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A Dancer’s Commitment to ABT, Herself

As the dual heroine in “Swan Lake,” which Christine Dunham dances tonight at Shrine Auditorium, the tall Texan conjures up a strikingly self-possessed creature, one who is both elusive and alluring, one whose fervor comes from some lower depths.

But inside her dressing room--shared with several other American Ballet Theatre principals who will also inherit Swan Queen duties at this engagement--Christine Dunham seems transformed into the girl next door.

She is the model of straightforwardness, but gentle. A little shy, she sits down on a folding chair and tucks herself into a neatly demure position. It’s clear that she has not a self-indulgent or temperamental ballerina bone in her body. Nothing coy, either: One sees her perhaps as an elementary school teacher, not as the spirit of dark mystery she embodies across the footlights.

“All I ever wanted was a normal life,” she says, adjusting the white crocheted sweater tied around her hips. “The kind my parents have. To get married, have a family, do all the things that ordinary people do. But now that I’ve been promoted (to principal status)--and it’s been a whirlwind for me since then--something has changed.

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“Why not make the whole commitment? This is American Ballet Theatre. A chance at it will never happen again.” Abashed, she admits to being “as old as 30,” which makes her grab for the brass ring all the more meaningful.

Until Dunham’s promotion--it came unexpectedly two months ago in Miami--she had always opted for hometown values. A scholarship to the School of American Ballet took her to New York for five consecutive summers throughout her teen-age years.

“But I didn’t take the offer to stay there,” she says, “because I wanted to graduate with my high school class in Dallas and go to the senior prom. I was a cheerleader and a member of the drill team and my hobby was horseback riding.”

When the Dallas Ballet beckoned, Dunham happily joined the regional company and married an acting student--both of them satisfied to stay there for the next six years. But latent ambitions led her to seek an audition with ABT in 1985 and she was “overjoyed when Misha approved me, but said that he had nothing to offer at the time but a corps contract.” She took it, of course, and the couple moved to New York, where Dunham’s husband also stood to gain.

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The grueling and unrewarding work of a corps dancer, however, didn’t lead to long-term enchantment. After a year of holding stiff-legged, regimental poses--her arms instinctively stretch down her torso and hands fold one on top of the other in swan-coryphee position--she began having injuries. Complaints to administrator Charles France did not fall on deaf ears. In late ’87, she was promoted to soloist rank where her talent stood out noticeably.

Within a short time, the company began rehearsing the new “Swan Lake” and Baryshnikov tapped Dunham for the lead in one of several rotating casts. “I didn’t expect a plum like this,” she admits. “And the three months of rehearsal were wonderful.”

But essentially she learned the role herself--"watching everyone . . . Cynthia Gregory who shows the quality that only years and years can bring to the character . . . and Makarova, whose arms and movements are breath-taking.” Scrutinizing even her peers brings insight, she says, “sometimes just for their spontaneity.” But studying videos is especially helpful “and I watch them all--the Kirov and the Bolshoi . . . no, I don’t know the dancers’ names.”

What matters to Dunham beyond everything else “is to move the audience. I know I’m on the right track when people hook into the emotion. It’s something I feel inside and want to express. When I watch a dancer and find myself admiring her feet and legs, but not seeing anything else, it’s boring. I want more from dancing than that.”

She treasures each time out as the Swan Queen and is rewarded by a management that lets her fill in for injured dancers, thus adding to her performance tally. Both Martine van Hamel and Susan Jaffe previously had to bow out and Dunham was the beneficiary.

The more experience the better, she says, especially in the difficult parts: “Odile (the evil alter-ego) is more accessible to me. Her character is easier to put on and the steps fall into line. But Odette (the tragic creature), in the second act, is the hardest thing for me.”


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