For an aspiring dancer, there are several formal paths that can lead to Atlanta Ballet and all are rigidly formatted.
Some come through the Atlanta Ballet Centre For Dance Education and its pre-pro division, where the most serious and talented young dancers study and hope to be pulled out of the crowd. Others come to Atlanta to participate in the ballet’s summer intensive program, hoping it will be a stepping stone to joining the company. Often times, dancers have studied elsewhere — and perhaps even danced in a professional company — and are invited here to audition.
Alessa Rogers, however, uncovered an exception to those rules. Her official biography makes her path sound very cut and dried: she graduated from the prestigious North Carolina School of the Arts, then spent a season with the North Carolina Dance Theatre II before joining Atlanta Ballet. Which is all true, but only part of the story.
She and her older sister (by 19 months) were both students at the School of the Arts. When Erin Rogers graduated, she moved to Atlanta and became an apprentice dancer at Atlanta Ballet, the entry-level position for dancers. After Alessa graduated, she joined the North Carolina Dance Theatre II and after her first season, her contract wasn’t renewed.
By the time she learned of the decision, most ballet companies had already filled their rosters for the season. So Rogers joined her older sister in Atlanta, took a job working the morning shift at the Starbucks on 14th Street (“I would set my alarm at 3:37 every morning and walk 45 minutes to work.”). Then, after her shift, she’d sprint over to the ballet’s Midtown complex on West Peachtree Street (“With mocha and whipped cream in my hair.”), where they allowed her to take some classes for free.
Rogers was invited to watch the rehearsals for Giselle, which was the ballet’s next big show. She began to do that each afternoon, and spent the time learning every spot in the corps of Giselle.
As she watched, a plan unfolded. One day, a dancer was out; Rogers rose up from the edge of the studio and inserted herself in the absent dancer’s spot. Nobody invited her onto the dance floor, and she didn’t ask. She simply took the initiative and acted like she belonged.
That happened a couple of more times before this stranger dancing in the corps was noticed by Paige McFall, the wife of Atlanta Ballet artistic director John McFall and a retired professional dancer. “Who’s that girl?” Paige McFall asked.
No one could really answer her, until someone finally identified her as Erin Rogers’ younger sister. “Well, you need to get Erin’s sister some new pointe shoes because her pointe shoes are dead,” McFall replied.
That moment marked Alessa Rogers’ acceptance into the world of Atlanta Ballet. “It was a rather unorthodox entry into the company,” Rogers says with a laugh. “I never auditioned. I did it the only way I could do it at the time.” She was made a “fellowship” dancer halfway through that season, then promoted to “apprentice” (the entry-level position) after six months before she became a full member of the company the following season.
In the seven years since Alessa Rogers joined the company, she has firmly positioned herself as a future stalwart of Atlanta Ballet. After performing mostly ensemble and supporting roles, Rogers sprang to prominence when legendary choreographer Twyla Tharp drafted her out of the ensemble dancers to be Princess Irene in her 2012 world premiere of The Princess and the Goblin.
Two years later, in her unforgettable performance as Juliette in Roméo et Juliette (a role she reprised this season), Rogers blossomed into a dancer that everyone was suddenly noticing.
ERIN ROGERS WAS THE FIRST member of the family to catch the dance fever. When Alessa (pronounced as in “less is more”) was four, she saw her sister’s classmates wearing bumble bee costumes at a recital, and decided she wanted one as well. So she asked her mother if she could join the dance class.
By the time she was 14, both Rogers and her sister were accepted to the North Carolina School of Arts in Winston-Salem and left their home in Florida to live on their own. Three months later, their grandmother took them to an audition and noticed a series of bruises on Alessa’s body. She insisted her granddaughter get a blood test.
She took a test the next day and a couple of hours later, was pulled out of her Spanish class. “They hauled me off to the hospital and I stayed . . . for a while,” Rogers says. “My blood wouldn’t clot. I found out I was in danger of bleeding to death.”
She was diagnosed with idiopathic thrombocytopenic purpura (ITP), a disease where the body’s immune system attacks the body’s platelets, which are necessary for normal blood clotting. The condition turned chronic before medication took hold.
“That was hard because all I could do was watch, and I’m somebody who likes to be moving around all the time,” she says.
Rogers sat out of dance for a year; the dream she’d held since she was four years old was in serious jeopardy. Her body finally began to respond to treatment, and today the condition is a thing of the past.
Erin Rogers, however, did have to let go of her dream of being a principal dancer with a ballet company. She was struck by a car, and retired from dancing when her body could no longer do some of the moves; she now teaches yoga in Atlanta.
