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Dancing her way through life

OBT's Alison Roper plans final bow as principal dancer, but not from ballet world


Not many principal dancers in ballet companies reach the age of 40 and remain active. Wear and tear on the body, younger competition, and real-life demands usually get the best of them. But Alison Roper turns 40 in January and is still respected as an Oregon Ballet Theatre principal dancer, bridging the regimes of three artistic directors and starring in virtually every ballet, including "The Nutcracker,"  many times. An injured back, younger dancers and children haven t forced her to stop.

She ll be leaving on her own terms, retiring after the 2013-14 season.

"There are definitely people who do it," says Roper, of dancing till 40. "Within my sphere of acquaintances in dance work maybe a couple of handfuls. It's not a lot."

"It's not unheard of, but not the norm. Here, everybody retired. They're all younger than me." 

Roper doesn't plan to leave OBT. Instead, she'll transition into administration. But, her dancing days are not done, yet.

by: COURTESY OF BLAINE TRUITT COVERT/OBT - Alison Roper has played several roles in George Balanchines The Nutcracker, including the Sugarplum Fairy. Roper will appear in George Balanchine's "The Nutcracker," OBT's signature show, Dec. 14 through 24 at Keller Auditorium. She has played many roles in "The Nutcracker" -- Sugar Plum Fairy, Dew Drop Fairy, Arabian Coffee and Frau Stahlbaum -- and never tires of dancing in the classic.

"It's still challenging," she says. "It still pushes me, choreographically." 

Roper hails from the other Portland -- Maine -- and received formal dance training from The Portland School of Ballet, Boston Ballet School and OBT, which she joined in 1996 and became part of the dance corps the next year. She's by far the longest-tenured dancer at OBT. She also has performed with other companies, including the Trey McIntyre Project. During her time with OBT, she has danced for artistic directors James Canfield, Christopher Stowell and now Kevin Irving, who she calls a great addition to the company.

Roper will feature prominently in every OBT program through April 2014, with many leading roles in her final season. She said, upon her retirement announcement: "Dance is, for me, just like breathing. I dance when I am happy and when I am sad. I dance around the house when I am not dancing at work. I dance at the beach when I am on vacation. None of that will change because I've left the stage. I hope that when the audience here in Portland remembers me that they'll think of me dancing my way through the next chapter in my life." 

The Tribune caught up with Roper, who has a husband, Michael Mazzola, and two children, John, 11, and Charlie, 4, recently to discuss her career and retirement after 18 years with OBT and other things:

Tribune: You recently guest-danced in "The Nutcracker" in Santa Cruz, Calif.?

Roper: Yeah, I do actually enjoy going out of town and doing performances. I've done guest scenes like this quite a bit. Generally the money is better for this type of thing. "Nutcracker" is the easiest guesting to pick up. If you have a couple of them, you can make $5,000 to $6,000 for four, eight, or 10 shows. It's different than the normal job, which we're passionate about and love.

Tribune: Why are you retiring?

Roper: There were a couple of factors. I have a longtime chronic back injury, that I've dealt with my whole career. I got a stress fracture in my lower back when I was 13 and wore a lower back brace for nine months. Doctors told me not to dance. My parents took me to Boston and (other doctors) said, "She's fine."

The back problem never really healed up. I've been incredibly lucky and had a long career. But it has flared up in distressing ways a couple times, two or three years ago. I was in so much pain. I told Christopher, and he said it's not time to retire, but time to cut back a little bit.

Then, of course, he left. With Kevin coming in and the company decreasing in size, he wanted me to stay and made me a great offer. It seemed like the logical thing to continue the plan with Christopher, he encouraged me to (retire) after this season. I'm turning 40 and decreasing dancing, and I've never been injured in a way where I have missed shows. I've missed performances because of having babies.

Tribune: It's been such a lengthy career, why?

Roper: It is a little bit misleading. I started my career later than most. I quit dancing at 16, and went to college for two years, and I didn't go back to dancing till age 20. I auditioned for companies at 21, then started out here at 22. And, I've taken time off to have babies. All those little breaks on wear and tear on the body allowed me to enjoy longevity at the end of my career.

Tribune: You remember your auditions at age 21, including OBT?

Roper: This was the last of the auditions, and I expected a, "Thank you, you're beautiful, but you're out of shape. We're interested, but we can't offer you a job." James offered me an apprenticeship, and I almost fell over.

Tribune: Indeed, Canfield hired you, and you've worked with Stowell and Irving. Talk about each of them.

Roper: James gave me my career. He took a risk on me. Looking at me after I had been out of the dance scene for four years -- that's uncommon, unheard of. Now it might be a little more common, a lot of kids might go off to college.

