Rare Turn

When he chose Stanford, Sanjay Saverimuttu assumed he was closing the door on a career in ballet. Life didn’t go as planned.

May 2022

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Photo of Sanjay Saverimuttu dancing with swirls around him.

Photography by Sam English

A lifetime in ballet has left dancer Sanjay Saverimuttu with mixed feelings about the Nutcracker. The fan favorite, he points out, fills houses, provides financial lifeblood to ballet companies, and gives dancers a yearly yardstick to measure their growth over many returns to the same roles. But by the end of every holiday season, he’d prefer a trigger warning before anyone subjects him to another “Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy.” As he puts it, “You don’t want to hear Nutcracker music until November.” Familiarity, as they say . . .

This December, though, was hardly like all the others. For one, he was the Nutcracker—the iconic toy soldier who comes alive on Christmas Eve only to find himself in a deadly sword fight with giant rodents. It was Saverimuttu’s first lead role since arriving at the Louisville Ballet as a trainee a decade ago. But perhaps more importantly, he was performing the Christmas classic to real crowds, shaking off a year of virtual pandemic performances. After the fury of dueling with vermin, the role peaks with a moment of beauty in a winter wonderland. It’s just the Nutcracker—transformed into a prince—and the young heroine (Marie in this version, but often called Clara) alone on the stage in a six-minute pas de deux of lung-busting lifts and turns during which the audience should perceive only effortless grace. “By the end of it all, it was just a nice feeling of accomplishment,” says Saverimuttu, ’12, “and, as always, the applause and cheers are very validating.”

Such ovations seemed a long way off at the peak of the pandemic. A dancer can’t so easily bring his work online, lift a partner while maintaining social distancing or keep up his conditioning while trying not to kick the coffee table. For five months in the heart of 2020, as Saverimuttu practiced in a spare room at his house, using PVC pipe as an improvised barre and trying to steer clear of his dogs, lockdown felt like an existential threat to the art form. “I’m scared of looking at myself in a mirror / I’m scared of dancing on marley or in ballet shoes / I’m scared of dancing in a mask / I’m scared I won’t pick up choreography like I used to / I’m scared of jumping,” Saverimuttu wrote in a poem called “I’m Scared of Going Back,” which has received more than 70,000 views on his website. (Marley is one of two floor surfaces, the other being wood, that ballet studios typically use.)

Indeed, as lockdown transitioned into a gradual and uncertain return that included working in separate pods and dancing, masked, in individual imaginary six-foot boxes, many of Saverimuttu’s colleagues did not come back. In the best of times, the exit is never far away for most dancers, who often retire by their 30s, drained by the physical toll or feeling the pressure to figure out a second act. Even before COVID, Saverimuttu was contemplating what his next step looked like—he also choreographs and teaches ballet and is interested in artistic leadership. But in the end, the turmoil renewed his commitment to continue. A pandemic wouldn’t be the thing to call time on his life’s work. “I was resilient enough or just stubborn enough to be like, ‘I’m not letting COVID take me out.’”

Three photos of Sanjay Saverimuttu. Top photo is of Sanjay dancing within the troupe, holding on to a dancer's waist. The left photo is of Sanjay choreographing. The right photo is of Sanjay Saverimuttu performing on stage in the Nutcracker.VERSATILE: Clockwise from top, Saverimuttu with Tiffany Bovard rehearsing Sleeping Beauty, as the Nutcracker Prince partnering Anna Ford, and choreographing Spring for an event at Louisville’s botanical gardens.

A Stanford education can take you many places, but a professional ballet stage is generally not one of them. Several students and alums enjoyed storied ballet careers prior to matriculation; most recently, Beatriz Stix-Brunell, ’25, retired from an 11-year career with the Royal Ballet in London to enroll at Stanford as a 29-year-old frosh. But beginning a career after graduation is rarer. The rigor and culture of ballet is such that most dancers forgo or postpone university to join a company, or they attend colleges with intensive dance programs. Even among male dancers, a scarcer group with a wider path to success, professionals who do neither are uncommon. Stanford offers a minor in dance, though not a major. Saverimuttu studied biology. 

Not that he was late to the barre. His parents, seeking escape from civil war in their native Sri Lanka, emigrated while his mother was pregnant, and enrolled at Purdue University, where his uncle was a professor. His uncle had married a ballet dancer who ran her own school, and as a baby, Saverimuttu was passed around backstage while his parents helped with costume changes at productions. But nobody pushed him into dancing, says his aunt, Sandra Peticolas, who continues to run Lafayette Ballet Company in central Indiana. He chose it himself, she says, drawn as much as anything to the storytelling inherent in the art. “He choreographed very fine ballets and stories for his stuffed animals.” When Saverimuttu’s family moved to South Florida, where his parents are both professors, Peticolas helped them find a ballet school for the 7-year-old.