IN 2012, ROGERS WAS 24 YEARS old and in her fourth season with the company. She was part of the ensemble cast as Twyla Tharp rehearsed The Princess and the Goblin, a world premiere piece jointly commissioned by Atlanta Ballet and the Royal Winnipeg Ballet.
In the middle of rehearsals, Tharp pulled Rogers out of the ensemble and began to teach her the lead role of Princess Irene. But the possibility of stepping into the lead role seemed so implausible that Rogers never believed that she was actually going to perform it.
“One day we were having a studio showing for some board members, invited public and, I think, you know, some lady from the New York Times,” Rogers quips with perfect comedic timing. “And Twyla said, ‘Alessa is going in as Princess Irene.’ That’s when I felt overwhelmed. I didn’t even know the role; I hadn’t had a rehearsal. I had about an hour, my lunch break, to get my shit together. I kind of faked my way through that, and I guess I faked it well enough because after that, I was Princess Irene.”
It was a moment she seized. ArtsATL’s Andrew Alexander wrote that Rogers had the “right combination of purity and determination for the role. Throughout the evening, and especially in the opening scenes, she displays a fleetness and precision that are beautiful to see.”
As The Princess and the Goblin was performed, officials from the Les Ballets de Monte Carlo were in Atlanta to begin the process of bringing Jean-Christophe Maillot’s Roméo et Juliette here. They were smitten by Rogers’ performance in Tharp’s production. “Alessa was the obvious choice as Juliette,” Giovanna Lorenzoni, one of the two stagers sent to Atlanta, told ArtsATL.
But no one ever mentioned that to Rogers; all she knew was that she was getting substantial attention from Lorenzoni and the other stager, Asier Uriagereka. “I had a sense they were looking at me when we did a couple of audition workshops,” says Rogers. “When they came back, they were calling me by my name, not ‘Oh, you!’ A dancer always knows when people are watching.”
Finally, the cast was announced and Rogers had her dream role. “I got home and my boyfriend had bought me flowers and wrote, ‘For Juliette’ on the card,” she says, adding a girlish giggle. “That was really sweet.”
Christian Clark, who played Romeo, says it was the first time he had partnered with Rogers in a meaty role. “She’s an amazing artist,” he says. “She’s so open and relaxed in the studio. If something goes wrong, you’re not beating yourself up about it. You just laugh about it and fix it, then hop right on to the next thing.”
The onstage chemistry between Rogers and Clark was palpable. ArtsATL critic Kathleen Wessel wrote, “Rogers is wide-eyed and youthful, but her powerful dancing elevates her presence and commands attention. Clark, with his floppy hair and drunk-in-love grin, is the perfect counterpart. Together, they emerge as one character, intertwined and inseparable.”
Even more than Princess Irene, Roméo et Juliette felt like the moment Alessa Rogers arrived.
ON FEBRUARY 3, AS ATLANTA BALLET prepared to restage Romeo et Juliette, Rogers posted this on her Facebook page: “As on every February 3rd I remember the day my blood went bad, and we didn’t know if it would ever get better again or if I’d be able to dance again. But eventually it did and I did and on this February 3rd I did a [technical run-through] of Juliette and I was surrounded by love and good things and good blood and beautiful ballet and supportive people and I am grateful. Keep up the good work platelets!”
Sitting in a small conference room on a lunch break in mid-March, Rogers is still winding down from the second Roméo et Juliette run, which again was a critical and box office hit for the company. “I’ve realized there’s a process of becoming Juliette, and there’s a process of letting go of Juliette,” she says. “Roméo et Juliette was such a special ballet to me, and I really connected with the character. It’s very close to me.”
Rogers grew up focused on ballet, and she says she’s now experiencing a second childhood where she’s doing things she couldn’t as a kid. She is inquisitive and constantly seeking out new challenges and adventures. She has become an expert rock climber, along with her boyfriend of seven years, Carson Wick, who is a postdoctoral fellow at Emory University.
A new passion is music theory. She spends her off-season time traveling as a guest artist for ballet companies on the West Coast and in Europe. She is also an aspiring writer who regularly blogs for the website 4dancers.org.
Rogers will dance in all three programs this weekend for Atlanta Ballet’s Modern Choreographer Voices, and is also featured in the ballet’s season finale, MAYhem, next month. And next season, the company will restage The Princess and the Goblin.
As a dancer, Rogers describes herself as a “work in progress,” and one reason she stays busy in the off-season when many dancers take the time off to allow their bodies to recuperate is that she thinks it helps her grow to experience new choreographers in different settings.
“I feel like I understand my body more than I ever have before, and I understand the way that I work,” she says. “Knowing that information has given me the power to be able to grow as an artist and to take on big roles like Juliette. I know in my head what my body is doing, what work still needs to be done.”
She pauses to laugh. “There’s always work to be done.”