Close to 26 years ago, Bella Vista resident Ian Hussey sat in the crimson velvet seats of the Academy of Music as he watched Pennsylvania Ballet’s signature production of “George Balanchine’s The Nutcracker.”
Over the following two decades, though, the aspiring performer gradually made his way from the seats to the stage.
After accumulating 24 years with the company, the 33-year-old principal dancer has announced his retirement from professional ballet, as of a couple of weeks ago. Hussey took his final bow at the Academy of Music.
Recollecting that 1993 performance of “The Nutcracker,” Hussey recently sat in those same velvet seats as he reflected on a diverse career of pirouettes, pliés and introspection.
“The beginning of my training was a bit serendipitous when it came to Pennsylvania Ballet,” Hussey said.
During the summer after 8-year-old Hussey’s Nutcracker experience, he started lessons at the Rock School for Dance Education while it was under the direction of Pennsylvania Ballet. As a budding dancer, he trained under the guidance of instructor Jon Martin, who is still with the PA Ballet School, and got to know the company’s pillar dancers, such as Jeffrey Gribler, Tamara Hadley and William DeGregory – whom he later worked under as a company member.
Practically clinching his childhood dream already, Hussey performed as a party boy and then as the little prince in the company’s production of “The Nutcracker” during the mid-1990s.
At 15 years old, the Westmont, New Jersey native relocated to Carlisle, where he trained for a few years at the Central Pennsylvania Youth Ballet with the recently deceased Marcia Dale Weary. The esteemed teacher instructed prominent dancers from across the country who went on to perform with major companies, such as American Ballet Theatre and San Francisco Ballet.
“She is, in my opinion, the most prolific ballet instructor this country has ever seen, and I was very, very fortunate to have gone to her school,” Hussey said. “It changed my entire life, my trajectory. I don’t think I would have been a professional dancer if I hadn’t gone there.”
Having studied under diverse dancers at the school, Hussey attributes the assortment of training he received in Carlisle, such as French and Spanish-style ballet, to his seamless transition into the Pennsylvania Ballet II, or PBII, when he was 19 years old, because the company often performs diverse repertoires.
The versatility of Pennsylvania Ballet’s performances, which has been credited as escalating since Ángel Corella took over as artistic director in 2014, lent itself to Hussey’s emotional and physical skills.
“(Ballet dancers) are required to be really, really versatile artists, and that is something I’ve always taken pride in,” Hussey said. “It’s kind of the reason why I did very well with the company. I don’t think because I was necessarily more talented. I don’t jump higher. I don’t do more pirouettes. I’m not more flexible. I don’t have better feet than anybody, but you can put me into any room, and I can do well.”
Whether portraying roles ranging from a young lover to the village idiot or tackling choreography spanning from George Balanchine to Jerome Robbins, Hussey has experienced the gamut of possibilities that ballet has to offer.
The size of the company, Hussey says, has also sharpened his performance range.
Comprised of eight principal dancers and 16 corps de ballet members, Pennsylvania Ballet is considered a relatively small company when compared to other institutions, such as American Ballet Theatre, which features 15 principal dancers and 60 corps de ballet members.
“We can’t afford the luxury of being pigeonholed into types or roles…We all have to be able to do everything and do it convincingly and do it well,” he said. “I think that’s why I always did well, because stylistically, I have the versatility to tackle our repertoire.”
Hussey’s ability to adapt to a myriad of material was evident as he climbed the ranks of the company. In 2007, he was promoted to the company’s corps de ballet, followed by becoming a soloist in 2010, and then, finally, in 2012, Hussey was named a principal dancer.
As a leading company performer, Hussey earned featured roles in several ballets, including “Swan Lake,” Twyla Tharp’s “Push Comes to Shove” and Christopher Wheeldon’s ”After the Rain.”
His most treasured role, though, is perhaps Romeo in none other than Sir Kenneth MacMillan’s version of “Romeo and Juliet.” Hussey was actually cast as the esteemed character while still in the corps de ballet, as he describes the moment as his “breakthrough” moment.
On a more personal level, though, Hussey has experienced another breakthrough, especially since announcing his retirement.
Throughout his quarter-of-a-century career, Hussey, who describes himself as a perfectionist, says he’d often put so much pressure on himself that he couldn’t enjoy performances.
“Sometimes it wasn’t bad, but sometimes I’d put so much pressure on myself that I wouldn’t really enjoy it. I would go out and not really enjoy a performance, because I was too afraid of failure,” he said.
But as he matured both on and off the stage, Hussey gradually accepted his body and abilities by being more forgiving to himself than he was several years ago.
“Emotionally, I think, I’m just a little bit happier,” he said. “I feel like I’m a little bit more at peace in a way. I think, being in the ballet world, it’s really, really, really difficult, trying to perfect an imperfect table art form is daunting. And, to stand in the mirror every single day and look at yourself and work for 24 years to master something.”
This headspace was particularly rewarding in Hussey’s final show with the company earlier this month, which was a series of three ballets, including Christopher Wheeldon’s DGV: Danse à Grande Vitesse, Jerome Robbins’ Glass Pieces and a world premiere by renowned choreographer Jorma Elo.
In DGV and Glass Pieces, Hussey performed a pas de deux, which was an exhilarating way to end his career since duets always held a sacred place in his heart.
“Both of these roles, what I really love is, even though they’re very different, they require a lot of skill and partnering,” Hussey said. “And, that’s something I’ve always loved doing. I’ve always loved dancing with a woman. I love creating and rehearsing and finding out those little details to make everything seamless, to make everything as magical to the audience as possible.”
And while the curtains are falling on this act of his life, Hussey’s mind, body and spirit are ready to move on to his next phase.
Although he plans to relocate to New York City and travel the world, Hussey says Philadelphia and Pennsylvania Ballet will forever be his home.
“I feel really proud that I was able to succeed at such a high level of ballet,” Hussey said. “And I’ve done that through approaching dance with integrity, doing things the right way, working the right way, working smart and working hard. And, I look forward to taking those values and bringing them to whatever I do next.”