Part of the early appeal, Saverimuttu is quick to admit, was flattery. As a boy in ballet, he received special attention not nearly so available to girls, including scholarships to summer intensives that put him among the art’s rising elite. Growing up, he was often the only boy at his home studio, and even at the intensives, the ratio was at least 2:1. (The nonprofit Dance Data Project says girls generally outnumber boys 20:1.)

But beyond that, he came to love the mental, physical and artistic challenge of chasing an ever-closer, never-quite-attainable perfection, not just as an individual but as part of the collective. The larger patterns of dance have always blazed brighter in his mind than the starring role.

By the end of high school, he’d been burning his candle hard on both academic and dance ends, intent on keeping all his options open. When Stanford offered him admission, it seemed too great an opportunity to pass up, even if it meant he was likely closing the book on a dance career. “I definitely would not have foreseen me being in a ballet company like this.”

Saverimuttu had a bit of drill sergeant in him, she says, but it was leavened with a wry sense of humor. ‘We called it the “Sanjay sass.”’

At Stanford, he dabbled in environmental engineering before switching to biology, where he felt alienated from the fierce competition for grades among peers aiming for med school. He was in the uncomfortable new position of being far from the best student. He found surer footing in the student-run Cardinal Ballet and in Stanford’s dance classes. “My release and escape from all that stress and tension was dance,” he says.

The demands of his new dance life didn’t approach the intensity of the old. In high school, he frequently took class seven days a week, often twice a day. At Stanford, it could be less than half that. But he took every class he could, branching out into modern dance with renowned choreographer Robert Moses and others who challenged him to expand his physical vocabulary. “He was just in the studio all the time,” says instructor Diane Frank, who is retiring this spring after three decades of teaching at Stanford. “He was very adventurous in his movement appetites and his willingness to try a lot of different things.”

He was serious about pushing his choreography in new directions, too, says Katherine Disenhof, ’12, who has worked as a contemporary dancer since graduation. As fellow “ballet nerds,” they would trade YouTube videos back and forth, she says, but Saverimuttu always wanted to include other influences. His pieces, she says, were intricate and quick. “He would really push the envelope in terms of what your brain could take in remembering all the counts and the steps and directions and coordinating these really complex groups. There was no skating by and sleeping through it,” she says. Saverimuttu had a bit of drill sergeant in him, she says, but it was leavened with a wry sense of humor. “We called it the ‘Sanjay sass.’”

But Saverimuttu’s most important undergraduate dance experience occurred far from the Farm. His junior year, he studied abroad in Cape Town, South Africa, where he taught for an organization called Dance for All, which provides free ballet education for kids living in segregated townships outside the city. Up until this point, his love for dance had been inwardly focused, he says. Working with children and teens from starkly impoverished backgrounds and seeing the joy dance gave them provided him a larger, more generous perspective, he says. Dance could be healing. “I always have to come back to this moment whenever I feel down about dance because there is such a bigger purpose for it and for arts education in general,” he says. “You can just see what having a passion for something, especially in children, can do, how it can be life-saving.”

It was this experience, he says, that made him decide to give a dance career a shot. Stanford may not have been the obvious path to this end, but without its broadening influence, he says, he may not have become a professional, and very likely would not have lasted as one. “I probably would have burned out.”

His senior year, he auditioned for Bay Area ballets, though, he says, he wasn’t really in shape. After graduating, he was training at his home studio in Boca Raton, Fla., when he crossed paths with Mikelle Bruzina, the ballet mistress at Louisville, who regularly taught summer sessions at the Florida school. Having seen his development, particularly his abilities to grasp choreography and to partner, she encouraged him to try out for Louisville’s trainee program. “Some people just catch your eye,” she says. “He’s somebody who learns quickly, who doesn’t just take care of his own steps, who can go into someone else’s role and pick that up quickly. It’s like he always has a third eye looking at all the other things that are happening.”

Saverimuttu’s audition had gotten him in the door, but he was tentative about the prospect of a long-term stay in Louisville. He had come out at Stanford, part of a more general awakening that he had no desire to hide. “I’m a very hard-core-left liberal. I’m gay,” he says. “You tell me, ‘You’re going from California to Kentucky.’ That’s an extreme.” But Louisville, a large arts-and-tourism river town with opera, orchestra, a Shakespeare festival and multiple theater companies, proved far more agreeable than he—or his even more skeptical friends—had expected. A decade later, he is a homeowner; he is married to a high school teacher; he is ensconced as a member of Louisville’s arts and progressive communities. He has a taste for bourbon (Woodford on the rocks, if you please) and for his adopted city. He is certainly in no hurry to leave. “There is just so much here.”

