Lawrence Rines: A Story of Ballet and Balance

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By Rowan Walrath, opinions editor

Lawrence Rines’ eyes are always paying attention. They stare intently into cameras, they spot themselves in the mirror; they give their owner a discerning, slightly judgmental expression. They’re not so intense as to mask Rines’ silliness, though. His tongue is sticking out in more than one Facebook photo, and his profile picture is a Powerpuff version of himself. Modeled after the stars of the 1998 Cartoon Network show that saw an awful reboot earlier this year, the mini cartoon has rounded features, and it’s cute and unassuming. It’s a stark contrast from the musculature that marks the real-life Rines as a ballet dancer.

At rehearsal in the Boston Ballet studio on Clarendon Street, Rines stays at the back of the room, to the sides. He makes catlike, calculated paces within a 10-foot radius. His movements seem careless from a distance, but each is tailored exclusively to his body. Rines has to keep his muscles warm, his hamstrings and tendons adequately stretched before he runs his routine. After 30 minutes between rehearsals spent sitting in a chair, it’s imperative that he stay in motion.

There are maybe 20 male dancers in this giant room with its white walls and high ceilings and pulled-up red curtains that mimic the theater. As Rines waits for his run, he chats with a small circle of other men. Their conversations could range anywhere from techniques to enhance their grand allegro to a new restaurant they might try later that evening. For these young people, ballet is their job, simply a part of life.

Dancers have a funny way of goofing off. Any movement of the body can be exaggerated to a form of ridiculous physical comedy. Rines grins as one of his fellow dancers takes the step he just marked and overdoes it. The dancer sweeps his arms recklessly through the air and throws his hips back and forth. Rines laughs, because he understands that this humor is derived from a set of precise motions. Even in his antics, he is paying attention.

A characteristic of dancers — good dancers — is the diligence they give to detail. Rines marks smaller versions of full movements with his feet, watches himself in the mirror, takes note of all the angles his legs are capable of making. As modern dance pioneer Ted Shawn famously pointed out, “Dance is the only art of which we ourselves are the stuff of which it is made.” For Rines, his body is not merely a vessel for his brain, his legs not merely two jointed sticks with which to walk. It is a primary avenue for artistic expression.

“I think ballet is probably one of the most fulfilling experiences,” Rines said. “I don’t think there’s anything like it in the world. We are an art form, but then there’s such a spiritual and physical connection that you cannot describe to anyone or anything else in the world.”

A life in the performing arts

Lawrence Rines has been performing for 21 of his 26 years. He began as a tiny gymnast at the age of five. By his own account, Rines was “obsessed” with gymnastics. When he was just in elementary school, he decided to go professional. Then, at 10 years old, tragedy struck — a magnificent growth spurt that sent him shooting up to his current height of five feet, nine inches.

“Once I got a little bit older and started growing, [the instructors] said I could continue, because there are gymnasts who are a little taller,” Rines said. “They didn’t really tell me I couldn’t continue, but they told me — well, they told my parents — the truth.” His career in gymnastics was effectively over.

Luckily for Rines, while he was training to be a gymnast, his instructors had also pushed him and the other boys into dance training to give them greater coordination and grace. The switch from gymnastics to ballet was immediate. Rines began dancing at a small ballet school that year, in 2000. Two years later, he started training at the Rock School for Dance Education in Philadelphia. The curriculum there allowed for some academic study in the morning, followed by four hours of ballet, lunch and then more ballet in the afternoon.

From 2008 to 2009, Rines attended the prestigious School of American Ballet in New York City. His training rapidly accelerated as he learned from dancers who had worked with George Balanchine himself, the father of American ballet.

“You kind of decide when you’re young if you want to stick with it or keep it up,” Rines said. “It’s hard to stick with it and do it every day if you don’t love it, if it’s not your passion.”

When he was only 17, Rines moved to Boston. He started in Boston Ballet II, a program designed to create a bridge from dancer-in-training to professional. In an interview with DanceTabs, Rines described it as a two-year audition, after which dancers are promoted to corps de ballet or they leave. Rines was promoted. He has remained with the Boston Ballet corps since 2011.

A dancer must always be on

Back in the studio, Rines is grappling with keeping up his energy. For the next hour, this rehearsal requires all of his physical and mental attention.

