With a Leg Up at 20, Baryshnikov's Susan Jaffe Is a Shoe-in for Ballet Stardom

updated 12/27/1982 at 01:00 AM EST

originally published 12/27/1982 01:00AM

Ever since he became artistic director of the American Ballet Theatre two years ago, Mikhail Baryshnikov has been on a youth kick, highlighting new performers. But of all Misha's moppets no one has made as big a splash as svelte, sexy Susan Jaffe. Just 20, Jaffe this year danced the leads in Swan Lake, Giselle and Carmen with such grace and style that she sent the critics reeling. The New York Times called her "the brightest star on the ballet horizon," the New York Daily News "the new IT girl." Baryshnikov concurs. "Look," he says proudly, "the girl has talent, drive, sex appeal and a mind like a steel trap."

"I feel like two completely different people," says Susan, pondering the new pressures. "One is disciplined and militant in dedication. The other is daring and scatterbrained. One takes life too seriously, the other not seriously enough. Some girls want a penthouse, but I'm most comfortable watching the paint peel off the walls in my little apartment." In fact, her pad on Manhattan's West Side is a typical dancer's garret. "Toe shoes in the bathtub, hot and cold packs under the bed," Jaffe sighs. "It's not easy to feel like Scarlett O'Hara when your toes are swollen and you've got blisters."

Jaffe, who is being groomed as a prima ballerina, almost didn't get into ABT at all. "I was too fat," she admits. "I had to lose 10 pounds—it was like Rocky Ill. I learned to eat frozen raisins one at a time. It would take me half an hour to finish one ounce." Her great leap forward came last spring when she took on Swan Lake and Giselle. "It was like asking Vivien Leigh to shoot Gone With the Wind while performing Lady Macbeth," notes Kevin McKenzie, her partner in both ballets, "but she did it."

A twin—her brother Brian is five minutes younger—Susan was raised in Bethesda, Md., where her father is an engineer and her mother was a science editor. She began dancing classes at the Y at 8. "From that moment on," recalls her dad, "she never walked anywhere—she leaped." At 12, she says, "I had legs up to my ears and big feet," but by 16, she had left home to join ABT's junior troupe. She moved up to the main company in 1980, one month after her mother's death. "Sometimes before a performance," says Susan, "I just think, 'This is for you, Mom.' "

Just before her debut in Swan Lake, she says, "Misha told me that if I did a good performance I could have a sip of his beer." After it, he showed up with suds in hand. "Here," he said. At present there is a 29-year-old actor beau, but there's not much time for romance. "After a performance, when I'm all buzzed, I just turn on Johnny Carson to relax," she says. "He's the only man I feel comfortable with in my Dr. Denton pajamas."

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