Meet the Dancer Alex Pappajohn
On August 28, 2017, Dances Patrelle guild member Jenny Eskin and former Dances Patrelle dancer Alex Pappajohn met for a reunion of sorts. Alex, of The Washington Ballet, had a week off and spent some of his time in New York taking classes at Ballet Academy East, where he began his study of ballet. Jenny was his teacher at Riverdale Country School before he transferred to the Professional Children’s School. While still in high school, Alex joined the American Ballet Theatre’s Studio Company, where he studied with Julie Kent. Alex is very proud to continue to work under Ms. Kent at The Washington Ballet, as she is one of the few women who are directors of major ballet companies.
Jenny Eskin: Hi, Alex!
Alex Pappajohn: Hi, Ms. Eskin.
JE: It’s really a treat for me to interview you. I was your history teacher when you were in eighth grade, and now I take classes at Ballet Academy East, and you are an accomplished professional ballet dancer.
AP: History was the hardest class I ever took.
JE: What are some similarities and differences between academic learning and studying ballet?
AP: In academic learning, there are certain subjects that are easier for some people and harder for others. And, in ballet, there are certain steps that are harder or easier. Some people might have a harder time with turns, and others with jumps. You have to work really hard to be good at ballet, just like at anything. A difference is that in academic learning you are rewarded with a grade or something concrete, but in ballet, at the end of a performance you are reviewed, which is subjective. In math, two plus two equals four, but in ballet, you can go to see the best dancer, and whether or not you like the dancer is subjective.
JE: Speaking of reviews, when you danced the role of Snow Boy in Dances Patrelle’s The Yorkville Nutcracker, New York Times critic Alastair Macaulay singled you out in his review. By the way, I sent the review to your academic teachers! How did it feel to read this description of yourself?: “...a 15-year-old dancer named Alexandros Pappajohn suddenly flooded the stage with style, charm, and fantasy. Amid an already engaging production choreographed by the company’s artistic director, Francis Patrelle, and full of pleasing detail, Mr. Pappajohn’s dancing suddenly made everything richer, fuller, more complex. While in midair, he appeared to conjure a woodwind triplet in the score, as if summoning the notes with a flourish of his hand. After spinning passionately on one leg, he leaned forward, brought his hands together, and executed a grand port de bras, an arc that lifted his torso and ended with his parting his arms expansively. He did it as if his whole heart were in it: it became a gesture of devotion. I hadn’t seen Mr. Pappajohn before; I hadn’t even heard of him. Since Dances Patrelle is a company new to me, his was just another unfamiliar name on the program. Now I want to know when I can see him dance again.”
AP: Of course it felt good, and I could barely believe that he would take the time to write something like that, especially the length. There’s a sense of shock, a little bit. It felt great, but to be honest, it didn’t make me think that I’m the best dancer in the world. I knew I had the stuff to work on. It felt great, but it didn’t dictate the way I felt about myself.
JE: You show an admirable sense of humility.
AP: I think I just learned it from always watching ballet, and always seeing someone who is better than I am. I think I always had a sense of humility, but seeing ballet dancers who are so good puts things into perspective.
JE: What is the difference between dancing in class and dancing on the stage?
AP: In class, you really work on the basic technical parts of ballet, and you work on long-term goals that you have. But, on stage, it’s such a big event, it’s the pinnacle of all your rehearsals. In my experience, you’re not thinking, “I’m going to get my leg higher,” I’m thinking about performing for the audience, and feeling it, going for it, and enjoying it. I’ve worked so hard, I want to enjoy it.
JE: What has been your favorite role so far?
AP: Dancing Puck in Frederick Ashton’s The Dream with The Washington Ballet. First of all, it was the biggest role I have ever done in my life. It is such a key role in the story of A Midsummer Night’s Dream. It combines dancing with a lot of acting and mime and thinking about how you want to start the ballet and how you want to finish it, as a story. You get to make the character, in a sense, even though the story is given to you. You are given this great story and this great part, and there is a great sense of exploration to the character. My coaches were amazing. Anthony Dowell and Victor Barbee came to coach. They were really great. They allowed you to make mistakes. I never felt scared in rehearsal because they allowed freedom in the room.
JE: Do you have any funny stories about something that happened during a performance?
AP: I have a couple. I was doing a role in The Nutcracker at The Washington Ballet. I was a solo doll in the party scene. They come out of the box (hums music: dun dun dun, dun dun dun), and the choreography is really technically demanding. It was so hard that I was so focused on what practicing the steps backstage, and I was so worried about actually doing it, and overwhelmed, that I went on stage and into the box without half of my costume. It seems weird to say, but the costume had so many parts. The base was a leotard, and the top was a tunic that hung over your body. I was so nervous, that I got in the box without the tunic. I nailed the whole dance. I was proud of myself. I was so happy, that I didn’t even notice my costume. Someone told me when I got off stage. The other part of my costume was just hanging there in my dressing room. I was so nervous because the previous time I did the dance, I fell right flat on my back.
JE: I know that your family has been a great support to you. Your mother was in the New York City Ballet, and I often see your parents, brother, and grandfather at your performances in New York. How does it feel to live and work away from them?
AP: Right now, it’s not a big deal, it’s very easy. But, that’s because I live three hours away from New York City. And, the work in Washington DC, at The Washington Ballet, is amazing. My work has always been one of the most important things in my life because I love ballet so much. Everything is really going well, and I’m dancing a lot. For now, things are great.
JE: Now, you’re nineteen. What advice would you give to your twelve-year-old self?
AP: There will be great times studying ballet when it’s really fun, and then your body might hurt, and you’re not cast in roles that you want. Sometimes it’s not as great, but you should keep going because if you push through the hard times, you will get stronger, and get into a better place.
Photo © 2016 Michael Cairns