OBT'S NEWEST DANCERS
MATTHEW PIPPIN / GRACE SHIBLEY / MARTINA CHAVEZ / LUCAS THREEFOOT / JACQUELINE DAMICO / JAVIER UBELL
NEW STARS. BLOOMING NIGHTLY. ALL SEASON
BY LINDA BESANT, September 2007
You are the only one of OBT’s new Company Artists who has already worked as a dancer, for two years with Nevada Ballet Theatre. How did you get started dancing?
In my public school system we learned to sing and to tap dance, and I loved it so much. I kept at the dancing, and started at a small studio in North Carolina. I met a teacher, Keri Delgado, who convinced me, after a little trying, to start ballet at age fourteen. Once a week for about six months my Mom and I drove and hour and a half every Friday to take ballet class. Then I was fortunate enough to go to a winter dance festival at the North Carolina School of the Arts. There I absolutely fell in love with ballet, and started to really understand what it took to become a ballet dancer. That led to my training in high school.
What specifically did you love about ballet?
I have no idea. It’s something indescribable that you can never know unless you do it yourself. I think everyone is meant to do one thing in life, and this is definitely what I’m meant to do. I knew this when I was about fifteen. I’d been at the North Carolina School of the Arts for a year when Gyula Pandi took a group of us to Budapest to study at the Hungarian National Ballet Academy. I saw my first big ballet—Giselle—and fell in love with the theater and the culture of it. I also spent that summer at the School of American Ballet. That was probably the summer that I grew the most. I developed my body in a way that I knew I had the facility, because that’s a huge part of ballet, and I developed a love for it.
Do you think dancers are brave?
I think we’re very brave. We’re forced at a very young age to select a career path, You make that decision early on in high school. I knew this was going to be my career. I fell in love with ballet and it was just meant to be. I was lucky enough to go to a performing arts high school where I got the best of both worlds, the academic and the dance.
I also think dancers are brave because you have to step outside of the box and do things that your family wasn’t expecting you to do, or that most people your age aren’t doing. We’re thrown into the working world and forced to work at a very young age. It’s survival of the fittest in our world. You dedicate every aspect of your life and your family makes sacrifices for it, and you have to make every sacrifice that you can to make it as a dancer. It’s a life decision.
What do you do when you’re not dancing?
So far, I’ve been working. In Nevada I managed a Panera Bread restaurant (in addition to dancing), and most of my free time was spent working. I love work and I love being busy, but dancing all day and going to work where you’re on your feet all night running a restaurant was very strenuous. Dancers don’t get that much off time and we need to rest our bodies as much as possible, so most of my off time is usually spent relaxing. I like to just hang out with my friends, pop a movie in.
Is there something no one ever asks that you think we should know about dancing?
I think we all have that one teacher in our lives, I think this is true with any profession, that somewhere along in your development you find that one person who truly does inspire you; who makes you feel good about what you’re doing, and maybe teaches you the hard way to get through things. For me that person was definitely Melissa Hayden at the North Carolina School of the Arts. She was a wonderful inspiration to me and was like a grandmother to me. The connection between students and teachers is so great in ballet. Teachers might force you to do things that hurt, and they’re not always saying the nicest things to you, but they’re doing it out of love, and you know that by the end of the day. They really do care for you, even if they yell at you, or don’t give you the part that you want. There is the utmost respect for that one person who absolutely influenced you to keep going.
Congratulations on being named an OBT Company Artist after your apprenticeship last year. When did you start your study of ballet?
I started dancing when I was seven years old with Nancy (Thompson) Yeamans, who now runs Metro Performing Arts. I can’t really remember my life before ballet. I was one of those little girls you see dancing down the grocery aisles, and my Mom tells me I was entranced by the first Nutcracker performance I ever saw. I really liked the structure, precision and attention to detail that’s necessary in ballet. I like having that clear foundation of what you need to do, and then once you learn those things, to also have the ability to express yourself. I came to study at OBT when I was thirteen and wanted to start focusing more seriously on ballet.
Do you think dancers are brave?
