HIGH OCTANE. COWBOY. ACCELERATES SMOOTHLY.
BY LINDA BESANT, June 2006
Ronnie Underwood is new to Oregon Ballet Theatre and to Portland this season. With his magnetic dancing and his hot rod Chevy pickup, he’s making a big impression.
How did you get started in ballet?
I started dancing and racing Quarter Midget cars at about the same time. I was maybe seven. My sister was dancing. She started when she was three (she’s a really good dancer) and I was always waiting on her at the studio. I was interested in other sports — football, racing cars, stuff like that. I would sit there in the studio and play with my little Matchbox cars. I was a big car fanatic, I had tons of Hot Wheels. I started taking what they called a Boys’ Physical Training Class. That was push-ups, stretching, jumping. They said it would help me with my sports, my hand-eye coordination, stuff like that. Once a week, twice a week, I would take class. It was ballet, really.
And I started racing Quarter Midgets. This was in Tulsa, Oklahoma. I really loved football, too, but I didn’t really play on a school team because I did correspondence and home education. My mom is a very, very intelligent woman. She wasn’t happy with the education system.
At seven years old I was racing my cars on a circuit through the midwest. I raced in Texas, Arkansas, Louisiana, Kansas. I was traveling a lot, that took a lot of my time. Taking correspondence education really helped me, being able to do my studies early in the morning and go to the track all afternoon. I was out of town for about a week each month. Then I’d go to ballet class the weeks I was home.
There are kids racing in every state. You give a seven-year-old a car and say, “Here you go, drive it, you can go as fast as you want,” what little boy won’t love it? And little girls too. Kids’ dreams are to be 16 and finally drive. It was fantastic. I loved it. I raced until I was 19 off and on.
So you were a multi-sport athlete, dancing and racing cars?
When I was little kid, people in my neighborhood called me Bo, like Bo Jackson, because I played every sport. I studied dance until I was about 16. I studied at American Ballet Theatre in New York in the summers. Then I quit to concentrate on racing. When I was about 19, I moved from Oklahoma to Texas so that I could race my cars down in Texas. I was driving cars that go about 140 miles an hour. I thought, “Oh, I have a race next week, I need to do some physical activity,” so I took ballet class to really tune myself up. I hadn’t taken class in about four years. I just stumbled in off the street. A previous artistic director for Fort Worth/Dallas Ballet was at that school giving a class. He said, “You know, you should go take class over there, it’s a dance company.” I took some classes, and pretty soon they offered me a job. I danced there almost five years. Now it’s Texas Ballet Theater, with Ben Stevenson as artistic director.
Driving wise, you can race till you’re in your forties, there are drivers who are in their fifties racing cars. I’m only 24. That’s my plan—dance now, race later.
Why do you like to dance?
It took me a while to actually love dance. I’ve probably only loved dance for the last two or three years. I took it seriously, but it wasn’t my driving passion. In ballets like Swan Lake, I love that I get to play a part. I’m not Ronnie when I’m in the studio, I’m Prince Siegfried. It’s another whole world. Some ballets don’t use you in the same way, you’re not playing a role, but I can usually find someone to be in every piece, even in a piece like Almost Mozart [an abstract ballet Ronnie performed in OBT’s last program]. That’s a skill I’ve just built over the last two or three years.
Physically, I love dancing. I cannot stand to sit at a desk. Anything physical I enjoy, basically. I love partnering. Whether I’m partnering a man or a woman, I love being able to help my partner, keep them on their leg, help them really nail whatever they’re doing.
In OBT’s All-Mozart Program in April, you were in all three ballets. What was that like?
The movement and style in every piece were different, which made it difficult, but fun. It took a lot out of me. It was something I had to work on, but we were very well rehearsed for the All-Mozart rep. Lisa Kipp, our ballet master, knew everything, every person’s part in every ballet, she worked very hard in that rep. Put this in the interview—“Miss Kipp, you pull a lot of weight.”
In addition to dancing with Fort Worth/Dallas Ballet, you performed as a guest with South African Ballet Theatre. What was that experience like?
It’s very different there. I didn’t see much of a middle class. You would see very rich people, and just down the road, very poor people. I worked very hard in that company, it was a very hard working company. There was a guy there who could do triple tours en l’air from a flat fifth position, no preparation. It was his thing. He was a tiny guy. I weigh a hundred and eighty-some pounds. I’ve done triples before, but it’s not something I’m working to put in my rep.
How do you like living in Portland?
I like it a lot more when it’s sunny. I feel really pale right now, and I don’t like that.
When dancers are on contract, they’re not permitted to do risky activities like race cars or play football. What do you do to let off steam when you’re on contract?
I get very wound up, because I use driving and things like that to let off steam. I love going to the disco, I love dance clubs. That’s one thing that’s great about the profession of ballet—everyone is so expressive. I have never met a seasoned professional dancer who wasn’t expressive. You have to be able to express movement, shape, emotions. But the things I do professionally are not work. For me, racing is not work, and dancing isn’t work either. To get here in the morning . . . that’s work . . . but once I’m here I feel like I’m running the playground.
And I played the violin for years. I like classical music. I still have two violins. I would like to get back to playing.
What don’t people realize about the job of ballet dancer?
I always have laundry because of dance because I go through so many clothes. I feel like part of my job is hauling around sweaty clothes. Part of your work as a ballet dancer is to have clean clothes so you won’t be stinky and rude around your fellow dancers.
If people were to see you on a race track with your car . . .
They would only see the back of my head because I would be going so fast . . .
they probably wouldn’t peg you as a person who likes ballet. What would you say to them?
Stereotypes kill society, they kill human emotion. You cannot make an opinion about something unless you’ve been there. Don’t judge anything until you’ve tried it. Ballet is one of the most beautiful art forms. It’s an art form that is always growing and pushing to new levels. Come try the ballet. You might like it. And if you don’t, then you’ve learned something, you haven’t lost anything.