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Stern Somebody Presents: Megan Fairchild, MBAllerina

Megan Fairchild: part time MBA, full time mom and ballerina. Megan was promoted to Principal Dancer of the New York City Ballet at the young age of 20, and has been masterfully juggling academics, dance, and her personal life since grade school. The Utah native has been quarantining in France for the past couple of months, but will be returning to NYC to vote in the next few weeks. Her unparalleled work ethic has led her to be successful both on the stage and in the classroom, and I had the chance to sit down with Megan (virtually) and chat with her about her experiences as a dancer and her future career goals and aspirations post-MBA. Bonus – her beautiful daughter, Tullie, made an appearance in the interview and posed for a photo!

SS: Tell us about yourself – where are you from and how did you get into ballet?

MF: I’m originally from Utah, a suburb of Salt Lake City. I’m not from a Mormon family. We were in Salt Lake for all the outdoorsy activities. My mom took me to a tap class when I was four and a half and we grew up watching musicals at home all the time. You have to take tap, jazz, and ballet all at once. When I was 8, I saw the Nutcracker. When I saw all of the kids up on stage, I wanted to be there! That hooked me into the ballet world; the Nutcracker was the most fun I had ever had in my life up to that point. September is the audition, then you rehearse until December until the show, and after the season is over I would be really depressed.  I loved it so much every time, and I did the Ballet West Nutcracker from nine years until 14. At age 12, once you put your pointe shoes on, you have to decide how serious you want to be. I was doing well and loving it, so I went to a more formal ballet school. I attended two classes every evening after school-school. It was about three hours of training a night. When I was about 15, I auditioned for ballet school.

SS: How does that process work?

MF: This is the way ballet schools function – a dancer advances to more prominent schools and the major ballet institutions in the US, and around the world, will conduct audition tours in domestic cities. The school that I ended up attending in New York comes to Utah and holds an audition for their summer program. I auditioned for every institution that visited, and ultimately received a full scholarship to the School of American Ballet’s (SAB) summer program. Growing up, I was the only non-Mormon at my school. I was always feeling a little bit left out, but I always felt like I belonged in ballet. When I came to the summer program in New York, I was, like, oh my god, these are my people! I felt completely like New York was where I was meant to be.

I went back to Utah after the summer ended and did one year of real high school. At the same time, I was working as a trainee for Ballet West. I would cram all of my school into the morning, arriving at school an hour early to catch up with my teachers to learn what I had missed from the previous day. At 11, I would take the light rail to rehearsal with Ballet West and, sometimes,  perform at night. I was already juggling at that age – school and ballet. Once, during a performance, I remember trying to find a dressing room where I could study for an exam the next day. School was always incredibly important to me and my parents.

SS: What was life like once you started ballet school full time?

MF: I completed my junior and senior years at the Professional Children’s School (PCS) in Manhattan. Students live in the same dorm as the Juilliard kids. That same building comprises the ballet classes and the cafeteria on the lower floors,  and the school was five blocks away. That was our world and it was a safe environment to enter New York. I was in heaven. Dancers would begin school at 7:30am, attend two classes, take a ballet class, have lunch, attend 2 more academic classes, take another ballet class and attend rehearsals, and then do homework.

First, I went to Professional Performing Arts School (PPAS), which is the public option for SAB students. I was an Honors student before and loved school. When I arrived at the school, I didn’t like the quality of the classes. SAB wanted me to stay and PCS, which is the private school version, was able to give me a scholarship because of my grades from home. 

It’s a really cool school. They work around your professional endeavors as a child. There are models, musicians, actors – actually, Scarlett Johansson was in my classes!

SS: STOP!

MF: Yeah! These were small classes, there were no more than 10 people in a room. I remember her being in my physics class. All of the actors were the most active in class discussions, and the dancers were normally quieter. Scarlett was a total tomboy back then.

SS: So when did you start your career with the New York City Ballet (NYCB)?

MF: I joined the company during my senior year of high school, and that’s when PCS really comes into play. Dancers are given rehearsal times with only a day’s notice, and the school really helps with juggling schedules. So that’s how I got into NYCB. I was only in SAB for one year before. They only take dancers from my school – it’s the only way into NYCB. You have to make a commitment early, because they don’t take kids after high school.

PC: Paul Kolnik

SS: I know your brother is a principal dancer for NYCB as well, did you guys come to the school together?

MF: He’s three years younger, and he did everything I did, just 3 years after me.

SS: Ok, so you’re in NYCB now, and you’re a senior in high school. Walk me through the process of graduating high school and entering full time into the world of ballet.