At that time (in the 1990s), it was unusual, especially because I was not in college for dance. James handed me the gift. He saw something in me that spoke to him. He's very special in my life for that. He taught me, also, not only him but the people he employed, about what it is to be a hard-working professional dancer -- not just a professional dancer, "Here I am, I've made it, I've arrived, I'll dance now." James taught me you need to keep improving every day.

I really felt that (Christopher) was a very good boss, a very good man, who took a lot of interesting care not just in dancers, but in who people were as people. He allowed me to play leading roles. He committed to making me a star of the company. I loved working for him. I really, really enjoyed those years with him, to the point that when he left (in December 2012), I told him maybe I will leave, too. He told me, "No, don't do that, you'll regret it. Don't make decisions out of emotion." It was good advice.

Along came Kevin, and I thought, "We can't be lucky enough to get this guy."  His rÈsumÈ is unbelievable. I can't imagine OBT can be this lucky. Cross your fingers. Somehow, it worked out. With Kevin, I feel like I've known him for years. He has an ability, a willingness, to dig under the surface of what dance can mean. He's very interested in seeing dancers challenging themselves, "Maybe I can do more?" He's willing to push and get us there. I told Kevin the other day, "Wow, it's sad that I'll only have a year on your watch. I like where you're going with this. I'm bummed you came along late in my career." 

Tribune: You'll enjoy "The Nutcracker" at OBT for the final time?

Roper: I love Balanchine's "Nutcracker," and I was thrilled when Christopher brought it in. It's still challenging, it still pushes me choregraphically. There are ways to expand and change it. Musically, it's very interesting. I do love coming back to it. There are definite roles where there's a lot of jumping, and it's become harder. You have to be in shape and warmed up.

Tribune: You and everybody at OBT went through a tough 2012-13 season, with management upheaval and financial issues. Thoughts?

Roper: That was a difficult year for us. Ironically, we ended the fiscal year very strong. We didn't have a major (fundraising) push, a major gap to fill. Incredibly, ironically, that had been a struggle in the preceding several years. There weren't a lot of senior management-level people, and we sold out "Nutcracker" and "Swan Lake," so our revenue from ticket sales was much larger than projected. I was working the last couple weeks in June, and I asked, "Should I be calling people and having people come in that have the pipeline and can bring money in?" And, they said no. Interesting way to end a year fraught with such emotion.

Tribune: You still enjoy dancing, and now it's time to retire?

Roper: I really still love it. I've always told people who asked me what I was going to do next that, "I'm not even going to think about that, until I feel that I have to." You get signals from your body, it's time to start making a plan. I do really like it. I felt like if I could keep pushing through stuff, I definitely would.

I am at a place, I've asked a lot of my body and given a lot, and I have to respect my body enough. Christopher Stowell danced till 35, but on such a bad hip injury he needs a hip replacement and he's in his 40s. I don't want to retire and have surgeries. I'm bummed about retiring. People ask me, "Are you excited to be done?" And I say, "Not really."

Tribune: You'll still do some guest-dancing?

Roper: I do think I'll keep taking class, but not (dancing) 30 hours a week. But, taking class occasionally helps keep my back strong and loose. Some people quit and don't dance another step. I'm going to leave the door open, to see where my body's at. If people call me up, for guesting, maybe ... but, I will not be continuing as a principal.

Tribune: What's your role at OBT going to be after dancing retirement?

Roper: I'm already working in the administrative office, trying to learn the organization. I started off that adventure working in the development and fundraising department. I'll be a major gift officer. That'll get formalized throughout spring. We'll have conversations -- what salary, the structure of the job. I'm actually really looking forward to moving into that side of the organization, because fundraising, in particular, I've enjoyed because it's so valuable and an integral part of any organization.

I feel like the stress, the excitement, the importance of that particular department will touch a lot of the points that are important in me.

Tribune: Favorite roles?

Roper: Trey McIntyre's "Like A Samba." I've done it a million times, taught it all over the country. That was definitely one of the high points of my career. I've loved the relationship I've had with Trey. Loved the ballet he just made last year, "Robust American Love." I also loved "Swan Lake" and "Sleeping Beauty" and those big lead roles.

Tribune: Any fun things planned upon retirement from dancing?

Roper: I want to learn how to downhill ski. We're not allowed to, not allowed to take high-risk activities. That includes a long list of things, like downhill skiing, water skiing, snowboarding, kayaking. I've always wanted to learn, my children want to learn. My husband is a good downhill skier. I want to go to Hawaii. Never been. I want to travel a little bit more. I also want to get more involved in my children's schools. As a dancer, my schedule has been very fixed, and you don't have a say. If you're on contract, you show up when they say show up. I look forward to the flexibility.