Yes. For several reasons, partly because ballet takes you on such a nontraditional life path. A lot of people meet with resistance in their families and communities for taking alternate routes and not going to college directly after high school. It takes a certain amount of bravery and strength to say, “This is something that I want to do. I understand that these other things are important, but I think I can make it all happen, just in a different way.” Another piece of ballet that takes bravery is that every day you’re putting yourself out there and taking risks. Movements might not always feel natural in your body, but part of the job is trying whatever is thrown your way. That takes bravery, especially for me.
Does performing take bravery for you?
I suppose so. When I talk to people they say, “Oh, I can’t believe you get up on stage and do the things that dancers do. It’s so scary.” I think it would be much more frightening to sing or speak in front of an audience. Dancing is a performing art and by the time you are in a company you have likely had a lot of stage experience. Nothing is so scary after you’ve been conditioned to do it, although this is not to say that I don’t get nervous before a show.
How about partnering, does that take bravery?
That takes trust. You have to have a good relationship with your partner. Hopefully, if it’s something you haven’t done before, your partner will help you figure out how to make it work.
What are your favorite roles so far?
Balanchine’s The Four Temperaments I loved. The combination of music and the choreography was very intense and magical. Swan Lake, of course. I was fortunate enough to be in Swan Lake when I was a student here. I had several roles—a peasant in the First Act, and the Swan corps, and a Princess role in the Third Act. There are many things that are hard about being a Swan, like having to move completely in unison with the rest of the corps, and having to stand on the sides for long amounts of time. But standing there every night during the Grand Pas de Deux—that was fine, being there, listening and watching. I could feel the dancing happening around me even if it was outside my sightlines. It was a fulfilling experience. It felt right and good.
How does dancing in the corps compare with having a solo role?
I’ve had a few solo roles in the SOBT Annual School Performances, and that kind of dancing certainly has its perks. It’s only you, so if you have a blank moment and you have to throw something in to cover it up, the majority of the audience will never know, because other people aren’t doing the same thing. There is often much more freedom in solo roles because you aren’t trying to match other dancers. But I like the community feel of the corps work, and the kind of cooperation that goes into it. You feel like you’re a part of something bigger, and you’re making something beautiful appear. A lot depends on you, but you’re not alone in the creation of the art.
When you’re in the wings before you go on stage, what do you do to prepare?
I’m pretty obsessive-compulsive about my time in the wings. I usually bounce around, rolling through my feet, to make sure my ankles are really warmed up. I spend a lot of time going through my part over and over and over before I go on stage. I go over the part in my head, making the motions with my hands and my feet, before I go to sleep at night. I like being at the theater early. I need to have a good solid chunk of time to collect myself, do my hair and make-up and make sure my costumes are in order. But mostly what I do is go over everything in my head a lot.
What is performing like for you?
It has a strange quality sometimes. Usually the house is really dark, so you feel like you’re dancing in a shadow box. You don’t know what’s going on out there, but you can definitely feel the energy and sense the presence of the audience.
How do you spend your time when you’re not dancing?
I read a lot. Since I’ve been out of high school, I’ve enjoyed being able to select my own reading material. And I’m working on some correspondence college courses. Right now I’m doing sociology, then I’ll get back into math. I went to Da Vinci Arts Middle School, and I got really into weaving, so I have my own loom. I’m making place mats and a floor rug. Also I like to walk and be outside in nature. And baking, I like to bake. I’m still trying to hit on the perfect recipe for granola.
Is there anything about dancing that people might not realize that you would like them to know?
This is our job and our line of work, and I think most work places don’t have such a big place in your social life. We have so much personal contact with each other, working strange hours and spending so much time together in the theater that we often form relationships that carry outside of our working time. Our colleagues end up feeling like our extended family.
Congratulations on becoming an OBT Company Artist after your apprenticeship last year.How did you begin studying ballet?
My mother put me in ballet lessons when I was nine as a birthday present. She originally put me in tap lessons when I was four, and I hated it. She danced in college and she really loved it. She wanted me to dance. I was kind of indifferent at first. They asked me to do Nutcracker that first year and I said no, but the next year I began to warm up to it. I started getting serious when I was around thirteen. I like everything about it—the technique and the training, the work ethic. I like the challenge. It’s hard work and I like the process. I get really nervous when I perform, so the preparation is sometimes more enjoyable.
