One Dances, The Other Doesn’t

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by Anne Levin

portraits by Andrew Wilkinson

It was the promise of free babysitting that lured David Gray and Kyra Nichols from Manhattan to Princeton some 16 years ago. With toddler Joe now part of the family, Nichols, a celebrated principal dancer with the New York City Ballet, and her husband Gray, a writer who had worked in that company’s press office, started thinking about the future.

We knew we needed to move when another dancer told me I had to get Joe interviewed for pre-school. And he was only two!,” says Nichols, a lithe and young-looking 57. “I also knew I wanted to raise my kids where they could run outside and play without having to be bundled up and taken into Central Park.”

Princeton, where Gray was raised and his parents still lived, seemed the sensible choice. The couple left their Upper West Side apartment and rented a fifties rancher not far from the Ridgeview Road house where Gray, a 1977 graduate of Princeton High School, grew up. Son Cameron was born a few years later. Grandparents pitched in, as promised.

The ranch house, now considerably expanded, is still home to the couple. But lately, they have been spending much of their time in Philadelphia, where Gray, 56, is executive director of the Pennsylvania Ballet and Nichols is a ballet mistress for the company. That means he runs things from the business side, while she is one of three who teach and rehearse the dancers under the leadership of Angel Corella, the former American Ballet Theatre star who was named Pennsylvania Ballet’s artistic director in 2014.

The Philadelphia connection came at an opportune time. Nichols, who retired from City Ballet after a 33-year career in 2007, was teaching privately while raising her two boys. They are now grown—Joe is a freshman at the University of Miami and Cameron is a student at The Hun School. Gray, who ventured into finance and arts management and served as an interim executive director for organizations including the New Brunswick Cultural Center, the New Jersey Coalition Against Sexual Assault, and the Princeton Symphony Orchestra, was ready for a change.

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Photo by Alexander Iziliaev

The Pennsylvania Ballet was in flux when he got the call in April 2014 to become interim director, a position that soon became permanent. A significant shake-up of the company had resulted in the resignation of its longtime artistic director and executive director. When Corella came in, he made some changes to the artistic staff. Among them was hiring Nichols, along with her former City Ballet colleague Charles Askegard and Canadian-born dancer Samantha Dunster, to train and rehearse the dancers.

“Like many non-profits, the company had gotten themselves into some situations,” Gray says diplomatically. “But it’s now getting better. And the company is growing. We’re elevating the art in terms of quality of performance, establishing it as a world-class organization. And so far, according to the reviews, we’re getting it done.”

Gray makes sure he and members of his staff are on hand as audiences arrive for each performance of the troupe. An ebullient personality, he is known to lighten the atmosphere by sporting loud items of clothing. At recent Nutcracker shows, he made his way around Philadelphia’s Academy of Music lobby wearing a blue and white snowflake-themed three-piece suit, completing the look with white sneakers.

Working together at the Pennsylvania Ballet brings him and his wife full circle, though they don’t see each other much. “The company’s offices are not at the studio, so we don’t commute together,” Gray says.

“But we have lots of things to discuss now at the dinner table. I do get tired of hearing how badly
I pay,” he adds, with a laugh.

Nichols and her two brothers grew up with ballet. Her mother, Sally Streets, danced with City Ballet before leaving the company and returning to her home state of California to “marry the man next door,” says Nichols, whose father was a professor of biophysics at UC Berkeley. “My mother taught ballet in my grandmother’s basement,” she recalls. “Half of the room was a pool table with light-up beer signs. I started when I was four, holding onto the pool table as a barre.”

The young dancer’s exceptional talent soon became evident and she was sent to study with other teachers in California, including her mother’s former partner Alan Howard. By the age of 11, she was taking the summer course at the prestigious School of American Ballet in New York, a feeder into City Ballet. She was invited to join the company at 16.

It was the late 1970s, a heady time to be in City Ballet. George Balanchine and Jerome Robbins, the company’s chief choreographers, were in their prime. “There was so much excitement,” Nichols says. “You just wanted to be at the theater. You were there all the time, because you didn’t want to miss anything. I feel lucky that I had that chance.”

She found a special rapport with Robbins, who created the “Spring” section of his ballet The Four Seasons for her. Robbins was known as a tough taskmaster with a cruel streak, but that side never emerged in their relationship. “We just seemed to click,” Nichols says. “It was very special.” Photos of the choreographer holding the couple’s son Joe, when he was a baby, hang on the wall of Nichols’ ballet studio. “He was always nicer to everyone when a baby was around,” she recalls. “People used to beg me to bring Joe to rehearsal!”

Nichols had great respect for Balanchine and his work, but they had a more formal relationship. “Balanchine would only interact with you if he saw you needed direction,” she said, “and he let me go my way. But I feel lucky because not only did I get to work with him, I got to dance with some of his favorite dancers like Suzanne Farrell and Karin von Aroldingen. I learned so much from them.”

It took a while for Gray to get up the nerve to ask Nichols out, but they clicked right away. “Our third date was in Anguilla,” he says. They eloped in 1989, spending the next several years traveling with the ballet company before their first son was born in 1996. “We had a lot of fun on those trips,” Nichols says. “David carried my tutu.”

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Photo by Alexander Iziliaev

Gray stayed with the press office until 1994, when he began to focus on writing. After Joe was born, he spent two years as “Mr. Mommy,” he recalls. “I loved that gig.” Among their favorite people was their neighbor Peggy, a former Ziegfeld Girl who had no relatives and became a part of their own family. “After we moved to Princeton, she’d come and babysit. And we’d visit her in New York. She loved the boys,” says Gray. “She’d say to us, ‘You live in a forest!’” Another beloved personality was Nichols’s former teacher Alan Howard, who also enjoyed coming to Princeton. Both have since died. “We miss those characters,” Nichols says.

As the family has grown, so has the house “in the forest.” “We were renting at first,” Gray recounts. “There weren’t a lot of people looking for fifties ranches in mediocre condition, so when we made an offer, the owner took it.” The couple hired the Princeton firm Richardson Smith Architects to add a ballet studio for Nichols, with an expansive room on top that is home to numerous guitars and comfortable seating – “the man cave,” as Gray calls it.

The ballet studio is bright and airy, filled with natural light. Large posters featuring Nichols that once advertised City Ballet outside the New York State Theater (now known as the Koch Theatre) hang on the walls alongside groupings of smaller photos from her long career – including the three of Robbins holding her baby son.

Designing a ballet studio was a first for Richardson Smith Architects. The firm partnered with Princeton Design Guild to build the addition.

“What made it work pretty well was that Juliet Richardson, my partner, took ballet for many years,” says architect Terry Smith. “So she understood when Kyra would say certain things about how the room would work, how she teaches, and the space she needed. One important dimension was a diagonal through the studio. It was interesting to go over all of that, and Juliet was familiar with the terms. Natural light was another thing. We needed a long wall of mirrors, but we had enough room to put clerestory windows above it. Getting the elevation of the studio correct was important.”

The studio has been quiet in recent months as Nichols has focused her attention on the Pennsylvania Ballet. Driving to and from Philadelphia is nothing after the commute she used to make to New York, and both she and Gray have enjoyed discovering Philadelphia.

But Princeton is home. “I used to say this was the most boring place in the world, but I got over that,” Gray says. “I look at people I grew up with and see that they are doing amazing things. These are people I want my kids to grow up with. There is a value here on artists and creative types. It’s small, but it’s sophisticated. It’s a great town.”