Leann Underwood flashes through Concerto Barocco’s second movement, dancing with such lyrical, fine-tuned musicality that Balanchine might have made the role on her this morning, instead of in 1941. If she looks divinely inspired, in a way she is. Deeply religious, Underwood says she “feels we are all on earth with a purpose. Part of my purpose is dancing.”
Underwood was a 15-year-old apprentice with Portland’s Oregon Ballet Theatre when she danced the Barocco solo in the company’s annual school performance last year and a full company member when she performed in the ballet’s corps in the fall. Next month she takes her long-limbed, streamlined, perfectly proportioned body to American Ballet Theatre’s Studio Company, one grand jeté further to realizing her dream of dancing with ABT.
An intelligent quick study with a near photographic memory, the 5' 6" Underwood has shown facility in a wide range of roles. When she was still in the school, former artistic director James Canfield featured her in his sensuous Equinoxe, a role that shocked her so much she went home and wept after the first rehearsal. More to her liking was the polka girl in Ashton’s lighthearted Façade, which, she says, “was so much fun I couldn’t wait to do it again.” Underwood learned the most about non-traditional partnering from dancing one of the body-twisting pas de deux in Christopher Wheeldon’s There Where She Loved. And in the lead role in modern choreographer Josie Moseley’s When I Close My Eyes, Underwood was the dancing catalyst for the Holocaust survival stories at the piece’s core—her spiraling, expressive movement a far cry from the eloquent line she shows as Dewdrop in The Nutcracker.
“Leann,” says Moseley, who teaches in OBT’s school, “obtains information, absorbs it, and makes it her own. Then she puts her heart and soul into what it means to her.”
“She’s prodigiously talented,” says artistic director Christopher Stowell. “And it’s clear she loves every minute of dancing. She’s focused, equally engaged all the time, whether it’s class, rehearsal, or onstage.”
Her passion for dance began young. At 7, she started ballet school in Yuba City, California with a teacher she remembers as mean—but not mean enough to discourage her from continuing. Then Underwood’s family relocated to Wilsonville, Oregon, a 30-minute drive from Portland. By the time she was 9, her mother was ferrying her to OBT’s school, where Underwood studied with Haydée Gutiérrez, Elena Carter, and Canfield. They all “taught me discipline, motivation, and artistry,” she says. “Haydée made me do things I didn’t think possible.”
Underwood earned a full scholarship to a summer intensive at Naja City Ballet in Okinawa when she was 12, followed by scholarships to summer programs at the School of American Ballet and American Ballet Theatre. Stowell sees her technique as sophisticated, but still needing “attention to fine details, particularly in her lower leg.” He says he is pleased to “see that her feet are developing a new tactileness. She needs,” he adds, “to love her weaknesses and flaws instead of disguising them or being frustrated with them. Then she’ll be a more complete, interesting artist.”
Going to New York and the ABT Studio Company is a brave step for Underwood, who will leave the comforts of home to share an apartment with other dancers. And for her close-knit family, which includes a younger brother, it is also a wrench. “We talked and we prayed,” Underwood says, “and finally decided that it was my decision. They didn’t want me to look back as an adult and think, ‘Gosh, why didn’t I do that?’ ”
Home isn’t the only nurturing environment Underwood is leaving. At OBT she has had a lot of coaching from Stowell as well as from guest artists coming in to set work. “I am so grateful to Christopher and to Damara Bennett, [who heads the school] it’s been really great. They’ve taught me a lot. I love OBT and will miss it.”
Underwood knows she still has a lot to learn, but she clearly understands now, intuitively and intellectually, what dancing is all about. “Barocco is incredible,” she says. “I feel like when people think of dancing, they think of that.”
Martha Ullman West, Dance Magazine senior advising editor, is based in Portland, Oregon. She also writes for the Eugene Weekly and Dance Chronicle.