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The Chosen Ones: An Interview with Maureya Lebowitz

The ballerina on being an artist and an athlete, finding inspiration in her Shabbat dress, and babysitting Bob Dylan

Periel Aschenbrand
February 12, 2018
Courtesy Maureya Lebowitz
Maureya LebowitzCourtesy Maureya Lebowitz
Courtesy Maureya Lebowitz
Maureya LebowitzCourtesy Maureya Lebowitz

Born in Malibu and trained in Winnipeg, Maureya Lebowitz is a real, live, Jewish ballerina. Suffice it to say, she is not your typical ballerina. For starters, her show prep includes a power nap, an espresso, and some dark chocolate. After joining the Birmingham Royal Ballet in 2011, Lebowitz has started to gain international attention, dancing as a soloist all over the world: As Princess Aurora in Sleeping Beauty, Belle in Beauty and the Beast, and Spring in Cinderella. She happened to be in New York and, as such, we met in downtown Manhattan for Mexican food and conversation.

Periel Aschenbrand: So your family moved from Malibu to Canada?

Maureya Lebowitz: No. To Montana first.

PA: Why? What kinds of Jews are these who move to Montana?

ML: Usually the only ones.

PA: Right.

ML: The deer were our extended family. My parents lived in California for twenty five years—but they are from Minnesota.

PA: Shout out to Bob Dylan.

ML: He’s actually a relative.

PA: Well then really a shout out to him. That’s so funny. I’ve literally never said anything like that before. How is he related to you?

ML: I have to check exactly but it’s on my mum’s side. My grandma used to babysit him.

PA: Your grandma used to BABYSIT for BOB DYLAN!? I hear a lot of funny things doing these interviews, but that really might take the cake! And while Bob is fascinating, you are a ballerina, which is every little girl’s dream, isn’t it?

ML: There’s a fantasy there, for sure.

PA: Are you, like, the only Jewish ballerina in the whole world?

ML: I actually haven’t come in contact with another Jewish ballerina.

PA: You’re like a unicorn.

ML: I wouldn’t go that far but wherever I’ve been, I am usually the only one. In Montana we were the only Jews, we’d drive two hours just to go to high holidays.

PA: Oh my god. So you started dancing there and. . .

ML: In the states, you can’t start professional school until fourteen, but by eleven years old, I was raring to go, so I went to a summer school in Canada and it was actually an audition to get into a full year program and I didn’t know that but when I did, I said to my parents, ‘I want to go!’

PA: You’ve known since you were a tiny person?

ML: I’ve always had rhythm and I’ve always been moving. Actually, my Shabbat dress was my favorite dress because it was my ‘twirly’ dress and it had ruffles on it.

PA: That’s so sweet.

ML: I would always put it on, even not on Shabbat and I would just always turn. And what’s interesting, now, is that one of my strengths, in dancing, is actually turning.

PA: And your mom?

ML: She just knew. At eleven years old, in Montana, I was dancing with eighteen year olds so I wanted to be around other people my age with the same determination and focus.

PA: Did you give up a lot? Like from a kid’s perspective?

ML: It’s not, like, sacrifice-focus. It’s the good stuff.

PA: Ahhh. I’ve never interviewed an athlete before, I can’t imagine the discipline but that’s a very interesting way to think about it. I guess when you want it, you want it. And you know it. . . so, did you move to Canada from Montana just so you could dance?

ML: Well. I have an older brother and he’s a very mountain man so my parents kept the house in Montana and he stayed there and they bought property there and each month they switched. And they would also come up for date week.

PA: I am telling you, Jews are the only people in the world who would do this.

ML: I know. We think out of the box. My dad has always worked for himself and they had the luxury of being able to work anywhere and they just wanted to provide what was best for my brother and I in our own ways.

PA: That is truly remarkable. And again, so Jewish.

ML: So Jewish.

PA: So you move to Canada…

ML: We were there for ten years. I trained there and then I danced professionally for four years.

PA: You can’t fuck around when you’re a ballerina, right? I mean, this is like serious business.

ML: On what level?

PA: On every level. Doesn’t it take like the most insane discipline?

ML: I think it looks like that but it’s just like any athletic sport or gymnastics, it’s just that we aren’t recognized so much as athletes as we are as artists.

PA: But you are athletes.

ML: We are! That’s not a question in our world, but to the outside, we don’t get the coverage, the psychologists, the healers, the things that every other athlete would have.

PA: Interesting. . .

ML: It’s a question of funding.

PA: Because it’s perceived as a mostly female?

