Look Out, a Ballet Hurricane Has Made Landfall
At the end of American Ballet Theater’s spring season, the company holds a meeting. It’s a nail-biting tradition: The dancers know this is their shot at being promoted. If not? Another arduous 12 months spent proving their worth.
Last year, the night before she was elevated to soloist, Catherine Hurlin couldn’t sleep. In the morning, her eyes were as wide as saucers. “It was sort of like when you wake up for your wedding,” she said over a recent brunch at Lincoln Center as she cued up the video of the company meeting on her iPhone.
When Ms. Hurlin’s name was announced, the reaction among her fellow dancers went beyond the usual whoops and cheers. They fell into a chant: “Hurricane, hurricane, hurricane!”
“My nickname,” Ms. Hurlin explained with an air of pride, “is Hurricane.”
At 23, she dances as if she weren’t afraid of anything, tearing through roles with daring and effervescence. You could see it in her go-for-broke performances in Twyla Tharp’s “In the Upper Room” and “Deuce Coupe,” part of the all-Tharp program that she said was her favorite part of the season so far. And off the stage, she’s just as vivacious as on, with a way, somehow both shrewd and charming, of punctuating certain words with italics. “She is the legendary Twyla,” she said. “Keep that in mind. But she’s also a person who will sometimes joke around, and that’s amazing.”
Ms. Hurlin has shown many sides of her dancing this spring at the Metropolitan Opera House. She has dramatic range, and relished playing the Young Jane in Cathy Marston’s “Jane Eyre.”
Talking about it, Ms. Hurlin spun around to my side of the booth to display her bare legs. “So many bruises,” she said, twisting each leg from side to side. “That’s from being thrown on the floor so many times. I mean granted, I did it to myself. So much fun.”
Ms. Hurlin also made her debut in Alexei Ratmansky’s “The Seasons” as Hail, a sleek and stormy virtuosic role created for her. “The steps are pretty damn hard,” she said. “But I kept on thinking to myself, O.K., this is made on me: I can do this.”
Her hands drooped forward, framing her face limply in the manner of Alexis Rose, the socialite sister on “Schitt’s Creek.” Staring into my eyes, she continued her mantra: “I can do this. I have been doing it, I will be able to do it again. So that’s what I had to think to myself.”
And it went well. Mr. Ratmansky, in a statement, said: “Catherine is an exciting dancer: fearless, musical, spontaneous. She can be very dramatic and also very funny. And she dances big, which is so important for the Met.”
Ms. Hurlin was born with certain advantages — namely, parents who knew a thing or two about dance. Her mother, Denise Roberts Hurlin, was a member of the Paul Taylor Dance Company; her father, Nathan Hurlin, was the company’s stage manager and is now the production manager of Broadway Cares/Equity Fights AIDS.
“I knew she had a dancer’s physique when I brought her home from the hospital,” Ms. Roberts Hurlin said. “She stretched out on the changing table and she pointed her feet.”
Ms. Hurlin began creative movement at 3 and ballet at 5. But by the time she was 8, her mother felt her interest in ballet was waning, so she enrolled her at Westchester Dance Academy, a competition school, where she remained until she was 12 — and blossomed. At Westchester, the students study ballet along with lyrical dance and jazz, traveling up and down the East Coast on weekends to perform.
When the school competed in the Youth America Grand Prix ballet competition, everything changed. Ms. Hurlin was awarded a scholarship to the Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis School at Ballet Theater, then under Franco De Vita’s direction. Ms. Roberts Hurlin said she realized her daughter had real potential in ballet — she wanted her to give it a chance.
“She dragged me to J.K.O. and I was not having it,” Ms. Hurlin said. “Not having it. I was like, ‘Mom! I’m a lyrical dancer! I don’t want to do ballet. I don’t want to leave my friends.’ That was a big point.”
At Westchester Dance Academy, Ms. Hurlin had a life of “sequins and running around hotels and ordering room service,” her mother said. The transition to ballet wasn’t easy — there were tears. “It was one of those mom-daughter moments where, thank God you’re in the car so you don’t have to look at each other,” Ms. Roberts Hurlin said.
Gradually, Ms. Hurlin started getting into ballet. “I was like, Hmm, I can actually do this really well,” she said. “Maybe I do like it.”
One thing she has learned about herself over the years is this: “I am terrified about the unknown,” she said. “If I don’t know what’s probably going to happen, I don’t want to do it. I need a little taste before I get into it. It’s more about settings and places. New roles, that’s fine.”
Even for something like Odette/Odile in “Swan Lake”?
Ms. Hurlin’s eyes widened. “If I did it right now?” she said, her voice rising to a squeak. “I need at least another three years as soloist. Actually, interesting story. Back in the school, I was offered to go into the Studio Company and I said no. I called my mom and had her explain it because I couldn’t look at Franco in the eye and say, ‘No, I’m not ready to do this.’ ”
The ABT Studio company serves as a training ground for the main company. Ms. Hurlin, who had already originated the role of Young Clara in Mr. Ratmansky’s “The Nutcracker,” didn’t feel she was mature enough. And while she’s happy to have been promoted to soloist, she said she was also glad to have spent four years in the corps de ballet.
It was there that she got her nickname, courtesy of the principal Stella Abrera who was inspired by how Ms. Hurlin would exit the stage in Mark Morris’s “After You” (2015). “She had such wild power and force that it felt like she would kind of knock us over — not because she would touch us,” Ms. Abrera said. “It was her energy that surrounded the sweep of her movement. I’d tell the other dancers, ‘Look out, Hurricane Catherine is coming.’”
In March, Ms. Hurlin was awarded the Erik Bruhn Prize, for which she competed along with Aran Bell, another Ballet Theater dancer. (Mr. Bell didn’t win the male category. “The guy who won was from Canada,” she said. “He was a jumping bean, like holy moly. Could jump over my head.”) Ms. Hurlin and Mr. Bell are dating. “It’s a new thing,” she said. “I don’t know if it will last.”
This defeatist note seemed to surprise her. She corrected herself: “Hopefully! Jeez. Knock on wood.” She did so — urgently — before adding, “We’re both kind of the same: Dance is just dance. At the end of the day, that’s your job. If you don’t do well, tomorrow is still going to come.”
And Ms. Hurlin wants her tomorrows to include more than just ballet.
“I want to go back to my jazz roots,” she said. “I want to go on Broadway. It’s funny that the things that I love are jazz and Broadway, but I’m a ballet dancer. It definitely comes from the people that I know from my mom’s life. I mean I would love to dance ‘Romeo and Juliet,’ but I want to widen my range. I definitely want to be Hurricane.”