February 26, 2012

Live your dream: Helene Alexopoulos

I am THRILLED to feature Helene Alexopoulos in the LIVE YOUR DREAM series today. Helene has a very special place in my heart. I remember being young 19 y/o soloist when video with NYC ballet work out came out. I remember listening to her interview afterwards and having a seed " it's possible" planting deep in my heart. I remember like it was yesterday being dumbstruck when I was able to take a technique class taught by her - my living model of success , beauty and possibility. Ballet world is very lucky to have women like Helene to counterbalance the typical assumptions created by time and society. She is a legend in my heart, at the very least.

NEW YORK — "Children had never entered my mind, and it was no secret that Balanchine thought ballerinas shouldn't have them."
-- Suzanne Farrell,
"Holding On to the Air"

Her thick black hair twists off her forehead into a ballerina bun, every strand in place. Her feet are bare, the ropy veins betraying their strength. Instead of a leotard, she wears a demure black bathing suit, faded by chlorine.
She holds her baby son, Grayson, in the crook of one elbow, like a football, and his twin sister, Alexandra, in the other.
Gracefully, with that splayed ballerina walk, she descends the Persian-tiled stairs, sinking into the steamy blue water. Her poise and stage-presence suggest a grand entrance at the New York State Theater, perhaps in some lost Balanchine ballet, but it's just the kiddie pool of the 63rd Street Y.
"Oh my God," Helene Alexopoulos announces. "You gotta watch this. Grayson might go under water." He ducks beneath the water as sleekly as a little seal, and emerges unruffled, as if nothing has happened. Alexandra, not to be outdone, goes next, as mother, teacher and bystanders applaud. "Wow," Alexopoulos coos. "Wait till we tell Daddy."

It's a long way from the stage at Lincoln Center, tossed in a whirlwind of light, sound and motion, to Alexandra and Grayson, drooling with the other babies as their moms sing "The Wheels on the Bus" in the Shrimp-Flipflop class at the Y. But as Alexopoulos, mother and principal dancer with the New York City Ballet, takes the stage this season, her almost-year-old twins stay at home with their grandmother.

Ballerina lore, from "The Red Shoes" to "The Turning Point," tells us that ballerinas don't have personal lives, let alone husbands, babies or twins. Their dedication to their art is supposed to be so consuming that human love--as opposed to love of their art--is a crippling distraction, and marriage a sacrilege. In "The Red Shoes," when forced to choose between love and the dance, Moira Shearer, in full ballet regalia, throws herself in front of a train.

The reality is not so far from the myth. Two of the great ballet legends, Shearer and Margot Fonteyn, never had children. In a real-life echo of "The Red Shoes," Suzanne Farrell was fired from City Ballet in 1969, just hours before a performance, after she defied Balanchine to follow her heart and marry a fellow dancer. The marriage of Balanchine himself, the late co-founder of City Ballet, to ballerina Maria Tallchief, was annulled on the grounds that she wanted children and he didn't. (Although he married four ballerinas, he never had children.)

"He felt that anyone can have a child, but not everyone can become a prima ballerina, which I certainly was," Tallchief recalls.
It is, after all, a profession in which youth is at a premium, in which women, no matter how old, are still called girls, and men, boys. Out of 88 dancers, both male and female, in City Ballet, only six (three men and three women) have children. All three women--Valentina Koslova, Lourdes Lopez and Alexopoulos--are principals (the highest rank) and only Alexopoulos has more than one child.
At competing American Ballet Theater, only two women--Christine Dunham, a principal, and Lucette Katerndal, a soloist--have children. Sheryl Yeager, a principal, returned last spring after having a baby and then retired. None of the ABT men has children.
As a practical matter, nine months must seem an eternity in the cloistered, feverish world of ballet. "If they're in the corps, most girls have retired by the time they're 27," says David Howard, the international ballet teacher. "If they're a soloist, they go to about 30. Every year after 30 is an exception."

And this is my absolute favorite part of the interview : 

Alexopoulos detects another trend: Only the most secure ballerinas--primas like Tallchief, Natalia Makarova, Allegra Kent and Melissa Hayden--dare to have children, and even they often wait until the twilight of their careers. Tallchief was 34 when she gave birth, in 1959; Makarova was 37. Alexopoulos remembers only one woman at City--Karin von Aroldingen--who had a child while in the corps and rose to become a principal. "You had to show that you could do both successfully and that your interests or abilities were not diminished," she says.

Her pregnancy was liberating, Alexopoulos says. For once in her life, she could let her body take over; she could forget the obsession of ballerinas with diet, thinness and appearing ethereal and childlike rather than womanly. "I loved being pregnant," she recounts. "For the first time, I could look in the mirror and it wasn't me, me, me, self, self, self. I had a strange sense of disappointment after giving birth, when I realized I wasn't pregnant anymore."

Her pregnancy did not stop her from dancing. She danced a "Live from Lincoln Center" tribute to Balanchine, in June, 1993, when she was a few weeks pregnant. "Grayson and Alexandra, the dancing zygotes," she jokes, relishing the idea. "

 Are you a dancer? Are you a mother? What are your thoughts on motherhood and career?

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