Career On Pointe
Jonesborough native Gwynn Root is making a go of a career in ballet.
By Lynn J. Richardson
It is something she remembers like it was yesterday.
“I was only 4 years old and my mother took me to see it,” Root recalled. “In that one instance, I knew, without a doubt, I wanted to be a ballerina.”
Eighteen years later, nothing has changed for Root. “It is what I have always wanted to do,” she said.
Root started ballet lessons at the age of 5 and after 17 years of training, it appears that she is getting her heart’s desire.
Root has just accepted a five-month apprenticeship with the Atlanta Ballet and has also learned she has been accepted into the prestigious Gelsey Kirkland Academy of Classical Ballet in New York City.
“I never dreamed I would get into that school,” Root said. “I just sent in my audition tape on a whim.”
It is obvious Root greatly admires Kirkland, who she says is working to bring the story ballet back in vogue.
“Gelsey Kirkland was a ballet mega star in the 70s and 80s,” she said. “She was Mikhail Baryshnikov’s first partner when he came to the United States. She was on the cover of Time Magazine and she worked for the Joffrey Ballet. It’s just an incredible opportunity to be able to study at her school.”
Root learned of her selection at the academy just has she had finalized her plans to work in Atlanta.
Now, she says she will go ahead with her decision to become an apprentice with the Atlanta company and then head to New York in the spring.
Root’s work in Atlanta will be her first paid gig in ballet and although it will be a big undertaking, she says it is a great opportunity since paydays are scarce for those trying to make a career out of ballet dancing.
“Even when you get a ballet contract, they are yearly,” Root said. “There is no such thing as tenure, so it’s always nerve wrecking. You never really know what will happen.”
Still, it’s worth the risk, Root says. But it takes a lot of hard work.
“Coming from a small town, I realized I needed to work harder and get more training before I would be ready for a company job,” she added.
So work, she did. There have been endless hours of practice and training leading up to Root’s new opportunities.
Throughout her school years, Root attended several ballet camps called “summer intensives.” Homeschooled, Root said she had flexibility to attend such camps and work on her art.
After high school, she auditioned for several companies. One of them netted her a trainee contract and a spot in the corps de ballet with the Louisville Ballet in Kentucky.
Taking the job was “a chance to show your worth before you get paid,” she said.
“Most dancers have to go through that,” she added.
Root stayed with the Louisville organization for two years and then moved to the Columbia (S.C.) Classical Ballet Company last year.
“It was a very rough year,” Root said. “Technically, they demanded so much and it wasn’t one of the healthiest workplaces. But, that’s ballet for you.”
Even with all that, Root said it was a really good experience.
“I could feel myself getting better technically and becoming more competent,” she said.
Finally, the hard work gave way to success.
Root landed a solo in one of the Columbia company’s productions, something she said was “really exciting.”
The season was long, Root said, and she was “worn out” by the time it was over.
The extended season also put her at the tail end of audition opportunities.
Undaunted, she kept applying and ended up with the Atlanta Ballet Co. where she will soon move into an apprenticeship, and finally, a paying job.
Root says she is grateful to her first teacher, Susan Pace, of City Youth Ballet (formerly the Johnson City Ballet) and Pat Holden, a teacher from Kingsport with whom Root studied in her mid-teens.
She is also thankful, she says, to family and friends who hosted a fundraiser in her honor to help her further her studies in New York City and beyond.
The event, held Aug. 29 at the Jonesborough Visitors Center, featured her in performances including selections of classical variations from the ballets “Swan Lake” and “La Bayadere,” as well as contemporary pieces chosen from her work with the Atlanta Ballet.
“When I was younger, I would have told you that my idea of a perfect job was to be a prima ballerina. But now, I want to be in a good company that pushes me — technically and artistically — a company that is healthy and is run by good people,” Root said. “I want to go as far as I can and work and explore different directions artistically. I’ll just keep working my tail off and hopefully I’ll make enough money to eat.”