Ballet or college? Many young dancers ask themselves that question. For Elizabeth Mateer, the matter was even more complicated when she received a job offer from Pennsylvania Ballet 2, the second company, as well as an acceptance to Harvard.
Mateer, now 24, chose ballet. Five years later, as a member of the first company's corps de ballet, her decision is paying off in featured roles. In October, she shone in performances of Christopher Wheeldon's Liturgy and Alexei Ratmansky's Jeu de Cartes. Next she'll dance Sugar Plum in some performances of George Balanchine's The Nutcracker, opening Saturday.
Q: Why did you choose dance over Harvard?
A: When I was accepted to Harvard, it was a complete shock. I hadn't expected to be accepted. It was the result of a long road of hard work and dedication. I came from a really academically focused family. I grew up going to a [Florida] college prep school, and academics were a huge focus. Ballet came later. I didn't start dancing until I was 10 or 11. I moved to the School of American Ballet when I was 16, [but] my parents made sure that I was going to keep up my academics and finish high school really strong. I was also accepted to Princeton. But ballet is a young career and you only get one shot at it, and college is there forever. My admissions officer told me, "Elizabeth, you worked really hard and you are so multitalented, but Harvard is always going to be here."
The artistic staff and administration of the ballet has changed so much in recent months. How has that affected you?
I'm really grateful for all the people who have influenced my career so far. I probably wouldn't still be dancing if the previous administration hadn't hired me in the first place. . . . I think it's a really exciting time. We're all growing a lot, learning new things.
Do you consider yourself a white or black swan?
I'm more a white swan. I tend to enjoy more of the lyrical side of dance. I love beautiful adagios. I just went to see Swan Lake in Boston. I'm looking forward to getting to revisit it here in the spring.
Bun or French twist? I see your hair is in a French twist today. Why?
I think a twist works better with the shape of my head. Also, my hair is very fine, so when I do a bun I need to add fake hair, and I'm not going to do that daily. It's just for shows.
Some dancers love "Nutcracker," some don't. You?
I'm somewhere in between. There's always that magical feeling about it and the holiday season . . . . But it can be a little bit exhausting.
With your ballet schedule, how do you celebrate?
Christmas is our one day off to rest. So I like to sit at home and just have a nice breakfast and a nice dinner. Sometimes a couple of my friends will cook with me. I go to church on Christmas Eve. Basically the holidays are about survival mode for us . . . about taking care of ourselves and make sure we're getting enough sleep and enough water and icing our feet and having some sugar. That's my holiday season. I know, it sounds a little bleak, but I enjoy it - for the most part.
What's the biggest myth about ballet dancers?
That we don't eat. I love food and I love to eat, so I wish people didn't think it was so. I always eat the same breakfast, eggs and toast, jam, butter, and a cup of coffee, a big glass of water. Lunch kind of changes based on my schedule. I have Greek yogurt, and berries, and honey, granola, some fruit, maybe a banana, and almonds, and carrots and hummus or something, kind of snacky. I don't eat a huge lunch all at once, but throughout the day.
For dinner last night I had a chicken breast I roasted with some lemon, olive oil, and garlic sauce, and a sweet potato, and a salad with cheese and tomatoes. I do try to eat a pretty balanced diet, but then I had a big cookie right after. . . .
I like to cook and I like to bake a lot. I always bake at Christmastime. I bring my friends cookies and my family has always had a tradition of making gingerbread men. We decorate them to look like us, and we eat them on Christmas. And candy cane cookies that are delicious. All butter and flour. So worth it, though.
ELIZABETH MATEER'S FIVE FAVORITE BALLETS
Concerto Barocco Balanchine's choreography is a perfect match to Bach's incredible Double Violin Concerto. The ballet is so beautifully pure, and there's such a feeling of community to it.
Serenade Another Balanchine classic, driven by the music. It's both joyful and sorrowful, and very moving. I always get goose bumps hearing the first few chords.
Artifact Suite Dancing William Forsythe's work is challenging, but I love his athletic, hyperextended, ballet-to-the-extreme style. It makes me feel both beautiful and powerful.
Liturgy This ballet has been a favorite of mine since I was a student at SAB and saw Wendy Whelan perform it. The Arvo Pärt music is mesmerizing, and I love the intimate, almost spiritual feeling of the piece.
Christopher Wheeldon's Swan Lake Our production is gorgeous. It's classic yet innovative, and Chris gives the swans some really incredible choreography. It's a team effort - when it's over, you're exhausted but you really feel like you've accomplished something great.