Rines pliés deeply. His eyes are squarely focused on the mirror. He does a quick turn, his hands lightly touching his shoulders for balance. He lands delicately. He lets his arm stretch out for a moment. Then he gets up and goes back to pacing.

Non-dancers say they can spot a ballerina by the way she walks: upright and poised. They don’t see her slump her shoulders, round her back, take a break. But she does. It is no different for Rines, who spends a great deal of time, as he’s staying warm, just walking around with his arms crossed. Not every step can be petit allegro.

Today, two days before the Boston Ballet dancers move from the studio to the theater for “Nutcracker” season, Rines is rehearsing the center Russian part. With one male dancer flanking each side, he enters the stage with gusto. Ballet tells a story, so the dancers are actors, too. The Russian dancers play the part of excited, overeager boys, and they must dance that way — hands on hips, smiling back and forth at each other, jumping and turning every chance they get.

The center dancer, however, gets to do a little bit more. The perceived leader of the trio, he has some mini-solos within the routine. First comes a series of turns a la seconde. At the end, he performs a series of jumps, literally called “Russians,” or “toe touches” to the layman and the cheerleader.

Rines excels at this step. He’s flexible and toned and powerful. But during this rehearsal, he is also a bit behind the count, and each plié is more asymmetrical, so every jump is slightly more off than the previous one until he stops — totally. Rines puts his hands on his hips, turns away from the mirror. He shakes his head and rubs his brow.

Once the piano stops, the director running this rehearsal speaks to Rines. Though it takes place in the middle of a large studio populated by a small crowd, the conversation is private. Rines nods his head in response to something that could lie anywhere from harsh criticism to gentle comforting. Then he reruns part of the routine, alone. This time, his Russians are perfect, but he just misses the landing on the final tour. He marks the last bit: where his hands would normally fly up in the grand gesture mandated by the role, he flicks his fingers as he turns away again.

When perfect is personal

All dancers are perfectionists, but for Rines, that perfectionism was built young. With three older sisters, Rines grew up as the baby of the family. While his sisters doted on him, he saw a role model in his father, who Rines says inspired him to be the person he is today.

“I think it is just something that’s in me. It kind of comes from my parents a little bit,” Rines said. “My dad is a huge, huge perfectionist. I always looked up to him when I was young, and my dad wanted everything to be perfect and right for his family and everyone else in his life. I really admired that.”

His mother, Janis Rines, agrees. He exhibited great drive as a child and is now a greatly driven adult, but ambition does not come without hard work, personal trials and self-deprecation.

“He always wanted to do things in a manner of excellence,” Janis Rines said. “When he goes into something, he wants to do his best. He tries to do his best. He’s harder on himself than anyone else.”

Rines attributes some of this to his classical training. Having been partially raised by ballet instructors in Philadelphia, New York and Boston, he often finds himself mentally resorting to the harsh techniques employed by teachers whose primary goal is to create perfect dancers.

“I think all of us who are in this position have gone through arduous places and circumstances,” Rines said. “We have these teachers who yell at you and poke you and prod you and smack you and get angry with you, and you go through all this stuff, so you have this kind of ish, [expletive]-up psyche about this art form. […] You’ve heard it for so long, so you think you should be hard on yourself, because that’s what you’ve heard your whole life.”

Ballet, like any art, is a discipline. It does require perfection. The goal in every rehearsal, in every performance, is to make extremely difficult movements look effortless. To be a dancer is to be something very human: to take the human body and stretch it to its limits and create art whose purpose lies in performance. Yet dancers are expected to be ambassadors for something beyond mortal.

“You’re put in a pasture and told to grow without the necessary tools,” Rines said.

A multidimensional artist

Rines is an artist both in and out of the studio and theater. When he’s not wearing athletic gear, he likes to dress up: black, white, warm tan and cool pink.

 

See Rines’ Instagram here.

Rines is something of a social artist, too. With a wide circle of friends, a boyfriend and a general love for people, he seems to have found the answer to the thing that plagues young adults: work-life balance. After rehearsal, he might go out for food or a few drinks, or he might go visit his boyfriend, John Matcovich, who works 10 minutes from the studio in Neiman Marcus’s designer shoe department.

