Oregon dancer finds ballet often transcends words, just like her faith

PORTLAND, Ore. — A burst of power from her legs carries Katherine Monogue across the dance floor while her arms become a blur of precise movements.

Katherine Monogue performs during William Forsythe’s “In the Middle, Somewhat Elevated” at Keller Auditorium in Portland Oct. 6, 2016. A devout Catholic, Monogue often draws comparisons between her faith and the inspiration she feels as a dancer. (CNS photo | courtesy Oregon Ballet Theatre)

Under a black leotard worn during a rehearsal for a recent performance, the ballerina’s stomach muscles flex, keeping the center of her body relatively still as her limbs rapidly extend and retract with control.

Monogue, the youngest professional dancer and only Catholic dancer in the Oregon Ballet Theatre, has a faith that similarly stabilizes the core of her life amid a rewarding but intense career.

“Ballet is all-consuming physically, emotionally, intellectually,” Monogue told the Catholic Sentinel, newspaper of the Archdiocese of Portland. “You get criticized a lot and it pushes you in all ways, this constant strive to perfection.”

But Catholic faith, said the outgoing 21-year-old dancer, “keeps me grounded. It’s kind of like a secret weapon to keep me sane. Whatever hardships I face, it’s there for me, pure and true.”

Monogue, who was born in Tacoma, Washington, was on her tiptoes dancing nearly as soon as she could toddle.

“As early as I can remember, Katherine would carry her plate to the kitchen after dinner twirling all the way,” recalled her mother, Corinne Monogue, director of multicultural ministries for the Diocese of Arlington, Virginia.

Throughout her childhood, the family lived in nine states because of the demands of her father’s military career. Through each move, Katherine Monogue stayed with dancing. Trying jazz, hip-hop and modern dance, she explored every variety except ballroom and loved all but tap.

By high school, Katherine Monogue was attending her Virginia public school from 7 a.m. to noon, dancing for six hours with the Washington School of Ballet in Washington, returning home “and shoving food in my mouth,” and then, exhausted, tackling homework. While keeping up with coursework online, she managed to complete five advanced placement classes.

“She has this dedication, passion and hard work that she brings to things, be it school, the movement of her body, her faith,” Corinne Monogue said a few days after watching her daughter dance in Oregon Ballet Theatre’s “Giants.” Performing in two sections of the three-part show filled with cymbal clashes and brisk movements, the young Monogue danced both in the principal role and in a demi-soloist position, in which she performs as part of a small group.

Founded in 1989, Oregon Ballet Theatre is the largest professional ballet in the state, with about 30 dancers.

Katherine Monogue got her start with the Portland-based company at age 17, when she was accepted into its apprentice program.

It took a little worry and a lot of prayer for Corinne Monogue and her husband to allow their teenager to move cross-country and live on her own in a new city.

“She has so much faith in our Lord that we had to put our faith in the Lord, too,” Corinne Monogue said.

During her apprenticeship, Katherine Monogue danced 12-hour days while squeezing in her senior year of high school online. It was difficult, and some days she did not want to get out of bed. But her hard work paid off.

The apprenticeship period is typically two years, but after just one year, Oregon Ballet Theatre hired her as a full-time professional ballerina.

Although she’s the troop’s only Catholic — attending Mass at St. Mary Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception in Portland and ushering when she can — Katherine Monogue has a number of colleagues who are devout Christians. However, many dancers in the company are not religious.

Katherine Monogue, though, does not emphasize the differences. “We come from all walks of life … and I see God in all of them.

“I’d rather show my faith,” she added, “than tell it.”

The ballerina acknowledged that while her faith in God is unwavering, she’s struggled with her spirituality at times. “I’m more of an analytical person,” she said. “But in dance, there are those rare moments that I feel something greater that I can’t explain.”

A couple of summers ago, Katherine Monogue revitalized her faith, spending two weeks volunteering with the Franciscan Sisters of the Eucharist in Bridal Veil, Oregon. She pulled weeds, cleaned the chicken coop and gave a presentation on ballet at the sisters’ Franciscan Montessori Earth School.

“The sisters are amazing; they are so funny and have wonderful stories,” she said. And for someone who often seems to defy gravity with her athleticism, “it felt good to get my hands dirty in the earth.”

Katherine Monogue said some people worry that ballet is a dying art form.

“There are a lot of stereotypes about ballet, but it really is beautiful. I’m constantly moved when I watch other dancers,” she said.

The dancer knows her professional ballet career will not last forever; she is taking classes through Oregon State University and hopes eventually to attend medical or nursing school.

But for now, she enjoys fulfilling a dream. Katherine Monogue said she hopes that when people see her perform, or watch an elegant pirouette or jete, they will fall in love with the classic fusion of grace and strength.

In a sense, ballet is like her beloved faith.

“Ballet,” she said, “often transcends words.”

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Scott is special projects reporter for the Catholic Sentinel, newspaper of the Archdiocese of Portland, Oregon.