NEW YORK — A typically rambunctious group of 12- and 13-year-old boys surrounds a leggy blonde at Lincoln Center, elbowing for room as their chaperone snaps a picture. A chorus of thank yous ensues, followed by an unexpected question: Who are you?

A Hollywood starlet might blanche at the query, but New York City Ballet principal dancer Maria Kowroski shrugs it off with a smile. Such photo requests may not be common, but the ballerina is undoubtedly a star. Her latest role, in Italian choreographer Mauro Bigonzetti’s new piece, “Il Vento,” which had its world premiere on Thursday and will be performed again tonight, only solidifies her stature.

Specially commissioned for the NYCB as part of its Diamond Project, the ballet contrasts with the company’s more classic offerings this season. Based on the concept and movements of wind, with a score by Bruno Moretti, the work features a pas de deux between Kowroski and principal Jason Fowler. And Bigonzetti’s moody, undulating moves required a greater physical commitment than ever from its female lead.

“My body was a disaster. I was very sore,” says Kowroski, 29. “The movements are very different. I mean, I couldn’t walk for the first week. I had bruises.”

Though she was mentally prepared for Bigonzetti’s unconventional movements, having previously worked with him on “Vespro” in 2002, Kowroski was contending with more than the usual body shock. In October, she was diagnosed with mononucleosis and had been on leave until her return to the New York State Theatre this season.

“I became very impatient with the whole process because I had never been sick like that, where you’re just down and out and there’s nothing you can do,” says Kowroski, who was told by her doctor that if she danced with such a severe virus she risked a spleen rupture. “I couldn’t exercise. I could barely walk down the street. I was sleeping all the time and it was frustrating.”

Especially given her drive. A principal dancer with NYCB since 1999, she was born in Grand Rapids, Mich., and began dancing at five, following in the footsteps of her older sister.

This story first appeared in the May 9, 2006 issue of WWD. Subscribe Today.

“I always wanted to be like my older sister, and when she was away at school, I would put on her ballet clothes and kinda run around the house,” she says. “My mom was like, ‘Well, maybe we should get her involved in it.'”

Her fate was sealed after she participated in a special Joffrey Ballet performance when she was 10.

“I knew when I was onstage; it just always felt natural to me. I just went out there and it was like home to me,” explains Kowroski, who moved to New York at 16 to study with the School of American Ballet.

Now on the brink of turning 30, Kowroski looks forward to entering her dancing prime. “I think I’ve spent the first part of my years dancing and not [being] very comfortable with myself. I was thrown into all these really big ballerina parts,” she says. “You put on the costume and the tiara and you’re out there, but you’re not really there. And, now, I finally feel like I’m there.”