Serendipity, dancing and disease
Former professional ballet dancer battles rare illness as family builds studio
It’s remarkable that Andrew Allagree was, on a recent afternoon, able to stand long enough to open the door to his home in Paradise, considering that he couldn’t walk at all for 120 consecutive days last year. It’s also remarkable that Allagree, who mostly uses an electric scooter to get around, was once a world-class ballet dancer who performed for U.S. presidents and the queen of England.
“Today is a good day,” said his wife, Jenifer Graham. “Andrew is walking.”
During an interview in their living room, Allagree and Graham described balancing their mutual dream of opening a ballet studio in Paradise and coping with Allagree’s diagnosis of brain stem encephalitis, an incredibly rare, recurring auto-immune disorder that can confine him to a hospital bed or wheelchair for months on end, including long periods of being unable to speak.
Allagree functions at a high level when the disease is in remission. He’s able to play with his 17-month-old daughter, Ginger, and pursue professional interests.
“Teaching ballet is my passion,” he said. “I’ve been doing it for 20 years; I love my students. … It just so happens that I have this illness and have to manage it, but it doesn’t prevent me from teaching.”
For the pre-professional students Allagree mostly works with, his inability to physically demonstrate what he’s teaching isn’t an obstacle, he says. Honing the finer points of the art form can be accomplished entirely through verbal instruction. As Graham put it, “they don’t need somebody up there showing them how to point their toes.” (Graham, also an experienced dancer, teaches the younger, less seasoned students.)
Transportation is the real obstacle. Lately, Allagree and Graham have been teaching at the Paradise Grange, and there are times when Allagree is well enough to teach a class, but not well enough to drive across town. That’s why they purchased a home last June with a standalone workshop space they’re currently renovating to become a ballet studio, complete with sprung floors, mirrors and a ballet barre. That way, Allagree won’t have to go far to work with students.
The couple have received significant financial support from family and friends, but money is still tight—due in no small part to enormous hospital bills—and they’ve turned to the broader community to help realize their dream by launching a crowdfunding campaign via GoFundMe.com with a goal of raising $20,000.
“We have all the right people in place, we have the building, we have the money we’ve raised,” Allagree said. “We’re ready for the next step.”
Allagree and Graham first met at ages 12 and 11, respectively, as students in a ballet troupe in Chico. Allagree was raised in Butte Creek Canyon, while Graham was born in Paradise.
They stayed friends through high school, but their paths diverged after that. Graham went into the military to serve as a helicopter mechanic, and Allagree hit the big-time as a dancer in 1990, at just 18 years old.
“Coming out of training, you’re lucky to get into some rinky-dink theater,” Allagree explained. “My first gig was with the Joffrey Ballet in New York at the Metropolitan Opera House. The only reason was that I fit a costume; there wasn’t anybody else who fit this costume in the entire company. So, I had two days to get my act together and deliver.”
His dancing career took off from that point. With the Joffrey and other companies, such as the Royal Winnipeg Ballet, Allagree traveled the world, performing for the queen in London and for Presidents Carter and Clinton at the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in Washington, D.C. He shared stages with legendary ballet dancer Mikhail Baryshnikov and was an original member of Twyla Tharp’s Tony Award-winning Broadway musical, Movin’ Out.
However, in 1999, when doctors first diagnosed Allagree with brain stem encephalitis—so rare that his was only the 69th documented case in the world—he was told that he’d never walk again, let alone dance. He did eventually prove them wrong, though it took him three years to get out of a wheelchair and continue his dance career. He retired in 2005 on his own terms.
The couple reconnected via email because Graham wanted Allagree to be a role model for her high school-aged son, Thaddeus, a dancer and actor. Since moving to Paradise two years ago, the family feels complete.
But Allagree’s disease is recurring. He got it in 2009 and then again in 2011, 2013, and most recently last year. He’ll know the encephalitis is back by the weakness in his legs, and the way his hands start to curl and then tremor.
“I get seriously ill,” he said. “My brain starts to swell, so my speech goes. I have a loss of function; I can’t move very well, there are times my eyes start rolling in my head. I’m totally there in my mind—I can understand people, but I can’t relate back.”
All the while, he’s in intense pain.
“It’s an indescribable headache,” he said, “like my head is on fire, or people have their hands in my brain.”
The only effective treatment is intravenous immunoglobulin—the infusion of antibodies extracted from the plasma of multiple blood donors, Graham said.
Due to the recurrent nature of Allagree’s illness, much is uncertain for their future. He could be hospitalized again at any time. So, as a reflection of the mentality the family has embraced, they’ll call their studio the Serendipity Dance Project.
“I have gotten to a place where I stay in my spirit; I don’t worry about what’s happening with my body,” Allagree said. “As long as my spirit stays healthy, I let whatever’s going to happen, happen. I don’t worry about it anymore.”