Inside a studio at the Miami City Ballet, dancers rehearse for a performance of the George Balanchine classic, “Slaughter on Tenth Avenue.”
At one side of the room waifish ballerinas warm up while on the other, a burly 12-time major league baseball All-Star waits for his cue.
Mike Piazza makes his ballet debut in a cameo performance for the production on Friday, May 3.
So what does the former Los Angeles Dodger catcher know about George Balanchine?
“Ahhh, George Balanchine" Piazza responds with a laugh. "Are you gonna put me on the spot? Is this a trick question?”
The retired baseball star may not know much about the famed choreographer and co-founder of the New York City Ballet but he’s learning all he can about his upcoming role as a gangster.
The 6’3” Piazza was dressed to the nines and donning a fedora fit for a gangster.
He’s performing at the request of his six-year-old ballerina daughter Nicoletta, through whom he’s learned that athletes are athletes, no matter what shape, size or sport.
“There’s no question it’s an athletic movement,” Piazza said. “The strength and the discipline. You look at some of the movies that have come out in recent years about ballet and you look at the history of ballet and some of the great dancers — I mean there’s no question they’re great athletes, probably in far better shape than I ever was.”
Working with Piazza on staging and coaching for his cameo is Philip Neal.
“We want to make ballet fans out of sports fans,” he said. “And I think the athleticism that’s there is a natural fit.”
Neal is a former dancer with the New York City ballet, and he grew up watching Piazza play for the Mets. He said he’s grateful for his help in spreading the word to sports fans.
“I always want to get people into the door of the ballet,” Neal said. “Because once they walk through the door and sit and the lights go off, they’re shocked at how athletic it is. They see the men lifting the ballerinas over their head and moving at the speed of light and jumping and turning. I think someone’s preconception of ballet might be different once the curtain goes up.”
Piazza’s upcoming stint will not be the first time the Miami City Ballet has combined ballet and sports.
After the company’s dancers traded their leotards for tank tops to support the Miami Heat’s championship run last year, LeBron James and Dwyane Wade showed up to return the favor.
The duo posed for a series of publicity photos with the principal dancers—sisters Jeanette and Patricia Delgado, earlier this year for the team’s “Ballet and Basketball” campaign.
Artistic director Lourdes Lopez said pairing the two Miami institutions just made sense—from a marketing and an artistic perspective.
“When I look at basketball — and I used to love playing basketball as a kid here in Miami — those athletes are really graceful,” Lopez said. “[With] both dancers and basketball players it’s grace it’s, it’s timing, it’s precision. It’s, you know, grace under pressure, basically.”
Repetiteur Philip Neal said “ballers” can relate to “ballet.”
“Athletes are so respectful of dancers,” he said. “Whenever I see a collaboration, I think of athletes because they go through the same thing, understand the hours and the years that go into it.”
“Basically we rehearse six days a week, seven hours a day plus performances,” said danseur Yann Trividic, who will share the stage with Piazza during his cameo.
Trividic said dancers and athletes do have many things in common, except for one.
“The only difference is that we don’t perform to win anything, we just perform to bring something to the audience,” said Trividic, adding that sports stars bring street cred to the largely misunderstood world of ballet.
Piazza stopped playing pro baseball in 2007 yet still holds a record 427 home runs, the most by a catcher.
So what do some of his old colleagues from the clubhouse think?
“I’ve already gotten some emails and some tweets from people making fun of me," Piazza says.
But if he has to a take a few good-natured insults along the way, helping his daughter and the ballet are worth it.