NEW YORK - She always made it look so easy. Just watch Darci Kistler in the 1993 film "The Nutcracker" and you almost believe she's made of spun sugar rather than muscle and bone.
"I just loved to work," Kistler said. "I loved to sweat, I loved to try to make my tendues better, my pirouettes better, my jumps better."
For 30 years - longer than most modern ballerinas have been alive - Darci Kistler danced for the renowned New York City Ballet.
But she wasn't born wearing a tutu. She grew up in Southern California, wanting to be just like her four older brothers until, she told Tracy Smith, a family trip to see Rudolf Nureyev in "Sleeping Beauty" changed everything.
"When he came out, my brothers started to giggle, 'cause he was wearing tights," Kistler said. "And they thought it was, you know, a little - too much was showing. So they started to laugh, and my mom started to giggle. And I remember thinking, What are they laughing at? Wow could they laugh? It's so beautiful!"
It's fair to say that Darci Kistler had the last laugh.
She started studying ballet when she was still in elementary school, and at 16 became the youngest dancer to join the New York City Ballet.
Kistler was the last ballerina to be hand-picked by the company's legendary founder and choreographer, George Balanchine.
For those who don't know a tour jete from a toe shoe, George Balanchine is to dance what Stravinsky is to music or Picasso is to art. "Mr. B" (as he was known) transformed ballet totally, using music and dancers as never before.
Jacques d'Amboise was one of Mr. B's proteges. In the summer of 1980 he taught Kistler a Balanchine pas de deux.
"I mean, who could not love that girl? Especially Balanchine," d'Amboise said. "There is that wholesome, healthy, athletic, simplicity with a magical something. And there's something mysterious about it - you realize it's not just bland pabulum."
Balanchine, who by then was gravely ill, never got the chance to choreograph a ballet for Kistler, but he pushed her into nearly every leading role there was.
Mr. B asked Peter Martins, the dashingly handsome lead dancer in his mid-30s, to be Kistler's partner.
"He said, 'She's fantastic, and I'm gonna make her a star, and I'm not gonna wait,'" recalled Martins.
Kistler recalled Balanchine pairing her with Martins when she was 16, by putting put her hand in Martins' and saying, " 'I've matched many marriages. And now I'm matching the two of you.' And then I had to go out and dance with him!'"
It may have been awkward at first, but eventually the two of them realized Balanchine's insight. In 1991, nearly a decade after Mr. B died, Peter Martins and Darci Kistler eloped.
"I've always been simple," Kistelr said.
"Hardly," Martins laughed. "Goodness!"
"I didn't want the idea of having to get a party together. Invitations. Gown. That's what I mean by simple."
Their life together since has hardly been simple. Shortly after they were married, Kistler accused Martins of assault, and then dropped the charges. Four years later, there was the house fire, started by candles on a Christmas tree, from which a very pregnant Kistler barely escaped.
"The fire was traveling faster than I could run," she said.
"We were outta the house within I would say 2 minutes and then it blew up glass roofs and the glass windows," Martins said. "It was hideous."
They've also had to balance a tricky working relationship. After Mr. B died, Peter Martins took over as head of the New York City Ballet. So technically, he's Kistler's boss.
"I've never been in a rehearsal room and thought That's my husband. Unless he did something really embarrassing. Wait a minute. There we go. That's my husband!"
Today they live a relatively calm life in suburban New York with their 13-year-old daughter Talicia, who wants to be an actress.
Martins says, despite their daughter's gene pool, in many ways he's thrilled she does not want to follow in their footsteps.
"But I must say, when I look at her legs I go, 'Honey, look at this! The ballet world needs those legs!'"
Truth is, there are plenty of other young girls to dance "The Nutcracker" these days.
Kistler teaches some young hopefuls - "baby bunheads," as she calls them - at the School of American Ballet.
That, and the fact that she found herself sharing the stage with girls younger than her daughter, helped Kistler decide to retire.
"When you look around and realize, 'Wow, I've taught this one and that one, I've watched them all grow up,' and you're on stage with them, you realize it's your time," Kistler said.
At age 46, Darci Kistler gave her final performance. And in-between the bows and confetti and flowers, she came down off her toes, and walked over to kiss her daughter . . . a very down-to-Earth exit for the last Balanchine ballerina.
For more info:
New York City Ballet
School of American Ballet - Darci Kistler
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