Oregon Ballet Theatre
by Dean Speer and Francis Timlin
We spent nearly an hour with a Southern gentleman in the persona of Oregon Ballet Theatre Principal Dancer Jon Drake. The time flew by as we learned more about his career trajectory to the stage of OBT. What follows is an edited version of that conversation.
I like to ask all of our subjects basically the same, standard beginning question – How did you get started into ballet?
I’m from Hattiesburg, Mississippi and was a gymnast in my youth. As boys from the South, you can imagine how we felt about being required to take ballet along with our gymnastics training – a whole hour of ballet, once a month!
I did do some partnering and that was fun. I re-evaluated my career goals when I was 17, because I had shot up to 5' 11" and believed that a career in gymnastics was unlikely. I was so fortunate to find a ballet teacher for myself, Henry Danton, who was a devout scholar.
I became partner to one of his students (who quit) and entered the Austrian Dance Festival Competition and won a scholarship to the Vienna Staatsoper and also at the John Cranko School. My first job was at Düsseldorf.
Let’s talk about what made Henry Danton such a great teacher.
With him, it wasn’t the how so much, as the why. And here’s why it worked for me – it engaged my mind. I probably have more knowledge about ballet and technique in my head than in my body! [laughs]
I’ve studied different styles – Cecchetti; RAD [Royal Academy of Dance]; Balanchine; Vaganova. I evolved quickly as a dancer. At the Cranko School, Peter Postoff was very helpful, and Christopher [Stowell] here has been very patient with me.
How did you come to land here in Portland at OBT?
I spent a year and a half at Düsseldorf, and then went to a new start-up ballet company – the Atlantic Southeast Ballet, which lasted for only 60 days; our opening night was also our closing. This was in Charleston, South Carolina. I then worked at Ballet Oklahoma and did lots of guesting, including Stüttgart. I spent a season at Eugene Ballet/Ballet Idaho, and took class here at OBT during a break in 2005, was offered a position with the company and began in September of that year. Toni [Pimble, Artistic Director of Eugene Ballet] is an interesting choreographer and encouraged me to come here, letting me know, too, that the door was open to come back.
I really wanted to experience the repertory at OBT – and this is one of the big highlights here. We have such a great range that Christopher is ever expanding: Trey McIntyre, James Kudelka, Nicolo Fonte plus and classics and Balanchine. I believe Portland has one of the best dance audiences.
What are some of your favorite ballets or parts and what are you looking forward to doing in next season?
I love Petipa – it’s a hard challenge. I adored doing “Four Temperaments” – Sanguinic – with Yuka [Iino]. I enjoyed Lar Lubovitch’s 622. The pas de deux for two men in that piece really connected.
You know there is a universal truth that you have to have good pieces to build a good company. You can feel the heat when things are working well.
I’ll be interested in seeing what Christopher will choreograph next year. I know we’re getting Balanchine’s “Slaughter on Tenth Avenue.”
What was the experience like working with Mr. Fonte in the creation of his “Bolero?”
Really interesting. I could see him battling a clash of wills between clichés in the music and his determined struggle to not create movement clichés. I think it’s turned out to be quite a strong work.
What are some of your interests outside of the ballet?
I like to burn my candle at both ends. I am involved in a graphic design business and do commercial sales for a web designer – and I’m learning to play the guitar.