Ballerina Jessica Tretter says goodbye to the stage with a final star turn as the mythical Firebird
Slavic legends abound with complex characters possessed of dual natures. Baba Yaga. Chernobog. The Firebird. In these legends, doom and salvation can come hand-in-hand from the same being.
This weekend and next, Jessica Tretter dances the role of the Firebird, the titular character of the fantastic Slavic fairytale set to music by Igor Stravinsky. The supernatural entity is challenged by the young Prince Igor, but in a fitting twist, Tretter says, “she overpowers even him and earns his trust. So he ends up just kind of bowing to her, which is good. When he gets in trouble, she can come save the day."
Listen to an expanded conversation with Jessica Tretter in the second half of Ear Shot.
In this new production by Rochester City Ballet, with choreography by Robert Gardner, Tretter revels in dancing this magical, heroic character: “She's just such a strong role. She has such a strong presence and personality.”
“In some classical ballets you just play a pretty princess,” she explains, which can still be challenging to dance, but “as far as your acting skills go, it's…not as exciting. You want to play like strong female, so this is really cool.”
The Firebird is her final role on stage. She hesitates to really call it retiring.
“Well, it's hard to say I'm just gonna stop dancing completely," she says. "I like to think I'm just stepping away from the company and that kind of rigidity and pressure of consistent work weeks and not being able to really choose what you get to do sometimes. But then, at the same time, like, my body's tired. I'm ready for a change."
Retirement or not, the change prompts memories. Tretter recalls another favorite moment, from performing the ballet Giselle, where she portrayed essentially a Zombie bride, hopping across the stage, with heavy slow movements, “and just looking across at everyone's face and feeling this like powerful energy. This is why I dance - like I love this.”
That love started an early age, with a production on Don Quixote on public television, which her grandmother recorded off of WXXI. She says, “They were airing the show American Ballet Theatre. And she mailed it to my mom, because it was the '80s on like, beta, I think. And I caught my mom watching it. And I was just like, I'm going to do that. And then proceeded to spend the next year doing the ballet in a tutu every afternoon.”
It’s been a few decades since that initial inspiration, which for Tretter has included dancing professionally with Houston Ballet, and for the past 14 years as part of Rochester City Ballet.
She continues to be drawn to the ways she can express herself creatively and connect with people through dance, such as when she has played the Sugar Plum Fairy, in Rochester City Ballet’s performances with the Rochester Philharmonic Orchestra.
“Everyone's so quiet, it's like the end of the ballet," she says. "Everyone's been waiting for this pas de deux and you step on stage and the music starts and it's like, just delicate and slow, and it builds and builds and builds. And by the end, it's just like, oh, you feel it in your chest.”
Tretter can't just step away from the field. Even after these performances, Tretter will continue inspire other dancers; she teaches both kids and adults, who also embrace the challenges of this art. She's promoting the physical power and athleticism of ballet over the stereotypes.
“I think that people are starting to realize that ballerinas are not, you know, these little dainty things that flit around and look pretty even though we have to make it look that way," she says. "I just teach so many girls and even some boys that are just you can tell they're just drawn to moving and listening to music. And then that emotional aspect of ballet where you just get to, I don't know, let out everything that you're feeling or be someone else entirely; I see so many kids really drawn to that aspect.”
Rochester City Ballet’s performances of Firebird and Carnival of the Animals are this weekend at Fort Hill Performing Arts Center in Canandaigua and next weekend at Callahan Theater at Nazareth College.