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Flash Preview, 6-23: The Woman in the Red Dress
Roxas's Latest Triumph: The Birth of a Dance Company

By Paul Ben-Itzak
Copyright 2000 The Dance Insider

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Her name is Elizabeth Roxas, and she is the embodiment of the dancer who can't stop dancing. A principal with Ballet Philippines when still a teenager, she went on to first the Joyce Trisler company and then starred with the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater for 13 years. Retiring from Alvin Ailey in 1997 meant anything but retiring from dancing: Roxas stepped off the plane from her last tour with the Ailey -- its first tour to South Africa -- and onto the Broadway stage, for a featured dance role in "The King and I." She's guested with Buglisi-Foreman twice in the last two years, and taught high school kids as well. She also made a triumphant return to Ailey last December, reprising the role she created in Judith Jamison's tribute to Alvin Ailey, "Hymn."

But the project that has been dearest to Elizabeth's heart -- her most recent dream -- was to start a dance company of veteran dancers, lyrically oriented, with a mission to present new work. This weekend, that project becomes a company, when RhythMEK makes its official dance world debut, along with Garth Fagan opening the Jacob's Pillow Dance Festival in Beckett, Massachusetts.... Immediately the season is over, Roxas marries attorney Robert Dobrush.

The image of Liz permanently etched in my mind and heart is of the woman in the red dress, a sweeping red dress, and how the woman in that dress so perfectly channelled the spirit of Alvin Ailey's tribute to Trisler, "Memoria." On first viewing in 1995 at City Center, I knew I wanted to see more of this dancer, and also to find out what made her tick.

My first direct encounter with Roxas, in an April 1996 meeting at the Coffee Pot on 9th Avenue that was supposed to last a half hour but became an absorbing two hours, was so intense that afterwards, I found I was tingling. Her energy is that intense. That summer, and over the next four years, it would become clear to me that Liz is a dancer who will dance as long as she can walk.

But enough pre-amble. The following is based on the series of interviews I conducted with Liz from April through August of that year, 1996, and a freelance article originally published then. It was a turbulent personal time for Liz, and I'm happy to report that these days, as frenetic as still is her professional life, her personal life has settled down and couldn't be more serene.

Important note: I am dwelling on Liz because I have been following her career closely for the last five years. But she would be the first to point out that RhythMEK has three founder/directors: Herself and fellow former Ailey stars Michael Thomas and Karine Plantadit-Bageot (also of "The Lion King"), creative foces in their own right.


Tim "The Hebrew Hammer" Puller was mad. A Madison Square Garden referee had stopped his heavyweight fight with Lou Savarese three minutes into the second round, because the Hammer was getting pummelled. "This is the fight game," the bloodied Puller told the New York Post. "I risk my life. I know that. Maybe I should be a tennis player or a ballerina if they're not going to let me fight."

Hebrew Hammer, meet Elizabeth Roxas.

A twelve-year veteran of the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater, Roxas betrays no sign of injuries in performance. She dances with abandon in Donald McKayle's "Rainbow 'Round My shoulder," lyrical grace in Ailey's "Memoria," and emotional heat in Lar Lubovitch's erotic duet, "Fandango." Like the Hammer, however, the five-foot-four, 105-pound Roxas has been battered.

Bad catches by partners have left her with what doctors call "anterior cruciate ligament (ACL) - deficient knees." The tendons that hold her knees together and act as shock absorbers are gone. Athletes and dancers who get this injury typically have the ACL replaced by a tendon from another part of the body, an operation that can take them out of action for up to a year. Roxas, like the fighter who refuses to leave the ring to get bandaged because he sees victory in sight, has rejected this course. At age thirty-eight, looking at the twilight of her twenty-five-year career, she feels she can't afford to lose the time.

Unlike the boxer, Roxas may not be taking her life in her hands every time she steps onto the stage, but she is definitely playing with fire. Either knee could buckle at any moment, as the left one did in 1986, when the ACL was busted during a performance of Ailey's "Bad Blood" in Vancouver. "My partner threw me up, but he didn't quite have me on my way down," Roxas recalls. "As I fell, my foot went down, but my left knee went the other way, and I heard that sound. I started crawling and moaning. I was screaming. They had to stop the show and close the curtain so that they could drag me off the stage." The Hebrew Hammer's ideas notwithstanding, this is no work for sissies.

The injury was compounded in 1992 when Roxas, perched on a bar stool, turned to talk to a neighbor. Without an ACL to lock it into place, her left knee went out. "Normally, I could put it back in," she says. "But this time it went out, and within a matter of seconds it swelled up like a basketball." Roxas had lost the ACL in her right knee in 1975, while dancing with Ballet Philippines in her native Manila. Now, in addition to having no ACL in either knee, she had mush where the cartilage in her left knee used to be.

