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An Interview With Alberta Ballet's Alexandra Pera

by Kate Snedeker

April 29 2013 -- Jubilee Auditorium North, Edmonton, AB

Prior to the world premiere of Alberta Ballet’s ‘Balletlujah!’ in Edmonton, the company spent a week rehearsing in Edmonton. During this Edmonton residency, I has the pleasure of talking with company member Alexandra Pera about her career and the ‘Balletluhah’! experience. A third year member of the company, Pera danced the role of ‘New Love’ in the opening night cast

Can you tell me a bit about how you started dancing, and how you ended up in Alberta?
I was born in Romania, and in Romania all the little kids do gymnastics, so I started with that. I moved with my family to Montreal when I was four, and we moved to Ottawa later on. [In] Montreal, I started gymnastics, then slowly transferred to dance because it was physical, but also artistic and I wanted more of that too. So when I was seven, I started ballet and then a year or two later, I started tap and jazz as well.

From there I went to Bellville, Ontario to train away from home at the Quinte Ballet School when I was fifteen. I stayed there for two years then went to the North Carolina Dance Theatre in the States for two years. Then Washington Ballet in Washington DC for two years as a studio company member - that was my first full on job.

In Washington, the studio company program - as it is in most companies - was pretty much a two-year program. After that, they either have a spot in the company for you or they don’t. And they didn’t for me, so I drove up to New York a bunch of weekends and did open auditions. I went to other cities as well, and flew to Europe at some point. But Alberta sounded good - I moved here and this is my third season in [the Alberta Ballet]. It’s nice to be back [in Canada, where] I don’t need a work visa. You feel like you’re at home.

I’ve heard the Quinte Ballet School mentioned by a number of dancers. Could you tell us more about the school?
It was a really good school for me; it was my first professional environment. Skye (Balfour-Ducharme] in the company also went there. They teach Cecchetti, [but] it’s not always syllabus classes. We would have some Cecchetti classes and take exams, and also have just regular classes with exercises that would change every day.

Have you had any teachers who have particularly inspired you?
Well the first one [was] when I was really young – probably 13 - and still in Ottawa. Evelyn Hart came and taught us at a school there. She really touched me … because she has a very gentle and very caring way of teaching. She said some things that I wasn’t told before and had really new insights to bring.
Then … at the Quinte Ballet School, Owen Montague was one of my teachers and I loved him. He had also a similar quality about him, and freedom of movement. And in North Carolina I had Patricia McBride. She’s one of the original Balanchine ballerinas, so you’re learning from a legend. She was really inspiring; she had a great energy, positive attitude and she really helped me be freer in my movement and more joyful.

What have been your best experiences as a professional dancer?
I really enjoyed working in this company with Kirk Peterson, who came and set ‘Swan Lake’, ‘Sleeping Beauty’ and ‘Othello’ on us since I’ve been here. He’s a joy to work with, such a good person and very knowledgeable. He has a lot of history in him and all of his productions were really grand, and very detailed so they were a lot of fun.
I also really enjoyed ‘In the Upper Room’. It’s a ballet by Twyla Tharp, [which] we did in September of last year. It’s a ballet that every major company does pretty much, and it’s very well known. So that was special, and the movement is very different from what I’ve done before.

‘In the Upper Room’ features a lot of stage smoke. What is it like dancing in the smoke?
Well, some of the time it was OK, but I remember near the beginning [in] one of the first shows, it was really scary because I think they put too much smoke and you felt like you were in a box. You couldn’t even see the front row of the audience. It was a bit claustrophobic

Are there any ballets, which you not yet danced, that you would like to dance?
In the contemporary vein of things, any ballet by Wayne McGregor. Right now he’s the resident choreographer at the Royal Ballet in England, and I really love ‘Chroma’ and ‘Infra’, two ballets that he’s done. They’re really fluid, crazy, extreme movement – I love watching those. I’d also love to do some William Forsythe works like ‘In the Middle Somewhat Elevated’; everyone wants to do that one. Classically, I’d love to do ‘Le Sylphide’, ‘La Sylphide’ and ‘Giselle’. I can’t wait to do ‘Giselle’ next year!

Are there any ballets that you like to watch, rather than dance?
I think there’s a lot of Balanchine ballets that I really enjoy watching, but not so much doing, because they’re really hard. All of his stuff has really quick footwork, and that’s harder for me.

Do you have a favorite dancer(s)?
My favorite is Alina Cojocaru from the Royal Ballet. She’s Romanian like me, but that’s not why I like her. She has such an honesty about her dancing, such a raw realness…It’s really touching watching her. I’ve seen her live once – Sleeping Beauty in New York [with] ABT and that was in incredible moment! I look up to her and watch all her You Tube videos and learn a lot from watching them.

What has it been like preparing for Balletlujah!?
It’s been really long! We started the last week of June of last year. So it’s almost been a full year - kind of on and off. We did a few weeks of rehearsing and then jumped to something else. It’s hard to piece together when we take such a long time and have it broken up. We’re still perfecting [the ballet] – it’s a slow process. [Balletlujah!] is a bit more casual – I don’t dance in pointe shoes at all… I dance in high heels for a change.

Is it difficult to dance in the high heels?
It’s quite hard, especially [in] one of the dances. It’s called Acquiesce [and] we’re all in a club. The dance before is mostly just walking, but [Acquiesce] is actually dancing in high heels. They’re pretty high heels too – they’re not stage heels – they’re regular stilettos. Originally the choreography had us jumping and doing pirouettes, and we realized when we had the heels on that it was impossible. We get stuck on the floor or [tripped].

Has the process of working on Balletlujah! been similar to that for Jean Grand-Maitre’s previous ballets inspired by popular musicians?
It’s really similar each time actually. There are certain themes that come back in each of the ballets. I’ve done Sarah McLachlan with him two years ago – that was my first year here. And the Elton John ballet, ‘Love Lives Bleeding’, but I wasn’t here when he created it. I just relearned it afterwards.

Is the process different from working on a classical ballet, say ‘Swan Lake’?
Yes! The classics are more just setting the repertoire, choosing which version you want to do. You kind of know the structure of it… [In Balletlujah!] you make it up as you go.
The contemporary ballets that we do by known choreographers, they’re already set. And even if it’s something new, the choreographer usually comes in and works with you for four or five weeks and that’s it – that’s all [the time] they have to set it. Then you have a show. Whereas, because Jean is with us all year, it’s more of an ongoing process. There are also a lot of props to deal with, a lot of staging and projections that happen in all of his ballets.

What do you like to do outside of the studio?
I love to play the piano! I don’t have one at home here [in Calgary], but I play at the studio. At the theatre we have a really nice piano, so I like to play it. I have two cats, which takes up a lot of cuddling time. [laughs] I like to do a lot of artistic things… draw, to make videos, mix music. I’m interested in photography…some day I’ll probably take up photography.

What is something about you that people might be surprised to find out?
Sometimes they’re surprised by the wide variety of music I listen to, because I could come across as quiet. But I listen to all kinds from classical to I’m a huge fan of Lady Gaga. I listen to a lot of her music and I also like dancing different styles. People outside of the dance world might think ‘Oh you’re such a ballerina, you probably don’t do anything outside [the studio]’, but for example, I’m going to a workshop this summer with Lady Gaga’s choreographer. He’s teaching his choreography from her tour - it’s going to be a totally different experience for me.

And finally, what kind of pointe shoes do you wear?
Gaynor Minden and I love them right now! I think they help you work better.

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