AGILE . PRECISION-TESTED ARTISANS . ALWAYS RIVETING
BY LINDA BESANT, April 2008
What first inspired you to study dance?
My parents say that I’ve wanted to dance since I was two and a half. I would dance around in the garage when my dad was tinkering. I remember jumping off the trashcan, flapping my arms, and singing, “I’m a dancing butterfly! I’m a dancing butterfly!” I was really clumsy too, so finally, when I was four and a half, my parents gave in and put me into dance lessons, thinking it would help with the clumsiness. I still run into all my furniture and fall down more often than most people, but I did find a passion and a career. I wanted to feel music in my body, wanted to do unusual things. I took ballet, tap, jazz, acro at a local school. I always knew I wanted to be a ballet dancer. When I was 11, my teacher said, “You’ve learned everything I can teach you. Go to St. Louis Ballet, they’ll show you what to do next.”
I had two Russian teachers at St. Louis Ballet who were nice and strict. They were really into tricks, lots of pirouettes. I loved to feel my body pushed in a new way. I would take men’s class, do a big jump, spin around, and see what happened. I was an apprentice there when I was 15 and 16, and then I went to Central Pennsylvania Youth Ballet, where I met my mentor, Darla Hoover. She suggested that I move to New York and continue school with her there. For the next two years, I was at Ballet Academy East with a whole crew of wonderful instructors who helped me figure out how to step away from being just a student and find what it would take for me to become a professional.
How did you come to OBT?
I did an open audition in New York. I had run into a couple of people from the School of OBT in summer programs. I heard Christopher Stowell would be taking over the company, so I knew it would be a good audition class. I was familiar with his name from spending summers in San Francisco. I took the class, had a great time, and Christopher offered me an apprenticeship. I had never been to Portland when I signed my contract, but everyone I talked to said that I would love it here, and that Christopher would be a great director. They were right!
Do you think that summer programs are important?
Yes, especially if you’re from a town that doesn’t have a big company. It changed my whole view of what ballet could be. You see other people who are talented and hard working. You see the way a big, professional company works. You set new goals. You spend full days dancing with people who share your passion and drive. It’s a defining experience for a young dancer. I went to Boston for one year, San Francisco for two years, Central Pennsylvania Youth Ballet, and American Ballet Theatre in New York.
Do you like Portland?
I do. I like being close to so much nature, especially coming from New York. I was only there for two years, but it wore on me. I learned a lot about myself and I loved living there. I’m glad that New York is familiar to me, but I don’t think I could see myself having an adult life there. I need to feel more open spaces and friendly people. Here, I can go hiking two blocks from my apartment in Washington Park. I love it when I can get an afternoon and spend a few hours wandering through there with a book. Even when it’s cold and rainy, I don’t mind throwing on some rain gear. And Portland is a city that feels to me to be on the verge of a lot of good things. This is my fifth season here, and in that short period of time not only has OBT grown, but also the city has grown in a lot of positive ways. I feel like Portland is full of creative and interesting people now. It isn’t always just about being quick and easy here, it’s about quality and intentions. It’s a beautiful and conscious city, and I feel like what’s happening here now, in everyone’s work and lifestyles, could shape not only the future of Portland, but create an example for other cities to strive toward.
Tell us about your other job…
A few years ago, I realized I wouldn't be able to live the way I wanted on what I made from OBT. I started looking for what I could do within the hours left to me, and
waitressing and bartending were the obvious things to get into. So a couple nights a week, I'm a bartender. It gives me balance. It's not something I ever thought I was going to do, but it rounds me out. It requires me to be social; it requires me to have conversations with real people. I spend my whole day in a rehearsal studio; we're pretty silent. To find a job that makes me have in-depth conversations with a lot of people, that has made me grow quite a bit.
What do you love about ballet?
Dance in general is something my body and soul have always craved. Movement, rhythm, and focus are vital parts of my life. Ballet specifically appeals to me in the refinement of its vocabulary. I think I'm attracted to the sense of propriety. In life, the words we use and the way we phrase them allow us to understand each other. I feel like ballet is proper grammar with beautiful prose running through it. Just as people like certain literary genres, people are drawn to certain styles of dance. I like authors that make elegant music with their words and relay a sense of magic in the world, not necessarily those who connect to the pop culture of their generation. I think there's a parallel difference between ballet and hip-hop or jazz. Ballet doesn't just feel like a celebration of life and the body, it feels like I'm celebrating something unexplainable, pure, divine.