When did you decide you wanted to pursue dance as a profession?
My junior year of high school I moved with my family to Virginia and joined Maryland Youth Ballet, and they had a pre-professional program where we’d go to school half of the day, and take class and rehearse the rest of the day. That helped a lot, then I really started training.
Do you think dancers are brave?
Yes, because we take major risks that are life changing. I moved here for an apprenticeship. I moved away from my friends and my family, I didn’t know anyone here, but this was what I wanted to do. Like most dancers, I was willing to take that chance.
You said you get nervous when you perform. What do you do when you’re waiting in the wings to go on stage?
For me, I get really nervous, so just putting myself out there is a challenge. In the wings, I go over my steps constantly, and I breathe, slowly and deeply. That calms me down. I say to myself—“Focus!”
Last year in both the Annual School Performance and in Sleeping Beauty, you were cast as a cat. How was that?
Great. I’d never really gotten to do character roles like that. Backstage, getting ready to go on for Peter and the Wolf, doing the steps didn’t feel like enough. I realized it takes more effort. I have to think about it differently. Instead of just dancing the steps, I have to create a character at the same time. I liked the cat roles. My other favorite role was as a fairy was in Balanchine’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream when I was a trainee at Washington Ballet. I loved the music. Some day I would love to dance Juliet in Romeo and Juliet, and Carmen.
How was your apprentice year?
Honestly, getting into it, it was much more work than I anticipated. In the end, my technique improved so much, I got so much stronger. I don’t think I’d be the same dancer now, without the apprentice year. I ended up appreciating ballet more.
What do you like to do in your free time?
As an apprentice, I didn’t have a whole lot of free time in Portland. I just came home, took a bath, had dinner, and went back to OBT for class. That was my free time. So now I’m excited to get to know the city a little bit more. And I like going to the beach on weekends, just to relax and read, go hiking a little bit.
What would you like to tell people about ballet that they might not realize?
What we do in the studio and on stage is all that the audience sees. Just to be able to do that, a lot of dancers have secondary jobs. During my two years as a trainee in Washington, I worked in a restaurant. I’d be at the studios from 9:30 am to 6:15 at night, and be at the restaurant from 7:00 until 11:00 pm, four nights a week. I don’t think people realize that we have to work hard at the studios, but we also have to make other sacrifices in order to do this. Here in Portland, I think it will be possible to live on my salary, and I appreciate that.
Congratulations on becoming an OBT Company Artist after your apprenticeship last year. How did you start studying ballet?
When I was really young, I saw the Olympics, and I ran around the house, you know how kids do, saying that I was a gymnast. So my parents put me in a creative movement class at OBT, and that led into ballet. My teachers were great—Meg Potter, Kim Smiley, Fred Locke, and when I was older, Elena Carter.
You took your entire training at the School of Oregon Ballet Theatre except for some summer programs. Where did you go for summer workshops?
I went two years in a row to the San Francisco Ballet School, and my last year of training to the School of American Ballet in New York.
What made you decide to make ballet your profession?
I love it. Ballet is beautiful, it’s the most graceful sport. I love working hard on everything, trying to focus. And when you actually get it, that’s when it’s worth it, that you’re doing something right. Also, performing is one of the other greatest things about dancing. That’s the real deal, that’s why you do this in the first place. It’s great to be recognized for your hard work and your talent.
Do you think dancers are brave?
Yeah, you have to be. You have to stand up there in front of two or three thousand people and show that you know what you’re doing. Another thing that’s not so important when you’re older, but when you’re a kid at least—you have to stick up for yourself as a ballet dancer, especially as a boy, because other kids think it’s wimpy. Sometimes older people do too, men usually. When you get made fun of, and you do, you just have to stick with it. You really have to believe in what you’re doing, and not give in to peer pressure.
Years ago, when you were a young student, you said that Baryshnikov was your role model. Is that still true?
