There wasn't anything particularly glamorous about the occasion.
It was a Sunday matinee, the Cincinnati Ballet's final performance of "Swan Lake." But the audience members at the Aronoff Center that crisp fall afternoon witnessed a transcendent performance by Janessa Touchet who, in her ninth season, has become the company's reigning female dancer.
It was as if Touchet had come of age. This was a performance worthy of any company in the world. When Touchet came to the Cincinnati Ballet, she was a tall, skinny kid, just a year out of Grace King High School in Metarie, La. "She had great technique and lots of talent," says ballet artistic director Victoria Morgan. "She could do anything. But she didn't have confidence."
All that has changed. Fiery, playful, passionate - her performances have achieved a dramatic range to match her technical skills. It very nearly didn't happen. At 15, Touchet walked out of ballet class and told her mother she was quitting. "I was a mess," says Touchet, now 27. Burnout? Maybe. She'd already been dancing more than a decade. But she was frustrated by the sacrifices she'd made, too. "I don't know what it was," says Touchet, "but right away, I thought 'Why did I ever quit this?' I love it. I entered a couple of small competitions in New Orleans and I won. It really boosted me. I think that's when I really fell in love with dance."
Perhaps it's also when she became voraciously competitive, as well. And not just with ballet. She's a regular at Friday night poker games with the ballet's male dancers. She bowls and occasionally plays basketball. And then there are the fouettés, the leg-whipping turns so often viewed as a measure of success by female dancers. She stays after class nearly every day to practice fouettés. Dozens of them. "I'll do this the rest of my career," says Touchet. "It's something you can never practice enough."
For many dancers, this would be the moment to leave, to join a bigger company with global prestige. She's nearing her prime dancing years. Touchet recently took a class with the San Francisco Ballet, regarded as one of the nation's first-tier ballet companies. "I wasn't really impressed with the company. Their principal dancers are beautiful. But overall, I feel we're better," she says. Even if another company did offer her a position, it would inevitably mean a year or two as a soloist, a step down from her position here.
"I don't know if I'd be willing to go backwards," says Touchet. "I don't want to be in the wings watching someone else do these roles. I've done that. I want to be on the stage. As long as Victoria is able to spend time in the studio with us, I'm going to stay."