Photo Top: Xuan Cheng and Brian Simcoe. Photo by Tatiana Wills.



Andrea Cooper


BY LINDA BESANT, December 2006

Performances of The Nutcracker have defined the holiday season for Andrea Cooper since she was four years old. She’s grown from her first turn as a Tiny Tot in Amarillo, Texas, to learning five roles in OBT’s Nutcracker this year. To this small town Southern belle who loves big city culture, Portland seems just right.

Yes, my sister Ashley. I’m so pleased to have her in the poster, I couldn’t imagine doing it without her. We’re each other’s support system, and we always stick up for each other, even on bad days. We finish each other’s sentences. We wear the same clothes by accident all the time, and then we’re like—I’ll change my shirt if you’ll change your pants. We even have the same dreams.
I’m a littler shyer and quieter when I first meet people. She has a lot of vim and vigor.  She’s earned her B.F.A. in Musical Theater. She can act and sing and dance. We studied ballet together until she was a junior in high school, when she shifted to pursue theater. It was sad for me when she stopped ballet, but it helped us get along better, because we were really competitive. Before I went to Pacific Northwest Ballet School’s Professional Division in Seattle, we hadn’t been apart for more than a few weeks at a time in our whole lives, so that was a switch. There were always little things, like we would help each other pick out clothes, or she would sharpen my eye liner, and there was always someone to run errands with. Being apart was pretty tough at first, but we adjusted. We talk on the phone every single day.

We started ballet when we were four years old with Neil and Camille Hess at Lone Star Youth Ballet in Amarillo, Texas. My Mom put us in ballet because we were showing tendencies to have bad posture. We were doing baton twirling—twirling is huge in Texas. My mom taught science and coached a nationally ranked twirling team called the Lone Star Ladies. She just loved it. She knew that ballet would teach us musicality and coordination and discipline, and she wanted us to become more graceful and flexible for twirling, but we ended up liking ballet better.

When I was seven, my Dad graduated from Texas A&M veterinary school, and we moved to Coeur D’Alene, Idaho. I started training with Ceci Klein, who danced with American Ballet Theatre in the 1950s and 60s. I trained with her until I was 18. Then I was in the Professional Division for three years at Pacific Northwest Ballet School.

I loved the costumes—I love that elegant feminine look. And I really liked working with a group of people. In twirling, we did solos. It wasn’t until I was about 12 that I started doing pairs and teams, but then I just got too involved with ballet. We were dancing six days a week. Ballet Idaho would come and do Nutcracker with us, and we had one school show each year. I was fortunate enough to tour Swan Lake with Ballet Idaho when I was a sophomore in high school, which was an amazing opportunity.

Ashley and I are both old fashioned and romantic. We like gentlemanly gestures like flowers and having the door opened for us. That’s another reason we like ballet. Many of the classical ballets revolve around love themes between men and women. It’s romantic. Also, ballet teaches you how to have respect for other people and work together. That’s one of the things I like about performing. No matter what kind of day you’ve had, when you’re on the stage, everything goes away and life is how it should be. Everyone is nice to each other and everyone smiles at each other.

Besides the wings, the costumes, the lights, the orchestra, the buzz before the show, the way you hear people talking about the performance after the show? I especially like, with shows like The Nutcracker where you have many performances, that once you’ve done so many shows you don’t have to think about the choreography, you can watch the ballet unfold. I hope the audience realizes how much fun we’re having on stage. We love it so much.
I really love dancing in a group. I like feeling connected with other people, I think maybe because I’m a twin. I don’t like to be alone, ever. To dance in a corps de ballet, you have to compromise so that everyone is in unison. You have to make sure you’re in line in the front, and then look out of your peripheral vision and stay in line on the side. You’re so connected and you’re interacting all the time and you’re making eye contact, working with each other. It takes a lot of attention. If you mess up during a solo and you’re good at covering up, no one will ever know. That’s not true in the corps. When the whole group is exactly together, all doing the exact same thing at the same time, you get this rush. Like we’re all one entity. We’re all in it together, the dancers, the orchestra, the stage crew, the audience. It takes everyone to put on a good performance.

I went to the summer program at Pacific Northwest Ballet School for seven years in a row, then I auditioned for their Professional Division after my senior year in high school and I made it. Christopher (Stowell, Artistic Director of OBT) and Damara (Bennett, Director of the School of OBT) came to Seattle to do an audition for the company. Afterwards, Christopher invited me to come to Portland to take company class. I fell in love. Everyone was welcoming, I just felt really comforted. Usually when you do an audition, you walk in and you have to wait for everyone to take their spots at the barre. Somebody offered me a spot. I’ve never seen that in an audition. Dancers are very territorial with their barre spots, so that was a very generous thing to do.

I was trained in the summers by Christopher’s parents, and now it’s nice to be in Christopher’s company. I’d met him a few times, and he seemed really personable and funny. It’s nice to still be in the family.
I really like OBT’s director and teachers—Christopher, Lisa (Kipp, Ballet Master), and Damara—they’re passionate about trying to get us to reach our potential and always improve, and they never compromise on that. In rehearsal, Lisa and Christopher keep things lively, and they’re both hilarious. They really help you express yourself. They make you dance.

I love it. People are so nice. The first day I was here I went to garage sales to find some furniture for my apartment. I found some beautiful furniture at the Madison Maternity House. They put on an annual garage sale to help the girls.

I’ve been exploring the city. I drive until I get lost, and then find my way back. I love all the nature around here too. I’ve explored a lot of Forest Park, and I like to go up to Mt. Tabor and have a picnic and watch the sunset. I enjoy it that Portland has a downtown area with a real city quality to it, and then it’s so easy to go into a smaller neighborhood that just seems like a town, and then you can walk into the woods and feel like there’s no city anywhere around you.   

How much pointe shoes hurt. They make your feet look pretty, but what a challenge they are. The shoe has to be perfect, otherwise you get corns and blisters and ingrown toenails, or bruised toenails that turn black and fall off. There are a million things you have to do to your shoes to get them to fit your feet—where to sew them, where to break them in, where to put water on them so they mold to your feet.

Pointe shoes are a dream come true when you first get them when you’re a kid, but you have to put so much into maintaining your feet. You have to keep your toenails trimmed, and painted so they’re nice and hard.  And you have to do exercises to keep your ankles really strong so that you’re stable on pointe and you don’t roll over and sprain your ankle. I have to ice my feet every single night, and I use lambs wool and masking tape and toe spacers. Guys have to lift girls in the air, but girls have to dance on pointe.

I also want people to know how much we strive to make ballet an art instead of a science. Sometimes it can be all about technique and line and being perfect. It’s easy to get caught up in the science of it. You have to break out of that technical little box and find the art. Performing is what keeps the art in it for me. 

Who's Your Dancer? 

OBT / National Endowment for the Arts Oregon Arts Commission Regional Arts & Culture Council Work for Art Portland Monthly Oregon Community Foundation Jerome Robbins Foundation
Work for Art