Alejandra in Ballet-land: An Interview With Alejandra Perez-Gomez

By Cris Franco

Written in 1865, Lewis Carroll’s phantasmagorical exploration of childhood’s challenges, Alice in Wonderland, has been adapted into numerous plays, films, animated TV shows and now finally — a ballet.  The National Ballet of Canada’s heralded and much anticipated Alice’s in Wonderland will have its U.S. debut October 19th through 21st sponsored by Gloria Kaufman Presents Dance at the Music Center.  Helping to conjure this mesmerizing new masterwork filled with a gracefully hopping White Rabbit and pirouetting playing cards is the talented ballerina Alejandra Perez-Gomez.  

Ballet aficionados have described Ms. Perez-Gomez’ dancing as “a gem,” “remarkable,” and full of “personality and charm.”  I can definitely attest to the last two adjectives in view of the way she charmed me for the duration of our phone interview …

Cris Franco:  Alejandra Perez-Gomez, what an amazingly beautiful name!  What’s your background?

APG:  Both my parents were raised in Mexico City and shortly after they married they moved to Canada due to my dad’s work.  So I was born in Toronto, but we spoke Spanish at home.  English followed and then French because we moved to Quebec when I was eleven.  So I guess I’m a cultural mutt – but my blood is 100 percent Mexican.

CF:  You’re a featured soloist in The National Ballet of Canada’s Alice’s Adventures In Wonderland coming to Los Angeles.  Tell me about the production.

APG:  There’s lots to say about this ballet.  It’s new, having only been performed for one sold-out run here in Toronto.  It’s a real crowd pleaser — in a good way, meaning the story isn’t dumbed-down.  In fact, it’s exactly the opposite.  It’s an incredibly smart, entertaining piece and very family friendly.  It’s got a lot of stuff going on.

CF:  I’m sure it does. I think that Alice In Wonderland has been translated into some 35 languages.  It’s one of the world’s most popular children’s books.

AFG:  Yes, I’ve read the book and I loved it.  There are so many possibilities, so many ways to tell the story.  Originally, Lewis Carroll made up the story on the spot to entertain a little girl named Alice, and then he wrote it down later. I think that’s why the story reads a bit like a random chain of events, which means there are lots of possibilities in retelling the story.

CF:  Yes, it’s very episodic.

AFG:  It allows lots of room for interpretation of costumes, setting and movement.  In the case of our production, I feel all the director and designers’ choices are all bang-on.  The Caterpillar, the Cheshire Cat, the Card Army and the White Rabbit – they hit the visuals right on the head.  The costumes and sets are just as much the stars of this production as anything else.  And the music is an original score by Joby Talbot – is just perfect.  There’s a real Danny Elfman feel.  You know who Danny Elfman is, right?

CF:  Of course.

APG:  He did a lot of Tim Burton’s stuff.  Well, this score is really expressive and has a bit of an eerie  quality to it.

CF:  Tell me about some of the effects.

APG:  Well, without giving too much away, the Cheshire Cat is a huge puppet and dancers in black ninja suits work all the different body parts so the Cat can appear and fall apart in a flash.  It’s much more than a ballet.  It’s very multi-media employing trap doors, puppets and everything.  There’s never a dull moment and lots of fun.  It’s a very entertaining show.

CF:  How long does it take to choreograph a spectacular like Alice In Wonderland?

APG:  I’m sure it was in the mental works for years.   To bring all the aspects together it must have been in the “imagination stage” for a long time.  We rehearsed it in the studio for months, but by the time we started the choreographer Christopher Wheeldon had many of the design elements well underway.  It’s a very complicated production requiring all hands on deck.  Every extra student, stagehand and person in the company is always helping to do something.  The whole show requires a great deal of focus.

CF:  All the images and videos make it appear like a tour-de-force of dance and design.

APG:  We’re really excited about bringing it to L.A., but we’re only going to be in town for a short time.

CF:   Bummer.  L.A.’s got a lot to see and it’s a big town.

APG:  (Laughing)  Yeah, maybe you could mention that we dancers need tour guides.  Maybe while we’re in L.A. we could establish an “Adopt-A-Dancer” program, so we can see the sights.

CF:  I’d love to adopt a ballet dancer.  They’re like unsung athletes.  Hey, why don’t they put dancers on cereal boxes?

