Whether or not he realized it, Sasha Janes began preparing for this long ago.
He’s one of the tiny percentage of dancers whose dream of a professional career came true. Despite the ever-present danger of being forced to retire by injury, he danced for 23 years – the last eight of them at N.C. Dance Theatre.
Like everyone practicing an art that puts the body through strains it wasn’t built for, he was aware that he’d eventually have to leave the stage. There were a couple of things he did not envision for his future.
He didn’t want to become a rehearsal director – the guy in the middle between the dancers and artistic director. Too many egos, he says. Nor did see himself as a choreographer. He didn’t want to force his ideas on anyone.
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So what’s he doing now? Janes is NCDT’s rehearsal director. And he’s choreographing a ballet – “Dangerous Liaisons,” inspired by the French tale of desire and conniving – that NCDT will premier Thursday.
“I think my mother puts it best,” Janes says: “ ‘You get to create something beautiful for everyone to watch.’ ”
Whether you’re performing or creating, Janes says, the driving force is the same.
“Most people don’t find a passion their whole life,” he says. “But we’re lucky enough to find a passion and make a living out of it.”
Following through on the passion when full-time dancing ends is the challenge every dancer faces.
Look at some NCDT standouts of recent years. Mia Cunningham is an adjunct professor at Winthrop University. Kati Hanlon Mayo teaches for NCDT. Daniel Wiley left while he was still dancing to join his wife to run their school in Kannapolis.
They’ve been able to dance as long as they wanted. Not everyone is so lucky. Tobias Parsons, who joined NCDT in 2005, had a career-ending injury the next season. He is back in his native New Zealand, working on an engineering degree.
Janes was especially valuable as a masculine yet lyrical partner to NCDT’s female dancers. He enhanced the poetry of classical ballet and the drama of modern works.
His boss, artistic director Jean-Pierre Bonnefoux, sums up what Janes, 42, brings the company now.
“He has authority,” Bonnefoux says, “but he isn’t authoritarian.”
What’s interesting is Janes’ first impression of Bonnefoux and the company’s other leader, associate artistic director Patricia McBride.
He met them in 2001, when he spent a summer dancing at the Chautauqua Institution in upstate New York, where Bonnefoux runs the dance program. Janes and a partner had a coaching session with former luminaries of the New York City Ballet – Bonnefoux, McBride and Violette Verdy. The three, he says, were the “polar opposite” of the stereotypical, tyrannical ballet master.
“It was mind-blowing,” Janes recalls. “They were encouraging us and telling us how good we were and really being positive. The atmosphere was unbelievable.”
That obviously resonated with him. When Janes was taking dance classes as a boy in Australia, he says, he didn’t enjoy ballet. Why? He had “an old lady teacher, and she wasn’t very nice.”
In love with the stage
Janes grew up in Perth, in western Australia. At 2 or 3 years old, he was dancing around the house and declaring that he wanted lessons. He got his way at age 5. When he finally went onstage, “I just fell in love with it.”
“I think this is a very strange coincidence,” he says. “The very first thing I did, I was dressed as an American footballer, dancing to ‘Yankee Doodle Dandy.’ And here I spent 20 years of my career in America.”
There was no hint that his future would include main roles in the likes of “Nutcracker” and “Romeo and Juliet.” Jazz dancing was his favorite. But a walk-on role in “Giselle” changed everything. From the wings, Janes watched one of Australia’s top ballet dancers in action.
“He did this jump,” Janes says. “He practically jumped over my head – that’s what it felt like. ‘That was amazing!’ ”
Now he got the message. A more congenial teacher came along – a tall, muscular male instructor the teenage Janes could look up to. Attending a performing-art high school added to ballet’s attractions.
“There were like three boys who did dance,” Janes says, “and we got to hang out with all the prettiest girls in the school.”
By the time he was 16, Janes says, becoming a professional was his goal. He applied to the national ballet company’s school in Melbourne.
“I was probably too green,” Janes says. “But they took me.”
A jump to the U.S.
At the end of the three-year program, Janes was hired to help flesh out the national company for a U.S. tour – his first trip to his future home. After three years with Hong Kong’s ballet company, Janes decided to move to New York.
An offer from American Ballet Theatre fell through because he didn’t have immigration papers. But Janes made connections. He filled in at the Dayton Ballet in Ohio – and ended up with a permanent position.
“They had a nice repertoire,” he recalls. That wasn’t the only attraction. Janes and a fellow dancer, Rebecca Carmazzi, had chemistry offstage as well as on.
Another fruitful relationship: Toledo’s ballet mistress, Kathryn Moriarty, was connected to Bonnefoux and McBride at Chautauqua. Moriarty – who also ended up at NCDT – pointed Janes toward Chautauqua.
Bonnefoux was impressed. He made it clear that when Janes finished his contract in Dayton, another one waited at NCDT.
“J.P. and Patty,” Janes says, “enticed me to come down here.”
It didn’t hurt that Carmazzi had moved to Charlotte in the meantime. No more two-city relationship.
‘Biggest thing in my life’
Next year, NCDT will go to Washington for a showcase of U.S. dance companies. The festival’s leaders have picked a work of Janes’ from 2011 – “Rhapsodic Dances,” a blend of glamor and fireworks.
“Obviously,” he says, “this will be the biggest thing in my life – having my own ballet performed at the Kennedy Center.”
Not bad for someone who choreographed his first work in 2007 – and only because he was prodded.
It happened in a meeting with Bonnefoux, who asked Janes what he wanted to dance the following year. Bonnefoux proposed part of the answer: Janes could try choreographing a pas de deux. Janes went for the opportunity.
“Even if I failed miserably,” Janes says, “I had to take a crack at it.”
It was comfortable territory for a first try. As a dancer, Janes says, partnering was his forte. He was pushed toward it because he was tall, but he enjoyed interacting with another dancer. In this case, he would be choreographer and dancer both – paired with Carmazzi.
The creative work got a boost, Janes said at the time, because he and Carmazzi had danced together so much and knew each other so well. The result was a lyrical, ardent duo that audiences loved.
Bonnefoux let Janes follow that with other works, gradually ratcheting up the scope. “Dangerous Liaisons” will be the largest so far: about 50 minutes, employing the whole main company. Carmazzi will play the Marquise de Merteuil, one of the story’s main schemers.
Janes may still have some dancing ahead of him, he says. But his new roles give him a fresh perspective on his time onstage: two decades in which he never missed a performance, even when he had “injuries that would bring tears to your eyes.”
“I know it’s hard – physically hard. But you walk way from it and become a rehearsal director or a choreographer, and you realize that as a dancer, you only have one thing to worry about – yourself.”
Janes has plenty more to think about now, even when he isn’t creating ballets. He and Carmazzi have three children, including 1-year-old twins. As an example of what that means, he thinks back to last year, when the whole family was at Chautauqua.
“I walked onstage for a solo and I heard, ‘Daddy!’ ” he says. “It makes you smile. It makes you relax. You don’t take things so seriously after that.”