Princess Aurora marks the final major role for a ballerina who's hanging up her painful pointe shoes, but it's not the dancer you'd expect. Now 28 and married since 2008, Kristine Necessary Loveless is retiring after this season to pursue other long-held dreams: to become an elementary school teacher and, she hopes, a mom one day.
The two dancers relaxed in an empty, white-walled rehearsal studio in Atlanta Ballet's new Westside headquarters one afternoon this week and warmed the room with the reminiscences and laughter of talented, driven peers who exude great mutual respect.
"She's had two loves all of her life, and she's kind of fulfilled this one," Winkler, 37, said of Necessary Loveless. "I don't want her to go, but I know that she's ready and making the right decision for herself."
That other love is the desire to teach young children. While tackling many demanding Atlanta Ballet roles, Necessary Loveless finished a Georgia State University undergraduate degree and is nearing completion of her master's from Brenau University, needing a semester of full-time classroom teaching to graduate.
While still in her dance prime, Necessary Loveless said the decision to retire was a gradual one based on a succession of little things. One was her demanding school schedule, another the retirement from Atlanta Ballet last year of her younger sister and confidante Courtney, who had also come up through the dance school.
But, bottom line, Necessary Loveless felt something rare in a career: utter contentment, even a sense of completion. "Every classical role that I've wanted to do as a ballet dancer, I've done," she said. "I feel completely satisfied with that."
If all good things must come to an end, Necessary Loveless and Winkler feel that it's perfect symmetry that they share the younger dancer's final lead role.
Necessary Loveless recalled clearly why she was first drawn to Winkler. "Always in performance and when we'd sneak in [as students] and watch rehearsals, my eye just went to her," she said. "It was her style and particularly the work ethic. She's never let it go to her head or slacked off at all. In rehearsal, it's always, 'Whatever you say' to the ballet master or choreographer. And it's never, 'This is how I want to do it.'"
Even before the dozen or so admiring notes started arriving from the teen, Winkler noticed her. "The long legs, the nice lines. Instantly she's got the ballet body and then she's got the talent on top of it."
When Necessary Loveless was elevated to the company at age 19 along with her fellow Centre for Dance graduate and frequent partner Christian Clark, Winkler noted her "gift for artistry and for connecting with the audience."
Winkler even remembered being slightly envious at the fearlessness of Necessary Loveless and Clark, who were challenged with complicated roles right away.
Necessary Loveless laughed at that notion and said she's probably more fearful now after nine seasons as a professional. "I'm never happy with what I do, ever, even when people are like, ‘Great job, great show!' I'm always like, ‘Hmmm...' But as I've gotten older, I've learned to not get upset about it. Still, the expectations rise and rise."
In this conversational pas de deux, Winkler added, "Every dancer is just so self-critical. But that's part of a good work ethic. It's part of the process of pushing yourself."
Even as her younger peer pulls away from the barre, Winkler wants to keep pushing herself. She allowed that her husband and dance partner John Welker keeps asking when they're going to have kids.
"I know we need to get on the ball with that," said Winkler, who has served as co-director of the company's Summer Intensive program for professionals for three years and who plans to continue teaching when she's done performing. "So I'm looking at another season, then play it by ear."
So the early muse moves forward while the former disciple prepares for a final curtain. Neither dancer would have choreographed it this way, but both accept that life offers its own turns.
"Atlanta Ballet has been lucky to have Kristi spend her entire career here," Winkler said. "We're going to miss her dearly. She's been an inspiration to a lot of other young dancers."
A nice sentiment, and true. When Necessary Loveless' retirement was announced on Atlanta Ballet's blog, Melinda Kitchen Stahnke posted, "My daughter is going to cry. ‘Giselle' was her first ballet and Kristi was Giselle that day; she has been my daughter's favorite ballerina since. We sat in the audience and she was wide-eyed with a huge smile and said she wanted to dance on stage just like Kristi."
The mom added that Julianna Stahnke, a 12-year-old Conyers School of Ballet student, has Kristine Necessary Loveless' pointe shoes, along with a pair of her own, hanging above her bed.
Atlanta Ballet presents "The Sleeping Beauty"
8 p.m. Friday, 2 and 8 p.m. Saturday, 2 p.m. Sunday. With Atlanta Ballet Orchestra, conducted by Ari Pelto. Cobb Energy Performing Arts Centre. $20-$130, via www.tickemaster.com, www.atlantaballet.com or 404-817-8700.