Alison Roper will untie her ballet slippers after her final bow and let them breathe.
The Oregon Ballet Theatre Principal Dancer seems to defy gravity and makes graceful feats look effortless. Her moves keep audiences on the tips of their toes — on pointe, just like her.
With approximately 150 productions under her tutu, Roper’s dance career has taken her throughout the United States — including Alaska — and to Canada. The 39-year-old Portland resident dances six days a week but will retire in the spring.
“It’s incredibly exhausting and exhilarating all at once,” she said. “Ballet has taught me that very hard work will reward you. It has also taught me that sometimes hard work isn’t enough,” the mother of two said. “Ballet is everything to me. Music and dancing is what I enjoy most in the world; it’s how I express myself.”
And right now, she said, she’s very focused on her final full season with the company.
Injuries such as stress fractures in her lower spine and traumatic onset arthritis in her right foot are encouraging her to step away from the barre. The dancer said the pain makes dancing more difficult and she will instead focus on some of the other loves in her life — spending time with her husband, cooking, taking her two boys — one 4, the other 11 — to soccer games.
Balancing time in the OBT’s administrative offices’ major gifts division, Roper said she enjoys her full time work and will continue to learn more on the busy administrative side of the organization. And OBT is rising quickly on the national scene. The company of dancers performs an annual five-program season at Portland Center for the Performing Arts and also conducts regional and national tours. Its performances are grounded in classical technique and enhanced by contemporary works.
And Roper’s been part of the batterie brigade for years.
“She has the longest tenure of any dancer with the company and, in fact, has been a member of OBT for three fourths of its existence,” said Candace Bouchard, a Soloist Dancer with OBT who met Roper a decade ago.
OBT was one of about 18 dance companies Roper — originally from Portland, Maine — auditioned for in 1995. She chose Portland out of the many others because it offered some pay. She joined in 1996 as an apprentice and was promoted into the full company as an artist in 1997. At that time, the company wasn’t ranked.
“Once Christopher Stowell took over the directorship here he decided to rank the company. I was ranked as a Principal Dancer,” she said.
Ballet companies often rank their dancers in a hierarchical fashion, having several male and female dancers ranked to reflect their seniority and status within the company. Titles start with Apprentice and moving on to Corps de Ballet, Demi-Soloist or “second soloist,” Soloist or “first soloist” and lastly, Principal Dancer.
In 2002, Roper was honored by Dance Magazine as one of “25 to Watch.”
Her repertoire includes principal roles in works by George Balanchine, Christopher Wheeldon, Jerome Robbins, Sir Frederick Ashton, Kent Stowell, Peter Martins, Paul Taylors and Bebe Miller. She has originated leading roles in ballets by James Kudelka, Trey McIntyre, Yuri Possokhov, James Canfield, Christopher Stowell and Nicolo Fonte.
Because she’s tall in stature — five feet, seven inches — Roper said it helped that her dance partners were Artur Sultanov and Brett Bauer.
“Both of those men are enormously tall and strong and make me appear very small on stage,” she said. Bauer, a Principal Dancer with OBT since 2010, said that Roper has the ability to “fill the stage with her size and presence while still seeming delicate and soft, when called for. She possesses and exudes an underlying feeling of confidence and attack with everything she dances.”
Roper describes ballet as a clean, linear art form that oftentimes acts as a gateway to other forms of more experimental dance. She encourages those interested in dance to watch as many performances as possible.
“I remember seeing ‘The Nutcracker’ one year and noticing that the Sugar Plum Fairy was tall, like me,” she said.
“Aside from her naturally long, curvy, gorgeous legs and feet, Alison is a true artist. She puts all of herself into every role she dances, and starts each day with the same focus and attention to technique as a student, so she’s still always growing and improving herself,” Bouchard said, noting that Roper’s work ethic and artistry are inspirational.
Roper said that dance can enhance the lives of anyone, starting at any age. OBT, she said, has a wonderful dance program for adult students, whether they are just learning or have some ballet experience. One new class is for parents and children together.
Roper says that in retirement, she’ll continue to take classes and she hopes her involvement with OBT continues to grow.
“My final performances are ‘Celebrate’ at the Newmark Theatre in April 2014,” she said. “After closing night of the show I will be back in our offices, hard at work on other activities supporting the dancers and our wonderful school.”
And while her ballet flats might get more of a break, Roper’s meticulous, allegro work ethic will continue to enhance the company that seamlessly grew through the years, just as the brazen ballerina did.
“Alison seamlessly walks from being totally committed to dancing, to being totally committed to the development of this company she knows and loves, to being totally committed to her family,” Bouchard said. “She balances these demands with grace and incredible strength. We’ll all miss seeing her dance.”