Inside a studio at the Miami City Ballet, dancers rehearsed for a performance of the George Balanchine classic “Slaughter on Tenth Avenue.”
At one side of the room waifish ballerinas warmed up, while on the other side of the room 12-time major league All-Star Mike Piazza waited for cue.
Piazza will make his ballet debut in a cameo performance for the production on May 3.
“What do you know about George Balanchine?” I asked.
“Ahhh, George Balanchine — is this a trick question? Are you gonna put me on the spot? Is this a trick question?” he answered with a laugh.
The retired baseball star may not much about the famed choreographer and co-founder of the New York City Ballet, but he’s learning all he can about his upcoming role as a gangster in the production.
The burly 6’3” Piazza was dressed to the nines and donning a fedora fit for a gangster.
He’s performing at the request of his six-year-old ballerina daughter Nicoletta, through whom he’s learned that athletes are athletes, no matter what shape, size or sport.
“There’s no question it’s an athletic movement,” he said. ”The strength and the discipline. You look at some of the movies that have come out in recent years about ballet and you look at the history of ballet and some of the great dancers — I mean there’s no question they’re great athletes, probably far better shape than I ever was.”
Working with Piazza on staging and coaching for his cameo is repetiteur Philip Neal.
“We want to make ballet fans out of sports fans,” he said. “And I think the athleticism that’s there is a natural fit.”
Neal is a former dancer with the New York City ballet, and he grew up watching Piazza play for the Mets. He said he’s grateful for his help in spreading the word to sports fans.
“I always want to get people into the door of the ballet,” Neal said. “Because once they walk through the door, and sit and the lights go off, they’re shocked at how athletic is it. They see the men lifting the ballerinas over their head and moving at the speed of light and jumping and turning. I think someone’s preconception of ballet might be different once the curtain goes up.”
Piazza’s upcoming stint will not be the first time the Miami City Ballet has combined ballet and sports.
After the company’s dancers traded their leotards for tank tops to support the Miami Heat’s championship run last year, LeBron James and Dwyane Wade showed up to return the favor.
The duo posed for a series of publicity photos with the principal dancers—sisters Jeanette and Patricia Delgado, earlier this year for the team’s “Ballet and Basketball” campaign.
Artistic director Lourdes Lopez said teaming up the two Miami institutions just made sense—from a marketing and an artistic perspective.
“When I look at basketball — and I used to love playing basketball as a kid here in Miami — those athletes are really graceful,” she said. “[With] both dancers and basketball players it’s grace it’s, it’s timing, it’s precision. It’s, you know, grace under pressure, basically.”
Repetiteur Philip Neal said “ballers” can relate to “ballet”.
“Athletes are so respectful of dancers,” he said. “Whenever I see a collaboration, I think athletes because they go through the same thing, understand the hours and the years that go into it”
“Basically we rehearse six days a week, seven hours a day plus performances,” said danseur Yann Trividic who will be on stage with Piazza during his cameo.
Trividic said dancers and athletes do have many things in common, except for one.
“The only difference is that we don’t perform to win anything, we just perform to bring something to the audience, you know?” he said.
Trividic said sports stars can bring street cred to the largely misunderstood world of ballet.
“People don’t realize they think ballet is retro, and like not really fun, or there’s no excitement, and they don’t realize how much work there is, and [think] we just play around in tutus,” he said. “It’s a sport. Not in essence, but as much as physicality goes.”
Piazza, who stopped playing in 2007, and still holds the record for most home runs by catcher with 427, said he’s already heard from some of his old colleagues in the clubhouse, and it’s not always pretty.
“Well, I mean as a ballplayer — when you’re in the clubhouse, it’s complete — how do you say it nicely? Blank-breaking all the time,” he said. “So, there’s no question, I’ve already gotten some emails and some tweets from people making fun of me already.”
But Piazza said if he has to a take a few good natured insults along the way, it will be worth it to help his daughter, and the ballet.