Words by Lindsay McWilliams, Photos by Sierra Pedro
The music of Carmina Burana thrashes through the air to the percussion of feet thumping in unison. Three principal dancers gallop across the wooden sprung floor, each with one hand on his hip and the other arm held in front, parallel to the floor, meant to symbolize the riding of horses. Each young man wears soft ballet slippers, a pair of spandex shorts and a loose-fitting t-shirt. Their disproportionately muscular calves protrude as they hop, skip off the balls of their feet. Facing a mirrored wall, they examine their own forms, noting whether their hops are as high or their skips as swift as the men who dance next to them. Standing before the mirrors, the choreographer counts aloud: “One-two-three, two-two-three, three-two-three, four-two-three…”
Through the back windows of the rehearsal studio is a hallway, which reveals the modesty of the space: the smell of a tired building, painted concrete walls with portable barres pushed against them, a sunken couch flung with a pair of old ballet slippers, and several benches covered in duffel bags and water bottles. This hallway is familiar to Jesse Griffin. It’s part of a 15-lap course that he runs each morning at 7:30 a.m. to fulfill his goal of sweating by the time he enters the studio. This hallway is where he now waits, watching the principals, anticipating the choreographer’s cue to step in.
Jesse, now 20, is what they call an “Aspirant” of the Eugene Ballet Company. With this title, he has worked well over 40 hours a week for the past two years, unpaid, in the hopes of joining the company in fall of 2016. For Jesse, ballet rapidly brought him out of a bad home life and into a seemingly glamorous profession. On stage, his movements appear effortless. Off stage, there is nothing effortless about this ballet dancer’s life.
A slight young man, Jesse’s long and svelte arms never hesitate to put on a performance, even in casual conversation. He wears a silver metal hoop through his left nostril—only when he’s not on stage, of course—and slicks his hair back with gel. On his days off, this dark brunette hair lies flat across his forehead, intensifying the honey-colored eyes that roll downward as he talks about his childhood in Klamath Falls, Oregon.
“I call it ‘Meth Falls’, and for good reason. My stepdad would come in and the white in his eyes would yellow and he’d get super hyper like he had a Redbull or something. I started to figure out that he was on meth.”
After enduring years of physical and emotional abuse by his stepfather, Jesse got his first job at Dutch Bros. Coffee and realized that he could afford to rent an apartment. At 16 years old, he moved out of his parents’ home and into a two-bedroom apartment with a buddy. By that time, he’d already been dancing for a year.
The scrawny teenager, 5’9″ and 115 pounds, approached a local ballet studio to ask if he could use the facilities to practice parkour, a sport that involves gymnastics and jumping over obstacles. Rachel, the headmistress of the studio, said he’d have to become a ballet student.
That’s for women. I’m a man. I don’t do that, he thought.
But a year later, against his own perceived standards of masculinity, Griffin changed his mind. He began classes at Rachel’s School of Dance under a scholarship, because he was the only male who would join. He went from being the worst dancer in the studio to the best in only a month.
Jesse went to summer intensive camps, on scholarship, where he met the dancers who still inspire him today. One of them was Jennifer Martin, the Ballet Mistress of the Eugene Ballet Company. Before this point in time, he had quickly learned of his natural talent, but hadn’t yet developed the fervent passion that would take him to the professional world. At the Summer Dance Lab in Walla Walla, Washington, that changed.
“I did every sport growing up, basketball, track, everything. I realized that when I did ballet, there was nothing harder than that,” Jesse says. “It’s a beautiful, humbling sport. We’re always trying to be perfect even though we never will make it. But we will always strive for it.”
His second year at the camp, Jennifer asked him to come to the company as a Trainee, a step below Aspirant.
“I came home and had six days at my house in Klamath where I packed my car and came here to live in my car until I found somewhere to stay. Within the first few days, I found a couch to stay on for a month. From there, found a room. I just did whatever I needed to do. I wanted to make it.”
Today, Jesse’s ability to live in Eugene is afforded through sponsors. The ballet company pays him a small stipend and Rachel’s School of Dance pays his rent. For everything else, there’s “food stamps and selling plasma.” The notion that beauty equates with wealth does not apply to the average ballet dancer. After a recent show, an audience member asked him if he wanted to go to dinner at the Oregon Electric Station, a high-end restaurant in downtown Eugene. Jesse laughed at the expectation that he could afford it.
Like many dedicated artists, Jesse has chosen to fixate all of his time, resources and hope on something that may never happen. And within the next month, he’ll find out if he’s invited back to the company for fall as a professional cast member.
“I’ve never stressed about getting a job at the company,” Jesse says. “Whatever God wants is going to happen. This could technically be my last year of dance. Who knows? I’m not the writer of my story, I guess. I’m just taking part in it.”
Sitting in the hallway, Jesse places one ankle over the other knee and uses his hand to guide the foot in a circular motion. His feet—covered in soft ballet slippers, leg warmers hugging the heels—must be articulated.
“Moving on!” the ballet mistress shouts.
“I think that’s me.”