Press Enterprise: July, 25, 2013
ARTIST SPOTLIGHT: Alyssa Anderson
BY: Patrick Brien and Brandi Clarke
The challenges facing someone who aspires to a career as a professional ballet dancer are many. Questions of motivation, fortitude and withstanding long hours of training are only the beginning. Character development, expressiveness, natural physical ability and opportunity are all part of a complex equation. What happens when a person that has all of the necessary attributes finds that circumstances outside of her control force a change in expectations?
In the case of Alyssa Anderson, she becomes the Executive Director of the California Riverside Ballet, the organization with which she trained, performed and grew up.
Studying and training from the age of 5, Anderson was performing the lead role of Clara in “The Nutcracker” at the Riverside Municipal Auditorium when she was 9. This was in spite of the fact that she suffered from severe scoliosis due to a rare birth defect in her brain stem. Shortly after that production, she underwent brain surgery. Undeterred, Anderson returned to training.
“My relationship with dance has evolved quite a lot over time,” says Anderson. “From the ages of about 5 to 15 I would say classical ballet was my primary motivation for living. And that isn’t an exaggeration. I was a pretty solitary kid and dancing was my only joy as well as my only social outlet. I was working really diligently at having a career as a professional ballet dancer.”
Anderson had to wear a back brace every hour she wasn’t dancing. Between that treatment and the brain surgery, she was expected to heal.
“I kept dancing hard and I was optimistic,” she says. “But I got worse and eventually the day came when my spine was curved at a seventy-five degree angle, and it was going to start to compromise my breathing.”
Anderson had surgery to correct the condition and believed that she would have enough range of motion to keep dancing.
“When I came out of the surgery they told me my spine was fused from top to bottom, and I realized I’d never be a ballet dancer,” she says.
After a few years, Anderson began to explore other forms of dance that allowed her to modify her movement and go beyond limitations. Now she is back to dancing eight hours a week.
“It is an escape from my daily routine,” she explains. “It connects me to a different, more elemental and beautiful part of my humanity. And I need that. I no longer see dance as a career path or an obsession or anything like that. I just see it as a gift to experience movement and music and express myself again.”
Anderson has also gone on to train and work in theatre, music and writing, pursuits that she attributes to her foundation in ballet. She went to the Lee Strasberg Institute and began doing theatre in small venues all around Los Angeles before going to study at the Grotowski Institute in Poland, which she says was a dream come true.
“We were training twelve hours a day, making original work and living in a farmhouse,” she says. “It was awesome.”
Anderson joined the X Repertory Theatre Company, which is housed in a downtown Los Angeles warehouse. As it was a grass-roots organization, many of the members took on administrative responsibilities so she began learning about non-profit arts management. In addition, she became the operations manager of a water conversation company in Los Angeles, learning more about business.
Having grown up in Riverside, Anderson returned to serve as a board member of the California Riverside Ballet. She found herself devoting more and more time to helping the organization with the development of new outreach programs. Approaching the administrative side of operation with as much commitment as she did her training as an artist quickly began to pay off as programs took shape.
“Eventually, the board offered me the position of Executive Director,” she says. “I suppose because they liked the work I was already doing.”
Anderson saw the progress that had been made on the Riverside School of the Arts at the Cesar Chavez Community Center. With ballet training for underserved youth as a principle focus of the California Riverside Ballet’s outreach efforts, Anderson sensed an opportunity for collaboration. She approached Ralph Nunez, Director of Parks, Recreation and Community Services for the City of Riverside and Ward 2 Council Member Andy Melendrez, who were enthusiastic about the possibilities. The California Riverside Ballet began a six-week pilot program in June after building a ballet studio at Cesar Chavez.
“The idea is that we have to make ballet training accessible to children and families who can’t afford to enroll in a for-profit school,” says Anderson. “The class fees are on a sliding scale and the price is determined by a family’s income. Full scholarships are available for any child who needs it. We also provide the ballet attire and shoes, which can be quite costly for families to take care of.”
Anderson says their ultimate goal is to expand the classes to more of the city’s community centers, adding multiple levels of classes. She stresses, however, that it is not their intent to turn out professional ballerinas, focusing instead on the pride and dignity she saw on the faces of students during their first sessions.
There are a number of questions that face Anderson and the California Riverside Ballet as they look toward the future.
“We’re in our 44th season and we are re-discovering what it means to be a ballet company in Riverside,” says Anderson. “This new educational outreach component is very important and I’m pleased that we are committed to that. We know that families will come out to see “The Nutcracker,” but what else? How can we engage a new audience outside that realm of familiarity? I am most concerned with remaining open to new avenues and opportunities based on the information we get from our community.”
For more information on the California Riverside Ballet or to learn more about their summer outreach program, visit www.crballet.com.