Why Seattle Has Fallen For PNB's New Principal, Leta Biasucci
Rehearsal is in full swing, and Leta Biasucci, Pacific Northwest Ballet's newest principal dancer, finds herself in unfamiliar territory. Biasucci is always game for a challenge, but choreographer Kyle Davis wants her to lift fellow dancer Clara Ruf Maldonado. Repeatedly. While she's known for her technical prowess, lifting another dancer off the floor is a bit daunting for Biasucci, who stands all of 5' 3". She eyes Maldonado skeptically, then breaks into a grin.
"It's absolutely given me a new appreciation for the partner standing behind me!" Biasucci says with a laugh.
Looking at Biasucci, 29, with her wide smile and eager curiosity, you think you see the quintessential extrovert. In reality, she's anything but. "I was an introverted kid," Biasucci says. "That's part of the reason I fell in love with dance—I didn't have to be talkative."
It's only one of the seeming contradictions in Biasucci's life: She's a short, muscular ballerina in a company known for its fleet of tall, long-legged women; she's also most comfortable with classical ballet, while taking on a growing repertoire of contemporary work.
Biasucci has enchanted Seattle ballet fans almost from the moment she arrived seven seasons ago. She has a charismatic stage presence that belies her size and exudes authentic joy, no matter what she's performing. She's also technically precise, known for her footwork, jumps and speed.
Meanwhile, her hard work has garnered her respect from her colleagues and her boss, artistic director Peter Boal. That dedication has propelled Biasucci through PNB's ranks, earning her a promotion to principal last September. It was the capstone of a whirlwind year that also included Biasucci's marriage, college graduation and a company tour to Paris.
Biasucci in Jerome Robbins' In the Night. Photo by Angela Sterling, Courtesy PNB.
Biasucci grew up in Carlisle, Pennsylvania, the youngest of three girls. Although neither her parents nor her siblings danced, she was hooked as soon as she started a weekly tap/ballet combo class at age 6. After building her technique at Central Pennsylvania Youth Ballet, she finished her training at San Francisco Ballet's two-year trainee program.
She landed her first job with Oregon Ballet Theatre in Portland. During her second year there, OBT was facing significant financial challenges, and put some of its dancers on partial contracts.
"So I had a second job," Biasucci recounts. "I sold jeans. I was pretty good at it."
But Biasucci wanted to dance. On a lark, she and a friend drove three hours north to Seattle to take company class at PNB. Boal noticed her immediately.
"She was beguiling," Boal says. "Her turns were sometimes on and sometimes really off. But the way she'd come up with finishing combinations when they didn't go well, she had a unique quality."
Boal hired Biasucci, but he knew from the outset that she didn't really fit in with PNB's corps. "She was not always in line, her arms would be slightly different," Boal says. "She would sometimes drive us crazy."
Boal could have chosen not to renew Biasucci's contract; instead, he wound up promoting her to soloist.
"Leta has been growing as an artist since she was first hired," says Boal. "She's become more polished, more refined and more identifiable." He loves how Biasucci exudes a natural artistry onstage, excelling in everything from classical roles like Swanilda to Balanchine's jazzy "Rubies" to contemporary work.
In her first seasons at PNB, Biasucci was initially cowed by the expansive new repertoire. "Certainly, when I came I was a classical dancer. Put me in pink tights and a pointe shoe, I can do that," she says. Contemporary ballets remain a challenge. But she loves tackling them, and renowned choreographers like William Forsythe and Crystal Pite have featured her in their pieces.
She's not afraid to stretch herself. Last September, Biasucci and frequent partner Benjamin Griffiths danced the first pas de deux in Jerome Robbins' In the Night, a dreamy, romantic duet. "That was a role I probably wouldn't have cast myself in," Biasucci says, laughing. "It was outside my comfort zone: romantic, adagio, all of the qualities that I'm not!" Nevertheless, waltzing with Griffiths in her flowing purple skirt, Biasucci was the picture of a young woman in the midst of her first love.
