Dancer Alexandra Beller!
Modern Dancer Finds Her Space In A Narrow World
By Marina Wolf
From Radiance Winter 2000
lexandra Beller follows the same schedule as the thousands of other professional dancers in New York City. On top of moonlighting—large-size modeling and therapeutic massage—to pay the bills, Alexandra puts in hours of rehearsal each week, along with dance classes and other physical training. She has been studying her craft since she was ten, and, at the Bill T. Jones/Arnie Zane Dance Company, holds a position in the top strata of the modern dance world.
Yet when the twenty-six-year-old dancer steps on stage, she is singled out by both audiences and dance critics, who invariably end up evaluating more than her dancing. “One night at one of our post performance discussions, this woman started going on and on about how amazing it was to see someone like me on stage,” says Alexandra. “She was sweet, but it really struck me in the wrong way. I’ve got two arms and I’ve got two legs and a spine and a brain and eighteen years of dance training, so why wouldn’t I be able to do everything that these other dancers are doing?” Her voice rises in obvious irritation. “Why wouldn’t I? Because of thirty pounds? Gimme a break!”
Alexandra’s conversations with me about her life in dance are full of such emotion-laden anecdotes, and Alexandra seems relieved to be sharing them with a sympathetic audience.
As a large dancer, Alexandra is working against the dance world’s vision of itself. That vision is narrow, in every sense of the word, and is tied to the image of the lithe, willowy sylph who has populated the ballet world for centuries. This ideal figure, which only rarely occurs in nature, took up residence in later dance genres as well, and remains a crucial point of aesthetics in the minds of critics, choreographers, and audiences even of modern dance.
Because modern dance was founded as a sort of antiballet, it has slightly more forgiving physical standards and has become a creative venue for dancers who, for various reasons, don’t fit the image required of professional ballerinas. However, most modern troupes still want performers with the whip-thin look that dance inherited from ballet. Fortunately, Alexandra found the one modern company that embraces diversity.
nder Jones’s direction, first with his partner Arnie Zane, and then on his own after Zane died in 1988, the Bill T. Jones/Arnie Zane Dance Company has developed a reputation for staging some of the most iconoclastic and interesting works in modern dance. Jones’s work ranges from stark, moving meditations on death and sex to grandiose epics set to classical music. But he is also known for choosing physically distinctive dancers—tall, short, or stocky—qualities that are not generally sought after in dance. In the early 1990s he had already recruited a tall, fat man for the company. But, as everybody knows, weight looks different on different heights, so when Jones selected the short, voluptuous Beller in 1995, she became the new focus of attention in this group of what she occasionally, jokingly calls “freaks.”
Alexandra has been in that position from the first day she danced. Always a “big girl,” she thrived in modern dance classes. Eventually, though, she had to acquire some ballet training—all professional dancers study some ballet for posture and muscle strength—and at age thirteen, she auditioned for and was accepted into advanced classes at an eminent New York ballet school, where traditional balletic standards pervaded and prevailed all the way up to the front office. Alexandra recalls her first day. “I walked into the office, and the administrator said, ‘You’re not supposed to be here, this is not the right place for you.’ And I said, ‘But I auditioned and I got into this class.’ ‘Well, we’ll fix it, there’s obviously been some mistake, you’re not supposed to be here.’ And that was my introduction to the school.” Alexandra laughs ruefully. “I ended up with a teacher who was a little bit more ambivalent about the ‘rules,’ and so she wasn’t mean to me. But other teachers in the school were pretty cruel.”
With the support of her mother, who was a dancer until an injury ended her own dancing, Alexandra powered through her classes and eventually attended the University of Michigan to receive a B.F.A. in dance. After graduation she did what any obsessed young dancer does: she headed off to the unforgiving arena of New York City, where she landed parts with a number of small troupes. But it wasn’t until she joined Bill T. Jones’s company that Alexandra had to deal with near-constant public comment about her body. She recalls being shocked by how freely reviewers and audiences discussed her weight. “I always thought this was a very private thing, that people thought what they thought, but nobody talked about it.”
Alexandra pulls out some clips, which she reads to me in the monotone of someone who has clearly read them more than once. She asks that the more gratuitous name-calling and flip wordplay not be reprinted here. Suffice it to say that all of the reviews went on at great length about the artistic or political significance of Alexandra’s weight. One notable review heaped on the praise, but still harped on Alexandra’s figure:
“Jones has always been addicted to unusual physical types. Everyone in the company looks picked for body as well as for soul and technique. In the new solo, “Blue Phrase,” Alexandra Beller comes into her own, showing that modern dance is actually enriched by diverse anatomies. Beller is short and luxuriantly endowed. She’s a cross between a voluptuously fleshy Rubens woman and the squat striking Cubist females of Picasso’s Demoiselles d’Avignon period. She has a good stage face, open with well-defined features, framed by a mane of auburn curls and the confident aura of someone convinced she looks just right. ...When she dances you’re bowled over, because while her anatomy leaves you to expect an earth goddess, weighty and rooted, she’s quick, light and buoyant, with a mercurial liquidity in her joints. In this piece she becomes one of the jazz world’s night creatures, a sultry, savvy harborer of secrets that hide from the sun.”