Sanjay Saverimuttu dancing on stage at Stanford with another student while at Stanford.BACK IN THE DAY: Saverimuttu and Julia Neidert, ’13, MS ’14, rehearse Twilight Composite, which Frank choreographed for six of her students. The Stanford dancers went on to perform it at the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C. (Photo: Linda A. Cicero/Stanford News Service)

Part of his satisfaction is his alignment with the focus of the Louisville Ballet, which is celebrating its 70th  anniversary this year and claims dibs on being the fifth-oldest continually operating ballet in the country. The company, of course, performs the classics. Prior to the Nutcracker, it put on Swan Lake as the official, in-person return from virtual performance, and this spring it mounted a production of Sleeping Beauty. But even in its story ballets, the company regularly pushes the art form’s traditional boundaries and Eurocentric tropes. In Swan Lake, for example, the company did away with the traditional white and black tutus that denote good and evil, respectively. Instead, the dancers wore costumes and shoes dyed to approximate their own skin tones.

Growing up, Saverimuttu says he never felt apart as a Southeast Asian dancer—just being a male made him feel unusual enough. In adulthood, he feels his race more. He’s concerned with broadening ballet’s audience, stories and composition, from its leadership to its dancers to its choreographers to its students. He sees progress but also much room for growth. If his presence onstage helps foster inclusion, he’d be delighted. “I’d like to hope that it’s nice to see somebody like me onstage.”

In February, Saverimuttu was among Louisville Ballet’s busiest dancers as the company switched gears after Nutcracker to something far more contemporary. Apropos of his reputation for picking up choreography, he stepped in at the last minute for someone who tested positive for COVID. (“If a dancer is out and you need someone to learn something in a day or so, Sanjay is your person,” says Brandon Ragland, a fellow dancer.) Saverimuttu danced in three of four performances in a show that opened with a celebratory ballet in front of an eight-piece soul band and ended with an intense musing—choreographed by Ragland, one of two African American dancers in the company—on Black presence in white space. In the latter piece, I Am, dancers in tights and hoodies shared the stage with local spoken-word artists. “Why does my skin feel so heavy in these spaces?” the poet Hannah Drake—a major voice in local protests over the shooting death of Breonna Taylor by Louisville police in 2020—asked from the back of the stage, building up to a rapid-fire delivery brimming with hurt and hope. 

“Hearing those words behind you really brings into the moment for you as a dancer that we’re giving audiences an experience that is, hopefully, really special,” Saverimuttu says. On a cold winter’s night, the 600-seat theater was probably half full, but the crowd was rapt, responding with a minute-long standing ovation as dancers and poets took their bows together.

As the piece progresses, the male dancer is joined by a woman and the female dancer by a man, pairings that swap back and forth through the mirror as the dance progresses and the symmetry begins to break down.

Saverimuttu appreciates both the traditional and the new in his art. Ballet dancers’ bodies are trained in the language of the classics, enabling them to focus on refining and cleaning their movement toward that elusive perfection. Those stories still have relevance even if they may need reimagining, he says. More contemporary, experimental and thematically thorny choreography keeps the art relevant and expands its reach beyond its exclusive roots. His own works, performed at the Louisville Ballet and elsewhere, have examined his parents’ immigration tale, the idea of toxic masculinity, gay friendship and the Pulse shooting, which killed 49 people at a queer nightclub in Florida. In Amid Exes and Whys, Saverimuttu choregraphed a spare performance that begins with two dancers—one male, one female—on either side of an illuminated frame, each mirroring the other’s exploratory movements. “I wanted to get at the concept of having a queer child looking in the mirror and trying to figure out who they are as a person,” he says. As the piece progresses, the male dancer is joined by a woman and the female dancer by a man, pairings that swap back and forth through the mirror as the dance progresses and the symmetry begins to break down. For Saverimuttu, it’s a shattering of the gender binary and a proclamation that you can be who you are. 

Ultimately, he’d love to be a full-time choreographer, though that’s an even more difficult nut to crack than becoming a professional dancer. “If I knew the path to get there, I probably would have done it by now,” he says.

Meanwhile, rehearsal beckons. “The socially relevant works can challenge you as a dancer and artist, and just breathe new life into the art form,” he says. And that’s just the thing that can freshen you up for the next Nutcracker

Sam Scott is a senior writer at Stanford. Email him at sscott3@stanford.edu.

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