Three doctors told her she would never dance again. The third was Dr. Donald Rose, who cleaned out the cartilage. It was Rose who operated on solo artist Molissa Fenley in 1995 after she tore her ACL, and replaced it with a tendon from her hamstring. Roxas was the first of Rose's patients to decline the surgery, instead choosing to compensate for the missing ACLs with a heavy regimen of physical therapy.

"She is very unusual," Rose says, "in that she has been able to dance for an extended period of time having ACL-deficient knees.... What having ACL-deficient knees means is that she is a set-up for having subsequent cartilage tears, as well as in the future having arthritic changes." Roxas already has early arthritis, Rose adds, and she risks aggravating it by continuing to dance on wounded knees.

Why take the risk?

"I'm out to prove something," she says. "I could have easily just taken off a year in 1992." But, she says, she thought she would be retiring soon anyway to raise a family."And for that injury to stop me from being able to finish a segment in my life, I thought, would be terrible. I believed that this was my challenge -- that this was brought upon me to either test my faith or test my guts or my strength."

The injuries are not apparent to anyone watching Roxas onstage. She is eloquent and sinuous, with a way of dancing that is light in its gracefulness and weighty in its emotional content and impact. She can also be a fireball when the role demands it, whipping vigorously through a maze of dancers as the woman in black in George Faison's "Suite Otis."

"She's an amazing artist," says McKayle, whose frequent work with Roxas includes setting the solo "Angelitos From Negros" on her. "That's a very deep solo, and she did it beautifully. The role is like the eternal woman. If you were to make an archetype of it, it would be that: a figure that steps out on the ground, and she's scanning space and saying, 'Everything around here I have nurtured, I have given life to, and I will sustain.' That's very demanding, and she made it absolutely beautiful. And it's a slow solo, so you can't get away with fiery footwork -- you have to draw from your emotions."

McKayle first noticed Roxas when she was a young dancer. "Some dancers, you'll be watching a whole stage, and they just pull your attention. She was doing more than movements and steps -- she was completely into what she was doing." He likened her to the great Cuban ballerina Alicia Alonso in her prime.

Critics, too, noticed her early. Valerie Sudol of the Newark Star-Ledger, reviewing Roxas in the Joyce Trisler company, with whom she danced from 1979 until joining the Ailey in 1984, said she "set herself aside from the group with dancing more passionate and self-revelatory than any of the others permitted themselves." Camille Hardy, reviewing Ailey's December 1985 season in the March 1986 Dance Magazine, wrote, "The real season stunner...was Elizabeth Roxas. As the central figure in both (Judith Jamison's) 'Divining' and 'Memoria,' Roxas demonstrated the fearless self-mastery that allows her to dance on the edge of risk every second she is onstage." Judith Jamison, director of the Ailey company, describes her dancing today as "light, dreamlike, and passionate."

Like the exotic sports car that looks sleek and runs smoothly but requires a lot of upkeep, Roxas has to work hard to make her handicaps invisible. She works out ninety minutes per day with weight machines, knee machines, and the Stair Master, says Shaw Bronner, her physical therapist. On tour, in addition to her toes shoes, Roxas packs a sideboard for side-to-side exercises, weights, and a Thera-Band.

"She's one of the most dedicated people at carrying through on her strength program so that she can continue to dance," observes Bronner. "I'm amazed at how much weight she lifts considering how little she is." In effect, Roxas pumps iron to steel her knees. "The muscles are supporting the knees," she explains. "That's why I have to constantly work out for as long as I want to dance. If I was off for a month, and I did not do any kind of cross-training, my legs would literally atrophy, and I would have no muscle."

Bronner says she doesn't know any other dancer or athlete who is working on two broken ACLs. How does Roxas do it? "Dancers have such highly developed kinesthetic and perceptive senses that they can probably better compensate" than athletes, Bronner says. "Also, the difference between dance and sports is that dance is concerned with quality of movement, so dancers are in control of their motion to a greater extent than, say, the basketball player."

Roxas claims she tries to compensate and be careful onstage -- altering the way she turns, for instance. "Dancers have a tendency to just dance and not think about it, because we get so lost in the movement," she says. "I always have to think about what I'm doing. Once I'm onstage now, I don't play anymore. And maybe that's why I get very emotional sometimes. My partners will tell you this. If something goes wrong onstage, I get really crazy."

Many dancers would recoil into distrust after being, in effect, dropped by a partner, but Roxas had the opposite reaction. "Since 'Bad Blood,' I have felt that I have to totally trust my partner." It was a lack of trust that led to the accident, she says. "I didn't' like him, he didn't like me -- we just didn't connect. So after that, whoever my partner is, I know I have to trust him and believe he's not going to do anything that would put either one of us in danger."

