Alison Roper retires from Oregon Ballet Theatre this month after 18 seasons with the company. The 40-year-old ballerina has been with the company longer than any other dancer—in both of its appearances at the Kennedy Center, and even as the lead in Swan Lake while five months pregnant. Calm and driven, she dances with quiet sensitivity but has the athleticism to stick difficult moves with a gentle touch. This month she’ll dance the pas de deux Cor Perdut in every performance of OBT’s Celebrate program, taking her final bows with the company on April 26. WW talked to Roper about favorite moments, mishaps, injuries and next steps.
Willamette Week: You’ve danced for longer than most dancers do. Why is that?
Alison Roper: I’ve been really lucky. My body has held up pretty well, so I haven’t had the kind of significant injuries that will shorten somebody’s career. I do have some chronic injuries, though, that have become more nagging as I’ve gotten older, and that’s a big part of why I’m deciding to stop now before those become more serious.
Would you recommend dancing for as long as you have?
[Laughs.] I think so. Maybe check back with me in a couple of years and see how my body feels. I just was talking with a friend of mine—she’s elderly, and I said, “I do wonder sometimes how my back will feel when I’m 80.” And she said, “Don’t think about it, dear!”
What was your favorite moment with the company?
There’s a couple that spring to mind. One is the first time I did a full-length Swan Lake. It was [former artistic director] Christopher Stowell’s Swan Lake. The very first show was really magical. It’s a real accomplishment to get through a full-length ballet doing the principal ballerina part, maybe a similar feeling to running a marathon. You’ve worked so long and trained so hard and then you do it. You actually cross that finish line. You’re bowing and people are clapping and you realize it’s gone well.
Another moment is the first time dancing at the Kennedy Center. That was a pretty amazing moment, just standing outside the Kennedy Center looking up at those columns, looking up at the words of John F. Kennedy written on the outside of the building, and to realize, walking down the Hall of Nations in real life, we’re going to perform here tonight. It was amazing. I just spent all my time wandering around the Kennedy Center. I couldn’t believe I was there about to dance.
What was your worst onstage moment?
One of the worst, actually, was once when we had a live musician. He was a soloist, and he forgot to play a repeat in the music. It was pretty horrible. We didn’t realize for a while; we just knew we were really wrong. He was playing really loud music, but we were still doing these really soft movements. The director almost had them close the curtain and start the show again. It was pretty disastrous. Ironically, though, as important and scary as that felt to us as dancers, a lot of the audience had no idea because we just skipped a whole bunch of choreography. But I have to say, without naming names, whenever I see that musician around town I just have to chuckle.
You’ve been with the company under three artistic directors. How do you feel about the direction OBT is going now?
I feel fantastic about it. I don’t feel like [current artistic director] Kevin Irving has made the drastic changes that some people feared. He teaches a really great classical ballet class every morning. In fact, the classes are as good as or better than ever. The new school director [Anthony Jones] is phenomenal, one of the best teachers I’ve had in my entirely life. I think that we’re actually retaining a lot of the wonderful classical aesthetic that people came to enjoy during Christopher Stowell’s years, while delving back in a little more seriously to some of the contemporary works that exist in our art form. Kevin is actually doing a wonderful job blending the two previous artistic directors, finding a balance. Hopefully, it will have a nice appeal for the Portland audience.
What will you miss most about dancing with the company?
I’m going to actually miss my friends and my partners, working in the studio with the other ballerinas and the male dancers. I absolutely love rehearsal. I love going in every day and having another shot at doing something without the pressure of performance. That is kind of the thing you just can’t exactly recapture. You can continue the friendships, but you just aren’t in each other’s faces, literally sweating, and accidentally hitting each other in the nose and saying, “Whoops, sorry, I didn’t mean to punch you in the eye.”
What are you going to miss the least?
The pain of wearing pointe shoes. That’s been a battle for me. I have a lot of foot problems, toe problems. I had a bone infection one time. I got an infection from a corn on my foot, and it turned into a bone infection. I danced on the infection for like six months, and in 2010 I had to have bone cut out of my foot . I almost had my toe amputated from that. That struggle is really for everybody. Pointe shoes are just really uncomfortable. It’s not really normal.
Will we see you perform again?
I don’t have firm plans to do any more dancing in Portland, although I do plan to keep taking classes several days a week. So the possibility will be there if I feel like it, but I’m not sure how I’ll feel.
You’ve said you plan to move into the administrative area of OBT.
Yeah, I’m going to work in the marketing and development departments, and I will start as our major gifts officer. I’m already working as the major gifts officer, but just without a title and with very little time because obviously most of my days are spent in the studio. I feel like I’ve spent so much time cultivating the artistic side of myself, being an artist in the studio, teaching, setting ballets, traveling, performing. I really want to pay attention to another part of the organization so that I can learn more about a nonprofit organization from a different angle—with potentially, down the road, maybe wanting to be an artistic director or an executive director myself. But I just take it one year at a time. That’s the way a professional dancer’s life works: You sign up for a job for a year, and you’re there for a year, and then you hope that they rehire you. That’s still where I’m at.
Anything else to add?A lot of people tell me they’ve loved watching me and they’ll miss me, and my feelings are the same. I’ve loved being here, and I’ve loved dancing, and I’ve always been very honored that people enjoy watching me dance. I will miss it, too, but this feels like a really good, positive decision for me right now.