Roper Reaches Epicenter:
Oregon Ballet Theatre's Alison Roper
by Dean Speer and Francis Timlin
The dazzling Oregon Ballet Theatre principal dancer Alison Roper met with us on a cool Northwest day over warm drinks at a local Starbucks Coffee Shop between shows during OBT’s March “All Premiere” repertory run. We had been trying to schedule this for about a year, so we were particularly excited to chat with Roper. She is a very focused and highly accomplished dance artist who is “one of those to watch.”
I like to begin most interviews with finding out how you got into ballet and in your case, how that balletic path led you to OBT and Portland.
[Smiles] My mom put me in ballet class but I didn’t like it – I did like gymnastics, piano, and tap. I was too rowdy in tap class so the teacher kindly suggested I take a combination tap and ballet class, indicating that I had a body for ballet and that I was already getting too tall for gymnastics. I kept getting pushed back into ballet! [Laughs] This was in Maine, where I grew up, and after a while, I found that I did like ballet.
I had arranged to audition at PNB [Pacific Northwest Ballet] and coordinated that audition with one here at OBT. I was offered an apprenticeship at OBT, while PNB was interested but wanted me to take a year of study in the Professional Division. I was already 21 and when I mentioned this to Francia [Russell, former PNB Artistic Director], she said that perhaps it would be good to get some experience elsewhere and then come back and see them.
Well, OBT ended up being the right place for me. With Christopher [Stowell, also Russell’s son] coming in as our new Artistic Director a few years ago, there’s been a whole, new infusion of artistic wealth and energy which has also come at the right time for me, artistically.
When we interviewed Damara [Bennett, OBT School Director] a couple of years ago, I got to watch her give all of you class on stage and was impressed with how, from the very first exercise, she was working to get all of you “on your legs” with a very good sur le cou de pied exercise – even before pliés. Has your technique changed?
We’re lucky that Damara is here. We had an earlier teacher who was very technically demanding, and I’d go to take her class outside of company time at least two or three times each week. When she left, I entered into a period of feeling adrift. I like using Damara as a sounding board – as when something may be feeling one way when it used to feel another. Christopher is also a great problem solver. His style is to let you seek out the problem and solutions, rather than hovering – which I appreciate. Together, we find ways to work more correctly, and my body hurts less!
Speaking of this season and that “new infusion of artistic wealth,” tell us about how it’s been working with Francia [Russell] who has been staging some Balanchine for OBT. I’m also interested in Kent’s [Stowell, former PNB Artistic Director and Christopher Stowell’s father] working process for his creation of a brand-new ballet [“Through the Gates of Eden”].
I liked working with Francia right away. She’s very direct – like her son. I believe it was “Serenade” that she first staged for us and she was commenting to me about my entrance that “Well, Alison, you’ve done this before, right?” with the inference that she wouldn’t have to spend too much time teaching it to me. But when I showed her the entrance step that I had been taught by a previous stager, she intoned, “That’s not the right step!” and proceeded to change it. I have to admit it was much easier – more natural; it fit better. She has a lot to give. She is also gorgeous, has impeccable style and sets a beautiful example.
I’ve really enjoyed working with Kent also. He’s light and jovial outside the studio, but in rehearsal he’s pretty serious. He worked very hard and I like what he’s created. I’ve found that you have to be very quick on the pick-up with him, as the first version of something that he’d show you would often be something unique and special and later versions perhaps less so, so when he’d ask for that earlier version, sometimes I’d be helped by Anne [Mueller, OBT dancer], who is a quick learner, and between the two of us, we’d know what it was that he gave that first time.
Many of our readers are “dance people” and I’m sure would very much like to hear about the care and feeding of your pointe shoes. What do you wear and how do you prepare them?
I wear Freed 7XXX that come with a full shank which I cut to three-quarters. I glue the entire shank and insole, sides, and tip. I usually don’t take a hammer to them unless the floor is very slick. My maker has been “Q” but I’m switching to “Maltese Cross” and this is very big transition for me. I’ve had some ankle problems that we believe may be related to them not fitting properly. I had been advised by friends that I should get bigger shoes as I’ve gotten older, but resisted this suggestion until recently. We’ll see how it works out!
Now I’m going to ask you something much more esoteric. I’d like you to discuss the fusion of technique and artistry – where do these two things meet and how...
Artistry for me is less scary. I like an overall “story” and try to be aware of and present an arc. This always helps me with dancing fearlessly. I believe I tend to be a nervous and hypercritical dancer and the larger picture helps me with focus.
For me, when things don’t always go perfectly, this can provoke a sense of caution. I do a pre-performance “ritual” of my own – steps that I take to ensure necessary preparation. Some of this might include “catch phrases” such as telling myself “not to be boring!” Little things can be very distracting and cause a loss of focus.
“Ash” (the second ballet on the program) is a challenge in this regard, as it seems to be physicality for its own sake. I’ve been trying to deal with its big technical challenges in a more carefree way and to shake off that sense of caution.
How did your tour with Trey McIntyre and Friends go last summer? We also just received the press release about OBT’s invitation to perform at Kennedy Center in DC in 2008 – very exciting!
The tour was good. We were in extreme environments – from high elevation at Vail to the heat and humidity of Jacob’s Pillow, where the performance space is small and there’s lots of sweat. We’re really looking forward to the Kennedy Center tour with OBT next year. I believe we’re doing a Christopher Wheeldon piece.
Tell us about your son.
He’s already four and a half and we’re looking at kindergarten for him in another year. I love parenting. Our son has lots of personality and is very exuberant and enthusiastic. My husband comes from a passionate, outspoken family, so between the two of us, he’s a fun boy. We’d like more children someday, but the timing is always uncertain for a performer.
I like cooking and baking bread. I draw a lot and enjoy making up stories for our son. While we were on tour last summer, Anne and I would make them up and send them to him.
What’s in your future?
I certainly want to dance awhile longer! But when my performing career has concluded, I’m not sure I want to stay on the artistic end of ballet. Drawing and writing may lead me somewhere. I do wish ballet was more present in our culture and more sought after!
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