Roxas does not expect partners to coddle her. Longtime swain Don Bellamy says she often tells him "I'm too careful with her. She's always telling me, 'Let me go here,' but I'm always trying to put her down as softly as I can. Even if the choreography is rough, I try to place her so she won't have to worry about her knees all the time." But Roxas, he says, "allows me to do what I want with her, even throw her around, because she knows I'm not going to just throw her to the floor."

Having partnered Roxas in eight ballets, Bellamy is in a good position from which to evaluate what makes her so riveting. "She lives her life through her dance," he explains. "You can tell when she's sad if she's doing a sad ballet, because the sadness shows even more; there's nothing fake about it. Her emotions come out. That's one thing I've learned from her -- using your true emotions in the dance, that life experience."

Critics have long recognized this ability to use real-life emotional experience to create heartfelt and heartrending onstage drama. Dance Magazine senior editor Hilary Ostlere, reviewing Roxas in the Trisler company in 1983 for the Westsider, praised "her ability to project stark emotion and intensity of feeling through movement." Roxas's apparent vulnerability has always appealed to audiences. "I have always danced from a very vulnerable point of view, and I think that's why I'm better dancing lyrical movements than staccato, hard movements," she says.

In recent years, Roxas has become even better acquainted with vulnerability. She was divorced last August, after eight years of marriage, the last three of which were punctuated by many tears. "One time, we were on tour in Vienna," she recalls. "I hadn't slept all night, and I was just howling and crying." She sought solace from associate artistic director Masazumi Chaya. "I was sweating profusely, I was just crying. And he said, 'Listen, you don't need to be in the theater. Don't go to rehearsal if you don't need to. Just be there for the performance.' " However, Roxas says, with the pride of the eternal trouper, "In all the time I was going through this, for three years, I did not miss one performance. I would go there, eyes swollen, and I would tell people, 'Oh, it's my allergies acting up.' " Ultimately, she says, "The things that kept me from totally breaking were my chanting and my work."

Daily chanting is the form of worship in her religion, Nichiren Daishonin's Soka Gakkai Internatioanl Buddhism. "Chanting has given me the power, the hope, and the belief that it's never too late, that you're only given things in life that you can always handle, and situations that will allow you to go on to the next stage of your life," Roxas says. "Situations like divorce, change of life, change of venues, and change of direction."

Performing has also mitigated her pain, and the pain in turn has added to the reservoir of emotions from which Roxas draws for her impassioned dancing. With the marital strife, anger became part of her emotional arsenal. 'I was given the challenge to do a piece of Alvin's, 'Masakela Language,' and the role that I did there is a very angry woman, a very hard woman. I think it's interesting that that part came to me at a time that I was going through my separation, because it allowed me to be able to just exterminate all this anger and use that onstage. It's so wonderful to be able to have that vehicle to use, instead of having to go to a psychotherapist or analyst. This is my therapy. My therapy is my faith -- chanting -- and the stage."

Roxas's dancing has been therapeutic for those watching, as well. "A friend of mine was going through a situation similar to mine, with divorce, and she saw me dance 'Fandango.' She said, 'Elizabeth, from that moment that I saw you do "Fandango," it manifested sexual feelings I thought I'd lost.' "

"Fandango" is emblematic of the qualities Roxas brings to her dancing. In other hands, the intricate pas de deux could devolve into simple gymnastics. As danced by Roxas and Leonard Meek, the duet is packed with sensual and romantic punch.

If "Fandango" displays her physical prowess and emotional depth, "Memoria," Ailey's eulogy for Trisler, reveals that she is a dancer with spiritual gravity as well. In the ballet, Roxas plays a woman departing from her circle of friends and students. Even when other dancers are swirling about her, it is clear that she is at the center of the action. When she first performed the work, Roxas would often cry. Later, she felt as if her character were detached from the others. She admits this feeling had less to do with onstage dynamics than her offstage traumas: her injuries, the loss of her father in 1982, the disintegration of her marriage, and her divorce. Roxas believes that now, like the character in "Memoria," she has found -- or is very close to finding -- her way back to serenity and optimism.

"Certain things happen in your life to make you go ahead further from what you think you are as a person, and make you open up your life more," she says. "It's not always easy; it has to be hard to make it easy. That's why we have all this different weather in winter, spring, summer, and fall. But winter never fails to turn to spring.... And there's always a reason things happen. We may not see it right away, and I know I don't see it immediately. But when I see it, when I accept it, it's there. Life does go on; it constantly will go on, with or without you, so you might as well be with it, because it won't stop for you."

For the moment, having weathered physical injury and personal turmoil, Elizabeth Roxas, like the boxer who won't let a little bleeding stop him, is still raring to get back on the stage that is her ring.

For more information on the Jacob's Pillow season, visit the Jacob's Pillow web site.


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