Meet Sarah Lane: American Ballet Theatre’s New Principal Dancer

Listen, Ladies talks to Sarah Lane, one of newest principal dancers with American Ballet Theatre. Sarah has made a name for herself dancing leading roles in many ballets, including The Sleeping Beauty, Le Corsaire and Swan Lake among others.  Learn more about Sarah and download the whole episode here: 

This interview has been condensed and edited. 

Listen Ladies (LL): This past July, during American Ballet Theatre’s season performing at the Metropolitan Opera House, Sarah Lane was promoted to the highest rank of the company—principal dancer—and I’m so excited to be here at the ballet theatre’s studios in New York City to speak with Sarah so soon after this news. Hi, Sarah!

Sarah Lane (SL): Thanks for having me.

LL: You joined ABT in 2003 as an apprentice. For people who aren’t so familiar with how the ballet world works, could you put in context what it means to have been promoted to a principal dancer?

SL: I’ve been dancing since I was four years old, basically twenty-eight years of my life. And since I started dancing, I haven’t wanted to do anything else—just wanted to be in the ballet studio as much as possible. So after all of the hours that I’ve put in to those twenty-eight years, for something that I love, it’s a pretty big achievement.

LL: It’s a really big deal. Could you explain a little about the structure of ABT? What does it mean to go all the way from apprentice to principal, and how does your role change within the company?

SL: I think every student works her way up in ballet school, and then once she joins a big company, you start from scratch all over again. All of a sudden you’re a little fish in a big pond, so you feel you have to prove yourself. There’s a seniority system. You have to be really patient and respect the dancers who have been there a long time because they have so much more experience than you do. It’s a process of gaining experience, learning from your colleagues, and growing as an artist, and it takes years.

LL: Let’s take a ballet that a lot of people are probably familiar with. Take me through being an apprentice, the kind of roles you might be doing at that point. Through years in a company, what kind of roles are you working your way up to?

SL: My first year as an apprentice I spent mainly not doing much, just taking ballet class and standing in the back of the room for rehearsals, not really dancing dancing. At that point—your first year—you’re just really getting comfortable and acquainted with the roles and choreography you’re going to be doing in the future. Starting in my second year I did more corp roles like one of the swans in the second act of Swan Lake and one of the shades in the second act of La Bayadere. I did a lot of those big corps de ballet roles. Usually I was in the front from the beginning because I was super short, and the shorter girls usually go in the front. That was a little scary for me, being new and always leading everything.

LL: You went on to become a soloist. I read an interview with another dancer who said that being a soloist is actually one of the harder positions because you’re not getting roles all the time like you are when you’re in the corps. You’re kind of trying to compete to be a principal. Did you experience that as a soloist? What is that position like?

SL: I did because even before I was promoted to soloist, I was doing principal roles. Probably my third year I was doing corps, soloist, and principal roles all at the same time. You cut down your corps roles, so eventually you’re doing just soloist and principal, and you’re thinking, “Maybe I can get to principal . . . or maybe not!” So you’re not really sure if you’re stuck in the middle.

LL: I’ve been watching your career for quite a while as a really big fan, and I’ve really enjoyed watching you come into yourself and find your personality on the stage as a dancer. I don’t know if that’s something that consciously happens or just a function of feeling more comfortable.

SL : I was a soloist for ten years, which is a long time to have that stuck-in-limbo sort of feeling. I tried not to feel that way, but it’s just natural that you do. For a few years the company had a lot of guest artists, and that was difficult for me because it made me doubt myself a lot, doubt my capabilities. Then I guess recently, because it was an extended period of time that I had to deal with that kind of doubt, I decided that careers are so short that it was time for me be free, be myself, no matter what happens in the future, just take the moment of simply doing what I love. That’s what I tried to do especially this year. I had the opportunity to do a couple roles that I really love. It was great just to embrace them, do that for myself.

Sarah Lane in Le Corsaire. Photo: Rosalie O'Connor.

Sarah Lane in Le Corsaire. Photo: Rosalie O’Connor.

LL: What is the character of “Giselle” like in the ballet?

SL: My interpretation of the character is that she’s very sheltered, just a very loving girl,who falls in love with the prince she doesn’t know is the prince and ends up getting her heart broken precisely because she’s so sheltered and naïve. She has a bad heart as it is, and so she dies of her broken heart. In the second act she’s been transformed into a spirit. That’s a really difficult thing to convey: the aesthetic of a spirit, not a human.  That’s a difficult thing to do.

LL: I want to go back to the big news of your becoming a principal. How does one find that out—how did you learn the news? Whom did you call first? What was that moment like? Did you see it coming?

SL: I didn’t necessarily see it coming. I mean being a soloist for ten years, you wonder if it’s ever going to happen. I guess when it finally did, I didn’t emotionally process it right away.

LL: So what happened. Did they call you?

SL: No. Kevin, the director, took me in to his office the night before they announced it. I had a show that night, and he took me in to his office before the show and told me he was going to promote me and announce it in the big company meeting we were having. We talked about the logistics of it:  things I would be doing next year, things I wouldn’t be doing, stuff like that. In the moment it happened I was caught off guard, so I was just very rational about it, cut and dry. I didn’t feel much at first, my head was turning, it didn’t really register. The next morning at the meeting, all the people that I worked with every day applauded for me. That’s what meant so much to me.

LL: A lot of times on the podcast, we talk about women in male-dominated fields, which is obviously not the case with ballet. But it is the case with choreography. A lot more choreographers are men than women. Have you found that? Do you see a difference when you’re working with male choreographers versus female?

SL: I don’t see a difference, in terms of artistry, but I do think male choreographers command a room more than female choreographers do. And they’ve definitely dominated the field.  But I don’t think a choreographer should get an opportunity based on his or her gender. If I love what I’m dancing, love the choreography I’m being given, and it’s being given in a respectful, understanding way, then I’m going to love that choreographer whether male or female.

LL: I could not agree more, but have you found that female choreographers have a better idea of what women can do in pointe shoes, for instance, and…We don’t mean to generalize…

SL: Exactly. Most of the time male choreographers are better at choreographing for men, and women choreographers are better choreographing for women. At least the women that have experience in pointe shoes! But, fortunately, it does seem there are some female choreographers who are rising and making names for themselves. I have so much admiration for them.


Sarah Lane in The Nutcracker. Photo: Gene Schiavone


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