November 30, 2004

Spenser Goes Higher – VSAA’s Spenser Theberge Dances His Way to New Challenges

As a young child, Spenser Theberge discovered that his gift came with unwanted side effects.

Boys wrestle. Squash bugs. Shoot imaginary guns. But some of them, like Theberge, also enjoy dancing, which isn't as popular come recess time. By third grade, in fact, Theberge began feeling ostracized because of his passion for expressive movement to music.

In fourth grade, the taunting became so insidious that Theberge changed elementary schools to get away from the teasing. He didn't mention dance to his new classmates for several weeks until he had established strong friendships in fear of how the other boys would respond.

"That was kind of sad," Theberge said. "That I thought I had to hide (dance) because I thought I wouldn't have any friends."

Theberge says instead of succumbing to grade-school ridicule, it made him more resolved in his love for the art form. He developed the necessary defenses, then let go of the hope that all of his peers would understand.

Now 18, Theberge will perform the primary male roles, the ones usually reserved for guest professionals, next month in Columbia Dance's version of "The Nutcracker."

He will probably graduate this spring with a perfect grade point average and as co-valedictorian of the Vancouver School of Arts and Academics. He says the magnet school became for him the place where he finally felt accepted and highly encouraged to pursue his creative interests.

"Spenser's dance is a metaphor for his life," his mother, Sarah Theberge, said. "You can see and hear the differences in him over the past few years. When he is dancing, there's an air of confidence and competence. As he's grown into his role as a dancer, grown into his commitment, dance has provided a foundation (for the other aspects of his life)."

These final local performances of "The Nutcracker," she said, will for him be "a rite of passage as he goes into his next place."

Big move to Big Apple

That next place at this point will be New York City, where Theberge already has been offered a spot at The Juilliard School while he's waiting to hear from New York University. Professional dance companies are offering him work, too.

Bodyvox hired Theberge earlier this year to perform in the Portland company's collaboration with Opera Pacific in Costa Mesa, Calif. Theberge was 17 at the time; the next youngest dancer was 25 years old.

Co-founder Ashley Roland traveled to California to see the show in Opera Pacific's 2,000-seat theater, and she said it took her at least 20 minutes to recognize Theberge, with whom she last worked at Columbia Dance three years ago.

"I couldn't figure out who he was," she said. "He acted like the most seasoned, mature dancer on the stage. He's a big kid. A talented kid, and I really thought it was an older man. When I figured out it was Spenser, I was blown away. He was dancing with women almost twice his age, and he was doing everything as well, if not better, than all of the core members."

Roland added: "He's definitely a big fish in the small dance pond of the Portland scene. Soon, he'll get to see what it's like in the different pond that is New York."

Theberge has done well in such intense situations so far.

At the summer camp in 2003 at Juilliard, one of New York's most prestigious arts institutions, Theberge was the only one out of 40 who was offered early admission to the school. He decided instead to return to Vancouver for his junior year.

At the Broadway Theater Project in Florida this past summer, guest instructor Desmond Richardson, whom Theberge calls his idol, specifically pulled him aside for words of encouragement, and camp founder, Ann Reinking, who choreographed such acclaimed shows as "Chicago" and "Fosse," offered him a job in "Fosse," only to find out later that Theberge was 17 and therefore ineligible for the position.

During his senior year at VSAA, Theberge was determined to make himself an even better dancer.

He can do switch-split leaps that consistently get him more than 50 inches off of the ground. He can lift girls, sometimes as much as 135 pounds, over his head for long periods of time, even running across the stage holding his partner in the air. During a master class in Utah two years ago, he performed nine pirouettes in a row, setting a personal record.

Paying his dues

But he wasn't born with the greatest feet, he acknowledges. He constantly has to stretch and build strength in each foot for the aesthetics of certain poses. He also wants to be more versatile, being able to better transition from lyrical moments to the most masculine and powerful of jumps.

Russell Capps, co-founder of Washington State Ballet, worked with Theberge on Vancouver Dance Theatre's version of "The Nutcracker" in the late 1990s and early 2000s. He has been in camps and classes with him since and sees tremendous potential.

"With someone like Spenser, you could have put him in a pro- level show at 10 years old," Capps said. "He's also one of the few kids in this area who has been willing to put in the training, paid the dues (to reach the next level). If he stays healthy, he's headed for the right place. He's always had acting ability. I've heard a lot of people vouch for his singing ability. He's so strong in his jazz presence, that with his dancing, he'll be totally unstoppable in musical theater."

Theberge said Columbia Dance's version of "The Nutcracker" next month, Dec. 10-12, will be the 13th such production of his career, including the four years during which he performed for both Columbia Dance and Vancouver Dance Theatre.

Keep on dancin'

He acknowledged that there were times he wanted to give up on dance, but those were because of the stresses of the commitment.

"I never wanted to quit because of people calling me names," he said. "There were times when I wanted a more 'normal' high school experience. Times I wanted to spend with friends (instead of in a studio). Some days, I wanted to come home from school and sit on the couch and stay there until it was time for bed. But those moments never lasted long.

"I persevered through all of that stuff in elementary school. Now, I have the responsibility to show why it was worth it. As an upperclassman, a lot of the younger kids look up to the seniors. I want to show other boys what we can do and that it's cool."

He added, "There are a lot of times, when we're piecing together 'The Nutcracker,' and I'll be doing my part, that I'll see the younger guys imitate my movement on the side. Really, that just reminds me how far I've come since I've started dance, and it reminds me that what I'm doing has a bigger impact."

Did you know?

"The Nutcracker" was first staged in 1892 at the Mariinsky Theatre of Russia.

The Juilliard School will mark its 100th anniversary in 2005-06 with a yearlong program of national tours and exhibits.