NEW YORK -- First, Sara Mearns performed a crisp, classical solo by George Balanchine. Then she left the stage while others sang her praises, returning with her hair down, her feet bare and dressed in a flowing gown, to perform a work by Isadora Duncan.
The performance by Mearns, 33, as she accepted a Dance Magazine award Monday night was emblematic of the dancer's expanding career. Already one of the world's most popular and compelling ballerinas, in recent seasons she has stretched herself to experiment with the works of Martha Graham, Merce Cunnigham and Duncan. She has even tried musical comedy, speaking and singing onstage for the first time.
"She wants to always know more, to embody more," said choreographer Jodi Melnick as she presented Mearns with her award at the Ailey Citigroup Theater in Manhattan. Mearns likened the occasion to winning an Oscar.
Most ballerinas in their prime stick to ballet, and only venture into contemporary dance when the rigors of ballet become too challenging later in their careers. That's not the case with Mearns, who has devoted her off-season to contemporary works, such as the Duncan piece she performed, “Harp Etude,” which had been reconstructed from fragments by Lori Belilove, artistic director of the Isadora Duncan Dance Foundation.
Mearns spoke of how grateful she felt to be able to expand her reach so dramatically. "Ten or 11 years ago this was just not in the cards for me," she said, noting that she assumed she'd be encased in a "ballerina bubble." She credited Melnick, a mentor, for helping open her eyes to new forms.
But she affirmed her primary loyalty to ballet, and the company she has danced with since 2004.
“New York City Ballet is my home," she said. "New York City Ballet gives me everything I ever wanted."
She recounted how she sometimes sits alone in the David H. Koch Theater at Lincoln Center, where NYCB performs, unable to believe her good fortune in performing there.
Other honorees Monday were: Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater's Masazumi Chaya, the longtime associate artistic director who steps down next month; Angel Corella, artistic director of the Pennsylvania Ballet and former star of American Ballet Theatre; Linda Shelton, longtime executive director of New York’s Joyce Theater and Foundation; and dancers David Gordon and Valda Setterfield.
Dancers Bobbi Jene Smith and Caleb Teicher received Harkness Promise awards, which recognize talents in dance at an early stage in their careers.