A prima ballerina retires ‘on top’

By Jane Schneider for The Daily Memphian, photo by Jim Weber

Crystal Brothers, Ballet Memphis’ prima ballerina with the flame-red hair, gave her final professional performance with the company in May.

Brothers was 19 when she joined Ballet Memphis in 1996 after training at the Yuma Ballet Academy in her hometown of Yuma, Arizona. She had already danced professionally two years with Boston Ballet II, but stress fractures in her feet and ankles had hindered her BBII career.

Determined to find a permanent dance home, Brothers rode the bus every weekend one summer from Boston to New York City for auditions. She faced a series of rejections over a six-week period of tryouts but remained resolute.

Her persistence paid off when Ballet Memphis tendered a contract.

Versatility and vulnerability defined her work as a dancer.

“Crystal has a fearlessness about her,” says Ballet Memphis’ artistic director, Dorothy Gunther Pugh. “She has an innate understanding of how to use her body and still send up fireworks.”

Brothers started as an understudy for several years to then-lead Monique (Tuell) Jalenak, the first female dancer Pugh hired. Her performance in the lead of “Firebird” was a breakthrough, and when Jalenak retired, Brothers moved to center stage.

Her favorites roles include Giselle in “Giselle,” Titania in “Midsummer Night’s Dream,” Juliet in “Romeo and Juliet,” Tinkerbell in “Peter Pan” and Odette in “Swan Lake.”

“Crystal has had the ability and capacity to inspire people every day during her 23 years. I’ve watched her grow into that steadily during her life with us,” Pugh said.

“I have lived more than my dream,” said the 42-year-old dancer. “I’ve lived many a little girl’s dream and for that, I’m grateful.”

The beauty of her arabesques and pirouettes belies the fastidious work a dancer does to stay injury-free. She ices her toes, uses exercise balls and Pilates equipment to stretch her muscles, and wears a heating pad wrapped around her back prior to class to keep her spine supple.

What used to be one hour of warm-up now takes three and not a day goes by without an ache or pain surfacing. Brothers says all athletes and dancers endure those challenges.

“You go through much work and tears and heartache for this brief but fantastic moment – in the limelight, in the zone – where you resonate with your soul,” she says.

Brothers’ 23-year tenure with Ballet Memphis has paralleled its steady growth and increasingly national profile. Now, in the company’s 32nd year, Pugh manages a $4.1 million budget and endowment and retains 21 full-time dancers. Ballet Memphis moved into a stylish building with a glass and perforated copper exterior in Overton Square in 2017.

Brothers’ time with the company has included professional highs, with several tours and performances in New York City, as well as heartache. She lost her husband, musician and songwriter Steve Reid, to a heart attack four years ago. “There’s a hole in my heart and all time can do is smooth the edges,” she said, misty-eyed.

She danced the role of Juliet a few months after losing Reid, and said it gave her a creative place to pour out her grief. “Dancing has always been a way to wrangle my feelings and emotions.”

Her departure comes as Steven McMahon, a former company dancer and choreographer, steps into the artistic director role at Ballet Memphis. Pugh will retain the role of company CEO.

Brothers started her life in Memphis renting a bungalow on Jefferson Avenue, just steps away from where she now works. She’ll continue as a ballet and Pilates instructor for the company and plans to study at the Massage Institute of Memphis this fall to become certified as a massage therapist.

“I’m proud of my 35 years of dance, but there are areas I’ve had to sacrifice to get where I am,” Brothers said. “So part of me is excited to move on to other things and develop myself more fully.

“I’m on top and I want to go out while I’m still strong.”