A Disciplined Soul

July 15, 2007

Hard work, as much as talent, makes Oregon Ballet Theatre’s Alison Roper a star.



Alison Roper, wearing black tights and rehearsal tutu, feet fluttering in agitated bourrées, extends her pleading, yearning arms toward fellow principal Artur Sultanov. On the second day of rehearsal for Oregon Ballet Theatre’s new Swan Lake, Roper already expresses Odette’s fear and vulnerability in her first encounter with Prince Siegfried. Her lovely classical line and acute musicality are in evidence as she learns the Swan Queen’s steps as set by artistic director Christopher Stowell.


Noted for her clarity, eloquence, and generous dancing in works by choreographers ranging from OBT founder James Canfield to Balanchine to Trey McIntyre, Roper was taking the first baby steps in learning the dual role of Odette/Odile for this month’s debut in Stowell’s first full-length Swan Lake (see “A Flock of New Swan Lakes,” February). Odile she has danced before. Fiery, hard-edged, triumphant in her deception, she nailed shut Siegfried’s coffin with every assured fouetté when Stowell staged Act III for OBT’s season opener in 2004, preparing the Portland audience for the company’s first homegrown Swan Lake.


OBT’s recent emphasis on the classical and neoclassical poses some special challenges for the native New Englander, who began her career with OBT as a 22-year-old apprentice in the fall of 1996, just when Canfield was sharpening the focus on new contemporary works. While he insisted on rigorous classical training in the company school and impeccable technique onstage, he retained only three evening-length ballets in active repertoire: Giselle, originally staged by Mark Goldweber, and his own versions of Romeo and Juliet and The Nutcracker. “That means,” Roper said in an interview last February, “that I’ve had no role models [for classical parts] in the company, and that does affect how you prepare for a role.”

“The technical part of Odette is hard,” said Roper, 32, singling out the many kinds of arabesque the role demands. “I had a stress fracture in my back when I was 13 or 14, and never felt comfortable again. So I worked on that in class and I’m seeing the results.”


While some dancers in her pointe shoes might be looking at videos of Makarova, Plisetskaya, or Gregory as Odette/Odile, Roper was not inclined do that. Which was fine with Stowell. “Alison feels the historical weight of the role,” he commented. “But she feels no obligation to fit into the parameters of past ballerinas; she has no preconceived ideal in her mind. What she does have is what I call surplus—extra dramatic and musical qualities she can call upon when the time comes.”


Roper also has a gift for transformation, which, when all is said and done, is what Odette/Odile is about. During the 10 years she has danced with OBT, the insecure apprentice with undeniable talent has transformed into a quietly glamorous ballerina. She is a woman who has it all: career, college degree, and a family consisting of toddler John Alan and husband Michael Mazzola (who calls her a “tiger”), who is a lighting designer.


When Canfield, who had an eye for spotting talent in untried dancers, took her into the company, Roper wasn’t entirely sure she wanted to dance professionally. Since the age of 4, when she started at a small school in a little town in Maine, she had been in and out of ballet training, sidetracked for a while into gymnastics, then back into ballet when deemed too tall to compete on the parallel bars.


“I quit [ballet] for four years,” she said. “My teachers at the Portland Ballet School told me I was too fat, and I was miserable 90 percent of the time. That’s why I went to college.” In her year at Hampshire College, Roper, who had also trained in Boston Ballet’s summer program and the Burklyn Ballet Theatre, could not resist the pull of the studio and took classes at nearby Mt. Holyoke and the University of Massachusetts. Deeply conflicted about what she wanted to do, she took her mother’s advice and left school to audition for a spot in a professional company—with no luck until OBT’s audition. “I am tremendously grateful to James for choosing me,” she says.


Canfield, as well as guest choreographers Bebe Miller and Trey McIntyre, threw the fledgling dancer into the choppy air of technical versatility, featuring her in vastly different work in the 1997 American Choreographers Showcase at the end of her first season. Miller’s Roses in a Righteous Garden demanded a fracturing of placement and technique. Canfield’s CQ required pointe work fast enough to break the sound barrier; McIntyre’s Like a Samba needed technical ease to a Latin beat and a deadpan sense of humor. Roper, not at all sure she could survive three ballets in one evening, asked a more experienced colleague, “Is it going to get much harder than this?”


Roper’s willingness to rehearse hard (it is, she says, a process that she sometimes loves more than performing) not to mention her intelligence and talent, is just as important to the choreographers and repetiteurs who have worked with her. “Alison is an impressive athlete, which is only a starting point,” said Francia Russell last January during a break from staging Balanchine’s Divertimento No. 15 on OBT. “Everyone who works with her loves how she throws herself in 100 percent of the way the whole day. She is a shining example for her work ethic, and there is not a phony bone in her body.”


McIntyre, who works with her in his Trey McIntyre Project as well as at OBT, says, “I love the way she honors technique and uses it as a launching pad.” In the nonstop, edgy Just, set to an Asian tinged percussive score by Henry Cowell, Roper delivers a musically driven, passionate performance that is as much about pointe technique as it is about the score.


Now that she is a mother—and because of Mazzola’s need to travel for his work, frequently a single mother—Roper cherishes the time in the studio. “Working is often the easiest thing I do in a day,” she says. “Ballet, for me, is very linear. It is pure work. You focus, you work as hard as you can until you feel like you might throw up, then you can laugh, and then the day is done. Being a parent isn’t linear, and as a single parent half the time it’s even harder. So yes, when I get to work I often feel like a starved person wanting to gorge myself on ballet all day long.”


The most difficult part of balancing her professional and personal roles is the lack of time to herself. Although John Alan attends a preschool, and Roper’s mother travels from Maine to look after him during OBT seasons, Roper says, “It’s hard to find time to sew [ribbons on] pointe shoes. A 3-year-old and needle and thread are not a good combination.”


Nevertheless, asked how motherhood has affected her dancing, Roper responds positively: “It has made me calmer and stronger in the studio, emotionally. I still go to the same highs and lows, but I have a lot more resources to deal with my feelings and am more likely to use humor to get myself out of a mood—so important to maintaining one’s sanity in the studio.”


In preparing the role of Odette/Odile, Roper is worried that she won’t have enough rehearsal time “Artur and I will rehearse very hard not just on the technique and artistry, but also on ‘performing’ the piece as much as possible in the studio. For me, mastering my nerves comes from knowing that I have done the piece like I was onstage, many many times already in the studio. So I am placing my faith in my hard work.”


Stowell has placed his faith in the “committed, full-throttled performance” he knows Roper will give, foreseeable last November in only the second rehearsal.


Martha Ullman West, a Portland-based writer and DM senior advising editor, is working on a book about Janet Reed.