About the announcement that Genie O’Brien, artistic director of the Portland Ballet would retire in June, Aimée Petrin, executive director of Portland Ovations, said this to Portland Press Herald reporter Bob Keyes: “Just realizing she has been doing this for 35 years with what appears to be an unwavering dedication not only to dance, but to the arts in this community, is just astounding. I don’t know how people have it in them to do it for so long and with such integrity.”

That’s easy: O’Brien is a ballet dancer. When I spoke with her recently at the Portland Ballet studio on Forest Avenue, she observed that one of the most difficult things for actors in the PBS “Downton Abbey” series is to sit up straight, never letting your back touch that of the chair.

Ballet dancers don’t have that problem. “You can perceive a dancer by the way that they stand,” she said.

Like athletes, they are disciplined enough to play through injuries (I remember seeing Jacques d’Amboise dance magnificently with broken bones in his feet), but they are also “passionate, warm, and very funny.”

“They are actors in that they take on a persona, (drawing on) a range (of personalities) from within, but most important, they become the music,” she said.

Watching classical ballet can seem like seeing the voices – bass, tenor, alto, soprano – personified. The dancers are individuals, but they are also part of a whole, or “our home team,” as O’Brien puts it.

For students, such as those in the Portland Ballet’s CORPS program, in cooperation with Portland High School, classic dance builds character and self-reliance and the ability to work with others, she believes. “The team can’t pull you along, but you’re part of it. We try to expose them to people who care about them, what they can do, and how they represent this art form.”

“In our CORPS program we help young dancers assess where they fit, prior to college. It’s important to help them understand their own power to determine their fate. We’re not trying to turn out kids who think they can dance, but students who finish high school with purpose and direction… and nothing to prove.”

O’Brien grew up in the Philadelphia suburbs, played the cello, took the obligatory piano lessons and loved horses. Her family moved to New Hampshire when she was a teenager, and it was a performance of the Royal Ballet in Boston that decided her on a career as a dancer. “It was ‘Giselle,’ and it was supposed to be danced by Anthony Dowell and Merle Park. I was disappointed that the lead was Antoinette Sibley instead of Park, but I shouldn’t have been.”

She enrolled in the Boston Conservatory, but they would not admit her as a dance major, so she falsified her records to read major in dance, minor in music, instead of the other way around. “They forgave me,” she said. (She was honored recently at graduation ceremonies.)

After performing with the Boston Ballet Theater and a ballet company in Lisbon, Portugal, she realized that what she really wanted to do was teach. “Lisbon was fun, with a lot of contemporary stuff to do. The works performed there had no restrictions. You could even dance to Schoenberg, which was exciting to someone with a classical background. But I wanted to see the light bulb go off, to have a dancer realize that it (a certain movement or an entire role) was theirs to have and hold. There are a lot of mental as well as physical gymnastics involved, getting someone to feel it, find it and own it,” she said.

O’Brien is an avid dressage rider, something she hopes to do more of in her semi-retirement. Dressage has been called ballet on horseback, and she agrees. The general public sees both ballet and dressage as artificial, but they are not. Both are refinements of natural movement. Certain people, and horses, have more “ballon” than others – what balletomanes call the illusion of walking on air – but the gift has to be nurtured and directed, she said.

“Then it’s ‘Wow! I got it,’ a constant pas de deux even if you’re alone.”

She remembers doing tedious exercises in labanotation, a means of recording dance moves before film and video, but thinks the archives of ballet in this century may be a double-edged sword. Seeing recordings of dance enables one to analyze great performances, but it also codifies the “correct” choreography, just as recording seemed to solidify tradition in classical music. “We are not airing as much innovative, ground-breaking work, and it becomes difficult to protect your own work.”

Still, she said, “I think there will always be a place for classical ballet. Manners, beauty, stories and art don’t disappear. Classical ballet is like Shakespeare.”

Christopher Hyde is a writer and musician who lives in Pownal. He can be reached at:

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