Oh, God, yes. He makes me want to dance. That is what I aim for when I dance. I want to look like he does, with his stage presence and his perfect technique. I’ve found other dancers that I really like, that I respect, but none of them quite make me feel like Baryshnikov does. When I see him, I want to go, even on the street, and just start dancing. In fact, I saw him here at the Schnitzer, in a modern piece several years ago. Seeing him in person—on our way back to the car, I ran around doing cartwheels, whatever, I just had to move.
What do you do when you’re about to go on stage in a big role?
Focus. You can go over the entire thing quickly in your head, but I don’t do that as much as some other people. I try to get in the right state of mind. I don’t know how to explain it. Thoughtlessness? You let your body take over. Obviously, you still have to be there to be on the music, to prevent collisions, that kind of thing. But you’ve rehearsed it so much that you know what to do. There are times when you’re performing when you start thinking, “Oh no, what if I mess up?” That’s when you lose your concentration. But if you do make a mistake, you want to make sure you finish. The worst thing you can do in a ballet is stop. You can mess up, that’s permitted, but if you stop dancing, if you stop the rhythm, the flow, the whole thing falls apart.
When you’re not dancing, what engages your interest?
Video games. I love playing on the Xbox. In Halo, I’m good at tactical stuff. I know what to do when I’m in a situation. I still play music, too. I took piano lessons for eight or nine years, and I actually composed for several years, whatever came into my head. It had a little blues or jazz touch in it. Then I took up the bass a couple of years ago, my freshman year in high school. I decided I want to play it this whole year, and get good at the bass too.
Does being a musician serve your dancing?
Definitely. One of the things it helps is your timing. I know rhythm; I know where the counts are. When you’re a musician, you understand music more, which is one of the most important things in ballet. There are amazing dancers, but when they’re not on the music, it really bothers me. One of the things I like about Baryshnikov is that he’s always right there. He’s got the accents down.
What got you started in dancing?
I started dancing in a barn. My family moved to Carlisle, Pennsylvania, when I was six, because my grandparents lived close by. I remember the realtors showing us around town. They said, “Oh, there’s this well known ballet school right down the street—Central Pennsylvania Youth Ballet—in a small barn.” So, like any little girl, I started ballet. I trained there under Marcia Dale Weary.
Did you like ballet right away?
I just fell in love with it. I loved all the dancers who were there. The people who were in the advanced class then are all in big companies now, like Ashley Bouder at New York City Ballet, and Noelani Pantastico and Carrie Imler at Pacific Northwest Ballet. They were all people I looked up to. And I love performing, of course. Being on stage with all the makeup, the costumes and the lights. There’s no other feeling like it.
Where in your training did you decide you wanted to become a professional dancer?
After the eighth grade, the public school in Carlisle had a special relationship with Central Pennsylvania Youth Ballet, so I could train and go to school with some support. That’s when I knew that I was really going to shoot to be a professional. I went to Carlisle High School for three years, then I moved to New York City to dance with the School of American Ballet, and did my senior year up there.
What do students at the School of American Ballet think about OBT?
They love the director. Christopher has a great reputation. They say that OBT is a really good, friendly company. I’ve already gotten that feeling. Everyone has been so welcoming. And it’s a good size. Not quite so big. You get more opportunities to dance.
So far, what is your favorite role?
I love Balanchine’s Tarantella. I think it’s very “me”—my personality. It’s exciting. All the steps are things I like to do. The music’s fun. I also love dancing “Marzipan” in Balanchine’s Nutcracker, and his Square Dance. I’m usually cast in fast, jumpy things.
What are your secrets for dancing these roles? How do you get ready, how do you get through them?
The first few times I did a full run of Tarantella, I couldn’t do it. You have to practice it over and over again until you get the stamina to get through it. Then, when you’re performing, it’s very different than rehearsal. I like to have plenty of time before a show, not to rush, take my time and think about what I have to do. Preparing for the show, putting on my makeup and doing my hair helps. I kind of transform, and that calms me down. Of course, I make sure my body’s really warm. Then usually, I like to stand calmly right before I do the role and think about everything that’s coming. Go through all the steps. Think about where I can really have fun with it. Some dancers like to run around and get the adrenaline going. I like to be calmer and save it all.
