Dancing a dream

Princeton ballerina has apprenticeship with NYC Ballet

By Keith Loria, Special Writer
   Princeton’s own Unity Phelan has been perfecting her arabesques and pliés most of her life, and her hard work has paid off with an apprenticeship with the New York City Ballet.
   ”I started ballet 100 percent because of my sister, Amanda. She was taking classes and I wanted to be just like her,” the now 18-year-old says. “I skipped a level early on and thought, ‘maybe I can do this as a career,’ and I was completely hooked.”
   At the age of 5, Unity began dance lessons at the Princeton Ballet School and spent the years 2000 until 2009 there. She followed that up training at the School of American Ballet, the official training academy of the New York City Ballet. There, she advanced through the levels while attending high school at the Professional Children’s School in New York.
   Her ballet training also included a few summers spent at summer intensive programs, including at the School of American Ballet. Unity says the advice of her teachers was instrumental in her success.
   ”When I got accepted for the SAB summer I was 13 and (my teachers in Princeton) told me that if I want to do this, you should accept or you might not be accepted the next summer, so I did,” Unity says. “I did two ballet classes a day and the rest of the day, you could spend time in the city, which was really exciting and fun. It was a great experience and such intense training.”
   Those in Princeton never doubted that Unity would get to the next level. They could see how special her dancing was from her first pirouette.
       ”Unity is not only very physically gifted, but was always a delight to teach because of her complete focus on the direction being given, and her innate musicality and theatricality,” Mary Pat Robertson, Princeton Ballet School’s director, says. “It was a pleasure to be her teacher for several years, and then see her progress to School of American Ballet and New York City Ballet.”
When she was 14 and dancing at SAB, Unity saw others accepted as apprentices with New York City Ballet and set her sights on doing it herself.
   ”They only accept company members from their school, and it was a dream that I had, but I never thought it would happen,” she says. “Each year I progressed and got stronger as a dancer and when it happened to me this year it was the most surreal moment. I remember congratulating the girls back then and now I’m one of those girls who young girls are looking up to. It’s amazing.”
   Unity began her apprentice position in the middle of New York City Ballet’s “Nutcracker” season and over the last six months has performed in George Balanchine’s “Swan Lake;” Tchaikovsky Suite #3 and Symphony in C; in Peter Martins’ “Sleeping Beauty;” and in Jerome Robbins’ “Glass Pieces.”
   ”The apprentices are there to be immersed in the company and study as many ballets as they possibly can. They try to give you some face time and testing to see how you perform and how you mesh with the company,” Unity says. “For “Nutcracker” we got a lot of face time, and since then it’s been as many shows as we could possible get ourselves into.”
   Although she eventually gave up ballet, Unity’s sister currently is studying drama in New York, so the sisters can be together there. Unity’s friend Alexa Maxwell also was accepted as an apprentice, so Unity has another close person by her side.
   When her year ends in December, Unity is hoping to get a contract with the ballet and be a principal with the company. She feels her time as an apprentice will help her with that goal.
   ”I think learning all the values and becoming more adaptable to the different styles of dancing that the company does is really important and really helping me,” she says. “I could be dancing two different ballets on the same day or understudying two different ballets, and it’s helping me grow and learn more and push my limits.”
   For those young ballerinas in Princeton who want to follow in her pointe shoes, Unity offers this advice, “Keep working. The only thing that got me where I am today is perseverance and working really hard. Without that, I would not be able to do what I am doing today — living my dream.”