Alexander Peters describes the physicality of his artwork the way a choreographer might describe dancers moving across a stage.
He knows the language intuitively. As a dancer, he is used to being the medium for artistic expression. The stage is the canvas, his body and artistry are the paint, his movement the strokes. Now, he is discovering a new way of letting his artwork dance on the canvas.
It is rare to be an accomplished artist in two different media. Peters is a principal dancer with Miami City Ballet, a company he joined in 2017 after building his career at the Pennsylvania Ballet and training at the School of American Ballet.
His job — which consists of dancing and moving in practice studios for hours a day — and creative outlet came to a halt when MCB's final program of the season was canceled and the studios closed.
"It was definitely a jarring experience," Peters says. "To be told that not only can you not go in to work and be moving, but you're also stuck in your apartment. My initial reaction was feeling very boxed in and anxious in a sense that I had all this excess energy to expel and had no way to do it."
He'd taken art classes as a child, and he returned to painting when his husband moved to Philadelphia for school in December 2018. Though it started as an activity to pass the time, Peters soon discovered "the physicality of what painting could be on a bigger scale." When quarantine took hold, the hobby became his "artistic sustenance."
Peters experimented and tried to replicate what he observed in art he liked. He would work on a piece, set it aside, and come back to it weeks later, following the previous textures and patterns as a guide to creating something new and more effective. He gravitated toward abstract expressionism and was inspired by the work of Joan Mitchell, Franz Kline, and Willem de Kooning. He likes the way those artists manipulate paint and use color and shape to express something.
He compares it to the types of ballets he enjoys dancing: the neoclassical and abstract works of George Balanchine and Jerome Robbins.
"There's not necessarily a clear narrative, but there is a lot of story in the movement and shapes and geometry of how they're putting dancers onstage, and the relationship between one dancer and another," Peters explains.
He found painting challenging in a way dance is not. A live performance is fleeting. Everything a dancer does and that the audience sees is experienced in that moment.
"With painting, once you make the choice to make that brushstroke and let the paint dry, it's there. It exists forever," Peter says. "I have to challenge myself to let go of my perfectionism and enjoy the beauty in all of the mistakes that I've made."
Peters has also noticed how the evolution of his work reflects what he's going through. He started with abstract landscapes, flowers, and still lifes. In quarantine, Peters "went into a very geometric place," boxing shapes in and controlling the connectivity. Recently, he has begun painting abstract landscapes with figures that are distant and isolated from one another.
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Over the past few months, Peters has sold some pieces through Instagram and has even gotten some commissions. His goal is to exhibit in a gallery where his body of work can tell the complete story.
"Physically being in front of something has a very different effect on you than it does through the internet. And you could say the same thing about dance," he says. "There's nothing that can relate to the experience of being in a theater, watching a dancer live, hearing the music from the orchestra pit. That experience you can't replicate, and I think you could say the same with painting."
Miami City Ballet is working out plans for its altered 35th anniversary season. At the same time, fundraising efforts are focused on supporting Peters and his fellow dancers through the Dancer Support Fund, which will "cover the wages, health insurance, and benefits for our dancers and artistic staff to safeguard their health and economic well-being over these uncertain times." So far, MCB has raised approximately $1.3 million of its $4 million goal.
Peters is waiting in the wings, ready to get on stage once more. He is fortunate to have found a new way to express his physicality and artistry until the curtain rises again.