Before her performances at Jacob’s Pillow Dance Festival this summer, Chyrstyn Fentroy had to style her own hair — and she said she prefers it that way.
“Well, as a black woman, I have an afro,” the Boston Ballet soloist said while stretching her legs at a makeshift physical therapy station before the Saturday matinee. Recalling one instance in which a stylist broke hairs with aggressive brushing, Fentroy said, “Most people who do hair in the ballet world aren’t familiar with it.”
When Fentroy joined Boston Ballet in 2017, she was the first black woman to do so in a decade. She has risen through the company quickly, scoring two promotions in two years.
“She has been tremendous,” said Mikko Nissinen, artistic director of Boston Ballet. “She’s moving forward like a tornado.”
Fentroy’s interest in dance began with her parents, who were also her teachers. Her father coached a dance team in hip-hop and jazz, and her mother, who performed with regional companies in California and at the Cairo Opera House, trained her in classical ballet. Fentroy can describe the studio where her parents taught, the Peninsula School of Performing Arts in Palos Verdes, Calif., in vivid detail — she practically grew up there.
“My parents would be teaching, and I would be stuck there, especially Saturdays. I’d be there all day,” Fentroy recalled. When she wasn’t in class, she passed the time by riding her scooter around the parking lot and sneaking into a utility closet to watch movies. “I would eventually wander off, but I never went far.”
Fentroy’s parents divorced when she was about 7. Her father remained her teacher for a few years, but the budding dancer was primarily raised by her mother. Ruth Fentroy said she “ate, slept, and breathed ballet” through Chyrstyn’s childhood, though she declined several contracts so as not to interfere with her daughter’s schooling.
But Fentroy wasn’t certain dance was her passion until she left home. As the teachers’ daughter, “it was easier for me to slip through the cracks and get away with not pointing my toes, goofing around at the back of the room,” she said.
Still, Fentroy was stung by the remarks she overheard in the studio — some peers suggested she got desirable parts and solos only because the teachers were her parents.
Leaving California after high school for the Joffrey Ballet School in New York marked a shift for Fentroy: She was beginning to define herself as an artist on her own terms. Her craft, she realized, could be about more than just flashy “tricks.”
Fentroy’s time at the Joffrey, while formative, was challenging. She was rattled by insecurities — had she fallen behind her peers by goofing off in her mother’s classes? “I was so angry all the time,” she recalled. “I had to learn how to love myself through my flaws.”
After two years at the Joffrey, Fentroy joined Dance Theatre of Harlem, and a different realization unfolded: She started to recognize herself as an artist of color.
At the time, the Harlem company — founded for black dancers during the civil rights movement — was rebuilding after an eight-year hiatus. In a 2017 interview with Kinfolk magazine, artistic director Virginia Johnson said the closure had meant “there was a generation of little girls who didn’t see brown ballerinas.”
Fentroy had grown up hearing about the Dance Theatre of Harlem from her mother, who is white. The family owned one of the company’s signature shows, “Creole Giselle,” on VHS. But Ruth Fentroy, who said she doesn’t “see color,” didn’t raise her daughter to think of race as a major part of her identity.
“In the studio,” Ruth Fentroy said, “I never felt that there was a problem with that or that she was overlooked for anything.”
As a dance student in New York, though, Fentroy had begun to hear a new kind of snide remark: “She only got the part because she’s the black girl.”
Still, she didn’t seriously reckon with the lack of diversity in ballet — and her own position as a black ballerina — until she was at Dance Theatre of Harlem, surrounded by other dancers who weren’t white.
“It’s kind of funny,” Fentroy said. “I didn’t focus on being a dancer of color until I joined that company. It didn’t become such a big thing in my head until it was the thing. And even then, it felt foreign for a while.”
She said she owes much of her personal and artistic growth to her time at the Dance Theatre of Harlem. “I started to learn how to put me into dancing instead of just doing exactly what I was told.”
A “choreographer’s dancer,” in the words of Darrell Grand Moultrie, one of the company’s choreographers, Fentroy was one of the most prominent performers at Dance Theatre of Harlem.
“She knows how to remove herself from the real world and put herself in the world of choreography,” Moultrie said. “To watch the dancer get lost in your movement, it’s the most exciting moment for a choreographer because you know the dancer is free.”
Virginia Johnson considered Fentroy an important collaborator in reviving the company. “When I was thinking about ballets I’d want to bring to the company, I’d think, ‘Chyrstyn would be great in that,’ ” Johnson recalled.
Fentroy caught the attention of New York Times dance critic Brian Seibert, who praised her as the “most consistent” performer in Moultrie’s dance, “Vessels,” in 2015. “As the company rushes forward,” Seibert wrote, “Ms. Fentroy was a reminder of qualities it should not leave behind.”
After a few seasons with the Dance Theatre of Harlem, Fentroy began to feel restless. The company didn’t usually run the full-length story ballets she dreamed of performing. The touring schedule was onerous, and as a principal dancer at a small company, Fentroy was onstage more than most: “I was always doing three or four ballets.”
