Portland's Veteran Dancer Takes Her Final Bow

A look back at Alison Roper's decades-long career with the Oregon Ballet Theatre

By Kelly Clarke April 2, 2014 Published in the April 2014 issue of Portland Monthly

Image: Andy Batt

“She’s too tall,” a gymnastics coach told a 9-year-old Alison Roper and her mom in 1984. “Try ballet.” That tossed-off comment proved a boon for Portland audiences, who have watched the striking, 5-foot-8 ballerina leap, twirl, and slink her way through Oregon Ballet Theatre productions for nearly two decades. As the company’s longest-serving member, the versatile dancer has tackled everything from The Nutcracker’s iconic Sugar Plum Fairy to meaty leads in postmodern
Balanchine classics and avant-garde works. After 18 seasons under three wildly different artistic directors, the steadfast mother of two takes her final bow this month.  

I QUIT DANCING for four years when I was 16. There was a lot of pressure to be really thin, and it got to me. Instead, I played basketball and was on the boys’ soccer team. I’m a little bit of a jock. But I still wanted to be a dancer. At 20, I took a year off from college, went back to Maine and got a job working at a golf course. I danced. I auditioned everywhere. OBT was the only company that offered me a paying apprenticeship—$200 a week. 

MY FIRST IMPRESSION of [OBT founding artistic director] James Canfield was ... whoa. This gorgeous, tall, bald man who was all muscles and energy and tattoos. When he entered a room the air changed. I couldn’t believe he wanted to hire me. I loved his Pink Floyd rock ballet [Go Ask Alice]. I remember being on stage, looking out through all the smoke, and there were people in the audience with lighters, like for a rock concert, screaming, “Yeaaaah! Wooo!” I remember just thinking, “Is this ballet?” 

I HAVE A JOYOUS STYLE OF DANCE. I just love moving so much. I couldn’t stop dancing even when I wasn’t dancing. When I was a youngster I would crash around the kitchen trying pirouettes and jumps and driving my family crazy. I can be really athletic and wild, yes, but I also have the capacity to be quiet and delicate. I love the different nuances and characters I’ve been able to explore and inhabit throughout my career. I love that ballet is so linear: I just work really hard and learn the steps. I love the peace of that.

I NEVER THOUGHT I would dance a lead part like Aurora from The Sleeping Beauty—I assumed that I was too tall. Growing up, there was a sense that the really tall ballerinas just did secondary parts. The female lead usually gets more solo work and partnering work. She’s the one with the prince at the end. But [former OBT artistic director] Christopher Stowell, even more than James Canfield, was willing to see me as a very feminine dancer. I didn’t anticipate all the amazing roles I got to do. 

SOME PEOPLE STILL think of ballet as very old-fashioned. But many pieces are very real and very edgy. James Kudelka’s Almost Mozart, which is done almost entirely in silence, got my sports friends into ballet: “It was amazing,” they said. “We could hear you breathing, we could hear the bodies smacking.” And, you know, the skimpy costumes don’t hurt. 

MY BIG STRUGGLE is nerves before shows. Sometimes I can conquer it, and sometimes it gets the better of me. The first time I danced at the Kennedy Center in DC there was this extra level of intensity, like, “I gotta not suck.” I guessed we danced beautifully, but I was having a full-on anxiety attack. 

INJURIES? Chronic lower-back issues ... arthritis in my right foot, both from stress fractures from dancing. Luckily these are issues I can “dance through,” so I’ve never missed a show due to injury my entire career. I have a pretty high pain tolerance. I had a bone infection in my left foot; I ended up having part of a bone removed to fix that problem. Retiring is absolutely my physical self speaking out saying, “OK, I think I’m done.”

DANCING UNTIL YOU’RE 40 and having two children is a little abnormal. But it made ballet become a little more mine and a little less for the company or the director. I danced the lead in Swan Lake when I was five and a half months pregnant. It was hard, but I made it through the fouetté turns. 

Alison Roper will dance a pas de deux from choreographer Nacho Duato among other farewell works in Oregon Ballet Theatre’s Celebrate program, Apr 17–26 at the Newmark Theatre. Want to see more? Take a tour of Roper’s career with our slide show and performance videos.

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