Griffiths says Biasucci's willingness to throw herself into unfamiliar material is just one reason PNB's male dancers all want to partner her. "She is very passionate," he says, "but also extremely kind, gracious and fun."
Boal promoted her to principal not only because of her artistic abilities, but also her attitude. "She's just the most pleasant person to work with," he says. "She's so respectful of other people. She has the talent as well, but it's got to be both."
Leta Biasucci just earned a degree in arts leadership. Photo by Jayme Thornton.
Despite the demands of her career, Biasucci has a full offstage life. Like many people in the Pacific Northwest, she and her new husband, a design director, enjoy spending time outdoors. She says they're also homebodies who like to putter in the kitchen.
But Biasucci doesn't have a lot of downtime; she's spent the past seven years studying for a college degree in arts leadership. She's thrilled about graduating, but she hasn't really given much thought to life post-ballet. She still dreams of dancing the leads in classics like Giselle. But in her newest role, principal dancer, she has another goal.
"Being a role model and a mentor," Biasucci explains. "When I look back at my time as a younger dancer, I have such clarity of conversations with principals. Their kindness and generosity didn't go unnoticed."
Back in the studio, Biasucci is still struggling to lift Maldonado. Finally, fellow principal dancer James Moore walks over to demonstrate where Biasucci should place her hands, and how to tuck her elbows close to her torso for extra power. Biasucci watches carefully, then gives it a try, hoisting Maldonado by the waist, pivoting, then setting her down gently. Biasucci will keep rehearsing and refining the lift until it becomes second nature. As always, when the curtain goes up, she'll give the audience everything she's got.
Choosing music for your first-ever choreography commission can feel daunting enough. But when you're asked to create a ballet using the vast discography of the Rolling Stones—and you happen to be dating Stones frontman Mick Jagger—the stakes are even higher.
So it's understandable that as of Monday, American Ballet Theatre corps de ballet dancer Melanie Hamrick, whose Port Rouge will have its U.S. premiere tonight at the Youth America Grand Prix gala, was still torn about which songs to include.
The way we create and consume dance is changing every day. Now more than ever, the field demands that dancers not only be able to perform at the highest level, but also collaborate with choreographers to bring their artistic visions to life. Dancers who miss out on choreographic training may very well find themselves at a disadvantage as they try to launch their careers.
What is an acceptable request from a choreographer in terms of nudity? On the first day of shooting All That Jazz in the 1970s, Bob Fosse asked us men to remove everything but our jock straps and the women to remove their tops. His rationale was to shock us in order to build character, and it felt disloyal to refuse. Would this behavior be considered okay today?
As much as audiences might flock to Swan Lake or The Nutcracker, ballet can't only rely on old war horses if it wants to remain relevant. But building new full-lengths from scratch isn't exactly cheap.
So where can companies find the money?
It's not often that a promising choreographer gets to stage work in a world-class theater, on a skillfully-curated program with professional dancers, and with the possibility of winning a substantial cash prize. But at the McCallum Theatre's Palm Desert Choreography Festival, that's been the status quo for over twenty years.
Since Shea New, the festival's artistic director, founded the festival in 1998, she's worked tirelessly with McCallum's director of education and festival producer, Kajsa Thuresson-Frary, and stage manager and festival production manager Joanna Fookes to build a festival that nurtures choreographers, highlights high quality work, powerfully engages the local community and cultivates an audience base for dance in the Coachella Valley. The trio is backed by a strong team of professionals at McCallum and the brilliant volunteers from the local and national level who serve as adjudicators.
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Today—April 16, 2019—marks what would have been Merce Cunningham's 100th birthday. As dancers from Los Angeles to New York City to London gear up for Night of 100 Solos (the marathon performance event being livestreamed today), and as companies and presenters worldwide continue to celebrate the Cunningham Centennial through their programming, we searched through the Dance Magazine Archives to unearth our favorite images of the groundbreaking dancemaker.
A bright disposition with a dab of astringent charm is how I remember Brock Hayhoe, a National Ballet School of Canada schoolmate. Because we were a couple years apart, we barely brushed shoulders, except at the odd Toronto dance party where we could dance all night with mutual friends letting our inhibitions subside through the music. Dancing always allows a deeper look.