Matcovich and Rines first met for a coffee date in June 2015. Matcovich remembers that it “wasn’t amazing” at the outset. But the date went on for three hours, and their relationship has gone on for a year and a half since. Matcovich describes his boyfriend as passionate and self-assured, but as a professional in the fashion world at Neiman Marcus, he subtly disagrees with some of Rines’ style choices.

“You know how there’s ‘fashionable’ and then there’s just ‘fashion?’” Matcovich said.

Often, Matcovich says, Rines’ style is “just ‘fashion.’”

“On our first date, he was wearing these aggressively silver sneakers. They looked like Hershey’s Kisses,” Matcovich said. “He always makes a statement.”

With dancers comprising around 60 percent of his friends, and having met almost everyone in the Boston Ballet company, Matcovich tries to see every performance at least once. In addition to supporting his boyfriend, he enjoys the opportunity to see the people in his life doing what they love.

“I get to see a bunch of people I know doing their jobs, which is more fun than the ballets themselves,” Matcovich said.

Janis Rines, a retired nurse living in Philadelphia, recalls the long shifts she used to work. She draws parallels to the demands of her son’s line of work: although ballet is a craft, it is a career, too.

“It’s a totally different world. It’s fascinating. It’s a job, also, you know? And I have to look at that as a job, just like I would work eight hours,” Janis Rines said. “It’s something that me and my husband have had to get used to.”

Lawrence Rines makes a point of getting out of the studio, though. Once a month, a group of around seven Boston Ballet company dancers goes out to eat together at a restaurant where none of them has eaten before. The idea is to be social and know each other in a normal context. As many variations as there are in ballet, Rines and his fellow dancers need variety in their lives, too, to prevent dance from wholly defining them.

Rines places a high value on being well-rounded. He works to maintain relationships with the non-dance world and the people who live there: “You can not talk about ballet with them, which is nice,” he says of his friends outside of ballet. One of his fears is that he may grow self-absorbed if he finds himself believing ballet to be the end-all, be-all of human existence.

“Dancers have a tendency to be more on the selfish side,” Rines said. “There are people who will be like, ‘I’m more tired than anyone else’ — and that’s not true.”

However, Rines admits that his profession does come with a set of critical differences. Because his body is his sole instrument, he has to take care of it more than the average person does. That means eating well, sleeping at reasonable hours, not drinking excessively — the things that all doctors recommend and most people shrug off.

“All of my outside friends will be like, ‘Let’s go out! It’s Saturday!’ and I’m like, if I go out, I will literally die the next day,” Rines said.

Rines’ line of work takes a toll on the body like few things do. Dancers have one of the highest rates of nonfatal on-the-job injury: as high as 97 percent, according to one study by the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Over the past decade or so, however, medical care has become more reliable, and Boston Ballet employs a team of physical therapists who dancers regularly consult. In his eight years with the company, Rines has not seen anyone fall victim to a career-ending injury.

Even so, Rines walks a tightrope between the dance world and the outside world. He is a resident of both, and he intends to keep it that way.

“I feel as though this profession can take over your life, and I try not to let that happen,” Rines said.

The breaking point

Around five years ago, Rines started to feel ballet commandeering his life. He found himself out of control of his time, his mind, his body and passion and soul. Frustrated, he felt the art he loved was consuming him. And, as a perfectionist, he was hurtling toward a swirling combination of madness and depression.

“I think I spent probably a year or so where I was just super unhappy with myself and everything. Like my dancing and my life in general,” Rines said.

Rines was around 21 years old when he nearly abandoned the art that had steered more than half his life. He was in his second year of Boston Ballet II, which he says makes or breaks you as a dancer and a person. He almost broke.

“I was thinking about quitting because I didn’t think it was worth it,” Rines said. “I sat down with my dad and, separately, talked to one of the artistic directors.”

Assistant artistic director Russell Kaiser joined Boston Ballet in 2009, at the same time Rines did. The two of them settled into the organization together, and they remain close. Kaiser even ran out to buy Rines cookies before “Nutcracker” rehearsal a few weeks ago. As a 26-year veteran of professional ballet at the time — Kaiser began performing with New York City Ballet in 1985 — he was able to give the young dancer some advice.

