Injury forces last dance for ballet principal

Posted: April 25, 2008

For the last 10 years, Pennsylvania Ballet audiences have witnessed the remarkable prowess of James Ady. His brilliant technique, demonstrated in "Swan Lake," "Giselle" and many works choreographed by George Balanchine and colleague Matthew Neenan, was imbued with a grace and fluidity that seemed effortless.

More recently, the dancer's artistry has hidden from us the intense pain of bone spurs. At the tender age of 29, Ady, a principal dancer with the company, will retire after this weekend's performances as Franz in the comedy classic "Coppelia." (His frequent partner Arantxa Ochoa, portraying Swanilda in this production, is five months' pregnant, though you'd hardly know it.)

Ady's departure is a real loss for the company, but dancers must accept the shorter careers brought on by exhausted bodies and aching joints.

"A dancer into his upper 30s or even 40 is considered old," said company artistic director Roy Kaiser, who retired as a famed performer at 34.

Considering that a title of principal isn't usually reached until the late 20s, that means a career window smaller than that of many professional athletes - and with a fraction of the earning power.

Despite his star quality, Ady's known as a friendly, affable colleague. In productions of "Nutcracker," he's danced the lead Cavalier, then returned in a later show that day as one of the battling mice. He's often the first to arrive at rehearsal and has always been willing to share his artistic experience with younger dancers.

We recently sat down to talk at a Center City coffee shop, where the dancer's modest openness and good humor were much on display.

"Dancing is the only thing I've ever been able to do," said Ady, "and it will be hard to leave that part of life behind. But bone spurs have worn all the cartilage away in my feet, especially the left one, with a repetitive stress injury.

"Male dancers dance a lot in releve, which lifts your heel off the floor and puts all your weight, even when lifting a woman, on the ball of the foot. My doctor said that if I want to walk later in life, I'd better stop dancing now . . .

"I'd have tried to dance 10 more years if I could have, but this was a decision made for me, a long time coming. My technique is slipping, and I'm too proud to let that happen."

Ady was born in San Diego and moved to Iowa - which he wanted to leave as soon as possible. His exit was a high school for performing arts in North Carolina, and after Pennsylvania Ballet star Amy Aldridge visited the school ("She was so cool and glamorous"), his goal was certain.

Ady arrived in Philadelphia 1997, later moved to American Ballet Theater in New York for a year and was grateful that Kaiser accepted him back as a soloist. He became a principal dancer at 26.

" 'Coppelia' is the first full-length ballet Arantxa and I ever did together, and she wanted to do it with me this time. Considering her pregnancy, she's sacrificing much more than I am," Ady said.

"I'd have loved to do 'Romeo and Juliet' with her as my last show, because doing that together at the Academy of Music was a real highlight in my career. She makes me work harder than everyone else, makes me step up my game so we can throw each other around."

Ady will move to Idaho, where he intends to spoil his sister's children, Cooper, 3, and Sadye, 2, and attend Boise State University. As a 30-year-old freshman, he'll embark on a new phase of life taking psychology, business and journalism courses.

"I don't want to make a big deal out of having to leave, because I never thought I'd get to dance these roles," Ady said. "The spirit of the company is ideal, and they're all friends. It was incredible to work with Sandra Jennings, who coached the amazing Balanchine ballets, which made the music visible, and with Matthew Neenan, who was a dancing colleague but whose choreography was demanding.

"I got to kiss every one of the principal dancers in one role or another. And, a couple of years ago, I was pretty good."

Ady may be the only one to have noticed a deterioration in his performance skills over the past two seasons; his supreme ability always made us sense the beauty of his characterizations.

His retirement is a reminder of the commitment that dancers make to their profession, and the blood, sweat, fatigue and pain they try so hard to conceal from the audience.

Ady and Ochoa perform in "Coppelia" today and Sunday. Some of the company's other excellent artists are slated for tomorrow's performances: Alexander Iziliaev and Abigail Mentzer at noon, and Zachary Hench and Martha Chamberlain at 8 p.m. *

Send e-mail to dinardt@phillynews.com.

Merriam Theater, 250 S. Broad St., 8 tonight, noon and 8 p.m. tomorrow, 2 p.m. Sunday, $19.50-$90.50, 215-336-2000, www.paballet.org.

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