She also felt that her growth had plateaued. “Where I was, I was sort of at the top, and I had no one to look up to,” she said.
So she and Jorge Villarini — a dance partner at the company who had also become her boyfriend — started looking elsewhere, auditioning at several companies as a couple. Then Fentroy got an offer from Boston Ballet.
“The moment she got this contract, I said, you go there,” Villarini said. “I’ll be right behind you.”
For Fentroy, the decision to leave the Dance Theatre of Harlem was fraught. The company had given her so much, and she felt committed to its mission, but she was “hungry for something more.”
“They did not hesitate to express that they didn’t want me to go,” she said.
“It was very difficult to lose my best dancer,” Johnson said. “And it was difficult to feel like I was building something with someone who was no longer there.”
At Boston Ballet, Fentroy would be one of just a few black dancers. The experience could be frustrating, she said, especially during her first year with the company.
In the dressing room, Fentroy recalled, some peers laughed at the way her hair — “the thing that makes me look most ethnic”— sprang out when she loosened it from her ballet bun.
“That was hurtful for a while,” she said, “but it allowed me to teach people that it’s not OK to make comments — [even if] they don’t mean any harm by it.”
“Being able to withstand the feeling of isolation makes me stronger,” Fentroy said. So far, she said, her colleagues at Boston Ballet have been receptive to “teaching moments” like those in the dressing room.
“I don’t think I’ve ever encountered a person here who isn’t open to hearing what I have to say.”
Since she started at Boston Ballet in 2017, Fentroy has performed as the Snow Queen in the Nutcracker and worked with formidable choreographers like William Forsythe. She has wowed audiences, critics, and choreographers with her musicality and precision. Her performance in Forsythe’s “Playlist (EP),” a ballet set to contemporary pop music, earned her more praise in the New York Times: Seibert described her as “relaxed, charming, infectiously joyful.”
Ruth Fentroy is “ecstatic beyond words” that her daughter is dancing at a prestigious company with a bigger focus on classical ballet. Though she didn’t pursue performance in the same way her daughter has, she’s “thrilled and blessed that [Chyrstyn] has attained the level I always wanted.”
“Chyrstyn has delivered and delivered and delivered,” said Nissinen. “The cream rises to the top.”
Hours before the Friday evening performance at Jacob’s Pillow, Fentroy managed to get some alone time at the Southfield Pub, reading a weathered copy of Wally Lamb’s “I Know This Much Is True,” which she picked up in New York years ago.
“I find my zen when I’m alone,” Fentroy said. She was sharing a hotel room with another dancer, and the dressing room at Jacob’s Pillow — a rustic campus in the Berkshires — wasn’t especially spacious.
Fentroy’s one-bedroom apartment in Medford had been crowded lately, too. After a brief hiatus from dance, Villarini was hired at Boston Ballet in July, and moved in with Fentroy. At around the same time, Ruth Fentroy relocated to Massachusetts to be closer to her daughter, and stayed in the apartment with her two cats before moving into her own new home in Swampscott.
With Fentroy’s dog, Rupert, in the mix, “it was like a zoo at my house” for two weeks, Fentroy said.
Though Fentroy and Villarini were partners at the Dance Theatre of Harlem, the two are now in different ranks at Boston Ballet: She’s a soloist, and he’s a corps member.
“She has a lot more on her plate than I do,” said Villarini. While he tends to take a “patient” approach to dance, Fentroy is “such a go-getter.” He added, “She can’t leave the studio unless she gets it right.”
Does he ever feel competitive with her? “Our hopes and aspirations are not the same,” Villarini said. “We have to give each other room to fulfill that.”
Villarini and Fentroy have matching tattoos. (The ink has to be covered for performances, of course.) The design is a line drawing originally sketched by John Lennon — a minimalist portrait of himself and Yoko Ono.
“Have you heard the music they created together? It’s weird,” Fentroy said with a laugh. “ He definitely brought out something for me that I didn’t know was there, which is a parallel to them.”
At the Friday evening show at Jacob’s Pillow, Fentroy performed a playful duet with Desean Taber to Khalid’s “Location” — an excerpt from Forsythe’s “Playlist (EP).” Her movements were crisp and energetic, embodying the digital zeitgeist of the song. She grinned earnestly through the brief performance, and let out a tiny giggle or two.
During an after-show talk, she said she likes to show the audience her joy: “I love to make myself laugh.”
Ruth Fentroy, who was moving into her new home in Swampscott at the time, wasn’t in the Berkshires to watch the Jacob’s Pillow performances. But seeing her daughter dance is usually a priority: Even when she lived in California, she frequently flew across the country for shows.
The proud mother often watches from backstage, though she gets a special thrill out of sitting in the audience and hearing strangers react to her daughter’s dancing.
From the neighboring seats, she can hear them saying, “Oh my gosh, that girl, that girl, that girl.”