MF: I graduated from PCS, and was able to devote all of my time for NYCB. I started as an apprentice. I was given opportunities much earlier than is typical – as an apprentice, I danced a lead and during a gala performance.  What ended up happening was that a really established dancer from the American Ballet Theatre joined and needed a partner. They paired us together for the Nutcracker and in my third year I was doing Sugar Plum Pas de Deux. It was crazy, it was so stressful – we rehearsed for 6 weeks straight! It’s a really nuanced pas de deux, so to learn how to partner through that and then have to execute it on stage in front of 2,600 people… those first couple years I cried a lot. However, you’re not going to back down, because, if you don’t take the opportunity, someone is waiting right behind you. You plow through and become thick skinned, even though it is nerve wracking as hell.

Joaquin and I were promoted to Principal together, when I was only 20 years old. It’s one thing to get parts and to be pushed when you’re young, but it’s another to get the title when you’re so young. Everyone in the audience has the expectation that your performance is going to be of a certain caliber. I’m no longer triggered by the stage anymore; it’s now my fun place to play, but, at first, I was terrified… for years.

SS: What’s a day in the life of a dancer like when you’re rehearsing and performing?

MF: You attend a ballet class at 10:30am for one hour. Then, between noon and 6:00pm, you can have rehearsal. My schedule as a principal depends on how many things I’m trying to put together. It’s a lot of juggling and planning rehearsals, and it can be pretty grueling. The schedule is one big puzzle piece.

SS: Because you’re so used to living such an on-the-go life and being so active, how has quarantine been for you? How have you been staying physically active during this time?

MF: It’s hard. Now they’ve [NYCB] started letting people back into the studios, but only one person at a time and with two hours between each person to let it air out. The theater has such poor ventilation. We have what everyone else, we’re stuck in our small space. We all received a piece of marley, eight feet by six feet, and that’s what we’ve been dancing on. I have a ballet bar that I screwed between a doorway, and I did a Zoom class every day. We usually train towards something, but right now we’re just keeping a baseline. Before we come back we’re going to have to retrain our bodies like we’re coming back from an injury. It’s going to take about two months for each of us to get back to a place where we can be in rehearsals and on pointe shoes all day long again. My pool in my building is closed, and swimming is my favorite way to exercise. I started jogging, and I’ve been doing Pilates over Zoom.

We’re not coming back to perform any time soon, so I’m just going with the flow. It’s a skill that we all learn as professional dancers –  to learn how to be a normal person and still be yourself. You get used to how long it takes to get back into shape after taking time off. This is a huge test for all of us, it’s as if we’ve all been injured for a year. Previously, I stepped away to have a baby and to perform in a Broadway show. I trained a good one to two months each time before coming back. I love the retraining part, and once I get back to NYC I’m going to go into serious training mode.

PC: Paul Kolnik

SS: When did you decide that you wanted to come back to school and get your MBA? I know that you did your undergrad in Math, what are your future plans?

MF: I have it all very planned out.

SS: That makes one of us!

MF: My undergrad took 15 years, I started when I was 18, took two years off, etc. Sometimes I would take one class at a time, just to keep myself balanced. The world of ballet is intense. The casting goes up every week, and I don’t know if you’ve ever seen Black Swan, but it’s really that severe. Everything that you care about is laid out in front of your peers every week. You see if they liked you, if they want to use you and put you out there. Especially being promoted young, there were many times when I didn’t have anything to do. My rank was too high for the repertoire that I had accumulated. Sometimes I would do one ballet a season and have a lot of time on my hands. My mom said to me, ‘you’ve always loved school, sign up for a class so if casting isn’t great, at least you have school.’ I’ve always been really good at juggling school and ballet. Because of how I got into ballet, I fostered a mentality of focusing on what I’m good at. I love math, and it’s what I’m best at, so math was my focus. In 2011, I took this one really hard math course. It was in the middle of the PBS live filming of the Nutcracker and I was the Sugar Plum Fairy. I had this horribly difficult math exam in the middle of it the day before the live filmings in the theater. That was the moment that I said to myself, just pure mathematics is not the route that I want to go, so I added in Econ.

Later, my husband said to me, ‘you’d really like getting an MBA.’ I’d always had that in the back of my mind, and it was the next best move given my undergrad degree and previous experience. You can really reinvent yourself with an MBA and pivot into something else.

I’ve been loving everything that is more analytical, like our Decision Models class.

SS: It’s super interesting and Professor Juran is awesome.

MF: I love it and I love making models. I’m still addicted to exercising my math brain and solving problems. It’s very much like ballet, there’s one correct method to get the right answer, and there’s one right way to do this step. There is a technique to everything and, as a performer, I’ve made my career being a technical dancer and being precise. I like the same kind of things in school. I also love to be around people.

Another thing is, I don’t have any desk experience anywhere. My only experience is in a ballet studio. I embrace my different background, but I’ve always thought about what I want to do next. I don’t know for sure where I’m going, but I know that I have really good resources.

SS: I completely agree. We’re lucky to be at Stern in this city where we have so many resources and such a large network to take advantage of. Thank you so much for your time, Megan, this has been great!

Right about now, Tullie, Megan’s daughter, comes into the frame and I snapped this precious pic! Tullie had been spending her evening dancing with her dad to the musical Cats. 

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