The first time I saw Carrie Imler perform, she was Flora, queen of the flowers in Pacific Northwest Ballet's Sendak/Stowell version of The Nutcracker (please don't talk to me about the switch to Balanchine; I prefer to pretend that version doesn't exist). I was probably 8 years old. I would watch her dance that role countless times, imbuing what's often one of the dullest parts of the ballet with energy and athletic prowess.
That's the thing about Carrie Imler: She's kind of a badass. While the stereotype would have us believe ballet dancers are wispy, elf-like creatures, they're actually athletes of the highest order, and Imler personifies this better than almost anyone. She's visibly strong, known for her technical precision and soaring jumps. A video of her dancing the Black Swan's infamous fouetté sequence from Swan Lake—almost comically challenging choreography that's eluded pros like Misty Copeland and Sara Mearns—has more than a million views on YouTube. And she's been with PNB for 22 years. To say she'll be missed when she retires after the company's season would be an epic understatement.
Over the phone, Imler is friendly and modest. "It's very surreal," she says of her impending retirement. Imler joined PNB as an apprentice in 1995, joined the corps de ballet a year later, was promoted to soloist in 2000, and became a principal in 2002. She's danced nearly 100 leading roles, and in PNB's Season Encore with fellow retiring principal Batkhurel Bold, she'll return to one of her most iconic: Black Swan. She'll also perform choreography by former PNB dancer Kiyon Gaines with Jonathan Porretta, a PNB principal and a close friend. "We kind of have that relationship in ballet where it's like anything you can do, I can do better, so we push each other and just have so much fun," she says.
Porretta was promoted to principal in 2005 after a career-making performance in Rite of Spring. When Imler and Porretta partner, their friendly rivalry is obvious. Professional ballet is almost always shockingly graceful and athletic, but they also make it look really fun. Porretta is also responsible for announcing in the press that Imler can jump higher than the men in their company—a rumor Imler won't exactly confirm or deny, though she'll admit this: "I think I can keep my own with the guys in the company."
Imler's openness during our conversation is consistently disarming. There is a lot of laughter throughout our interview. And that may be the thing people love about Carrie Imler, even beyond the jumps: She radiates toughness but also joy.
Imler says that after 22 years, she knew retirement was on the way. She's also mom to a 1-year-old son, and says her confidence in her ability to return to ballet was buoyed by watching fellow PNB dancers come back to the company after they'd had babies; a surprising number of PNB women are moms. It was hard to start dancing again "with no stomach muscles and joints that were just like rubber," she says, but she "really wanted to be able to dance as much as possible this season." She knew it could be done and wanted to prove to herself that she could do it.
Now she has.
Her post-retirement plans are less firm. "It'll be fun figuring it out," she says. While she does that, she'll be teaching at PNB's school—"So I'll still be around, but just not in a dancer capacity"—something she's done before, but eventually stopped because company commitments forced her to miss too many of her classes and "I felt it wasn't fair to the kids to not have a constant teacher."
When I ask her what she'll remember most about her time with PNB, Imler says it was the first time she danced Aurora in The Sleeping Beauty, partnered, appropriately enough, with Batkhurel Bold.
"Kent [Stowell] and Francia [Russell] came up to me in the middle of a Thursday or Friday night performance and said, 'Hey, how do you feel about doing Aurora tomorrow?' And I just looked at her and I was like, 'Are you kidding me?'"
She and Bold had learned the ballet's leading roles, but with the understanding that they wouldn't be performing them. They were in "maybe sixth cast," she says. "We hadn't had any intense rehearsals, just because they didn't want to spend the time on us, because we weren't performing it and we all knew that, and all of the sudden... somebody cracked a toenail or something, and Francia's like, 'Well, we'll rehearse it tomorrow afternoon and you'll perform it tomorrow night.' And we were just like, 'Okay.' So yeah, it was something special, that's for sure."
Aurora is a notoriously challenging role, but Imler says that adrenaline took over and her company rallied behind her, right down to "the costume staff... giving me extra sparkles."
The sparkles are standard issue, says Imler. The costume staff leave them out for the dancers for every performance. "I have all of the confetti from my whole career," says Imler. Is she taking it with her when she goes? I ask. "Oh, of course," she says, not missing a beat.