At American Ballet Theater, a New Swan Takes Flight

At American Ballet Theater, a New Swan Takes Flight

“I grew up with boys,” Chloe Misseldine said.

What has being the middle child with two brothers given this striking American Ballet Theater soloist? Not glamour; she was born with that. But a crucial quality for any young ballerina: thick skin.

“Nothing really bothers me,” Misseldine said. “I’m not offended easily. If somebody says something to me, I’ll brush it off.”

Yet over the past week or so, since she made her debut as Tatiana in the ballet “Onegin,” Misseldine has noticed some unusual internal shifts. Tears have flowed. She brought up the word “sensitive” to describe how she’s been feeling, but it’s not quite right. Maybe vulnerable? “I don’t know how to explain it,” she said, “but I just have more emotions.”

Tatiana was big — Misseldine’s first dramatic lead in a full-length ballet at the Metropolitan Opera House, where the company presents its summer season. On Wednesday afternoon, she takes on Odette-Odile in “Swan Lake” after a triumphant debut in the dual role at the Kennedy Center in Washington in January.

Word got out. After that performance, the former Ballet Theater star Nina Ananiashvili asked Misseldine to perform as a guest artist with her company, the State Ballet of Georgia, at the London Coliseum later this summer. “She is a rising star,” Susan Jaffe, Ballet Theater’s artistic director, said. “Not just in A.B.T., but in the dance world.”

A lissome 5 feet 9 inches — and over 6 feet on pointe — Misseldine, at just 22, has a distinctive otherworldly magnetism. It was apparent the moment she joined A.B.T. Studio Company in 2018. A year later she became an apprentice at Ballet Theater and a member of its corps de ballet in 2021. She was promoted to soloist in 2022.

Her ascent, by Ballet Theater standards, has felt meteoric, but Jaffe — who’s been in the job 18 months — seems to be more proactive when it comes to new talent. She was only 19 when she first danced “Swan Lake.”

“I come from that era that started them young,” she said. “Start them young because then they have all this time to grow.”

Of course, they need to be ready emotionally, too. “Chloe is totally grounded,” Jaffe said. “Everything that comes to her, she just takes it with absolute solidity and grace, and works hard and isn’t freaked out.”

Odette-Odile, for all of its dramatic and technical requirements, could easily lead to freak-out moments, but it lands in a zone where Misseldine is comfortable: classical ballet. She looks like a swan, too. Her flexible back gives her a gorgeous arabesque; it also accentuates the wingspan of her port de bras. To prepare, Jaffe coached her for several months.

“I was definitely nervous,” Misseldine said of her “Swan Lake” experience in Washington, but less than she had expected to be. “All the building up — I was ready.”

The actual performance felt like a dream. “It went by so fast,” Misseldine said. “All of a sudden, the second act was done. All of a sudden, I was quick-changing into Act IV. And then, all of a sudden, people were taking photos of me backstage.”

In “Onegin,” Tatiana, who transforms from an unsophisticated country girl into an elegant woman, poses a different set of challenges: “I’m growing up a little bit through roles like this,” she said. “I’m only 22. I haven’t lived much of my life. I’ve just really been focused on A.B.T. and my work and ballet. So doing this really has opened me up.”

The ballet by John Cranko, based on Pushkin’s verse novel, is a plunge into full-scale drama especially for Tatiana who at the start is rejected by Onegin. When she refuses to take back a love letter she has written to him, he rips it up. But by the end, it is Tatiana — now married to another — who does the rejecting and the ripping of a letter, Onegin’s proclamation of love and regret.

“This was just completely different — this related to life,” Misseldine said. “Her being a young girl and just fawning over this older guy. I mean, that’s so natural for a young girl to do and to write a love letter. I wouldn’t say him ripping it up in front of her is normal. I feel like people don’t do that. Hopefully not?”

In her debut, after Misseldine tore the letter with an urgent mix of exasperation and sadness, the audience applauded. This doesn’t usually happen. Still, she said later, she wasn’t satisfied. There were props that distracted her; it was a matinee, and she felt rushed. There were partnering mishaps.

Yet Misseldine was riveting. While the role is usually reserved for more mature dancers, Misseldine’s age mattered less than her instinct. She has imagination, depth of feeling. If “Onegin” left her a little raw, she knows that’s not a bad thing. “I’m still figuring out my ways,” she said. “I’m still learning as I’m going.”

When it comes to her acting, she wants to avoid appearing over the top: “Nothing too dramatic, but I still want to have the drama of the ballet,” she said. “Nothing fake.”

As a dancer, Misseldine knows who she is now, but she wasn’t a natural from the start. Born in Orlando, Fla., she is the daughter of Yan Chen, a former Ballet Theater soloist, who was born in China and trained at the Shanghai Dance School, and a businessman father. Misseldine began taking dance classes around the age of 3 or 4 at Orlando Ballet School, where Chen taught. (She is now is a principal teacher for the A.B.T. Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis School preprofessional division and the rehearsal director of A.B.T. Studio Company.)

Her earliest training was more of an after-school program than anything else. Did Chen see signs of what Misseldine would become? “No!” Chen said in an interview, laughing.

She recognized that her daughter had good proportions, but she lacked strength. “She was a little bit more,” Chen said, “how would I say? Very soggy. She was just hanging.”

But when Misseldine was around 13 or 14, she decided she wanted to participate in ballet competitions. Musicality and coordination aside, Chen felt her daughter needed to work harder. She told her, “There’s no way I’m going to let you onstage,” Chen said. “I’m the professional! When you go onstage you have to have a certain level of the technique. So I started helping her.”

She still does when Misseldine needs it. But Chen is neither a stage mother nor a ballet teacher who sugarcoats. “Of course, encouragement is very important,” Chen said, “but there’s a certain point you need to hear what you need to work on and sometimes give a little push.”

They had their conflicts, but it was more bickering, Misseldine said, than anything else. Out of irritation, she would pretend, for instance, not to perform steps correctly. “But then, as I got older, I started realizing, Oh, what she’s doing is really trying to help me,” Misseldine said. “I started trusting her.”

And Misseldine grew up with another secret weapon: the water. “Actually, when I was young, before I did ballet — this is probably very vital — I grew up on a lake,” she said. “I grew up doing water sports: skiing, wakeboarding, tubing. I feel that’s where my balance comes from.”

Her father, driving the boat, would pull her so that the tube was, “like 10 feet in the air!,” she said.

Her sunny mix of authenticity and fearlessness had to come from somewhere. “My younger brother and I never used to wear life jackets. We had a high dock and we’d jump off it into the water. We were 5, 6, 7 years old. That’s where I get my personality from — living with my brothers, growing up with boys — but then also doing ballet.”

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