When Maria Kowroski speaks, her hands and arms move in a graceful, fluid way, almost as if choreographed. Once a principal dancer for New York City Ballet, Kowroski now makes the moves while sitting behind a desk as the artistic director of the New Jersey Ballet. In the role since September 2022, Kowroski is already transforming the Garden State company.
“Whoever saw New Jersey Ballet before would not recognize the company now. It has new leadership, new dancers, new repertory. A lot of changes in the right direction to elevate it,” says Kowroski, 47.
When she retired from the New York City Ballet in fall 2021, Kowroski figured she would teach and coach. She also wanted to move to New Jersey to have more space with her husband, Martin Harvey, a former Royal Ballet dancer, and their son, Dylan, 7. Kowroski contacted New Jersey Ballet, where she had taught some classes on Zoom, to ask about teaching and was told the company had an opening for artistic director. “I felt like the responsibility was too big,” she says. “As a dancer, you’re only responsible for yourself. As a director, you’re responsible for everything.”
New Jersey Ballet encouraged Kowroski to become its acting artistic director for one year to see if she liked it. “What was enticing about it is that I could use all of this experience I’ve had in New York and bring it here and actually change this company,” she says.
The first year was overwhelming, says Kowroski, who lives in Roseland. New Jersey Ballet had no male dancers when she arrived, and to overcome this early challenge, she had to leverage her contacts quickly to find seven men to perform The Nutcracker.
Now, Kowroski is moving New Jersey Ballet in a new direction and has made it the resident company at Mayo Performing Arts Center while exploring other venues for performances. “Instead of traveling to New York City and paying $250 for a ticket, you’ll get a great performance right here in New Jersey, with the same caliber of dancing, same kind of repertory,” she says. “I’m really trying to bring in pieces that I think will excite the community and grab them and make them want to come back.”
Kowroski has had a lifelong love of ballet. Growing up in Grand Rapids, Michigan, she started ballet lessons at age five, and her first teachers noticed that she had talent. Soon, she was studying with two principal dancers from the Joffrey Ballet who had moved to Grand Rapids and started a school. “Had they not done that, I don’t know if I’d even be where I am today,” says Kowroski “because there was nothing around that area for a more intense ballet.”
When the teachers brought the Joffrey Ballet to Grand Rapids to perform, children were needed, and Kowroski was chosen, sparking her first inkling of a career. “I didn’t know that you could do ballet for a living,” she says. “It was just like one of those aha moments where I was like, I want to do this, this is what I love to do.”
At 15, she moved to the School of American Ballet in New York, dancing while taking classes to earn her high school diploma. Kowroski joined New York City Ballet in 1995, traveling the world for performances and quickly landing bigger roles. She even provided the moves of Barbie in three computer-animated Mattel films—Barbie in the Nutcracker, Barbie of Swan Lake and Barbie in the 12 Dancing Princesses—by dancing in a black-box theater with electrodes on her joints to capture her movements.
Ballet is a tough job, physically and emotionally, and Kowroski suffered injuries throughout her career, nearly derailing her last performance in fall 2021. “What was really important is that I said goodbye to my career. If I hadn’t had that moment, I think it would have been hard to move on,” she says.
Instead, her move to New Jersey Ballet is a fresh hello for Garden State fans of ballet.
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