interview with Maria
Phegan of Sensedance
MARIA PHEGAN KEEPS IT FRESH
interview by William Gooch
published November 8, 2009
At one time, classical ballet dancers were thought capable of only performing traditional ballet repertoire with
occasional forays into Broadway shows and movies that inserted choreography that required pointe
work. That opinion no longer holds true. One has to look no further than former Joffery Ballet’s Elizabeth Parkinson’s Tony
nominated–performance in Contact or Dance Theatre of Harlem’s Tai Jimenez’ kittenish turn as
Miss Turnstiles in On the Town.
Though Maria Phegan has stayed within the cocoon of concert dance, she has expanded her repertoire beyond lovesick
sylphs and regal swans. The repertoire of most ballet companies requires movement dexterity that goes beyond the classical pedagogy taught
in elite academies; yet, Maria has gone even further than that. In this new phase of her career, Maria is exploring movement styles that
test her adaptability, as well as her intelligence. And she is pulling it off like a charm. With Maria Phegan, the seasoning has not lost
its salt. This mature dance artist keeps it interesting and fresh by staying open to new movement styles while staying grounded in
traditional techniques that have served her well.
Before her performance with Sensedance, Maria talked with me about her career, her challenges and what keeps her
How did you get involved in
Maria Phegan: My mother tells me that I was a hyperactive baby and danced
in my crib, so when I was old enough, she put me in dance school. I focused strictly on ballet at eight years old because I didn’t like the
sliding feeling of tap dancing and I wasn’t brave enough to do acrobatics on the balance beam. [Laughter]
Where did you
Maria Phegan: I grew up in Corpus Christi, Texas so I started studying
ballet there. Around the age of 12, I started coming to New York City in the summer to study at the School of American Ballet (SAB). I later
studied at the Harid Conservatory, and then at SAB full-time my last two years of high school.
Was performing with the Dance Theatre of
Harlem (DTH) your first professional job?
Maria Phegan: No. After SAB I danced with the San Francisco Ballet for
three years and a colleague of mine from San Francisco Ballet had joined DTH, so I had a connection in the company. After dancing in San
Francisco for three years, I realized I wanted to be back in NYC, so I called up my friend, started taking classes with DTH and later was
invited to dance with the company. I danced with DTH for four years.
What was your experience like dancing
Maria Phegan: DTH had about 25 dancers as opposed to the 65 dancers in
San Francisco Ballet. Also, DTH did far more touring than San Francisco Ballet, so the rehearsal process was different and I had the
opportunity to travel to different countries. Back in the mid-90s, when I was in DTH, a lot of houses would book a smaller company like DTH
than some larger companies because the cost principal was manageable. Also, since DTH had fewer
dancers, I got to dance principal pas de deux and had some principal roles choreographed for
What major roles did you dance at
Maria Phegan: I danced Desdemona in Jose Limon’s Moors Pavane and a principal role in Dwight Rhoden’s Twist, a
lead role in Glen Tetley’s Dialogues, as well as principal roles in Firebird, Dougla, and ballets from the Balanchine
DTH has such a diverse repertoire, would
you consider contemporary ballet or the classical repertoire your strong point?
Maria Phegan: As a dancer, your facility is sometimes dictated by the
repertoire of the dance company you are dancing with. When I left DTH and danced in Munich, I realized that dancing such a diverse repertoire
at DTH really helped dance the works of such European masters as Jiri Kylian or Mats Ek. When I was in more established ballet companies, I
was definitely labeled as a contemporary dancer; however, now that I freelance for companies that don’t have full seasons, I get labeled as
being classical. It is an interesting twist.
Why did you leave DTH to dance in
Maria Phegan: I left DTH because once again I was bitten by the bug to
perform in larger productions. I did Swan Lake and Sleeping
Beauty and all that goes along with that. I also wanted to live in Europe, so my time spent with Bavarian State Ballet was
Why did you decide to come back to the
States and dance with Houston Ballet?
Maria Phegan: I was getting older and there were things that I wanted to
accomplish that I hadn’t yet accomplished. I had worked with Stanton Welch, the artistic director of Houston Ballet, during my time with San
Francisco Ballet, and I knew I wanted to work with him again, so at that time in my life, it was a good fit.
Most of your career has been performing with major dance companies, what is like now to freelance with
smaller concert dance groups?
Maria Phegan: It can be a very liberating to be in a place in your life
when your résumé speaks for itself and shows the wealth of your experience. This economic downturn has been very challenging, to say the
least. Making those necessary connections is a bit harder. However, as a freelance artist you are usually working with other seasoned artists,
not dancers right out the academy, and that can be very gratifying.
How is it to work with Henning
When I first met Henning Rubsam, I was living in Philadelphia. A couple of colleagues from DTH were already working
with him, so I was somewhat familiar with his company and his process. Working with Sensedance was really my introduction to be working as
a freelance dance artist in NYC, and it has been wonderful, because I am working with some of my fellow artists from DTH. Henning is so
flexible with his rehearsal schedule that dancers who are working other jobs or working on other projects are able to dance with his
company without feeling overtaxed. He brings lightheartedness to the rehearsal process and is able to get the best out of all of us for the
time we have to give to his work.
How do you maintain your work ethic as
freelance dance artist?
Maria Phegan: Right now, I am actually in a career transition. I am a
certified yoga instructor, so freelancing works for me, because I couldn’t teach yoga and dance six days a week, as I would if I was in a
major dance company. Physically, it works out to dance less, as I am doing now. I have also learned how to stay in shape by working more
intelligently, and by working more intelligently, I actually get better results than pounding my body hard every day. Dancing for decades has
taught me what my body needs to maintain strength, flexibility, and technique. I have ballet teachers that I work with on a regular basis who
know what my body needs.
What are some of the biggest challenges
you face as a dancer, now?
Maria Phegan: My biggest challenge is the mix of genres and styles that I
dance and the toll that can take on your body as an older dancer.
What’s next for
Maria Phegan: I am really in the moment. I looking to expand on the yoga
horizon and see where that takes me. I am also completing a degree in preventative medicine at Columbia University.
williamgooch @ stageandcinema.com
Maria Phegan will be performing with Sensedance during their New York Season at
the Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis Theater, 120 W. 46th Street, NY, NY on November 7 and 8. For ticket information, go to
read William Gooch's interview with Sensedance
choreographer Henning Rübsam