Do you have favorite roles that you’ve performed so far in your career?
One is Dew Drop in Balanchine’s Nutcracker. I like revisiting that every year. It’s so musical and challenging. There’s always something new to work on, things that worked one year don’t work the next. The Vertiginous Thrill of Exactitude is a ballet that I’ve had a crush on for a long time. Getting to dance that was a great challenge, and kind of a dream. We all felt like we were touching something sacred in working on it. I learned a lot about stretching my vocabulary in that process, finding things my body can do that I wasn't yet aware of. That's helped with ballets that have been given to me since then, like Bolero and Just, where I can apply this newfound sense of movement and experiment even more. Polyhymnia in Apollo was another kind of sacred thing. Getting to work on that with Francia Russell especially, that was a defining role in her career. She took extra care with me in it. It was a really delicate and emotional process.
How do you prepare yourself to go on stage?
My rituals change for each program, just like the seasons change. For the French program, I was really quiet. I spent a lot of time by myself beforehand. While I do my makeup and hair, I listen to music. The music you listen to before a performance can shape what you’re doing. This last time I was listening to introverted, quiet musicians like Ryan Adams and Rufus Wainwright. Past programs it’s been Radiohead or Sly and the Family Stone. I do a little yoga, and a warm-up barre. For me, it’s important to have a lot of alone time to focus on what it is that I have to give. I need to spend time seeing myself before I try to put all of that on the stage for people to look at. I rarely spend time going over choreography before I perform unless I feel a little underprepared. Instead, it’s about seeing all the things that have made up my character to this point, the little events that have happened in my life that are interesting and beautiful that I’m trying to share with the audience through my movement. It’s about making sure that the whole person is there to be seen.
Is there something about ballet that you wish audiences knew?
The question I get most frequently is, “So, where are you going to go from here?” I came here five years ago not knowing anything about Oregon, and OBT had a new director and a lot of new dancers. I didn’t know what to expect. I thought I would be here for five years and then I would leave, I would move on to something bigger and better. But I realize that this has gotten bigger and better. The reason I wanted to go to a bigger company was to have more opportunities to do interesting works, but I’m being given every opportunity I want. For example, The Vertiginous Thrill of Exactitude. When I found out that this company would even do Vertiginous I cried a little bit. I was so excited that we’ve grown to the point that we’re adding Forsythe to our rep. We do tons of Balanchine work that I’ve always wanted to do. We work with interesting choreographers that I didn’t know, like Nicolo Fonte. There’s always something to challenge me, and it gets better and better every year. As long as that continues to happen, and as long as we have an audience that is interested, I don’t see any reason to leave. I can be completely happy and fulfilled, and feel like I had an important and worthwhile career here in Portland.
Another thing—people who come to the ballet for the first time are always asking what the story is or what the point is. Everyone wants to think that a certain movement is a significant symbol relating to Jesus or love or something, and it’s so infrequently about that now. Most of what we do doesn’t have anything like that, and if it does, it’s what you make of it as an audience member. We’re here to give you something to think about. You don’t have to think what we think about it. I want people to feel. That’s what this is all about. Being overcome by something beautiful or awkward or interesting in some way. Being given something that isn’t standard, that isn’t getting up and brushing your teeth and going to work. I like to say that we’re providing atmosphere to carry with you.
What do you like to do when you’re not working at one job or the other?
Portland has great restaurants, and I love going out with my friends when I can. But most of what I like to do is read and write and wander through forested paths. I’m a really introverted person and I thrive on a whole lot of time either alone or with one special person.
How did you get started studying ballet?
My dad first got me into dance because I was interested in theatre and acting and I loved to watch the figure skaters on TV. I was ten years old and bouncing off the walls and jumping and turning around the house, so he signed me up for a jazz class. I thought I was going to hate the class, but I loved it. The studio made us take ballet because ballet is important for technique. After about a year I realized that I liked ballet better, so I changed studios and concentrated on ballet.
What did you prefer about ballet?
That’s a good question, and I’ve often asked myself that, because I really enjoy jazz. There’s a lot of energy in jazz, but ballet has a different kind of energy. I think it appealed to my personality better. Ballet is sophisticated and regal and graceful, evoking a world from the past.
When did you decide you wanted a career in ballet?
