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



Emily Tedesco, Mia Leimkuhler and Adrian Fry


BY LINDA BESANT, December 2007


How did you begin to study ballet?

When I was about four years old, my sister was interested in dance more than I was. She wanted to see if I liked it first, before she would try it. She was actually the older one, so it was kind of funny, but I was more outgoing as a child. I started with jazz, tap, lyrical, and a little acrobatics. I did competitions, and actually danced jazz quite a bit, winning trophies and some money, the whole bit. I just naturally loved to move. But I wanted to learn the actual mechanics behind moving. I think that’s what interested me in ballet, I wanted to know technique, because I just did it before.

When I was twelve, I danced Clara in a Nutcracker for a small local school, and that made me want to really learn how to do ballet. When I was thirteen I switched over to serious ballet study. Starting at fifteen, I studied at the School of American Ballet for three years.

How did you end up studying at the School of American Ballet?

The summer before, I auditioned for Suzanne Farrell’s program at the Kennedy Center, but I barely had enough technique to do the audition. I wasn’t ready for the Kennedy Center, but she has a program in upstate New York on a private island, and I spent four weeks there with nine other girls. That’s when I really cleaned up my technique. I had thought that my teacher was crazy when she asked for extreme fifth position, but I learned that’s the standard. Fifteen is kind of late to be doing that, I just got in under the gun.

From there, I did the open fall audition at SAB. I call it the cattle call audition because there are about 300 people, and they call you into a room about twenty at a time, so you’re there all afternoon waiting for your group to go in. I remember going to my first day of high school that fall in upstate New York. I got a phone call from SAB that afternoon, and packed up my life and left for New York City the next day.

I also spent a year in the school at San Francisco Ballet, then I was an apprentice at SFB for a year. I spent a year in Boston Ballet II, which is like being an apprentice with them, then a year as an apprentice with OBT. Now this is my third year as a Company member with OBT.

When you began serious study of ballet, why did you like it?

I’ve always loved to move, and I liked ballet because it gave me a form in which to control that movement. That’s what interested me, that there was a correct way to do something, you don’t just go for it. Still, what I struggle with now is taking the way I like to move and putting it into the form of ballet.

How do you like Portland?

It’s a really comfortable city. I feel like I bounced around so much. I lived in a city to dance; I didn’t really know the city, I just knew my one little section of it. Now I feel like I really do know Portland. One thing about it, I feel like I can get too comfortable here. I still like to go back to New York at least twice a year and take class, and be reminded of that energy. I like to keep a little bit of edge. It’s never a good thing to feel too comfortable.

What are your favorite roles among the ballets that you’ve danced?

I’m a Balanchine fan, so I’ve loved the works of his that I’ve danced with this Company—Divertimento No. 15, The Four Temperaments, and Concerto Barocco. Balanchine’s choreography is so musical. Steps just come out of you when you hear the music. If something feels awkward or wrong, it’s likely that you have the wrong timing. Also the Lar Lubovitch piece, Concerto Six Twenty Two, was a lot of fun because it was so lyrical and grounded, and it was fun not to be in pointe shoes.

Last year and again this year I’m learning Marzipan principal in The Nutcracker. It’s hard, and exciting. It’s my first soloist role in this company. We’re not flying through hoops or jumping out of boxes, but it has demanding “stunts”—different turns, and the hops on pointe. We kind of joke, and call them “the triple Lutz,” and “the triple salchow.”

Did your family support you in wanting to be a dancer?

My family was always really supportive, though I think my mom definitely had to talk my dad into it. They say this now, they didn’t tell me when I was younger, that it was hard for them to believe a fifteen year old—“My God, how does a fifteen year old know what she wants?” But they believed in me.

Would you describe your workday as a dancer?

People are surprised that it is an entire day. They’re surprised that even though class starts at 10, I have to get up at 7:30 to be ready. Depending on what my rehearsal schedule is like, I try to go swimming before class. Even though some days I might have only two hours of rehearsal after class, I have to be completely present and giving during those two hours. I have to keep my body warm, so I might go to the gym in the middle of the day to keep my muscles moving, and then warm up according to the rehearsal, so I can make the most of the time in the studio. Because it is so much of yourself that you bring to the table, it’s exhausting, but absolutely fulfilling. It’s a passion. You can’t not do it.

What do you like to do when you’re not dancing?

