New York City Ballet announced on Thursday that it was promoting two dancers to the role of principal and one to soloist, elevating young talent as six of its longtime performers are set to depart and the company seeks to make an energized return after the long pandemic shutdown.
The soloists Unity Phelan and Indiana Woodward will become principals, and Roman Mejia, a member of the corps de ballet, will rise to the rank of soloist, the company said in a news release. The promotions — the first under Jonathan Stafford and Wendy Whelan, the company’s artistic leaders — come at a time when City Ballet has been back onstage for just over two weeks, performing for vaccinated, masked and often ebullient crowds.
In the opening night of the long-awaited new season, Woodward, 27, burst back onto the stage, featured in the one-night-only performance of George Balanchine’s “Symphony in C.” Phelan, 26, appeared in Alexei Ratmansky’s vibrant and lively “Russian Seasons” the next night.
Woodward was born in Paris and later moved to California, where she trained with Yuri Grigoriev, who danced with the Stanislavsky Ballet in Moscow. In 2018, she danced her “dream role” as the lead ballerina in “Romeo and Juliet”; writing in The New York Times, Gia Kourlas raved about her footwork and turns, saying they “sparkle with fluid musicality.”
Phelan trained at the Princeton Ballet School in New Jersey, enrolling as a full-time student at School of American Ballet, City Ballet’s affiliated school, in 2009; she ascended to the role of soloist four years ago. In 2016, before Phelan was promoted to soloist, Alastair Macaulay, then The Times’s dance critic, wrote that she was “effortlessly poetic” in Balanchine’s “Episodes.”
On Wednesday evening, Phelan made her debut in Balanchine’s “Western Symphony,” dancing alongside Mejia in the fourth movement. When the performance concluded, Phelan said in an interview, Stafford and Whelan asked her and Mejia to stay behind. Stafford told them he had planned to share the news with them the next day, but their performance made him decide not to wait.
“I feel like I’m floating,” Phelan said on Thursday. “I don’t even feel like my feet are on the ground.”
Mejia, 21, was born in Fort Worth, where he started ballet training at age 3. He joined the corps in 2017, debuting roles in Edwaard Liang’s “Lineage” and Ratmansky’s “Voices.”
The young dancers will help to fill the void left by a group of departing veteran principals. Six is an unusually large number of retirements for one year. Three of the retiring dancers — Maria Kowroski, Gonzalo Garcia and Ask la Cour — intended to leave in the 2020-21 season, but because it was canceled, they decided to stay on for a farewell season.
Earlier in the pandemic, Lauren Lovette decided she wanted to purse dance outside the realm of the company; Abi Stafford opted to retire after 21 years with the company; and Amar Ramasar, who was temporarily fired and then reinstated after a nude photo-sharing scandal, will leave in the spring.
The pandemic also made Phelan question whether her time as a ballerina was coming to an end; she has a bachelor’s degree in economics and was looking around at finance job openings. But after she returned to the stage this fall, any doubts disappeared.
“I realized that this is exactly what I want to be doing,” she said.