What would you tell people that they might not know about sustaining your life as a dancer?
Being a dancer is a life style, not just a profession. You devote your whole life to it, your personality, your look. It’s definitely more than an occupation. Performing is so different from ordinary life. It’s hard to explain. You feel this adrenaline; it’s like an out of body experience. It’s the one time in your life when you’re somehow not thinking—you’re living in the moment without really realizing it. You get lost in the movement and the music. Music is a huge part of dancing, you really listen to it. When you have a good choreographer, the steps naturally fit the music and you can just get lost in them. Then when you’re off stage, you come back down to earth.
Do you think dancers are brave?
I think so, dancing in front of hundreds of people. I usually don’t get that nervous though. When it’s a big part, or course I do. Or when I have to do a tricky combination. I always get nervous when I have to do turns. I do them over and over again before I go out. Practice, practice. But it’s exciting. You prepare for it for so long, you just want to give it your all and have fun with it.
What do you like to do when you’re not dancing?
I like swimming, and hiking. I’m looking forward to all the outdoor activities around Portland.
What does your family think about you coming all the way out here to Oregon?
They’re really excited for me. Every person I told that I was coming to Portland, Oregon, said, “Oh my god, you’ll love it. It’s such a great little city.” Already I like that it’s still a city, but it has a small town, very cozy feel. My father is an airline pilot, so my parents hope to fly out often to see performances.
What got you started in ballet?
When I was in the third grade in New York, all the third graders in my public school had to take ballet. The people who ran the ballet program in my school were from the 92nd Street Y. At the end of the year they invited five students from my school to continue. I lived right across the street from the 92nd Street Y, so I went, and after a year, they recommended that I audition for the School of American Ballet, which I did. That was in 1999. I was there until 2007. Christopher came on an audition tour, and OBT was my first company audition. I thought I would get cut early, but I wanted to go through all the auditions and see how they were. It was very exciting for me, because OBT was my first audition ever.
Did you like ballet right away?
I can’t really remember. It was fine. At that time, I was into baseball as much as I was into dance. When I got into SAB, I decided to give ballet a shot. My first class at SAB, I met my teacher, Olga Kostriztky. My second class, I didn’t want to go, I was so tired. But I went, and Olga came up to me during barre and she said, in her Russian accent, “You—will be a dancer.” That really inspired me to stay through. I had Olga for my first five years of training.
What is you favorite part of dancing?
I like male variations, like Black Swan, Balanchine’s Tchaikovsky Pas de Deux and Stars and Stripes. Those are my three favorites. When you do one well, you feel very good about yourself. It’s very masculine, you have a lot of fun, it’s the most powerful feeling.
What do you do to prepare yourself for going on stage for one of those variations?
Any time, before I go on, I get really quiet. I get a little nervous, but then I get really excited. You do so many rehearsals that you could do it in your sleep. Then I step out on to the stage, and the second that you start the movement, it’s over. It goes by so quickly.
Tell us something about your life as a dancer that we might not realize.
It takes a lot of discipline, and it takes being very quiet when you’re working with your superiors like teachers or ballet masters or choreographers. Olga taught me this at SAB: You sharpen up and you stay straight and you don’t talk, because your teachers are always right. That is the discipline and the etiquette of ballet that you have to respect, because your teachers and choreographers went through the same thing, and they are passing down the rules of ballet. When you show them that respect, they work with you harder, and you benefit more.
What do you like to do when you’re not dancing?
I like to read, especially political satire like Kurt Vonnegut’s books.
How do you feel about coming all the way out here to Portland from New York?
I’m very excited to be here. I still can’t believe that I’m a paid dancer. Just a few months ago I was a student, and now I’m dancing with company members and really enjoying myself. I hope to bring a lot of excitement and character to my roles. You have to put 110% into every performance and every ballet, because that’s how you will enjoy the role and the audience will enjoy you.