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Racing Ronnie

Oregon Ballet Theatre Principal Dancer Ronnie Underwood

by Dean Speer and Francis Timlin

March 2008

We met with Oregon Ballet Theatre Principal Dancer Ronnie Underwood backstage this past Fall during the run of OBT’s first Fall program.  This is an edited version of that lively and interesting conversation.

How did your interest in ballet begin?

By tagging along as my sister went to her ballet classes.  I was born in California but grew up in Tulsa, Oklahoma and my sister was studying ballet at the Tulsa School of Ballet.  I was – and still am – a really huge car enthusiast and was playing with some toy cars while waiting for her during her lesson.  When I was about six and a half or seven, I was imitating some ballet moves and they saw me jump – I could really jump for a little kid!

They put me into a boys’ physical training class that met twice a week.  We did things like push-ups, pull-ups, crunches.  It was really good training for boys.  There were as many as ten boys in this younger group, and only two – myself and Steven Davis, who is now with Ballet West – in the older, more advanced classes.

I had wanted to be a professional Indy car driver from the time I was seven, and began racing competitively in quarter midgets at that time.  They sold me on ballet by telling me it would improve my hand/eye coordination – and it has.  In fact, it’s helped with every physical activity.  I also played the usual sports, and ballet training helped in each of these.

Sounds like a great program.  Who were your teachers?

Moscelyne Larkin, who was one of five American Indian ballerinas to have come out of Oklahoma and her husband, Roman Jasinski.  Later I also studied with their son, Roman Jasinski [same name!].

You mentioned in passing that you had stopped dancing for awhile.  What happened?

Their training was great and they really helped develop me along the right track, but when I was fifteen, I grew really fast – all in one summer.  I went from 5'7" to over 6 feet.  I hurt all the time, particularly in my knees.  A procedure was suggested to alleviate this, but I said, “No, thank you!” as I thought surgery was way too extreme, particularly for someone so young.

So, I concentrated on racing.  When I turned nineteen, I went to live with my parents who had moved to Texas.  There was ballet school right across the street from my parents’ apartment complex, and since I was racing European race cars and wanting to get back into shape, thinking of the eye/hand benefit, went in to try one class – my first in four years!  I found I could still do a whole lot more that I had thought – I could still do double tours for example, and I was fairly flexible.

Ben Houk (former Director of Fort Worth/Dallas Ballet) was guest teaching a class at the studio across the street, and invited me to take class at their school, and to consider being on call for the company.  Two weeks later, I signed my first professional contract when they needed someone to fill in for “Swan Lake.”  I did the Pas de Quatre.

When Ben Stevenson came [Stevenson became the Artistic Director after Houk], he pushed me to do principal roles.

Coming to Oregon Ballet Theatre has been a great change for me.  I very much enjoy creating with Christopher [Stowell, Artistic Director of OBT].

Speaking of creating, tell us about “A Midsummer Night’s Dream.”

I’m partnering Alison [Roper], an amazingly strong dancer.  I feel so blessed to be in a company whose women could hold their heads up in any company anywhere.  I enjoy the theatrics of “Midsummer.”  While I do like the Balanchine repertory, I also very much like story ballets.  I like to pour my heart into a role.  Our Pas de Deux is about seven or eight minutes, and it’s great.  I cannot wait for this ballet to come back again into the repertory.

The other piece that I’m doing on this program is another Pas de Deux – this one with Kathi Martuza in James Kudelka’s “Almost Mozart.”  It’s great partnering her as well, and it’s about eight minutes of solid lifting.

Of course, coming up soon is “Nutcracker,” which means I get to perform a lot.

What’s neat about performing?

I like the adrenaline rush of performing – it’s better than anything else.  No matter how much coaching and training you have experienced, once you get out “there,” it’s all on you.  I find that really exciting – that wonderful and magical transition from one foot off of the stage to one foot on.  I like the physicality of ballet.  It’s one of the most demanding things around – each day is totally different.

What’s coming up in 2008?

We start working this coming Monday on Christopher Wheeldon’s “Rush.”  Also, I’m looking forward to Balanchine’s “Slaughter on 10th Avenue.”  The talented and passionate Yuri Possokhov will be setting a one-act version of “Raymonda.”  He brings a definite intensity into the studio and onto the stage – he expects a lot.

What are some of your favorite steps?

I like grand allegro best – and partnering.  I consider myself a decent partner and the women seem to like dancing with me.

Are you a turner?

Yes – and a lefty!

We know you like to race cars.  What else do you enjoy outside of ballet?

I’m really a “guy’s guy” – I also enjoy motorcycles and rode all the way from Florida to Portland last summer.  I like horseback riding – I grew up on a ranch – but haven’t yet found a place here to do that.

What advice might you give to an aspiring dancer, particularly boys who might be reading this?

Never get discouraged.  If it doesn’t work today, it will come back.  Stay focused.  Keep your eye on what you want.

Enjoy your down time – rest your body, get plenty of sleep.  Cross training is good.  I had ankle surgery a year ago and have come back stronger.  Working different muscle groups than those used in ballet helps overall.  Even strengthening your little finger helps!  I use strength training on balance boards. 

Find a healthy balance – consistency will work in the long run.  For example, I do fifty push-ups and fifty crunches every morning.  Maybe sometimes – like on a performance day – I might scale that back a little bit, perhaps to twenty each.  I very seldom miss class.  Mass amounts of repetitions in a short time frame is not as helpful as a regular routine.

Our repertory is continually changing – from one style of ballet to another – and so, our focus also changes with each repertory.  In a very real sense, you need to re-train about six times each year!  Overall, this makes for a stronger dancer and artist.

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