“This career is so short,” Rines said, paraphrasing Kaiser. “If you’re going to be so hard on yourself and so unhappy, you’re going to look back on this and be unhappy for six, seven years of your life — and for what?”

At that point, Rines, historically his own worst critic, made his decision. He had the great love and drive for ballet, but he couldn’t continue letting it be one thing that defined him. He couldn’t continue beating himself up or allowing his work to take over his identity.

“I realized that I needed to take control of my life and where I was going,” Rines said. “Yes, it’s your passion, and yes, it’s what you do, but it’s not solely who you are. When I realized that and rounded my whole life into my friends and my social life and my relationships, I kind of made my life more of a circle instead of one linear point that’s just my job. I was more happy, and had more things to be happy about, instead of there being a switch and flipping it green or red because of work. Now, I have like four switches.”

Spreading out the things that characterize his life, he says, probably saved his individuality and his career.

“You should take your job seriously, but you shouldn’t take it so seriously that it ruins you as a person,” Rines said.

A natural drive

Rines’ career is highly strenuous, but he remains an energetic force: a hard worker, a socialite and a doer. Ballet requires constant action, as opposed to the rest of the world, which is made up primarily of overthinkers.

Two years before he met Rines, Matcovich graduated from Marist College in Poughkeepsie, New York. Formerly surrounded entirely by college students and graduates, Matcovich now finds himself mostly among dancers, all young people who are not college-educated. For Matcovich, it’s a different world.

“They’re all doers. It’s very strange,” Matcovich said. “The college way of thinking about things is very intellectualized, whereas dancers will be like, ‘Let’s do this thing!’ and then they’ll just do it.”

That kind of willingness to jump in has characterized Rines throughout his life. According to his mother, he was always a leader, always respectful and always ambitious. Her favorite memory is of Rines as a small child, venturing into the ocean for the first time.

“We would just let him go and swim,” Janis Rines said. “He liked to be in the water with a board, and he would be on it, and he just loved the water. It’s that expression on his face of the accomplishment of coming back and getting a hug, and he’d be like, ‘Did you see what I did, Mommy? Did you see what I did?’ ‘Yes, I did!’ ‘I wasn’t sure if I could do it, but I did!’”

Even at such a young age, Rines was pushing himself to his limits. He learned the value of being passionate and driven, and of what rewards he could reap as a result.

“I think that’s one of my fondest moments,” Janis Rines said. “A young man with so much joy because he had accomplished something that he wanted to do.”

It takes a special person to be a dancer, she says. Dancers must have focus and a practical attitude. According to Lawrence Rines, Boston Ballet runs up to four or five ballets at a time, which requires dancers to switch back and forth among different styles of ballet in the same day. Neoclassical and contemporary ballet require different types of movement than classical does. In addition to demanding a great deal from the body, dance, which relies heavily on muscle memory, requires thought.

“We never get bored, ever, because we always have to be on it,” Rines said. “A lot of people say it’s really hard, mentally, because you have to think so much.”

For Rines, though, thinking a lot is natural. He is mathematical — math, he says, “makes sense” — which informs the way he approaches different styles of ballet.

“If you go by the counts, the counts can never be wrong,” Rines said. “If you always go on two, you will always be right, because the step goes on two.”

Like his mother, Rines’ boyfriend says he is intelligent, he hustles and he keeps his eyes on what needs to get done.

“He’s very smart and very loyal, and he doesn’t have time for any nonsense,” Matcovich said. “Tomfoolery, yes. Nonsense, no.”

Balancing the future

In the Boston Ballet “Nutcracker,” the bear is the epitome of tomfoolery. It is literally larger than life, with a floppy, fuzzy costume and a giant round head. The doll was created to entertain. Its personality is almost as big as that of the dancer who plays it: Lawrence Rines.

When he dances as the bear, as he’s been doing for eight years, Rines’ movements are exaggerated to the point of absurdity. His grand jetés are enormous, he strikes a second-position grand plié every few seconds with a boom, and he seems to dare all the partygoers to challenge him. Of course, this doesn’t exactly work. The children at Clara’s party all laugh at the bear, and after his routine, the gigantic doll is dragged forcibly offstage.

