With more than 25 seasons at Festival Ballet Providence under her belt, Jennifer Ricci is the company’s most tenured dancer. She will be dancing the role of Juliet in one cast of Romeo & Juliet at The Vets, Feb. 10-12, but first we’re finding out where she started, how things have changed, and how the iconic Arabian costume in The Nutcracker got its signature shimmer and sparkle.
Hi Jennifer! Tell us a bit about your background. You have lived in Rhode Island your entire life. When did you start dancing?
I have been involved with FBP for 38 years. I started taking lessons with the founders, Christine Hennessey and Winthrop Corey, when I was 4 years old. I had this problem with my elbow – the joint kept dislocating – and my doctor suggested I try ballet to strengthen the muscles around it. My mother had always wanted to dance as a child, so she signed me up, and I loved it from the beginning!
Your sister Jaclyn followed quickly after, right? What was it like growing up dancing alongside each other?
Jaclyn was three years younger than me. She started taking lessons at FBP as soon as she turned 4, but she progressed even more quickly than I did. Soon we were both in the advanced level, taking class together.
You both joined the company at a young age as well. What was that like? Were you ever competitive?
Dancing with Jaclyn was an all around awesome experience. We are so different style-wise; I am more dramatic and mellow, and she was the dynamic jumper and turner. Because of our different strengths, we were rarely cast in the same roles. Our work relationship was much more supportive than competitive.
That’s so lovely. Are there any experiences in particular that you treasure from the time when your careers overlapped?
I think the highlight for both of us was sharing lead roles in Christine Hennessey’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream. It was the only time we were both cast as principals in the same ballet- as Puck and Titania- so that was a really pivotal moment for us.
So cool that you were able to learn from the founders of FBP. What was working with Christine Hennessy like?
Awesome! She was the most inspirational person, director, and mother figure. Every aspect of her class was fantastic, you never wanted it to be over. She was very upbeat and constantly leading you in a new direction. Her criticism was constructive and positive- nothing to ever make you feel bad about yourself as an artist.
What was the actual transition from student to company dancer like for you?
Since I had already been taking class with the company, the transition into company life felt very smooth. When I graduated from high school, I immediately joined the company. I was given an entry contract, meaning my shoes and costumes were paid for. I was 17 at the time, and since then I’ve kept every contract FBP has ever given me. That’s 27 years of contracts!
Your Arabian in The Nutcracker is exquisite. Can you tell us a bit about what this role means to you?
Arabian was always my dream role as a child. I would watch the company dancers perform it with my jaw wide open. Tall dancers were always chosen for the role and being petite, I wasn’t sure I’d ever be given the chance to do it. When I was 16, I decided to start learning it myself in the back of the studio, using the barre as a partner.
One day, Christine said to me, “I see you, little one, keep up the good work, you keep practicing!” One of the company men volunteered to learn it with me, and we actually ended up performing in one of the Discover Dance performance! It went extremely well, and that’s how I became the Arabian dancer.
What an amazing story! So how do you keep the role fresh, doing it year after year?
Well, I’ve danced the piece with 17 partners now, so I try to make it different for each person based on their personality. That way it’s never boring. It’s such a different dynamic with everyone!
Can you tell us a bit about that iconic costume?
Well, the first costume was made for me when I was 16 and it never fit very well. A few years later, my sister Jaclyn remade the costume with a smaller cut out on the top and used a few pieces of my grandmother’s costume jewelry to decorate it. There’s her brooch on the top and a few necklaces on the pants. The costume is very special to me.
So you’ve lent your sparkle to Arabian in more ways than one! Speaking of that sparkle, you are known for your acting skills. You have even had to do a few death scenes in ballets such as Scheherazade and Lady of the Camellias. How do you prepare for a character role that involves a great deal of acting?
I find you need to know a little more about the character to take it to the next level. Every character is different. For example, as Juliet, I’m supposed to be a young girl. She’s not very experienced and has not yet been exposed to the pitfalls of life. What it really comes down to is experiencing a wide range of different roles, and really learning about the character before you begin.
You’ve been with the company for quite some time. How has the company changed over the years?
It’s changed drastically! When I joined, we were a much smaller company, primarily focused on classical ballets. I like the fact that these days we work with more modern and contemporary choreographers. It makes things a little more edgy and real. Sexy, sassy, you name it, bring it on! It’s a new age, and this kind of choreography is what the audience wants: something raw that they can relate to.
What are some of your favorite roles to dance? What would you love do again?
Scheherazade, I love Scheherazade! Oh, and I love Carmen! I can’t wait to perform that again in a few months.