Contributing writers: MOLLY HULETT & VIRGINIA GRANTIER
He reportedly is so brilliant that he started taking college classes in fourth grade, and graduated from law school at age 22. His sister Samantha is so brilliant she got a full scholarship to study physics at Texas A&M University.
So it would seem a predictable conclusion that Alexander Collen, 26, and his younger sister Samantha, formerly of St. Cloud, Minn., would now be big-time stars somewhere in a courthouse and laboratory, respectively. But that didn’t happen. Samantha Collen left her physics, and her scholarship, half-way through her engineering program. Alexander Collen graduated and then turned away from a law career. They left all that for what they both thought they were supposed to do with their lives: dance. Their interest began when their mother, Lynn Collen, who knew nothing about ballet, took them to a Houston Ballet performance because it was a show geared toward children.
“It was serendipity, “she said about her taking them to the ballet. It was the spark. “They were mesmerized,” said Lynn Collen, of St. Joseph, Minn., a college instructor at St. Cloud State University. From that day forward, she said her kids danced everywhere, even down grocery store aisles. Lynn Collen said she knew early on she was going to have some mountains to climb with these two children when, at a birthday party, she was alerted to a problem with her children. She recalls walking out into the backyard to see that Alexander, about 4 or 5, had climbed up a tree and was about 25 feet off the ground. And his sister was walking across the top bar of a swing set, about 14 feet up, in her dress and patent leather shoes. They waved and said, “Hi, mom.”She acknowledged them and then walked back into the house to help with the ice cream. She said she reacted that way because she always had confidence in her children’s abilities to adequately assess what they were capable of doing. She doesn’t want to disempower them in any way with negative reactions. “I don’t want to hold them back.”
Lynn Collen would like to say she didn’t have any inner struggle at all with her two brilliant children turning to ballet for a living. But she can’t. “It is a struggle as a parent. You know the realities of our world, especially in America, “she said. “… But I’m at peace with it. It’s hard to explain.” She said they both have a good education, and she thinks they’re doing what they were meant to do.
Growing up in central Minnesota, Alexander Collen endured his share of restless, after school hours waiting for his little sister to finish her ballet lessons. Eventually weary of watching the kinetic class whirl by the window, he decided to join the other young dancers – a seemingly small decision that ended up sparking his professional path.
Although Collen danced throughout childhood and college, he didn’t seriously think about shaping his craft into a career until he was attending law school at the University of Minnesota, balancing a demanding course load with daily dance classes at Ballet Arts Minnesota. “I realized ballet was the only thing I ever found I enjoy the practice of,” says Collen, who spent a year preparing for a professional ballet career with the Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre’s graduate program after he earned his law degree. “Someone once said you don’t dance because you want to, you dance because you can’t do anything else,” he continues. “I don’t know that I’d go quite that far, but it is the only thing I’ve found that I really like to do to that extent. Many people fixate on the performance, but I really enjoy the classes and the pursuit, as well as the performance. I like the feeling of trying to reach for perfection.” Awed by the invitation to perform in the prestigious International Ballet Competition in Varna, Bulgaria, in 2006, alongside his sister – who now dances professionally in San Diego – Collen went on to dance for a year with the Northern Plains Ballet in North Dakota before joining Charleston Ballet Theatre (CBT) last year, energized by the company’s diverse range, repertoire and receptive audience. “Performing feels so different from night to night, from audience to audience, and from ballet to ballet,” says Collen, who thrives on the convergence of intellectualism, athleticism and artistry that fuel the roles he has danced for CBT, ranging from Captain Hook in “Peter Pan” to Lust in “Seven Deadly Sins.”
“You always have to be paying attention, fully aware and making decisions, never quite knowing what’s going to happen next onstage. I think the challenge is to make every role stand out.” Collen also is honing his role as a choreographer, deepening his understanding of the artistic process. “For me, choreography is the completion of the artistic pursuit,” he explains. “It’s that idea of communication, of recapturing what we as dancers do and being responsible for it. It’s a fulfillment of dancer as artist – not only how you give expression to someone else’s ideas, but causing your own to be expressed artistically.” But for Collen, the most invigorating challenge resides in the daily routine of redefining movement and defying the natural limitations of the body. “You come in every day and keep trying to improve, trying to be a better dancer,” he says. “I think that’s prevalent here, and I really appreciate this kind of environment. I always want more the next day, in all those intellectual and artistic ways. That always keeps me coming back.
CBT Dancer Melody Staples Comments “My favorite thing about partnering with Alex is that he is so consistent. I can depend on him to stay calm, remember choreography, be on the music, and always get me to where I need to be. He is also very strong and I know that when he has me, I’m staying exactly where he put me. Which can lead to humorous situations during the learning process if he has me off my leg and I’m struggling, but can’t fix myself! I just have to relax and let him fix me