The work life of any dancer, especially a classical ballerina, is very short. While exceptional artists who’ve been able to dance in middle age do come to mind–Margot Fonteyn, Natalia Makarova–ballet is a young person’s profession. So when Glenview teenager Amy Rose knew that she wanted to pursue a dance career, she figured she’d better do it while she was still young. Her family was supportive–after all, they had started her in dance classes when she was four years old. But the powers at Niles North High School were not, she says.

“I wanted to graduate after three years,” Rose remembers. “But they made it so difficult, by not letting me out of gym and things like that, that I just left. Another girl before me, Lynn-Holly Johnson, the ice skater, had the same problems, and she left too.”

So at 16 Rose picked up and headed to New York. She finished her schoolwork in correspondence studies with Indiana University–“the toughest correspondence school we could find,” says her mother Loretta–while studying dance and waiting to audition for American Ballet Theatre. She’d studied under the superb teacher Larry Long at Chicago’s Ruth Page Foundation School of Dance since she was 11, and had danced lead roles in Page’s annual Nutcracker at the Arie Crown; she knew what she wanted, and unlike many in the competitive and highly emotional world of dance, she got it.

Today, at 27, Rose is a soloist with ABT, the nation’s premiere classical dance company, which is appearing now at the Civic Center for the Performing Arts. Rose is featured in several works, including Twyla Tharp’s Nine Sinatra Songs on an all-Tharp program February 8 and Agnes de Mille’s classic piece of Americana, Rodeo, on February 15. Rose also makes her debut in the female lead of de Mille’s latest work, The Informer, in its February 14 matinee performance.

Rose joined ABT in 1979 at age 16, “by luck and by chance,” she says, with the nervous giggle that punctuates much of her conversation. “The company was just coming off tour, and they needed people. After a long tour people leave–they get injured, or tired, or whatever–and I happened to be right there at the time. Lucky for me, [ABT’s late director] Lucia Chase didn’t know I was just 16 at the time. She had hired a 15-year-old a year before me who had had a complete nervous breakdown, so Lucia said, ‘Never again.’ But they never asked me how old I was, and I didn’t tell them.”

Though ballet requires youthful performers, it also presents intense pressures to kids who may have spent their whole childhoods buried in the rigid technical training the art demands. “It’s different for everybody,” says Rose. “It depends on the kind of life-style you’ve had, whether you’ve ever performed on a big stage. You know, some people come to this company never having had a recital. They don’t know how to put on stage makeup or do a warm-up. You’re on your own a lot here, you’re responsible for doing your own makeup, your own warm-up, feeding yourself. A lot of times we’re in the worst sections of town–the theater’s in the porno district or something. And it can be very stressful, living in close quarters on the road. There’s 100 of us in the company. You have to be able to make friends. If you’re very young, it can all be kind of intimidating.”

Though she was hired by Chase, Rose soon found herself answering to a new boss–Mikhail Baryshnikov, who took over ABT when Chase retired and ran the company until last September, when he left after a bitter showdown with the troupe’s board over finances. Baryshnikov’s emphasis on young dancers whom he could shape into what he wanted proved a boon for Rose. “He liked using younger people, trying them out in new roles. And he brought in a lot of new ballets, new ideas. I got to do some great parts,” she says. (When teaching young American dancers his Russian-influenced stagings of the classics, Rose recalls wryly, Baryshnikov “would mimic you, which was not very nice. But he got his point across.”)

Developing as a soloist over the years, Rose acquired a repertory of solid supporting roles that includes the Rancher’s Daughter in Rodeo (the flirtatious gal who’s upstaged by the tomboyish heroine), Rosaline and a Harlot in Kenneth MacMillan’s Romeo and Juliet, and Effie in La sylphide–the nice human girl whom the hero discards in favor of the magic creature of the title. “I’ve played every single dump role there is,” Rose says with a laugh. “But it’s not that easy to do.”

Rose’s debut as the female lead in The Informer is an important step for her. Set in Ireland, the ballet tells the story of a woman caught between two men–the Irish republican activist who’s captured by the British, and the activist’s jealous friend who turns him in. When the Girl, as Rose’s character is named, finds out that her new lover has informed on her former lover, she must decide whether or not to inform on him in turn. “It’s a very complex character,” Rose says. “And with Agnes’s stuff you can’t be a drama queen. You have to be subtle and yet get your part across.”

As she approaches 30, an age many dancers see as a turning point, Rose is necessarily considering how much longer she’ll dance. “I really don’t know,” she says. “That changes every day, as to how I feel about things. This is a much better year for me in terms of roles: The Informer, and Twyla Tharp’s Nine Sinatra Songs, and we’re supposed to be doing Fancy Free in San Francisco later this season. And the Rancher’s Daughter is a lot of fun for me.” She’s in good condition, she says: “I pulled my calf two years ago and still have a few problems occasionally, but that’s pretty much it. You try and warm up well, eat well, and be careful on slippery stages.” And when she hangs up her toe shoes, then what?

“I’ve been thinking about it for the last year. Nothing has come to mind yet,” she says with a laugh. “Not a clue.”

ABT, which is celebrating its 50th anniversary, appears at the Civic Center for the Performing Arts, 20 N. Wacker, through February 17. For ticket info call 902-1500.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Kathy Richland.