It seems like the rumors of her retirement have been around for years. Not always rumors, but certainly always speculation. She's 28 years old, people would say. She's in her early-30s, they'd say. Ballerinas just can't keep going forever.
Alexandra Bergman has defied all those people, but at last, they're not just rumors anymore. After 18 years with Tulsa Ballet Theatre, the principal soloist is stepping down.
In a career where one popped hamstring, or a severe ankle sprain, or an ACL torn on a routine dance step can end everything in an instant, at 37 years old, Bergman has redefined "longevity," and she has a few theories as to why that is.
"I feel a lot of it is due to my training," she said recently, seated outside her four-year-old daughter Sanya's ballet class. "I had really hard Russian training. We danced six or seven days a week my whole entire schooling."
She learned from her teacher that taking extended breaks from ballet did more harm than good.
"If you build your muscles and your body up to be so strong at a young age, and then you keep that consistency of training, and you don't let yourself get lax, it keeps you from getting injured," she said. "There's a fine line between overworking also, but I think that's part of it -- always keeping everything in shape and not taking breaks."
However, the Swedish-born dancer raised mostly in New York does give a nod to her own genetic makeup.
"Because I'm not one of those frail, stick-figure ballerinas, I don't really have as much tendency to get some of those injuries, like stress fractures and things like that," she offered. "Maybe my bones are a little bit stronger, but that also doesn't make me right for some of the parts that I wish I'd been able to do."
Genetics have also given her the most beautiful dance hands you'll ever see.
She came to TBT in 1994..
"I was working in this small company in Illinois right after high school, and they were having financial troubles," she said. "We were about to stop getting paid, so I immediately sent my video out to a whole bunch of companies that were in the Midwest or anything that sounded like a company I would want to work for -- some company that needed somebody on short notice."
ALEXANDRA BERGMAN AS OLYMPE IN LADY OF THE CAMELLIAS
COURTESY/ROSALIE O’ CONNOR
At the age of 16, Bergman had auditioned for TBT, but said she wasn't ready for such a job, auditioning mostly just for the experience of doing so. However, she got noticed.
"They talked to me at the end. I was one of the few people asked to stay and if they had positions available, they would call," she said. "But then I was 16. I couldn't have taken the job."
Bergman doesn't know if that audition carried any weight when TBT received her job-hunting video, but that's not really important.
"Two weeks after I sent my video to TBT, Susan Frei called," she said. "They'd had someone sprain her ankle, and they were needing someone for Nutcracker and was I still available, and I said, 'Oh yes, I am.'" Bergman arrived in 1994, just after TBT founder Roman Jasinski had stepped down from being the company's artistic director. Still, after her work in that production of the Nutcracker, she was asked to stick around.
"They said, 'We like your dancing, and we could use you.' At the end of the season, they offered me a contract for the next season," she said.
The dancer remembers trepidation at the prospect of Tulsa but any reservations she might have had about the Midwest were quickly assuaged.
"You know, as New Yorkers, all we hear of Oklahoma is the Dust Bowl and The Grapes of Wrath, and that's about it," she said with a laugh. "I loved it here. I love Tulsa, I love the facility. I was very impressed to find such a high-quality company, which is much better now."
She spoke about the improvement of the company over her tenure here and lays the lion's share of the credit at the feet of TBT's artistic director Marcello Angelini.
Asked about how different things are now that Angelini has been helming things for 18 years, Bergman had a great deal to say.
"It is drastically different. It's an enormously larger scale. It's not regional at all," she said. "We do world-class choreography, and choreography that really pushes our limits to the fullest. When I joined the company, it pushed my limits to the fullest, because I was young and inexperienced. But now, as a seasoned dancer of 20 years, it still pushes every aspect of the body and the mind and everything."
As Angelini has brought in bigger and bigger names in the dance world, he's also expanded the scope of the entire Tulsa Ballet Theatre operations.
"The facilities, the black box, the theater, all this stuff is new," Bergman said. "It's put TBT kind of on the world scene. And it's not all in the last couple of years. Ten years ago, we went to Portugal and toured in the Lisbon festival."
It was a far cry from early tours to Ponca City and Amarilo.
"Now, we commission choreographers from all over the world to come and create ballets on our dancers. And the dancers are world-class," she said."
Now, she's looking forward to a new stage in her life. Her husband -- Yann Irlinger -- danced for TBT until 1999, when he retired to become an airline pilot. Now, he's gotten a job with Copa Airlines in Panama. Coupling that with fact that Bergman is not -- contrary to her ageless dancing and presence onstage -- getting younger, she feels like now is the time.
"Eventually, I'm not going to have an income here, and even though my body's strong, it's probably not going to last another 20 years. And I'd need way too much makeup to go onstage in 20 years," she laughed. "So I just thought that if he has this great opportunity, maybe it's time for us to follow him for a while."
She said that Irlinger has always supported her and loved that she kept dancing year after year, but his job had him commuting to Detroit. "He'd miss so many nights with Sanya, especially," Bergman said. "And I just said, 'I'm ready.' And I think we want to have another kid one day, and time is ticking."
Her time here with us has been punctuated by so many wonderful opportunities for her, and just as many audiences have thrilled to her performances. But like anyone else, she has her favorites, though getting her to choose one particular favorite ballet proved impossible.
"My Nacho Duato ballets are my all-time favorites," she said. "My first experience with contemporary ballet was Jardi Tancart way back in 1998 or '99. I was so fortunate to be in the corps de ballet, and when the stager came and set that piece on the company and chose me to do the third pas de deux, and I was in shock and in awe. I just worked so hard. It was one of the greatest experiences, and I'll never forget it. I guess I did well, because I've been cast in every Nacho Duato piece ever since, usually as the lead role, so that's been nice."
She rattled off a list of ballets she feels privileged to have been a part of, but eventually settled on colleague Ma Cong's Carmina Burana and Duato's Arenal -- easily the most stunning thing I ever saw her do.
Of Arenal, in which Bergman danced the role of The Woman in Black, she said she was relatively unaffected by the fact that some audience members weren't in love with it.
"Some people didn't get it and didn't like it. But it's just incredible," she said. "That ballet has been set three or four places in the world, ever, because the girl who does that part has to be just right for it. I was watching the DVD of Nacho's company doing Arenal, and the girl is incredible. I remember watching that video over and over and saying, 'Okay, I have to be as good as that girl.' I love Nacho Duato, and I just connect with everything."
As Bergman readies for her transition out of ballet, she leaves with great satisfaction, having danced not just for herself, but also for the audiences.
"When you really put your heart and soul into everything, the audience feels it. And then I feel fulfilled," she said. "If I were just performing the choreography for myself, I don't think I would enjoy this career as much. But just knowing I gave my passion to the audience makes me feel like it's fulfilling."
Everyone has regrets, to be sure, but Alexandra Bergman just might be the exception that proves the rule.
"It's great to be an artist. It's worth every bit of suffering, I have to say. I would do it all over again," she said. "My career has been great."
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