Moving forward by going back home

Moving forward by going back home

Coming back after a debilitating illness, New York City Ballet soloist Kathryn Morgan is about to tackle one of the toughest ballerina roles on her hometown stage.

When Kathryn Morgan dances the lead role in Mobile Ballet’s Swan Lake on March 10 and 11, she will have accomplished an enormous feat.

The 23-year-old New York City Ballet soloist, whose fast-rising career made her one to watch, has been sidelined for the last two years grappling with a severe thyroid problem. After suffering devastating physical symptoms, especially for a performer, of exhaustion, hair loss, weight gain, and migraines, her condition is finally under control with medication. She’s had to rebuild physically and internally, and now, with a new perspective, is ready to take on the most difficult ballerina role, Odette/Odile, which requires super stamina for those technically challenging 32 fouettes in the Black Swan pas de deux performed late in the ballet when a dancer is tired. Morgan will guest star in the role before an uber-friendly audience with her former ballet company, Mobile Ballet, in her hometown, Mobile, Alabama.

“This is the first thing I’ll be dancing since my illness so it is a huge challenge,” Morgan says. “But I’m healthier and stronger than I’ve been in about four years (I was actually sick for two years before I realized it), so I’ll be ready. It’s nice to dance first on my home stage; the audience is so warm and responsive, and there’s not nearly as much pressure as there would be in New York. My challenge will be trusting myself and feeling confident after two years off the stage.”

Co-starring as her Prince Siegfried is former City Ballet partner Seth Orza, now a Pacific Northwest Ballet principal. “When I first joined City Ballet, I danced with Seth quite often,” she says. “I was a total newbie, and he gave me confidence to dance the big roles that I did.”

As far as plans to return to the New York stage, Morgan is expecting to perform again in NYCB’s Spring season in May.

Morgan’s passion for dance started early, at 2 ½ years, with tap and ballet lessons. While training with Mobile Ballet, Morgan spent two summers with NYCB’s feeder school, the School of American Ballet, before being asked to stay for the winter term.  She then quickly rose from student to apprentice to a member of the corps de ballet.

While still an apprentice, Morgan was chosen by City Ballet Artistic Director Peter Martins to dance the role of Juliet, a role that remains one of her favorites to perform.  Her charismatic and lyrical performances made her a stand out. Soon after, she was chosen as a lead in Christopher Wheeldon’s Carousel.

Just two years ago, at 21, Morgan had a scheduled meeting with Martins, on his birthday. When she arrived at his office that day and his secretary took a less than positive tone with her, she was rightfully worried. When Martins announced she was being promoted to soloist, Morgan was ecstatic. She later figured the secretary was lightheartedly trying to cover for the big news she had been called in for.

Her excitement, however, was tempered by worrisome physical symptoms that gradually worsened; intense migraine headaches, unexplained weight gain and feeling physically drained all the time.

“I’d take class and go to rehearsal and then be exhausted,” she said. “I thought it was normal because I was dancing a lot. My hair was falling out, I thought because of headpieces, hairspray and really tight buns. Then right before I [stopped dancing], I started gaining weight and got very depressed. And I had terrible migraines. I went to the doctor thinking it was mononucleosis. That’s when I found out it was my thyroid.”

Kathryn Morgan. Photo by Henry Leutwyler.

It took 18 months to get the medication right because patients are started on a low dosage which can be gradually increased. “Even if it’s wrong, [doctors] can only up the dosage slightly every six weeks,” she explains. “So it’s a lengthy process. Until the medication is right, your symptoms don’t improve. So I’ve had a rough two years. Between the hair, weight, and exhaustion, it’s been a definite trial.”

Slowly and carefully she’s lost most of the weight and has worked diligently on rebuilding her stamina, outside of her regular demanding ballet training schedule, with Pilates, which she swears by, and other exercise.

Morgan recently shared what she’s gone through, writing candidly on Facebook, where she also offers advise on exercise, insider dance tips and answers questions from fans.

Despite the difficulties of the past two years, Morgan has gained a new appreciation for her career and a new perspective. “Finally I’m feeling great and everything seems to be on track,” she says. “As horrible as this illness has been, I wouldn’t undo the past two years. I’ve learned so much about myself and have grown in a way that I could have never done if I hadn’t been ill. I’m grateful for going through this. But now, I am thrilled to be getting back onstage.”

Rachel Hagan is a dance and journalism major at New York University.