An unassuming prince dons the velvet cloak at Ballet Theater

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An unassuming prince dons the velvet cloak at Ballet Theater
The dancer Tom Forster rehearses with Gillian Murphy “Giselle,” in New York, Oct. 22, 2021. Forster, promoted to principal dancer during the coronavirus pandemic, makes his New York debut in “Giselle” as the company returns to Lincoln Center. Justin Kaneps/The New York Times.

by Marina Harss

NEW YORK, NY.- Standing in a corner of a rehearsal studio at American Ballet Theater, dancer Thomas Forster cuts a striking figure. He’s tall, but at 35, still boyish. With his head slightly bowed, he has the air of a melancholy prince in a fairy-tale illustration, though he’s wearing a surgical mask and athletic shorts under a dark velvet cloak.

Forster, one of six American Ballet Theater dancers promoted to the rank of principal in September last year, is rehearsing the entrance of Count Albrecht in Act II of “Giselle.” He performed the role once in Washington, in February 2020, a month before the pandemic shut down virtually all the performing arts. After that, he had no idea when, or if, he would get to dance it again.

His debut in “Swan Lake,” which was to take place later in April, was canceled. He made a funny video about it for Ballet Theater’s “Debut Deferred” series, in which he executes turns in his living room while his son Benjamin, then 3, runs around with a stuffed elephant; Forster then hits his head against the ceiling attempting a double tour, a kind of turning jump. Rehearsing at home isn’t easy when you’re 6-foot-3.

On Friday, he makes his New York debut in “Giselle,” the 19th-century ballet many consider the pinnacle of balletic Romanticism. (The week features six such debuts.) “There are shows where you forget time and steps and technique,” Forster said recently of his single performance 20 months ago. “I just hope I can recapture that.”

“Giselle” is the story of a young woman who dies from the shock of finding out that the man she loves is not who he says he is. In the scene Forster was rehearsing that day at the Ballet Theater studios, Albrecht, wracked with guilt, is walking to her grave, in the dark of night, clutching an armful of lilies.

Accompanied by a plaintive cello melody, the scene is easily overplayed. Many dancers use it to show off their beautifully arched feet as they traverse the stage, and make much of the billowing cloak. Not Forster. His interpretation is quiet, focused, simple. “Tom has always had an interesting energy that attracted your attention,” Kevin McKenzie, Ballet Theater’s artistic director, said after the rehearsal. “There’s a theatrical depth there.”

Over the years, Forster has excelled in parts that require telegraphing a sense of vulnerability and humanity, like the cadet abandoned by his lover in Antony Tudor’s “Lilac Garden” (1936) and the Ukrainian soldier returning to his village after World War I in Alexei Ratmansky’s “On the Dnieper” (2009).

Ratmansky has cast him in several leading roles, including in “Serenade After Plato’s Symposium,” drawn by what he described as Forster’s “unaffected and natural acting,” complemented by his “beautiful lines and arched feet, which add softness and lyricism to his dancing.”

But despite his facility, poetic looks and acting chops, his ascent through Ballet Theater’s ranks has been slow. Forster graduated from the Royal Ballet School in London before joining Ballet Theater’s Studio Company in 2006, after taking part in an exchange between the two institutions. (Like Billy Elliot, Forster, who grew up in London, in the southeastern neighborhood of Penge, started ballet at a school in a local church, where he was the only boy.)

Given the choice between joining the Birmingham Royal Ballet or moving to New York, he chose New York, encouraged by his father, sculptor Frank Forster. His father, an amateur boxer, had always cheered on his son’s balletic aspirations.

A year later, in 2007, Thomas Forster joined the main company. It took him eight years to become a soloist, and five more to become a principal.

“He brings no ego into the room — if something goes wrong with the partnering in rehearsal, he always assumes it’s his fault,” Gillian Murphy, Forster’s partner in “Giselle,” said. “He’s so unassuming, maybe that actually delayed his trajectory.”

Behind the question of self-confidence, there was the challenge of gaining control over his tall, lanky body. “It’s not easy to be that tall and do the pyrotechnics,” McKenzie said. “It takes a compactness of the center to get the body coordinated and lifted.”

The extreme flexibility of Forster’s joints made it even harder, and led to injuries. “I’m super loosey-goosey,” Forster said. “When I was young, every time I would lift a partner above my head, my left shoulder would subluxate, not a full dislocation, but it would pop in and out.” It was painful, and it affected his confidence as a partner. Fourteen years ago, he had surgery to correct the problem.

Cross-training has helped him to overcome his areas of weakness. “I started six years ago, and since then,” he said, “my career has really taken off.” He began with boxing drills, and then went on to full-body training. During the pandemic, like so many, he started following an online fitness program, with a kettlebell and a pullup bar. With the increased strength has come increased self-confidence.

“Just before the pandemic,” McKenzie said, “I thought, he’s ready to take on the big roles.” In March, he debuted as the lead in a new ballet by Ratmansky, “Of Love and Rage,” in Costa Mesa, California. It required bold dancing, demanding partnering and the kind of pyrotechnics that would have once given him trouble. Just as he was getting the hang of it, everything shut down.

To lose momentum when you’re a young dancer is hard enough, but for Forster, at 34, the question was less when than whether he would be able to take on the leading roles he still hoped to dance. “There was definitely a moment,” he said, “when I thought, ‘Wait, can I still do this?’”

Around that time, the promotions were announced. Like everything else, it happened over Zoom. Forster wasn’t expecting it. “I wanted to encourage them,” McKenzie said, “so they wouldn’t lose hope.”

The promotion had the desired effect for Forster, helping him out of the COVID-19 doldrums and motivating him to keep working. To keep up his stamina at a time when gyms and rehearsal studios were closed, he bought a Rogue Echo Bike, a stationary bicycle that uses a fan to create resistance when you pedal. “It’s a killer,” he said. “Within four minutes you’re gasping for breath.”

The period of inactivity had a positive aspect: He was able to spend time with his son Benjamin, who loves to dance to Gene Kelly routines. (He starts ballet classes at Ballet Theater’s affiliated school this fall.) Last year, Forster collaborated with Shari Siadat on a children’s book called “My Daddy Can Fly!,” narrated in Benjamin’s voice. It comes out later this year.

Being a father rather than a young phenom as he enters this new phase of his career, he says, has been something of a blessing. He feels less pressure to prove himself in every rehearsal or performance and more control over his nerves. “I’m really at the last stage of my career, and I’m just enjoying every moment,” Forster said. “It might be my age, but I don’t worry too much about what people think or say. I’m just trying to work as hard as I can and enjoy it for what it is.”

So, he’s not the kind of dancer who cries when he falls out of a turn? “I’d be crying all the time,” he replied with a laugh.

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

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