APG:  Because in the common mind, ballet dancers aren’t icons of athleticism.  We are very athletic people – but most people don’t consider us athletes.  We’re not like Michael Phelps or those Iron Man guys.  It’s a particular kind of strength.  We’re strong at moving with poise and control which might not sell many boxes of WHEATIES.

CF:  Maybe not, but I do know ballet companies often tour the world.  Where have you danced?

APG:  As the National Ballet we stay pretty close to home, but over the years the company has toured Israel, China, the U.S. and soon we will be going to London.

CF:  Have you ever danced in Latin America?

APG:  No.  However, I have been back to visit Mexico — la patria!  I’ve got lots of extended family there: aunts, uncles and cousins.  But since my immediate family lives in Montreal, the last time I went back to Mexico was about two years ago when my son turned one.

CF:  And before you were born your dad moved from Mexico to Canada.  When he said he was moving to “El Norte” he really meant it.

APG:  Indeed. One thing that is lacking in “El Norte” is good authentic Latin food. I’m looking forward to having some great Mexican food in L.A.

CF:  That we’ve got.

APG:  After all, L.A. used to be Mexico – and not that long ago.

CF:  Amen.  No matter if you’re dancing in L.A. or Mexico, what you do is super-human.  What’s an average day like for an artist of your caliber?

APG:  Well, a performance day is different from a rehearsal day.  On a rehearsal day – meaning we have no show that night – we’re at (ballet) class at 10AM.  Then we rehearse for three hours, take a one-hour lunch, then go back to about another three-hour rehearsal, which has us finishing around 6:30 PM.  Now even though six hours daily are allotted to rehearsing, you might not be dancing all that time.  You might only be rehearsing four hours a day.  Plus, there’s a lot of repetition, standing around and sitting around while you run things more than once.  Rehearsal times vary – but the day always begins with class.

Pure performance days are different.  We’re members of a union, thank goodness!  So if you’ve got two shows in a day, class begins at 11:00 AM.  You give your all for your matinee, then you get a dinner break, then you do your evening show.  Then you eat afterward – and you’re done!  If it’s a single-show day, you begin with class.  During the day you do a run-through of a performance – but not with that night’s cast.  Often it’s the following day’s cast.  But no matter what type of day, you’re usually pretty busy, especially in Alice where everyone is always dancing.  But we love doing it.

CF:  Your passion for your profession is apparent.  Still, it must be very physically demanding being a dancer.

APG:  It can be.  Even after fifteen years of doing this, I try and figure out more efficient ways of doing this or that movement every day.  You’re always evolving.  That’s one of the pluses of this career.  You can always improve, because if you don’t your skills will slip away.  You’re always working to maintain the status quo and working super hard to improve.

CF:  When I see a dancer on-stage, I realize that it takes a lot of people to create a world-class dancer like you.

APG:  Yes, my family was always very supportive.  They never told me to go get a “real job.”

CF:  This is a real job!  And more and more people are entering into the world of dance.  What do you think of TV’s trendy dance competition shows like Dancing With The Stars and So You Think You Can Dance?

APG:  You’re talking to the one, fluky dancer who doesn’t own a TV.  I am not a TV person.  I only know of these shows because of what I’ve heard and because when we tour there is a TV in the hotel room.  I know the premise of these types of shows and I think that having more art in popular culture is a good thing.  I have a huge amount of respect for other types of dancers, like break-dancers.  I could never do their moves.  When I see what they do, I sometimes think, “I’m not a dancer.  He’s a dancer!”  These shows are getting people to watch dance.  So maybe it’s a good thing if they can get a person who has been parked on the couch all night to put down the Cheesies and take a ballroom class.

CF:  I’m guilty of being Mr. Cheesies-Eating-Couch-Sitter.  Hey, what’s the best part of being a dancer?

APG:  Many things come to mind.  First of all, when I come to work I get to listen to live music and dance to it.  Sometimes when I’m feeling not too great I remind myself that I get paid to be an artist and there’s a pianist playing beautiful music for me to dance to!  And sometimes I get a full orchestra.

CF:  That’s a perk!

APG:  But sometimes there is physical pain and you need to call upon your willpower.  When you have to do it over and over again – sometimes you just want to trade it in for an office chair and a computer.  I don’t want this high-pressure job.  But the reward is the performance.

