Sara Michelle Murawski: Resilience and Reach

Sara Michelle Murawksi has been labeled by some recently as the “Too-Tall Ballerina.”

To her fans around the world, she was already known as a stunning dancer. After seven years in Europe dancing with Semperoper Ballett and the Slovak National Ballet, the ballerina returned to the United States to join Pennsylvania Ballet as a Principal dancer for the 2016-2017 season. Her performance reached new levels as she rose to the challenge of dancing demanding roles like Dew Drop Fairy, but she was told her contract would not be renewed due to her height, 5 ft. 11 in. Murawski has now accepted a Principal position at the American National Ballet, a new company dedicated to highlighting diversity and set to premiere this fall in South Carolina. The World Dances spoke with Sara about dancing in Europe and the U.S., her experience overcoming rejection, advice for dancers, and more.

What took you to Europe to begin your professional dancing career? 

When I went to the Youth America Grand Prix finals in New York in 2009, I was invited to join the Semperoper Ballett in Germany as a corps de ballet dancer.  I accepted the contract and didn’t even look elsewhere.  It was very affirming to be asked so soon [she was just 17] and so definitively. 

I was inspired by the conversations I had with Aaron Watkin, the company’s Artistic Director.  I loved his energy, his enthusiasm for his dancers, his inventiveness, and the vision he shares for the company. I also loved the repertoire and the fact that there were lots of other tall dancers in his company.

I spent five years there rising through the ranks and then moved to Slovakia to join the Slovak National Ballet as a Soloist. I was interested in this company for the director’s high spirits and standards, the repertoire, and the tall principal dancer, Andre Szabo, who would become my partner for ballets like Swan Lake and Le Corsaire and also for gala performances throughout Europe.

What stands out to you about dancing in Europe?

I loved the emphasis on today’s choreographers, such as David Dawson, Forsythe, Mats Ek, Stijn Celis, Ohad Naharin, Jiri Bubenicek, and others.  I will never forget the way my mind was stretched from learning and watching pieces like The World According to Us, On the Nature of Daylight, A Million Kisses to my Skin, In the Middle Somewhat Elevated, Artifact, She was Black, and Dawson’s Giselle, which I got to perform on tour in Barcelona. I like that the European dance world is very inventive and daring.  

What does it mean to you to be dancing in the United States?

It always felt like coming home. I am, after all, American and I left when I was just 17.  I was fearful, however, of the very type of rejection I ended up receiving. There tends to be less acceptance of body diversity in companies in the United States.

But I pushed all of that fear down because I really wanted to dance in my home country after living all of my adult life abroad. After all of those years in Europe I had started to feel less unusual. Many European women are tall and lanky, so I had somewhat forgotten that I am so much taller than the average American ballerina.  

Having a new home at American National Ballet means everything to me and I am excited to pour myself into my work and my art.  I am infinitely grateful to have a chance to be recognized here for my dancing and not my height.

After learning that your contract with Pennsylvania Ballet was not being renewed, what did you do? How did you stay positive and resilient?

At first I worried that it was the end of my career. This had been my worst fear returning to the United States. It was especially devastating because I had been reaching new peaks that season and getting such positive feedback.  I did not see the news coming at all and it hit me like a truck.

I had to remind myself that I was going to perform in less than an hour. [Murawski was due onstage to dance the Arabian variation in The Nutcracker.] I kept trying to do my makeup even though I was crying.  Somehow I made it out to the stage and danced my final show of The Nutcracker for the season, but I felt broken.

I was able to cling to hope because of all the people who came to my side. So many kind dancers (some of whom I’ve looked up to my whole life), teachers, and fans reached out to support me. It was overwhelming.

I always thought that the way to have the dance family I need was to be in a company. I never imagined the whole world could be a dance family! We all have to be here for each other. I have so much gratitude for the community of dance people in this world and want to be there for any dancers who might need support in the future.

What drew you to American National Ballet?

I love their vision and their big hearts.  They want to choose dancers for their dancing, respect who they are as artists, and support them in ways that are new and unique. They have very specific plans to treat dancers with immense respect and to value our input. I believe ANB will empower us to make an impact, transforming the ballet world to be more inclusive and diverse. 

I also love that ANB’s Executive Director is a woman, Ashley Benefield, who really knows dance.  I think there is a great need for women to play more and larger roles in administration and creation of new directions for ballet. 

I feel great about joining a company with a woman at its helm and an Artistic Director who has so much experience and an incredible reputation, Octavio Martin.  

What are some advantages to your height? How do you think it enhances your dancing?

I think it is important for the ballet world to see more bodies that are beautiful in diverse ways dancing in diverse choreography. Being tall can be an advantage, since ballet is about lines and elongation. Learning to use my length to accentuate artistry and fluidity has helped me become the unique dancer I am. When I was younger, teachers told me that I would need to work harder and become stronger than most of my peers to have a chance in the ballet world. I have taken that advice to heart every day.  I made it to Principal and have danced in galas with other Principals from all over the world. This experience has taught me that our uniqueness is what makes us special as artists.

What are your goals for the future?

My primary goal is to be there for other dancers. I would love to be one of the many people involved in a ballet world revolution, something that bridges gaps with love and a profound devotion to the art from.

I also want to do whatever I can to make the dance world more woman-positive. For now, I feel I need to focus on my dancing during my peak performance years. But I hope to gradually become more involved in choreography. I know there are stories out there that have not been told, and I would love to be able to create those ballets. Some day I might even run my own company in a way that is inclusive and gives dancers the dignity and the respect that they deserve.  

What advice would you offer aspiring dances who would like to follow in your footsteps?

Do everything you can to enhance your dancing beyond your classes, like pilates, gyrotonics, cross-training, or conditioning.  Eat well and never damage your instrument with unhealthy caloric restrictions.  You will get very weak and it will also affect your mental state.  Healthy eating and exercise are the keys to becoming strong enough to eventually pull off leading roles.  

Most importantly, stay passionate about dance. Watch live performances and videos.  See different kinds of art. Do whatever inspires you to remember your love and hunger for this art form. That passion, regardless of where you are technically, always comes through on stage. When a dancer looses that drive, you can see it’s missing. Dance is hard and there will be times when you feel hurt. You need that passion to pull you through and to be able to keep growing.

Credit: Photo by Vikki Sloviter