Even so, the children in the audience want to see the bear. A few minutes after Rines’ character has been missing in action, a young boy loudly asks from the seats, “Where’s the bear?”

In addition to the bear, Rines has performed the lead and side Russian roles, another of the dolls, Spanish, Chinese and pastorale. Casting for “The Nutcracker” starts in September or October, Rines says, when dancers are assigned parts. When they begin learning their various routines, artistic directors watch them in rehearsals, which take place every day of the week except Monday. Each performance, from November 25 to December 31, is slightly different, as cast members play different roles.

During his tenure at Boston Ballet, Rines has also performed in “The Vertiginous Thrill of Exactitude,” “Swan Lake,” “Cinderella,” “Symphony in C” and “Chroma,” among others. “Chroma” featured one of his favorite roles: the entire ballet focuses highly on athleticism and pure dance, removed of the acting component. He performed it twice, five years apart, so he was able to see a concrete measurement of his growth as a dancer.

Now, with much of his focus on “The Nutcracker,” Rines performs at least daily. He also goes on “guesting” trips, performing routines from the Christmas ballet at other studios. The weekend of Dec. 3, he was in Michigan with Boston Ballet company dancer Hannah Bettes, performing for the Randazzo Dance Studio. While he loved performing for the young students there — “The kids are super sweet,” he says — he does not see a future for himself in teaching children.

“I don’t think I want to be a schoolteacher,” Rines said. “I think it takes a really, really special teacher to give guidance to young people.”

Rines does want to stay in the ballet world. His instrument, though — his body — won’t last until the standard American retirement age of 65. Dancers typically retire in their early-to-mid-30s. However, as more attention is given to anatomy, physical therapy and dancers’ safety, that retirement age has grown slightly. Principal ballerina Wendy Whelan retired from the New York City Ballet in her 40s. Now, Rines faces the decision on when he will stop performing.

“Each dancer is different,” Rines said. “We have people in the company now who are 38 years old, so each person’s career is kind of different. Personally, I want to retire on the zenith of my career. I think it would be hard for me to keep dancing if I feel like I can’t keep up with the things I want to do and would like to do. That’s how I feel at this moment. I don’t know. I could see myself possibly dancing until my mid-30s, early 30s, but that’s me talking right now.”

When he stops performing, he says, Rines may be want to be a ballet master or a traveling instructor. In any case, having spent nearly his whole life in the performing arts, he would love to stay there. But because he has found a support network in social circles, he may also enjoy waiting tables or planning functions, jobs that would enable him to interact with a vast array of individuals.

“Because of my love for social life as well, I would maybe want to go into the hospitality industry, or event planning at one point was a huge interest of mine,” Rines said. “I would have to go to school and do all that stuff, so it’s kind of like an ‘I’ll see where my passions lie.’”

Matcovich, who believes that college teaches people more how to learn and work than how to do a certain job, seems unconcerned about Rines’ future. As long as he remains self-assured and motivated, he will find his place in life.

“He sort of knows what he wants to do and where he wants to be and is very driven in that way,” Matcovich said. “I think he has a very good idea of who he is, and that really comes through in all aspects of his life.”

As a young person, it is difficult to find certainty in life. The 45 million 20-somethings in America have to figure out who they are, what they’re going to do and what it means to have a career in an ever-changing work scene. However, Rines finds his certainty not in the world, but within himself.

“I think that my greatest struggle is to remember that you dance for yourself and not to impress others or anyone around you,” Rines said. “I feel like a lot of the time, we get really caught up in trying to impress our bosses or prove something to different colleagues. In my opinion, it turns dance into kind of a negative driving force, because you’re not doing it to make yourself better. You’re doing it to prove something to other people.”

The most important piece of advice Rines has to offer focuses on balance: maintaining a spot in the center of the Venn diagram of reasons to exist in the dance world.

“You dance because you love it, and you dance for yourself,” Rines said. “I think you have to have the tough wit to do it, and you have to have the passion to do it, because it’s really, really difficult. But if you love it and you really want to do it, then I would recommend anyone pursuing it, because I can’t imagine doing anything else.”

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Photos and gifs by Rowan Walrath. Instagram photos courtesy of Lawrence Rines.