The summer before my senior year in high school, I didn’t go to any dance intensives. I stayed home to concentrate on deciding what I wanted to do. The other option I was considering was going to art school. During my senior year, my ballet teacher suggested that I audition at OBT and Pacific Northwest Ballet. I went to PNB for the summer, and I came to the School of OBT the fall after I graduated. At the end of that year, OBT asked me to be an apprentice. That’s when I realized, “OK, maybe I could do this as a career.” That’s when I got excited. That was the spark.
Did you get any grief as a boy for taking ballet?
People always ask me that, and I never did. No bullying or teasing. I was very confident about ballet. I didn’t really care what anybody thought. This is what I wanted to do and I was going to do it.
What are some favorite roles that you’ve danced so far in your career?
I’ve really enjoyed all the contemporary work, I have to say. Concerto Six Twenty Two, il nodo, Just. Just is the ballet I’m most excited about for this rep. It breaks out of the classical box that dancers can get wedged into sometimes, and it requires more interpretation from the individual performer. Bolero is also one of my favorites. Bolero was the first ballet that ever gave me energy, instead of taking it away. The more effort I put into it, the more satisfying was the reward at the end. One of the things I noticed about the French program, where I did Afternoon of a Faun and Bolero, was that the things I learned in Faun helped me perform Bolero better. It showed me how to be more confident on stage, more able to surround myself with the role I was performing.
What do you do to get ready when you’re about to perform a big role?
For Afternoon of a Faun, it only hit me a day or two before that, “Oh yeah, I’m going to be on the stage all by myself in front of a huge audience. How did I get here? How did this happen?” I don’t particularly like to go over the choreography right before I go on. For me, once the day of the show comes, I’m ready, I can’t go over it any more in my head, because if I do, I’ll think about it too much when I go out there, and I’ll forget the steps.
How do you remember choreography?
You have to create phrases. It helps to connect things together, so that you’re not just learning steps. You connect as many steps together as possible. It’s like singing, you only have to remember the beginning of a verse, and then everything makes sense from that point on because of the direction of the sentence and what it’s trying to say.
Is there anything you want to tell audiences about ballet that they might not realize?
I think people should know that ballet often becomes something of a lifestyle, and not just a job, because of all the things we have to do to take care of our bodies. I was really impressed the other day when my friend referred to ballet as a sport. I was glad about that, because people don’t often appreciate how strenuous it is. They don’t realize the physical difficulty it involves because it’s our job to make it look easy. I think people want to see the raw side of ballet, the hard edge of it. Ballets like Just and Almost Mozart show that. I loved The Vertiginous Thrill of Exactitude in that way too.
Do you like living in Portland?
I absolutely love it. I like that it doesn’t feel like a big city. It seems almost European to me in some ways. I love the rain, the cloudy skies, and all the forests and trails. I like to be outside a lot, and I go hiking and biking whenever possible. And I am constantly reminded of the myriad of culinary adventures that are to be had in this city.
What do you like to do when you’re not dancing?
I work on my art as much as possible. I do a lot of landscapes, mostly in oils, watercolors, and pastels. I try to keep my art going whenever I can, so I don’t lose that, because that’s my plan for a post-dance career. I’m also a big foodie, so I love to be in the kitchen experimenting with new recipes.
Did you ever have any aspirations to teach ballet?
No, but just yesterday, my old ballet teacher said that I would make a good ballet master. It got me to thinking, because I’m very detail oriented, and I absolutely know what I want, and a ballet master needs those skills. Art requires attention to detail too, like in some of my pencil sketches where I just go crazy with every little detail. I thrive on that for some reason. I love building layers and layers of detail. I also love the fact that you can’t just sit down and finish a piece right away. Some artists can do a wash of watercolor and it’s done, but I like working on a piece and coming back to it the next day. Ballet is like that too, you add a little more to it, you accomplish a little more each day. Building and shaping. It’s the same with music.
You’re a Renaissance man! Music too?
I’ve played the piano all my life. Even when my dance schedule got hectic, I never quit playing, because I wanted to keep that in me. I have a keyboard at home that I like to play around with. I play classical music, and I love composing. Just recently I’ve been exploring some jazzy, atmospheric pieces. I enjoy sitting down to play by ear—just putting my fingers to the keys and seeing what comes out. I love to explore in that way. It’s very therapeutic, like the painting. It takes me off into another world.
How did you begin to study ballet?
