talked to his peers about ballet, Mr. Huey stood up and said: “Cory is one of the most talented athletes I’ve known that have come to this school. Every day he comes into gym and works hard and he’s got a lot of passion. I would tease him and give him a hard time in gym class, but I think it’s great that he’s doing something that can take him to London and allow him to move on.”

“It was such a surprise,” Mr. Stearns said. “He’s a very masculine figure. It just showed that he had this respect for me and I was very honored.”

While Mr. Stearns is only able to visit Mattituck a few times a year, his hometown has always had a special place in his heart, he said.

And he hopes to work with the high school to start a program where students are given an opportunity to experience live performances at the Metropolitan Opera.

Mr. Huey agrees the plan would be beneficial to students.

“When you’re young, you see ball games on TV,” Mr. Huey said. “You don’t see ballet.”

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