Brooklyn's Black Swan"A lot of people think it's about being able to stand on your toes. You know, jump around. But it's a lot deeper than that."
Elena Zahlmann is living every young dancer's dream, performing onstage in New York with the New York Theatre Ballet. As a member of the small but distinguished company, she's danced in a wide range of parts, including the title role in Donald Mahler's "Cinderella." But it's the darker characters that attract her most, such as Desdemona in José Limón's "The Moor's Pavane," based on Shakespeare's tragedy "Othello," or Caroline, a woman betrothed to a man she doesn't love, in Antony Tudor's "Lilac Garden."
"My family never would have put me in that position. Or in today's regular society, that's something you wouldn't experience," she says of "Lilac Garden." "And just the way it's choreographed, there's so much passion and tension that I've never experienced in real life."
"You get to explore more things in yourself that way," she adds.
Originally from Brick, New Jersey, Zahlmann wanted to become a professional dancer when she was only 8 years old, after seeing the Rockettes in the "Radio City Christmas Spectacular." "I wanted to be a Rockette," she says. "I wanted to live in New York. I was going to live above a grocery store."
"It was going to be a D'Agostino," she says with a laugh, mentioning one of New York's beloved grocers. "It seemed more glamorous than the Pathmark or A&P."
Her reality is slightly different, residing instead in an apartment in South Park Slope in Brooklyn. Every morning she takes the train up to East 31st Street in Manhattan, where the New York Theatre Ballet has its studio. The company holds ballet classes for about an hour and a half, then rehearses all day until 4 p.m. Sometimes Zahlmann and her fellow company members return in the evenings for more rehearsals of their productions, which are held throughout the season at the French Institute Alliance Française's 400-seat Florence Gould Hall.
"It's physically demanding," she says. "When you're doing something dramatic, it's emotionally demanding. And having to remember everything that you're doing, it's mentally draining. At the end of the day, we're usually all pretty spent. But we love it, so we go back."
After a long day of rehearsal, all she wants to do is get off her feet, sometimes taking a longer subway route back to Brooklyn just so she can get a seat on the train.
While she loves the energy of the city, Zahlmann prefers quiet occupations, often exploring museums, attending performances by other ballet companies, or seeking out "a casual bar or restaurant that is low-key and maybe candlelit and has good music." Spunto, a pizza joint in the West Village, is one of her favorite haunts.
Zahlmann scopes out new hangouts in the city by going on walks, which she frequently takes without headphones or other distractions, so she can absorb people's facial expressions and movements. It's all study for her art, which she says many viewers don't realize has a lot in common with acting.
"People think ballet and they think classical music and they think tutus, and they don't necessarily think that as an audience member, you can also feel what the characters are feeling," she says. "A lot of people think it's about being able to stand on your toes. You know, jump around. But it's a lot deeper than that."
Check out Elena's New York City.