I should also mention the wonderful community of dancers.  I have so much fun socializing at work, in the dressing rooms and at rehearsals.  We work in very close quarters and we develop a strong camaraderie.  When you’re spending hours in a change room backstage, the talk becomes personal very quickly and you feel a strong closeness and team spirit.

CF:  Well, to pull off the amazing performances you do, you have to be a united ensemble.  You have to be there for each other because so many things can go wrong if you aren’t.  This brings me to my last question, which I always ask ballet dancers because the answers have been astounding.  What’s the strangest thing that’s ever happened to you on-stage?

APG:  “Strangest?”  Let me count the ways!  My big blooper happened my first year in the company and it’s become legendary.  This really happened, Cris.

CF:  Can’t wait to hear it!

APG:  It’s my first year in the company and I don’t know that many people.  I didn’t want to mess anything up while dancing in James Kudelka’s THE FAIRY’S KISS (Stravinsky).  I have a very quick change, perhaps the quickest change I’ve ever had to do.  I’m costumed in a full pink peasant dress, pink toe-shoes, pink flower headdress – pink everything.  In the dark, backstage I’ve got to change into a completely different costume: a silvery-blue unitard, blue headpiece, blue shoes – blue everything because I’m now supposed to be an Ice-Princess.  The blue unitard’s front has icicles covering the chest and bodice and the back is low, very low and sheer, almost see-through to the waist.  Well, of course we’re off-stage, changing in the dark, it’s pandemonium, right?

CF:  Omigosh.  You’re kidding?

APG:  I’m not kidding.  I’ve changed, I’m in the wings ready to go on when another Ice Princes whispers to me, “Your unitard is on backwards!”  Meaning, basically – you can see through my very low-cut top.

CF:  No!

APG:  Yes!  My entrance music starts and I think,  ‘It’s just too late, I don’t have time to change!’  So I count, ‘5-6-7-8’

CF:  No!

APG:  Yes!  I go on-stage.  And this is a slow dance where we’re hitting slow, proud poses.  I’m doing the best I can when I notice that one-by-one, company members are gathering in the wings to look at this, er, um — amazing thing that’s happening on-stage: the ballet dancer in the see-through top.  Then the absurdity of the whole thing hit me and I thought, ‘This is hilarious!’  I didn’t cry, in fact, laughed because this was a long seven-minute dance.

CF:  And that’s how you became a legend at National Ballet of Canada.

APG:  The story gets repeated a lot.

CF:  That’s the craziest ballet story I’ve ever heard; weirder than the Cuban “Juliette” who still had to pretend to be dead even after her “Romeo” dropped her to the floor when he accidentally stepped on an on-stage nail.  You danced the “adult” version of The Fairy’s Kiss and you finished the dance.

APG:  Yes.

CF:  You’re a real trooper, Alejandra.   Thank you for sharing that harrowing tale.  Whew!  So what advice do you have for parents with children who want to dance?

APG:  Being a parent myself, I’d encourage them – but I’d remind them to keep a perspective.  As a child you see the costumes and the lights and the audience — it’s sort of a parent’s job to be a wet blanket.  You have to emphasize education because it isn’t easy to earn a living dancing.  In fact, it’s really hard and I hate to admit it, but there’s a lot of genetic luck.  It’s hard to tell a really passionate kid that you’re too short or too heavy without shattering their souls.  Plus there are many ways to incorporate dance into your life.  Ballet is a very restrictive dance form.  If a kid really wants to dance and they’re not right for ballet you could remind them that there are careers in choreography and dance movement therapy.  Remind them that there are more ways to dance than just in a tutu.

CF:  But all we Latinos are proud and glad that you decided to go for the tutu, Alejandra.  Thanks for sharing your stories about your wild adventures in “Ballet-Land.”  We can’t wait to see you in Alice’s Adventures In Wonderland!

National Ballet of Canada’s Alice Adventures In Wonderland
Five performances only: October 19-21, 2012
The Music Center’s Dorothy Chandler Pavilion
135 North Grand Avenue, LA, CA  90012
Tickets: $34 – $125
For more show info: http://www.musiccenter.org/about/Our-Programs/Glorya-Kaufman-Dance/1213-Season/The-National-Ballet-of-Canada/