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Oregon Ballet Theatre saying goodbye

Principal dancer Alison Roper spins in a tribute as she prepares to retire


by: PHOTOS COURTESY OF BLAINE TRUITT COVERT - Longtime principal dancer Alison Roper will retire after Oregon Ballet Theatres Celebrate, leaving OBT with two female principal dancers. Roper says both dancers have their beautiful aspects.Alison Roper’s swan song as a principal dancer with Oregon Ballet Theatre will be full of pomp and ceremony — and some underlying sadness, even for the people who have to move on without her.

The 40-year-old Roper will retire after she performs in the ensembles of “Celebrate,” April 17 to 26 at Newmark Theatre, ending an 18-year run with Oregon Ballet Theatre. She intends to fully enjoy herself, dancing in Helen Pickett’s “Petal” and Nacho Duato’s “Cor Perdut” and a tribute performance.

“Sad and excited,” Roper says. “It’s definitely a really sad time for me, but also exciting, because I love the pieces I’m getting to dance in this program.

“It’s the end of a really long journey, and there’s always some sense of sadness at the end. Some poignancy, and thinking back, remembering things that have happened.”

Christopher Stowell, the former OBT artistic director, once insisted that Roper’s final performances would be full of pomp and ceremony. Kevin Irving, the new artistic director, agreed. The company has made a big deal about Roper’s retirement.

“I thought I’d make the decision quietly and do it,” says Roper, thinking back about retirement and her days with Stowell. “(Stowell) thought that Portland audiences would need a full year to say goodbye. Kevin had the same take on it.”

Irving, who joined the company last year, regrets having only one season to work with Roper.

“It seems like yesterday that

I got here and started working with her,” he says. So, Irving will revel in Roper’s final performances.

“What I’ve come to appreciate is her incredible devotion to the practice of the art,” he adds. “She’s not the type to flow in and think she’s something special. She puts mental and physical energy into it. She’s an incredible example in that respect. ... She has an incredible physical gift, a sheer ability, and incredible generosity that comes out in performances that comes with the best dancers. She’s not holding on to anything.”

Her fellow dancers certainly understand that the Newmark performances will have special meaning.

“She’s so amazing,” says Xuan Cheng, a fellow principal dancer. “I’m a big fan of her. It’s sad to see her go.

“She works so hard. A lot of fun to watch her. It’s beautiful, her every movement.”

The show will go on, although Irving doesn’t plan to hire another principal dancer, immediately. Irving says OBT has the good fortune of having two excellent female principal dancers in Cheng and Haiyan Wu, as well as soloists Candace Bouchard and Ansa Deguchi who can shine in principal roles. OBT also takes pride in its younger, developing dancers, and perhaps somebody steps to the forefront?

Irving says that while Roper “is in a class by herself to some degree” and “embodies OBT and rightfully so,” the other dancers bring talent and personality to the stage.

“Xuan is one of those dancers that has so much sparkle,” he says. “Haiyan is very different, but also a beautiful creature. We’ve had so many years to develop our love and appreciation for Alison, we just won’t be instantly replacing her.”

Cheng might be the first woman to take on more prominent roles. She’ll welcome the opportunities, although she says her time at OBT has been full of challenging and rewarding roles.

by: PHOTOS COURTESY OF BLAINE TRUITT COVERT - The Oregon Ballet Theatre will have two female principal dancers - Xuan Cheng and Haiyan Wu (with Brian Simcoe). Roper says both dancers have their beautiful aspects.Cheng danced with Guangzhou Ballet of China before moving to Canada to perform with La La La Human Steps and then Les Grands Ballets Canadiens. She joined OBT in 2011, hired by Stowell.

“Alison and I are very different dancers with different roles,” she says. “There is always competition, but in different ways.”

Says Irving: “There are a lot of differences, and (a main one) is the physical type. Alison is a taller and more athletic dancer. Xuan has a little more delicacy, due to her size. Xuan, in terms of personality, has more fire than Alison. But, it’s like having oranges and persimmons and grapes ... all wonderful fruits, juicy and alive. Or, you could use any flower analogy.”

Cheng says she is happy with OBT and living in Portland, with its fine food, “small and compact” area and polite drivers. She likes the feeling of being “settled” here. At 29, she hasn’t dealt with wear and tear on her body — Roper has a bothersome back — although she notices the difference between being 29 and 20, and maintains herself through good sleep and eating, massage and acupuncture.

She looks forward to the 2014-15 season, which includes “Cinderella” and another Duato dance.

Roper sees some of herself in Cheng.

“Xuan is an exceptionally hard worker. Her work ethic is unsurpassed,” she says. “It certainly equals mine, and that’s rare. It makes her a great role model. She’s fearless on stage, and has a nice, sparkly stage presence, very eye-catching. She’s very attractive, even in a room full of beautiful dancers, she stands out.”

Wu, meanwhile, “is a very mature artist. She’s truly an artist,” Roper adds.

“When she is dancing, she pours all of herself into her dancing. It feels spontaneous. You don’t see meticulous repetition. She absorbs the material and when she dances she really dances. She’s a very quiet and serene presence, almost polar opposite, personality-wise, of Xuan. ... I couldn’t have been happier with the two principals when Christopher brought them in.”

Adds Irving, of Wu: “Beautiful dancer. Very pure technique. She has kind of a magnetism that, rather than ascending it out, draws you in. Very soulful when she dances.”

So, fans and company members will be saying goodbye to Alison Roper, and hello to the future.

“It’s bittersweet, saying goodbye to Alison,” Irving says. “But, it feels very exciting, feels fresh and galvanizing, that the company is doing really well. We’re happy to see that.”