My sister was taking lessons. At her ballet school they needed boys for The Nutcracker, so I auditioned and I got to do it. I did the party and battle scenes, and went with the company—Ballet Omaha—on a regional tour, which was a blast for me at age ten. I enjoyed watching the pros dance, and I was eager to learn how they danced. After Nutcracker was over, the ballet master started a new boys’ ballet technique class and I joined.
When did you decide that you wanted to work as a dancer?
I became serious about training as a dancer around age 14. I got more stage experience performing at Omaha Theater Company, thanks to my main teacher, Robin Welch. I took ballet nearly every day with many rehearsals. When I was 15, I began to attend summer programs. I went to Pennsylvania Ballet in Philadelphia, American Ballet Theatre and School of American Ballet in New York City. When I was a senior in high school, I quit for a while and worked. Being away from ballet made me miss it. So I applied for the Alvin Ailey BFA dance program at Fordham University—Lincoln Center. I auditioned in Chicago and got a scholarship. After one year in New York, I transferred to Pacific Northwest Ballet School, directed by Francia Russell. The director from Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre visited and watched my class, and he gave me my first dance job. I was fortunate.
What do you like about ballet?
The most satisfying part about being a dancer for me is performing for the audience and with other dancers. I like acting in story ballets and dancing in abstract ballets. I also enjoy being absolutely in synch with the music, especially when it’s live music. Having a real connection simultaneously with the orchestra is thrilling. When I dance with live music, not only does it sound better, I sense more the artistry from a musician’s mind and soul. The music’s resonance is then more powerful, and this greatly contributes to my dancing.
What do you like to do with your time when you’re not dancing?
I like to explore Portland and the nature surrounding it. Portland has nice parks like the Japanese and Rose gardens, and the Grotto. Going to the coast is fun for me because I grew up in the Midwest, nowhere near the ocean or mountains. I like to play pool with friends or hear DJs mix various styles of music. I go to rock concerts, the symphony, and watch visiting dance companies. Currently I’m reading The Way of the Peaceful Warrior and Dante’s The Divine Comedy. Sometimes I work as an extra stagehand, it’s given me more appreciation for what happens backstage. While working at concerts, I’ve seen up close U2, Aerosmith, and Paul McCartney. Seeing exactly all the amount of work, construction, equipment, and technology that goes into these concerts was amazing.
Did you get any grief for taking ballet as a boy?
I got a little grief for taking ballet. The schools I attended saw productions by Ballet Omaha like Nutcracker, Romeo and Juliet, and Cinderella. Many were aware of the ballet in the city, like the symphony and opera. A lot of my teachers were encouraging. My advisor in high school is married to a ballet instructor. However some people I knew had no exposure to professional ballet, and so they made up stereotypes. My parents are supportive of my career choice. I grew up in an artistic family—my mom was an art teacher and is now a ballet costumer, my sister Suzanne danced and later pursued a Master’s degree in piano performance, and my brother James danced briefly and is working on a Bachelor’s in visual art.
How do you prepare before you go on stage?
I warm up and pre-meditate my role for that show. Visualization is important to me to practice before dancing. I go over new material, like corrections that I need to change for the next show. I imagine the music and how I want to dance; this also helps me take more risks onstage. If I have a partner, I find her beforehand and see if we need to practice.
What are your favorite roles among the ballets you’ve danced so far?
The choreography for James Kudelka’s Almost Mozart was inventive and challenging to execute, partly because I danced without music. I danced in a trio with a woman and a man, having to be very coordinated with one another. Partnering with two people is so much more difficult than with just one. I had to be more aware of two people instead of one all the time, including how they were breathing into movement. Without music, the choreographer explained how to phrase sequences; I memorized the timing as “fictional rhythms.”
Jerome Robbins’s In the Night was a dramatic ballet to dance. I like conveying a story to the audience through dance. I danced in a contemporary ballet my first year as a professional that I really liked by Dwight Rhoden; it was very interesting, athletic, cool. It was called StrayLifeLushHorn, and the jazzy music sounded incredible with the orchestra.
Is there anything you want to tell audiences about ballet that they might not realize?
Some may not understand how demanding this vocation is. Like other athletes or artists, dancers are devoted and passionate about their work. We have to regularly stay in elite physical condition. I go to the gym to strength train, preparing me for partnering. I often get physical therapy, massage therapy, chiropractic adjustments, and acupuncture. Like many other dancers, I’ve had to perform well onstage with injuries. Some shows seemed truly miraculous.