Extending her long, long legs like the rays of the sun in Apollo, dropping a disembodied hand into a piano in The Concert, wringing our hearts with every ripple of Odette’s arms as she returns to swanhood in Swan Lake: these moments and many others flash through my mind as I think about Alison Roper’s long career with Oregon Ballet Theatre.
For nearly two decades, Portland audiences have seen these qualities in Roper’s performances: joy in the dancing, commitment to the music, or the movement, or the character, or the story. Last Saturday, she danced with the company for the last time, ending her life on stage with The Girl from Ipanema from Trey McIntyre’s Like a Samba, her first featured role.
OBT’s founding artistic director, James Canfield, took a chance on Roper for which we can all be grateful, hiring her as an apprentice in 1996. Since then, she’s been Oregon Ballet Theatre’s one constant presence. In her 18 years with the company, we have watched the Girl from Ipanema become a pioneer mother in McIntyre’s Robust American Love; the party guest in Canfield’s beautiful Nutcracker become the Snow Queen, and in George Balanchine’s version, the Sugar Plum Fairy and the Dewdrop Fairy, the latter technically one of the most difficult ballerina roles in the great man’s canon.
In addition to Swan Lake’s Odette/Odile, we’ve seen her in many of the great ballerina roles: as Aurora in Sleeping Beauty, the Firebird in Yuri Possokhov’s rendering of the ballet, and as Terpsichore, the muse of dance, in Balanchine’s Apollo. Because she is tall, these are roles she might not have had the chance to do in a larger company. In Sleeping Beauty she would have almost certainly been cast as the Lilac Fairy; in Swan Lake as one of the “big” swans in Act II.
Asked, as she inevitably is, about her favorite role, the Manichean duo that is Odette/Odile is the one that first comes to her mind. “It felt like an accomplishment that I didn’t think I would ever have. Christopher [Stowell] imagined that I could do it. It’s like your first marathon; you can’t believe you’ve done it, even though training and training.”
“Training and training” readies a dancer’s body technically for Swan Lake’s dancing gauntlet. But the best Odettes – and Roper is one of them – think long and hard about how to interpret the Swan Queen (the Black Swan is hard-edged and evil and has to do 32 fouettés, and that’s the easy part). “I think it’s very hard to portray everything to do with Odette,” Roper said a couple of weeks ago, when she was not only preparing for her own performance, but also coaching young Katherine Monogue in the role for the OBT School show’s presentation of Act II’s lakeside scene. “[She is] very deep; years she’s been trapped, years. At the end, when Siegfried says I love you and I swear, you have to imagine that you want this so much, you don’t want him to say it out loud, and jinx it.”
That ability to analyze a role has served Roper well in the repertory that Canfield and Stowell, who led the company for nine years, provided for her and us. Current artistic director Kevin Irving’s acquisition of works by Nacho Duato and Helen Pickett extended the variety of her range. Roper has been an implacable Myrtha in two productions of Giselle, and a volatile and besotted Titania in Stowell’s sophisticated take on A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Her portrayal of the dreamily goofy classical music fan in Jerome Robbins’ The Concert made us laugh out loud. That part, which was originated by Tanaquil Le Clercq, calls for detailed, precise timing and complete inhabiting of a young gir, who is so bewitched by Chopin’s score that a chair is pulled out from under her and she stays in an unsupported seated position.
In roles that call for warp speed and enough energy to fuel a factory, such as Christopher Wheeldon’s Rush and Nicolo Fonte’s Bolero, Roper’s athleticism is deployed in the service of artistry. In ballets that skew and rev up classical technique, such as William Forsythe’s The Second Detail, James Kudelka’s Almost Mozart, and Pickett’s Petal, Roper’s inquiring mind and hunger for moving in new ways made her shine. Thanks, incidentally, to the secure, stellar dancing by Roper and the rest of the cast, Petal was much more interesting to watch in its final performance Saturday night than at its premiere.
Roper’s unlikely career as a Balanchine ballerina (few in this century who are not trained at the School of American Ballet achieve this) began under the artistic directorship of Canfield, when she danced the fourth movement “Russian” solo in Mr. B’s Serenade. Under Stowell she has danced the temper tantrum on point that is the Choleric variation in Four Temperaments, and lent her fleet-footed skills to his Divertimento 15. Most recently she applied her eloquent body to what is said to be the role of Stravinsky’s wife in Stravinsky Violin Concerto.
She has been a stripper in Slaughter on Tenth Avenue, the chorus-girl figure in Rubies and the Siren in Prodigal Son, giving the last, according to Damien Jack, who saw her dance it (alas, I did not) a deeper interpretation than we usually see: “The part is often played as a cross between a lady wrestler and Lady Macbeth, all hard edges,” Jack wrote for Oregon ArtsWatch on June 18, 2013. “Roper is a lyrical, witty, soft-edged dancer. She very wisely played up the Siren’s avidity, her hunger for money and sex, and she captured perfectly her sinuous allure while playing down that steely, hard-edged quality. Her Siren was … a fully achieved character — frightening and cruel but human.”
Everything Roper dances is “fully achieved,” in part because of a work ethic that is cited by every choreographer and stager who has crossed her path, as well as by many of her dancer colleagues. She attributes that dedication to the task at hand to Canfield, who, with Elena Carter, Haydée Guttierez and Mark Goldweber, she names as her most important teachers:
“Elena Carter reminded me of Roxanne [her second ballet teacher in her native Maine]. She was breathtakingly beautiful and so young and poised when she was teaching us. I still remember how she held her arms when she did reverence. She would say, ‘Last is best and best is last’ when we would get to the end of a combination and were getting tired and sloppy. I like to repeat that to my students when I teach. In later years Elena would come and teach the company when we were in the theater and often she would get the difficult task of teaching on Sunday morning before a matinee performance, when everyone was very tired. She had an uncanny ability to give just the right amount of hard work and gentle stretching to set our bodies up perfectly for our show.
“James Canfield was my most important teacher. The combination of James, Haydée and Mark Goldweber really put the finishing touches on me as a dancer. But James always wanted more. He wanted our port de bras more supple and inventive, he wanted to see us travel farther and jump higher. He wanted us to finish perfectly, but most important he just wanted us to dance our hearts out every day. ‘How would you feel if you couldn’t dance a step tomorrow and you’d wasted a moment today?’ he would call out to the company.”
Under Stowell, whom she commends as an ideal director for the mature dancer, Roper was able to combine her remarkable dancing career with marriage and motherhood — she is married to lighting designer Michael Mazzola, and they have two young sons, John Alan, who is 11, and Charlie, who is 5. She hopes to spend more time with them as she assumes her new role with OBT as Major Gifts Officer in Development.
While she is basically staying out of the studio, except for some teaching in OBT’s School, she is choreographing a pas de deux for Candace Bouchard and Brett Bauer to perform in a few days at former OBT marketing and public relations director Erik Jones’s Route 11 Dance Festival in Lexington, Virginia. Another version will be danced at the Create showcase at the BodyVox studios in June. Roper started trying her hand at choreography under Canfield’s tenure.
Roper carries the history of Oregon Ballet Theatre in her body and mind and heart. She knows its value, not only to the city of Portland, but to the country: it’s no accident that she has twice, with the company, performed in the Kennedy Center’s Ballet Across America Festival in Washington, D.C. In her role as a fundraiser, which she talks about with the same enthusiasm as she does her dancing, she will help, God and the economy willing, to ensure OBT’s future.