J'can in New York

New York City Ballet's rising star

Observer senior reporter

Sunday, April 14, 2019

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When Russian-born, American ballet choreographer George Balanchine co-founded the New York City Ballet over 70 years ago, little did he know that a dancer with strong Jamaican roots would rise among its ranks. Today, Christopher Grant is one of the up-and-coming male dancers with the renowned ballet company.

The 23-year-old may have been born in Queens, New York, but he will tell you he is Jamaican to the bone. His claim to Jamaica doesn't solely come from the fact that both his parents are Jamaican, but he spent his formative years on the island before returning to the United States at age seven.

Those years spent with his grandparents, and the extended family in Golden Valley, St Thomas would have a profound impact on the young Grant, something he would only recognise in later years.

“I remember waking up early morning and it is more a feeling that you have, something I really can't adequately describe, but there was such a calm. I quickly recognised the difference when I moved back to the US. Then my grandmother would make hot cocoa fi mi,” the hint of a Jamaican accent emerged in those last two words.

“Where we lived it was near a river, and the animals and the whole environment just made it very tranquil. Then there is the food, everything fresh and the people... neighbours who were more like family and made me understand the 'it takes a village' concept. All of that made those early years truly special,” Grant reminisced.

He would return to the US, settling in Connecticut, and described the transition from his life in St Thomas as hard and very different. Issues of culture shock rocked young Grant. The way American children related to adults, and the education system proved among his challenges. However, his mother made sure he was supported at home.

He described his mother as a real disciplinarian who believed in structure. It was her understanding of the structure inherent in the world of classical ballet that made her enrol her eight-year-old son in his first class.

“It was not my decision at all, she just signed me up. This was a small ballet studio in Connecticut and I basically just had fun. I was the only boy in the class, so I was happy. I was learning the basics and doing these cool jumps and I was fine.”

Little did Grant know that he was being watched.

After a few weeks in the class, a scout from the School of American Ballet (SAB) invited him to audition for a place at that institution which is the training arm of the New York City Ballet.

He was accepted.

“For the audition they just looked for rhythm, musicality and body type and whether you have the potential to make it through their training programme. Once I got to SAB, I was now enjoying ballet. The first year I did classes after school. It all changed for me by the time I was at boy's level three. I watched and advanced men's class. It was flashy, masculine and made me want to do this even more. My mother's advice was to listen and be receptive. I did that and only got better. When I saw the changes to my body I was even more driven,” said Grant.

Fours years ago, at age 19, his years of training would pay off big time when he was accepted into the parent company.

“I was so surprised. It is never guaranteed, even though you were in training at SAB. At one point I began auditioning for other ballet companies as I had given up on City Ballet choosing me. But then it happened and I am pleased with my progress and the opportunities that have been given to me to perform certain ballets.”

Since being offered a contract with New York City Ballet, Grant has performed in a number of iconic works including Square Dance by Balanchine, which he described as the hardest piece ever; Easy by choreographer Justin Peck, which he said was everything but easy; and Mothership by French choreographer Nicolas Blanc, in which he played a lead role.

“I don't really have a bucket list of dance works I would like to perform. I just want to keep working on dancing a lot more. I would like to become a principal, which is the highest level, but I feel it will happen organically. Right now I just want to be comfortable with my craft, see how it makes me happy and be able to communicate that with my audience. So I am just focused on making my technique cleaner and tighter,” Grant stressed.

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