Swim and work out . . .  and I just moved into a new apartment, so I just finished decorating and fixing that up. I like doing that stuff. I always pick up the Sunday New York Times, especially for the arts a leisure section. I’m also taking a course at PSU with their Independent Study Program.

Is there something you would like to tell people about ballet?

It’s our job to look pleasant and make things look easy, it’s our job to look very ethereal, so people don’t realize the amount of effort ballet takes, or all of the reality behind it.

Another difficulty is getting people who aren’t in the dance world to believe that this is a full time job. That gets frustrating sometimes. I guess they don’t realize how many performances we do, how many rehearsals go into the shows, or that we’re contracted for many weeks of the year. Getting people to understand that our job is similar to a baseball player’s season helps make sense of it.


How did you start studying ballet?

I’m not quite sure myself; it kind of unfolded. I was always really active as a kid and very athletic, I loved competitive sports of all types. In Santa Monica my mom worked at a small dance studio that offered classes of all types—jazz, tap, gymnastics, modern, ballet. She would take me along and sit me down in a corner as day care and later enrolled me in classes at my request. My mom herself has always loved ballet. As a child she wasn’t able to take classes, so when she moved away from home she began to attend open ballet classes and still does to this day. When my family moved to the northern Bay Area I saw a poster for the Marin Ballet. My mom asked if I wanted to go as an after-school activity, and I said sure—the girl on the poster was pretty and she looked like she was having fun. I started going and pretty soon ballet classes replaced all of my other activities and pursuits. They replaced swimming and baseball, though I’m still a huge fan of baseball.

Ballet became my main focus and my main hobby, and it was always something I did just for fun. I loved taking class, I loved performing, I loved working really hard and reaping the benefits. I was sixteen or seventeen when my teachers informed me that I could very well turn my hobby into a profession. Upon digesting the whole idea, I realized that it was a fabulous and rare opportunity; to turn what I had been doing as an outlet, as fun and exercise, into a career. I realized being a professional dancer was the only thing I could picture myself doing.

What do you like about ballet?

What I like most about ballet is the music. I love music of all types and there’s always a tune in my head. If you went through my iPod you would find everything except country music. Growing up there was always music in our house. My parents would put on a classical record (yes, record) and I would dance around. It wasn’t so much ballet as it was just me throwing my limbs everywhere in response to what I was hearing. So it’s always been the music.

I love performing; I love the spontaneity and drama of being in the moment on stage in front of an audience with an orchestra carrying you along. I also love the physical aspect of ballet, how hard you have to push and exert yourself, often through pain. My favorite ballets are usually the ones that are the most physically demanding because the personal rewards are so much greater. There’s such a sense of achievement and pride in knowing you have just tackled a considerable feat.

What are your favorite roles among the ballets that you’ve danced?

William Forsythe’s The Vertiginous Thrill of Exactitude would be my standout favorite in my repertoire. I saw San Francisco Ballet perform this work years ago—I may have seen Christopher Stowell perform it—and it left such an impression on me. It was ballet, but more grand and ebullient than any ballet I’d seen before. It blew my mind that the dancers could move like that. When Christopher announced last year that the company would be performing Vertiginous, I turned to Adrian Fry and told him that I knew I would have nothing to do with the ballet but I was simply excited just to see our company perform a Forsythe work. I was beyond ecstatic for the opportunity to learn and rehearse the piece, nonetheless perform it. The rehearsal process itself was invaluable. Noah Gelber (the repetiteur) not only knew the ballet inside and out, but proved to be a stellar coach, fine-tuning us and coaxing out everything we could bring to this piece. The support and enthusiasm that came from both Noah and my peers was overwhelming. I’m still in slight disbelief to this day that I performed such a fantastic ballet. Vertiginous has been the highlight of my career thus far, simply because I am a changed dancer for it. My mom saw my performance, which is just icing on the cake.

Other roles I’ve enjoyed include There Where She Loved (Wheeldon), Rum and Coca-Cola in Company B (Taylor) and one of the demi-soloist couples in Who Cares? (Balanchine). It was fun to play characters in the Wheeldon and Taylor ballets; a jilted lover in TWSL and a coy flirt in Rum and Coke. Who Cares? was jazzy and fun, and I loved dancing/flirting with my partner Brian Simcoe. I love all the Balanchine ballets that we’ve done. Again, I think that’s because of the way I feel about music. As a choreographer, he was so innately musical. Concerto Barocco is one of my favorites—you don’t have to think about the steps because the choreography and the music are essentially the same thing. The concept of it is so simple, to have the two girls be the two violins and the corps be the orchestra.  It seems so elementary, but the effect it has is absolutely profound.

