WASHINGTON - On a stage full of ballerinas, Alicia Graf stands out.
Maybe it's because she looks different. At 5-foot-10, she's taller than most professional ballet dancers. Maybe it's the way she moves. She has to be faster so her longer limbs stay in time with the other dancers. Maybe it's raw talent, or, as Dance Theatre of Harlem co-founder Arthur Mitchell suggests, her "God-given gift."
Dancing a lead role in George Balanchine's Agon at the Kennedy Center this week, Graf sent her long, sinewy limbs swiftly and gracefully though the air. She held seemingly impossible positions - one leg stretched toward the ceiling while balancing on pointe with the other - for long, luxurious moments. She slipped from standing erect on her toes down to a full split, then did it again and again and again, as if it were the most natural motion one could do.
At the end of her pas de deux, an elaborate dance performed with a male partner, the audience rewarded her with the largest mid-performance applause of the night and shouts of "Bravo!"
Few in the audience might have guessed that five years ago Graf sustained a major knee injury and was told she'd never dance again. Her bio in the Kennedy Center playbill mentions only the impressive highlights of her life during a "four-year hiatus from the company."
"It's been a pleasure to be back with the company," she said. She feels relaxed and comfortable with the repertoire - which includes mostly new material for her. Graf, 25, has always known she wanted to be a dancer. "I have a picture of her when she was 2 wearing a little tutu," said Gertrude Graf, Alicia's grandmother, who was at the Kennedy Center to see the performance. "She always flew through the air, even as a little girl." At age 2 1/2 , she was in a dance class.
The Columbia native rose quickly through the competitive world of dance. She danced at the Ballet Royale Academy in Columbia, attended summer programs at the prestigious School of American Ballet and the American Ballet Theater and won a finalist award at the Vaganova Grand Prix in Russia.
At 18, she left high school in her senior year when Arthur Mitchell - Mr. Mitchell to everyone in the dance world - recruited her to dance in his world-renowned Dance Theatre of Harlem.
"The gift that she's got is very rare," Mitchell observed during dress rehearsal for Agon. "She has the potential to be a prima ballerina. She's got the body, the musicality, the feet, the face. It is very unusual to see somebody that tall move that swiftly."
It is also unusual for a professional ballerina to come back from a major injury and dance lead roles.
After the dress rehearsal, Graf sat on the red carpeted stairs to the Opera House at the Kennedy Center and talked about her injury and recovery in a soft and even voice.
In April 1999, roughly 18 months after becoming a professional dancer, Graf's right knee became too painful for performances.
"My knee was swelling, aching," she said. She performed at night and "they would drain it during the day." But it was not a permanent solution.
After surgery to her meniscus - the cartilage that allows the kneecap to flow smoothly over the knee - she experienced more swelling. Months passed - and she needed another knee operation, and one on her ankle.
Graf is not one to sulk - she had already gotten her high school degree and was taking college classes online at Indiana University when she was injured. Now she threw herself into her college work, taking classes at City College of New York. She applied to Columbia University, where she was accepted as a sophomore.
She also worked hard to repair her leg. Not in order to dance, but just so she could walk properly. She spent hours in the gym, riding the exercise bike and lifting weights.
As she healed, she began dancing on the side, doing praise dance to gospel music with a small company called A Time To Dance. And she planned for a future without professional dance.
She interned at JP Morgan Chase in New York and in London and prepared for a career as a banker. A year ago, she accepted a job with the bank and was well on her way to a career that involved suits and high-heeled shoes instead of leotards and ballet slippers.
But she couldn't quite escape her true passion. Last summer she went to see her old company perform. Once she saw them, she knew she wanted to rejoin them. "It was a spur of the moment decision," she said.
After the performance, she found her old mentor backstage. "I said, `Mr. Mitchell, do you have room for another female dancer in your company?' "
His reply: "You can't joke with me about this," Graf said. She convinced him she was serious, and last September began rehearsing with the company again.
The 35-year-old Dance Theatre of Harlem is one of the top ballet companies in the country and the nation's only major company focused on black dancers. Mitchell was the first black ballet dancer to dance with the New York City Ballet.