Ballerina Georgina Pazcoguin: ‘We owe it to younger dancers not to stay silent’

In her new memoir, New York City Ballet’s first Asian-American soloist speaks out about racism and sexual bullying in ballet. Now she wants to overhaul the industry from within

When Georgina Pazcoguin was 19 years old, she went to see a doctor about her thighs. A dancer at the New York City Ballet, Pazcoguin had previously had what was known among dancers as “the fat talk” with the company’s then leader, Peter Martins. During their meeting Martins had told her she didn’t “fit in”, silently indicating the area between her backside and her knees. And so, following a recommendation from a friend, she visited the office of one Dr Wilcox, who told her she should consume no more than 720 calories a day – the recommended number for the average woman is closer to 2,000 – and gave her some sealed packets of powder. For the next four months, she subsisted on the powder, plus a single chicken breast and two pounds of spinach or lettuce, which would make up her evening meal.

“No one wants to be told their body is insufficient,” says Pazcoguin, now 36. “I mean, line is essential in my business; there is a certain aesthetic [that is expected]. But I am not an ectomorph. As a dancer you are staring at your body all day long in a mirror. But to try to intimidate me to make me look like this stick figure? Some women are just born a particular way. And there [should be] flexibility within the ballet world for more body types than just this waif-thin idea.”

Pazcoguin is talking from her apartment in New York, to which she has recently returned after spending a large part of the pandemic in Los Angeles. Following an 18-month break, she is due to return to the stage with the New York City Ballet two days after we speak. Pazcoguin has appeared in critically acclaimed productions of Paul McCartney’s Ocean’s Kingdom, West Side Story Suite and, in a brief departure from ballet, the Broadway revival of Cats. In early 2020, the New York Times hailed her “passionate, visceral dancing” in Alexei Ratmansky’s Voices.

While she has done what she can to stay in shape during the pandemic, “there is no amount of training that could actually have prepared my body for this process. I feel like I’m Michael J Fox in Teen Wolf, morphing myself into a completely different creature.”

Pazcoguin is also gearing up for the publication of Swan Dive: The Making of a Rogue Ballerina, a memoir chronicling her coming of age as a dancer. You needn’t be familiar with the world of ballet to find Swan Dive a funny, poignant and shocking read. Pazcoguin takes us from her childhood in Altoona, Pennsylvania, as the daughter of a Filipino father and Italian mother (“the best stage parents”), and her first ballet class at the age of four, to her first summer programme, aged 14, at New York’s School of American Ballet, a feeder school for the New York City Ballet where Pazcoguin became an apprentice. She punctures, with enormous glee, the stereotype of the ballet dancer as an elegant, ethereal being, describing sweat-stained costumes that have never met a washing machine and used condoms and dog crap lurking in dressing rooms.

Underpinning Pazcoguin’s narrative is her delight in her craft, which is also evident in her conversation. “Ballet is my language,” she tells me. “I feel like my truest version of myself when I am on stage. It’s when I feel all is right with the world and one of the only times where the committee of voices in my head are all on the same page.” But she also talks openly and bluntly about the shocking practices and attitudes that have long been the norm in this notoriously closed world. Along with the fat-shaming and the disordered eating, Pazcoguin lifts the lid on the mental abuse, the culture of sexual harassment and the sidelining and stereotyping of dancers of colour.

Asked whether she is worried that the book could blow up her career, she shakes her head emphatically. “I have always been an outsider, accepted but not really accepted because of my multicultural identity and the fact that I am an outspoken individual. I have always asked questions, and I can see, for an institution that just wants dancers to be silent and do what they’re told, how that can become really problematic. I feel like the potential to torpedo my career was always there.”

Pazcoguin is not the first to talk about these issues. “I am in no way a whistleblower,” she says. “The whistle was already blown at the New York City Ballet.” She is referring to Martins’s retirement in 2018 following accusations of years of physical and verbal abuse, and sexual harassment, by multiple dancers. Martins denies the allegations. That same year, three male principal dancers – Chase Finlay, Zachary Catarazo and Amar Ramasar – were accused of sharing nude pictures and videos of female dancers without their knowledge. Finlay resigned, and Ramasar and Catarazo were fired – but their punishment was later revised to suspension; Ramasar returned, but Catarazo chose to leave.

Along with her own experiences with Martins, who she says psychologically abused her, Pazcoguin relays incidents with other staff, among them Ramasar, who she maintains would routinely make suggestive comments and pinch her nipples in class. She also recalls a day rehearsing for the spring ballet when the repertory director, Jean-Pierre Frohlich, asked dancers to imagine women in skimpy clothing such as tank tops and shorts. “JP seemed to be staring wistfully into space as he mused,” Pazcoguin writes. “He ended his long pause with this crazy bomb: ‘It’s amazing more women aren’t raped these days.’”

Georgina Pazcoguin
Georgina Pazcoguin, centre, in the New York Ballet’s West Side Story Suite. Photograph: Tristram Kenton/The Guardian

While sexual harassment and objectification have long been a part of life as a ballerina, at no point have female dancers regarded it as acceptable, says Pazcoguin. “This is a conversation that has been going on for a long time ... And every single woman [at the New York City Ballet] was paying attention when the #MeToo movement started. But we have had to put it away and compartmentalise it, because we never thought this would be a culture that could ever change.”

In 2017, she and the journalist and author Phil Chan founded Final Bow for Yellowface, aimed at ending outdated and racist depictions of Asian people in dance. Pazcoguin also advocates for diversity and colourblind casting, although on the latter she notes: “That’s something I feel like I haven’t really broken through in terms of the roles that I dance. A lot of my casting is based on what I look like, not what I can embody. I would love to just be able to go in to work and be seen as the human I am, and have the possibility that I can, in the span of a day, be Anita in West Side Story, the Sugar Plum Fairy [in The Nutcracker] and [Sleeping Beauty’s villain] Carabosse.”

Nonetheless, Pazcoguin’s campaign is already making a difference; more than 100 dancers and dance leaders have signed a pledge to end the practice of yellowface on their stages. She recalls a young Korean-American dancer telling her: “I see you on stage and I see that it can be me.”

“I didn’t have that growing up,” Pazcoguin says now, tears in her eyes. “There was no one that looked like me. For the longest time I knew that my heritage would not be appreciated.”

Openness and transparency are vital for Pazcoguin, which is why, in Swan Dive, she has chosen to share some painful stories, including a brief affair with a married dancer. “This is an examination of my own story and my own path, and I have made mistakes too,” she notes. “No one goes through this world without making some pretty big fuck-ups.” More significant is her attempt, in her early 20s, to deal once and for all with the issue of her thighs through liposuction. Looking back, Pazcoguin says, she did what was right for her – the way she saw it, it was that or starve herself – although she would never recommend it to a young ballerina. “I was in a really difficult position,” she says. “I had a leader that was asking me to prove my loyalty to him somehow and [he] didn’t care how I did it. I knew that that was an extreme decision, but I was in an extreme place. It was a way for me to grab my agency in a place where I had none.”

She hopes that Swan Dive will convey “how awesome my job is while being honest about the fucked-up things that happen in the world. I didn’t write this from a bitter place, I wrote it because I was compelled to share the story. We owe it to younger generations not to stay silent [about] what we experienced any more. It’s about more than ballet. The message is bigger than just me.”

Swan Dive: The Making of a Rogue Ballerina (Picador) is out on 7 October.

Contributor

Fiona Sturges

The GuardianTramp

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