Do you aspire to make choreography?

Not really. I admire the dancers who do, because I think it requires you to look at ballet from a completely different angle. You have to look at it from the outside, with an objective eye and a different way of seeing the steps and piecing apart the music. It requires creativity and originality, and I know myself—if I were to put together a ballet it would probably just be a mishmash of phrases and excerpts from ballets that I really know and love. So for right now, no, I wouldn’t want to make any new ballets myself. I’m more than happy to dance them.

What roles have you done in the Nutcracker?

Last year I performed Harlequin Doll, Snowflake, Spanish principal, Demi-Flower, and Arabian, and I’m down for the same parts this year.  As a young dancer at Marin Ballet I was Clara as well as the Mirliton pas de trois in the second act.

My first very first performing experience was in Marin Ballet’s Nutcracker. In that version, Marzipan consisted of a pas de deux for a Shepherd and a Shepherdess with nine little Sheep dancing as their corp. One of those sheep was the Black Sheep, which was yours truly. The Black Sheep was the special part if you were a little kid, all of us auditioned for it. Anyway, true to its name, the Black Sheep enters alone and late in the beginning of the dance, baa-ing and preening for the audience. Naturally the audience found this cute and silly and laughed upon my entrance. Nobody had explained to me that their laughter would be a good thing, in fact a compliment; nobody had told me that a small child in a fluffy black sheep costume is indeed a funny thing. I was convinced that I had done something terribly, terribly wrong. So I burst into tears onstage, weeping silently but diligently executing all of my Sheep choreography.  When I finished the dance, a few of the older dancers carried me up to their dressing room in a panic, thinking that I was seriously hurt or ill. They later explained to me that the laughter I elicited was a good thing, and as I wiped away my tears I felt very (excuse the pun, but it was inevitable) sheepish.

What do you like to do when you’re not dancing?

It’s a running joke with my friends that I’m a cozy domestic trapped in a twenty-three year-old body. I love baking and cooking; I’ve been working my way through various baking tomes and Bon Appetit magazines. I love holing up in my apartment with a warm blanket and a warm TV. I’m not as ecstatic about cleaning, though. I’ve also gotten back into running and swimming, and sometime in the near future I hope to complete a mini-triathlon.

I also try to keep the academic side of my brain stimulated. I’m currently brushing up on my Spanish by working my way through some advanced Spanish grammar workbooks I picked up at Powell’s. I used to be fluent but I’ve lost a lot of vocabulary over the years. I’m always in the middle of a book; right now, it’s A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius by Dave Eggers. I loved math in school, especially trig and calculus, and I miss challenging that part of my brain. It’s refreshing to put ballet aside sometimes and think in a completely different way.

What would you like to tell people about ballet that they don’t understand?  

Parents play a tremendous role in a dancer’s life and career. I know I wouldn’t be here if it weren’t for my mom’s support, both financially and personally. It’s easy to forget just how much is asked of the parents: the tuition, the driving to and fro, all of the leotards and tights and shoes, etc. I can’t even begin to count the number of shows my parents have sat through—or for that matter, my brother as well. The Nutcracker audiences are always full of families and friends who have come to cheer on our littlest cast members, and to this day my mom flies up to Portland whenever she can to applaud me, maybe cry a little, and then pack my freezer full of food. My favorite performances are always the ones where she’s in the audience, because I’m showcasing not only the result of my time and effort but hers as well.


How did you get started studying ballet?

When I was six, I came home and told my parents that I was going to be in my elementary school talent show. That previous Christmas, we had gone to see The Nutcracker. (OBT Company Artist) Damian Drake was actually Fritzin that performance, and I remembered a red-headed kid. I came home and choreographed the Russian dance from Nutcracker, and did it for my entire elementary school, and I had never danced before. So my parents thought, “OK, I guess it’s time we should get him in some lessons.”

I started at a small studio with everything—jazz, tap, ballet, lyrical, clogging. Dance competition stuff. I hated the ballet part, actually. I danced at that studio until I was thirteen, and I always took it so seriously. After awhile I started taking dance more seriously than the studio did. It was a logical step that the only place that would take me seriously enough was a ballet studio. So I went to the Omaha Theater Ballet School when I was thirteen. At first I was still at the small studio, and only taking one ballet class per week. I got so much stronger just from taking one real ballet class a week, that I was, “Well, I guess this is where I should be.”