ML: Not at all. Because it’s art. And that’s why I was always interested in going to Europe, because the arts are ingrained into the culture and they are funded without a second thought.

PA: That’s so interesting. I never thought about it like that. I don’t know anything about sports so I supposed it figures that I’d gravitate toward an artist-athlete. Although I do feel it incumbent upon me to disclose that I once drank like four bottles of wine with Mikahial Baryshnikov so my affinity for ballet actually started before I met you. I guess you really do have the discipline of an artist and an athlete. And, of course, much better fashion.

ML: We do!

PA: What’s the difference between ballet companies? Is it like the NBA?

ML: Well, the first thing is size. In Canada, there were twenty seven dancers, and where I am now, there are sixty five. There are over 100 at the company in London. And, we are a touring company.

PA: As opposed to?

ML: Being stationary and doing one international show a year. We are on the road three quarters of the year.

PA: Whoa.

ML: It’s a lot. You’re always changing stages. You’re always changing locations. But traveling is one of my favorite things. I get to see the world and travel and work doing what I love. But it’s hard, as well. It’s exhausting, you’re living out of your suitcase, the stages are different. . .

PA: How are your feet?

ML: They’re alright, actually!

PA: I’ll bet a lot of people are making sure that is the case! May I ask you what might be a very ignorant question? What kind of ballerina are you?

ML: Not at all. I’m known as a soubrette, which is very English terminology—light and springy. I’m quite powerful and very into jumping. And I’ve done quite a few of those roles that are soubrette roles.

PA: Like what?

ML: Lise in La Fille mal gardée. The mom is always played by a man.

PA: Really!?

ML: Yes, it’s amazing, it’s one of my favorite ballets. Lise is very jumpy and very expressive. And I’m about to start rehearsing for Sleeping Beauty which is an eight week run in England and then in Japan.

PA: Tell me about your outfits. And your ballet slippers!

ML: Well yesterday, I went to get my shoes and I walked into the store and there was a big picture of me on one of their posters!

PA: That’s so cool.

ML: It was kinda cool!

PA: You practice every single day?

ML: We work six days a week.

PA: How are you in NY right now?

ML: This is my seven-day holiday. And in the summer we have five weeks. And it’s paid. Which is very different than in the states. In England, you have a full year contract and you’re kind of in for life, once you pass the probation.

PA: What does that mean?

ML: Well, in North America, every season you have to be rehired. You’re expendable. You have to work your ass off.

PA: And in Europe all the ballerinas are fat and smoking?

ML: It’s more the age factor. People can get comfortable at the end.

PA: What’s at the END?

ML: They just start phasing you out.

PA: How long can a person dance for?

ML: Well with technology things are changing, if you take care of yourself you can dance for longer. It used to be mid thirties. There is a very famous Italian ballet dancer who performed at the Met, main stage, and she’s over fifty. When you’re an athlete, you usually don’t have to worry about how you’re going to support yourself because you get paid. Whereas, being a dancer…

PA: Is like being an artist.

ML: Exactly. And you don’t really have time to do anything else.

PA: Did you always know you had something special?

ML: I was told from a young age that I have an extra something on stage, but it’s not something I actively work on or control. I don’t try to analyze the ‘it’ factor too much because I believe the magic is in the beauty of the unknown.

PA: But you work your ass off, obviously. I mean, look at you. Watching you dance is lunacy.

ML: I work hard at the technical aspects in rehearsals to allow for the serendipitous energy to come alive in performance. It’s really about creating space and being in the moment… just you, your partner and the music.

PA: And when you were growing up, did you feel like you were making a big sacrifice to do this or you always just loved it?

ML: Dance was never a viewed as a sacrifice because I always had the support from my family that I could stop anytime and choose another path. It was my choice from a very young age and it’s still my choice today. It’s been joked about before that I’ve been an old soul forever, as my taste in the past was not of the usual kid on the block. To me, what could be better than being surrounded by kids that were just as passionate as you, working with determination to be able to travel the world and dance to live orchestras around the world?!? It was always a no brainer. And believe me, the dance world is filled with enough hardships of its own, you don’t need to crave any high school drama. Each dancer is an independent artist. It can get intense.

PA: And now?

ML: Now I’m able to enjoy a beautiful Japanese whisky in Tokyo after performing a ballet I adore, surrounded by people I love. For me, life is about timing and taking advantage of each opportunity to its fullest when it arises. Being a kid at heart will never change.

Periel Aschenbrand, a comedian at heart, is the author of On My Kneesand The Only Bush I Trust Is My Own.