"It’s wonderful and I get paid to do it!"




An Interview with Alexandra Dickson,
Soloist, Pacific Northwest Ballet
July 1, 2002

By Stuart Sweeney



Stuart Sweeney: When did you start dancing?
Alexandra Dickinson:
It was something that was always in my life. My older sister took ballet classes when I was young and from early on I was doing Scottish dance and creative movement and then it snowballed; once you get started you can’t stop. I always loved dancing and music and for me it’s not so much about technique, it’s the fact that moving to music is so liberating. It’s wonderful and I get paid to do it!

So how did you start with PNB?
I’d been going to summer programmes with them since the age of 11, so it was a natural evolution for me. I knew it was where I wanted to get a job as a dancer, but I’m a Canadian citizen and I knew that would be a problem. PNB had always accepted me and involved me in The Nutcracker when they came to Vancouver and so on. Whereas I’d never been accepted at any Canadian programmes, as they’d say I was too tall or too whatever. So it seemed very natural for me to go to PNB and they worked hard to make it possible.

It has always seemed to me that PNB has a high proportion of tall dancers?
Yes, but you know it changes so much from year to year. Now the Company is so much shorter than it used to be. When I first joined I was considered a short dancer, now I’m somewhere in between.

Tell me about the early part of your career.
Looking back I got tremendous opportunities when I was first in the Company. They had to push me because of my visa and I moved faster than if I had been an American citizen, as they needed to see what I was capable of doing and if I would fit in. It was good for me and created a desire in me to come back. However, I was never confident that I would be able to stay and in the end the circumstances with the visa made it so difficult that I left and joined Ballet British Columbia. I was lucky to get a job, but it made me angry that I’d had to leave.

I spent two seasons with Ballet BC and learned a tremendous amount. They rarely do pointe shoe work and have a great rep with pieces by Kylián and Forsythe. But all the while in the back of my mind I wanted to go back to PNB. So whenever I got a good review I’d send it to PNB right away and off-season I’d be in Seattle staying with friends and taking Company class and basically in their face.

After two years at Ballet BC, I told them that I was really grateful for what I had learned, but that a number of things were getting to me and I decided I had to leave, even though I didn’t have a job to go to. Then next day out of the blue, when I was at a barbecue, I got a call from Francia [Russell] asking me what I was doing and would I like to come down and see them. Right off I said, “I’m there!” So I took classes for a few days and then a job offer came for me from the Royal Winnipeg. When I told Kent [Stowell] and Francia they said, “We’d like to hire you as a Soloist.” It was so amazing after all the trauma and it was so great to be back.

"I find it very interesting to be exposed to modern work and
it’s a way to grow and also makes your classical ballet better."

Since you’ve been back have there been landmark roles for you?
One that immediately comes to mind is Jardí Tancat (by Nacho Duato). As I mentioned earlier I learned a tremendous amount when I was at Ballet BC and I strongly believe that if I hadn’t had that opportunity I would not know how to do certain things. When Jardí was first set on PNB it was all Principal dancers apart from me, but it was clear that I understood that type of movement. I do a wide range including classical stuff as well as the modern and that suits me. I would find it boring to do the same type of movement all the time.

On the question of performing a wide range of work, some traditionalists argue that ballet companies shouldn’t be performing these modern works. They raise issues such as a dilution of expertise in classical ballet and risk of injury. What’s your view?
There may be some truth in those arguments. But there is so much more to explore with your musicality and your physicality and how your weight can be different. I find it very interesting to be exposed to modern work and it’s a way to grow and also makes your classical ballet better. It’s important for audiences too to get a variety of work. Although some just want to see classical, many want to see stuff like In the middle.

There’s also a lot of discussion about the balance between technique and artistry these days with the increased importance of competitions like Jacksonville. Do you think the balance has gone too far in the technique direction?
I think there are two kinds of dancers. There are some that are cut out for the competition aspect of dance. However I’m not sure what the point of that is and it was never a path I took. I find the approach of how-many-pirouettes-can-you-do and how-long-can-you-hold-this-balance a bit freakish. Personally that’s not what I go to the ballet for and I don’t understand the motivation for it.

Were you here in London on the last tour?
Yes, with Midsummer Night’s Dream, one of my favourites. The orchestra was tremendous and we had the kids from the PNB School who always steal the show.

What pieces are you scheduled to dance this week?
I’m expecting a baby, so I’m doing less than I would have otherwise. I’m doing Jardi and all my roles in Silver Lining, but I was down for Fearful Symmetries and maybe Divertimento. I haven’t been feeling well, so it’s better that I don’t do too much. Fearful Symmetries is a great, explosive work and I think the audience here will like it, but it is very hard work.

So looking to the future, what are your plans?
First and foremost it’s the baby, of course, and then I’d like to come back. We’re opening a new theatre and that would be in the season that I return. And we end that season with Midsummer Night’s Dream, which would be a great incentive for me to come back to work. At the moment my horizons are short term because of the baby and very exciting at the same time. As for dancing, I want to keep evolving and experimenting and learning new work. I don’t want to settle, because then it’s lost all its intrigue for me.

And when you stop being a dancer?
You know, I’m torn in a couple of directions. One thing I would love to be involved in later is psychology, although I would take a lot of schooling. Young dancers struggle with confidence and don’t get a lot of support. So I’d like to be like the people who work in sport telling young people, “You can do it.” The other route is working for myself in a small business, but I don’t have any illusions that it’s going to be really tough. As dancers we expect a certain standard of excellence and we have to adjust to the fact that we won’t achieve the same level in other areas for a long time. For the time being I’ve started studying again in preparation for whatever route I take.

What view of PNB would the Company like London audiences to have?
It would be obvious to come and bring a Balanchine rep, but I admire the courage to bring a diverse rep trying to show that the Company is able to do a lot more than one particular thing. Some people may criticise us, but some are always going to be unhappy. Francia and Kent are always bold with touring programmes and when we went to the East Coast we took some 12 ballets. I think people should enjoy us for what we are.


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Edited by Malcolm Tay

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