What did you like about ballet?

I loved structure. I loved that I knew I could always have something to work on. It was like my body was a project, and there were different things that I got to work on consistently. At times it felt really constricting, and it can still feel like that sometimes, but ballet is a really fine vocabulary. Ballet is a way in which I can dance, a stylized way to move that attributes itself to so many different ways of movement. And I just like working hard, knowing that I can go someplace and sweat and work hard.

Also, I was a really quiet kid, and I didn’t have to talk in dance class. I even got applauded for not talking. It was nice not to have that pressure. Sports are a lot more social than ballet, so because I didn’t talk, I didn’t get picked for the team. I could be playing baseball or basketball right now, but I was too shy, so I danced.

When were you first in The Nutcracker?

I was nine, and I was a tall green-family boy in the Dayton Ballet’s Nutcraker. There were a blue family, a green family, and a rust family in the Party Scene. I was the Nutcracker when I was 12. I was a Party Parent when I was 13 because I was so tall. I think my children were older than I was. In different versions, I’ve been a Sailor and a Moor, principal Arabian, and Russian. It was a big deal to do the parts I did in Omaha when I did them, because I was very young. It was very exciting to have that performing experience at such a young age. This year I’m learning Party Scene Dads, Rat King, principal Spanish, Mother Ginger, and Cavalier.

What are your favorite roles among the ballets that you’ve danced?

Clearly Apollo last season at OBT, for a thousand different reasons. I got to find myself in that movement. Stage time—I was on stage the whole time. Everyone has dream roles, but I never ever considered that I would get to do it. I loved dancing with Gavin and Anne and Candace. I was in a modern piece as a Professional Division Student at Pacific Northwest Ballet that was made on us, and that was fantastic. It was called K-Requiem, by Sonia Dawkins. I loved working with her and the people who were in the piece. It was a lot of improvisation, so it was your own stuff that she would pull out of you. She saw something inside of each of us that we didn’t see. It’s such a gift when you have somebody who can do that for you, it just gives me the chills, somebody taking the gold that you already have inside of you and making it into something fantastic. It was an awesome experience.

Vertiginous Thrill of Exactitude kind of threw me back to the reason I started dancing and why I do it, and what is so exciting about dance. It’s a thrill to just go. This isn’t usually the kind of dancer I am, but it was fun to show off a little bit, it was fun to pound it out. I think that each ballet I get to do teaches me something different that’s inside of me.

When Noah (Gelber, the repetiteur) was teaching Vertiginous, we got to a place where we could get through it physically, which was a feat in and of itself, but he told us to add more. He said,  “This isn’t just about extreme technique and energy and athleticism. You’re vying for attention. There are five of you on stage and you’re all fantastic. You have to dig for a deeper level of expression, offering people absolutely the most you have.” So it was fun to put attitude into what we were doing. I wish we’d had more time to work on it, because doing that makes your body work differently too.

I love the stuff that’s behind ballet. That’s why I’m here, that’s why I do it. For me, this is all about trying to communicate what I have to say to people. It’s very, very internal for me. I think a lot of times within any art form, it can get very “surface-y,” about the picture that you create. For me, it’s not about the picture at all, it’s about bringing the inside out. That’s why I loved that modern piece so much. It was ripped out of me and formed into something beautiful.

Is there something about ballet that you want to be sure people understand?

Sacrifice. We all sacrifice, every single day. I sacrificed a large majority of my high school education. We’re sacrificing college right now. A part of this that people don’t understand is that dancers are also smart. We’re not here just because we can move, we have to be very smart. We have beautiful minds and it’s hard to be in this career when so many of my counterparts are almost done with school. So much of me wants an education too.

What do you like to do when you’re not dancing?

Not think about ballet. I like biking a lot, and I like Portland for that reason. I’m starting college. I love writing and English. I’m in love with psychology and sociology because they’re about communicating. This is another thing people might not understand — that ballet is all we’ve done for a really long time. So one of the reasons I want to go to school is to figure out what else I like. Ballet used to open me up to this whole new world of different things, but when you do anything intensely it can close you off from other things. In order to be a good balanced artist, you need to have other things to inspire you that aren’t just about dance. There could be thousands of other things that I’m interested in, but I have no idea what they are yet.

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
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