Annie Martin: Balancing barre and books

Written by David Leftwich
Photos by Thomas J. Yang
April 03, 2018

When Annie Martin got out of bed at 5:30 one morning this past December, she could barely walk on her right ankle. This wasn’t completely abnormal — she often wakes up sore from the previous day’s eight hours of ballet training.

But unlike most other aches and pains, this one didn’t go away — and it could not have come at a worse time. She was in the middle of a five-week stretch of performing “The Nutcracker” with the Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre’s professional company and held a spot as one of the few students included in the show.

Everyday she would wake up barely able to walk, knowing she needed to fool an audience into thinking nothing was wrong that evening. Martin managed to perform for three straight weeks with a steady dose of Advil, ice and mental bargaining with her body, only later discovering she had a shattered bone in her ankle.

“I’m a slightly strange person so I talk to body parts that are hurting, so pretty much I’d be making a deal with my ankle,” Martin said. “‘Just get me through finale, and it will be okay.’”

The surgery to remove the shattered bone in her ankle after these three weeks of performances added yet more stress to Martin’s already hectic life.

“With any surgery there’s always the possibility that something can go wrong, and especially with a dancer and an ankle surgery,” Martin said. “You never really know.”

As a member of Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre’s graduate academy — an unpaid group of dancers training to become professionals — Martin is on the precipice of joining a professional company.

Thomas J. Yang

Beginning with a technique class every morning around 9 a.m., Martin dons a pair of sweatpants as she fluidly stretches her legs and back on barre. Learning different sets of movements in mere seconds, Martin perfectly mimics them without a hiccup — she is in her own world.

Martin glides through a series of contortions to stretch her entire body, unphased by changes in music or the instructor analyzing her technique from an arms length away. When the barre is moved aside, Martin sheds her sweats in favor of her dancing tights as the class ratchets up its intensity.

Martin starts to kick and jump around the room — constantly teetering on the fine line between seemingly chaotic movement and beauty.

Her demeanor remains unchanged no matter the movement. The angles she makes with her legs and arms remain crisp while her feet constantly remain in alignment — making these movements seem natural even though they are anything but.

With no more than a 30-second break between sequences, Martin continues these breakneck sequences until the instructor, mercifully, permits a break. Allowing herself to finally break her composure, Martin takes a seat, breathlessly panting and in a full sweat.

This is just the warm-up.

Martin’s profession requires peak physical ability, and any setback can put her behind the national competition of dancers looking to land a full-time spot with a professional dance company.

Thomas J. Yang

Yet, she describes her situation coming back from injury with a certain levity. Instead of viewing this injury as a potential blow to aspirations she’s held half of her life, she’s just thankful to be back in time for the company’s upcoming show.

But this sort of mentality isn’t surprising after meeting Martin. Her passion for ballet supersedes any fears or anxiety she may have about her future.

It’s what brought her to dance at the age of 8. Martin couldn’t stop dancing after seeing a rendition of “The Nutcracker” at the local ballet in her hometown of Lubbock, Texas.

Traveling to train in different cities every summer by the time she was 12, Martin came to Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre’s summer program at the age of 16 with the recommendation of an older dancer from Lubbock. Excelling in the program, she received an offer to take part in their training program during her senior year of high school.

At the end of her senior year, Pitt offered her a full scholarship and Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre offered her a position in the graduate academy. It was the perfect opportunity to gain an education and stay with a great ballet company.

Martin’s mom, Christina Ashby-Martin, said they specifically looked for ballet companies with nice universities nearby — making Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre an obvious choice.

“The cards fell the right way, and we could not have asked for a better combination,” Ashby-Martin said.

Thomas J. Yang

Martin is now a junior English major at Pitt on the fiction writing track and has nearly completed her degree. She’s managed to maintain full-time status by taking only evening and online classes for the past three years.

To most, franticly driving over to Pitt to take classes almost every evening after 8 to 10 hours of grueling physical activity may seem like a burden — definitely not enjoyable. Fellow dancers in the program, like Martin’s friend Allie O’Quinn, don’t understand how she maintains this schedule.

“I’m not nearly as amazing as Annie is and I can’t keep up with her,” O’Quinn said. “Annie is crazy in a good way.”

Martin considers her fiction writing major an escape, another form of self-expression aside from her dancing. She even started writing a science fiction novel exploring what it means to be human after writing the first 50 pages in a writing class last semester.

Thomas J. Yang

“I like the possibility to explore things that could happen or that might happen, especially the way that science fiction can comment on issues now,” Martin said about science fiction writing.

With a wry smile, Martin did admit that her schedule does get the best of her on occasion. After waking up between 5 and 6 a.m., she does homework, dances from 9 a.m. to 5:45 p.m., then heads straight to class until 8:30 p.m.

She’s excelled with this rigorous schedule for three years because self expression is her guide — Martin is drawn toward activities where she can represent a part of herself.

As Martin nears the end of her college career, she is fully aware of the challenging job prospects in ballet. Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre didn’t hire any new dancers last summer, and even with an opening, Martin will need to prove herself the best among her peers and dancers all over the country to land a job.

Yet Martin has a positive attitude and is open to the idea of exploring modern dancing options around the City next year.

“I am primarily a classically trained dancer, but I enjoy doing modern stuff,” Martin said. “We’re playing it by ear right now.”

This unwavering drive to continue dancing is partially because of her passion for it, but Martin also realizes that she has a short window to seriously pursue dancing. Her mother’s dance career was cut short by injury after she graduated from college.

Martin’s an artist who found her passion when she was just 8 years old, and as long as she can keep dancing, nothing can get in her way.

“In the arts, if you don't find it inside yourself ... then you’re not really an artist,” Ashby-Martin said. “For her, it is internal.”