lexandra’s silence after she recites this review speaks volumes. On the one hand, this is one of her best reviews. On the other, the review reads deep meaning into Alexandra’s figure. Alexandra’s work has been written up by major dance magazines here and abroad, but the coverage almost invariably focuses on her weight, not her dance. “A part of me knows that it’s still a big deal. Because I’m the first woman of an . . .” here she pauses, searching for a discreet word, “atypical body type in a major modern dance company in this country. Of course I’m breaking down barriers, and I’m doing it with my own body. But sometimes it just kills me that these reviews have to talk about it. They always say something positive about my dancing, and they usually frame however they’re talking about my body in a generous light, too, but sometimes I just feel like, Can you just talk about my dancing? That’s really what I’m here for. I realize that I’ve taken on this other role because I have to, because it comes with the package. But I didn’t really sign up to be the poster girl.”
In the collective imagination, we suppose that dancers are always self-confident creatures, comfortable enough in their bodies to spend night after night on stage in skin-tight leotards. But the neuroses of the dance world are intense and omnipresent, and no dancer is exempt. “Just because I’m in this profession doesn’t mean it’s not hard as hell every day to get into a leotard and look at myself in the mirror. It doesn’t mean that it’s not hard every day. It requires some fortitude, more than I think people realize, more than I think my colleagues realize. They get so surprised when we have a costume fitting and I’m feeling really edgy, because they forget that size is an issue for me.”
However strongly Alexandra may feel about her body, at least she’s in it, which is a significant shift from how she used to feel. “I tried for a very long time to separate my body from how I danced, and to say that I would dance how I danced no matter what my body looked like,” says Alexandra. “But it’s really ridiculous to say that. Nobody can say that. You dance how you dance because you’re in your body. I have a voluptuous body, and I think the way I dance is very voluptuous. There’s a certain voluptuousness to the way that I like to live and to the way I respond to my environment and to the way that I dance. I started realizing that my body size is part and parcel of what I look like and who I am, and there’s a reason for that. It is a physical manifestation of who I am and how I move and how I feel.”
Asked what she thinks her size brings to her experience in dance, Alexandra answers slowly, a dancer who really is used to expressing concepts more with muscle and sinew than with words. “I feel very in touch with the weight of my body, which gives me a real sense of being in the middle of my flow. I don’t think it has to do with pounds, because I’ve seen a lot of really thin dancers who have this quality, but I think that maybe my weight has helped me. While dancing, I am really riding something that is rooted or grounded.”
he concept that weight could bring something positive to the dance experience hasn’t gotten a lot of play in the dance community. Even gravity itself seems to get a bad rap as dance instructors across the land exhort their pupils to suck in their stomachs and step lightly across the floor. But Alexandra is finding that weight can actually be a plus in the mechanics of dance, at least as far as they are observed in Jones’s company. “Bill talks all the time about weight as a physical sensation. ‘Feel the weight in this arm and then send the weight here, or feel your weight drop here,’ he says. I would say that weight is the single most important element that he plays with as a choreographer.”
Alexandra also finds shape a defining feature in Jones’s choreography. “He does see me in a certain way. I think he sees each of us in a certain way, to be fair,” says Alexandra. “He typecasts us, in terms of movement and in terms of characters. He’s sort of cast me as the femme fatale. He tends to think, Oh, that sexy music is coming on, let’s give that to Alex.”
Alexandra accepts the casting, and considers the diverse look and feel of the ten dancers to be a strength of the company. But she admits to wanting more for herself. “I also would like to get the more athletic parts.”
Eliminating the stereotypes on stage and off will almost certainly take more time than Alexandra herself has. “I’ll be long off the stage by the time that happens,” she says with a burst of ironic laughter. She considers Jones’s company an anomaly in terms of challenging the physical status quo, not a sign of change. “I think Bill effected a change, rather than responding to one.” Any real changes in the dance world will not be seen until a new generation of teachers, one more knowledgeable about the beauty and joy of individual bodies, sets the tone for a broader acceptance of differing bodies in dance.
Already Alexandra is able to count herself in that generation of teachers. During the company’s annual hiatus, she teaches preprofessional classes at Dance Space and The Movement Salon in New York City, three to five days a week. The break, though not a vacation by any means, has given her a fresh appreciation for being out of the spotlight. “I know that my body is an element of the company. But my body is really a political statement when I get on stage. And when I’m teaching, it’s not. It’s just part of who I am.”
Teaching also gives her a chance to convey some of her own ideas about dance. They’re radical in the context of the way things currently are, but in the world of the way things should be, her notions just make sense. “I’d like for the ideas of dance and the feeling sense of dance and the expression of dance to take precedence over the dominant aesthetic of dance,” says Alexandra. “And I’d like for people to be encouraged to move. Everybody. Because I think everybody’s a dancer.” ©
MARINA WOLF is a freelance writer based in Northern California. As the Wide-Eyed Gourmet, she has written about food for eleven newspapers across the country. As herself, she writes about herbs, dancing, international travel, religion, size issues, and anything else that strikes her fancy. She can be contacted at email@example.com.
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