But, as my late great ballet teacher Pyotr Pestov told me when I interviewed him for Dance Magazine in 2009, "You never know what a flower is going to look like until it opens up."
One night. Three cities. Seventy-five dancers. And three unique sets of 100 solos, all choreographed by Merce Cunningham.
This incredible evening of dance will honor Cunningham's 100th birthday on April 16. The Merce Cunningham Trust has teamed up with The Barbican in London, the Brooklyn Academy of Music in New York City and the Center for the Art of Performance in Los Angeles for a tri-city celebration.
The best part? You don't have to be in those cities to watch—Night of 100 Solos is being live-streamed in its entirety for free.
When George Balanchine's full-length Don Quixote premiered in 1965, critics and audiences alike viewed the ballet as a failure. Elaborate scenery and costumes framed mawkish mime passages, like one in which the ballerina washed the Don's feet and dried them with her hair. Its revival in 2005 by Suzanne Farrell, the ballerina on whom it was made and to whom Balanchine left the work, did little to alter its reputation.
Yet at New York City Center's Balanchine festival last fall, some regretted its absence.
"I'd want to see Balanchine's Don Quixote," says Apollinaire Scherr, dance critic for the Financial Times. "It was a labor of love on his part, and a love letter as well. And you want to know what that looks like in his work."
Even great choreographers make mistakes. Sometimes they fail on a grand scale, like Don Quixote; other times it may be a minor misstep. Experiment and risk help choreographers grow, but what happens when a choreographer of stature misfires? Should the work remain in the repertory? And what about a work that fails on some levels but not others?
After the horrific March 15 terrorist attacks at two New Zealand mosques, the music and arts community sprang into action to plan a way to help victims and their families. A series of resulting concerts, titled "You Are Us/Aroha Nui," will take place in New Zealand (April 13 and 17), Jersey City, New Jersey (April 17) and Los Angeles (April 18). Proceeds from ticket sales will be donated to the Our People, Our City Fund, which was established by the Christchurch Foundation to aid those affected by the attacks.
Throughout 2019, the Merce Cunningham Trust continues a global celebration that will be one of the largest tributes to a dance artist ever. Under the umbrella of the Merce Cunningham Centennial are classes and workshops, film screenings and festivals, art exhibitions and symposia, and revivals and premieres of original works inspired by the dancemaker's ideas. The fever peaks on April 16, which would have been the pioneering choreographer's 100th birthday, with Night of 100 Solos: A Centennial Event, featuring a total of 75 dancers in three performances live-streamed from London, Los Angeles and New York City.
Cloud & Victory gets dancers. The dancewear brand's social media drools over Roberto Bolle's abs, sets classical variations to Beyoncé and moans over Mondays and long adagios. And it all comes from the mind of founder Tan Li Min, the boss lady who takes on everything from designs to inventory to shipping orders.
Known simply (and affectionately) to the brand's 41K Instagram followers as Min, she's used her wry, winking sense of humor to give the Singapore-based C&V international cachet.
She recently spoke with Dance Magazine about building the brand, overcoming insecurity and using pizza as inspiration.
The Ballet Memphis New American Dance Residency, which welcomes selected choreographers for its inaugural iteration next week, goes a step beyond granting space, time and dancers for the development of new work.
This is huge news, so we'll get straight to it:
We now (finally!) know who'll be appearing onscreen alongside Ariana DeBose and the other previously announced leads in Steven Spielberg's remake of West Side Story, choreographed by Justin Peck. Unsurprisingly, the Sharks/Jets cast list includes some of the best dancers in the industry.
The pleasure of watching prodigies perform technical feats on Instagram can be tinged with a sense of trepidation. Impressive tricks, you think, but do they have what it takes for an actual career?
Just look at 18-year-old Maria Khoreva, who has more followers than most seasoned principals; in videos, her lines and attention to detail suggested a precocious talent, and led to a Nike ambassador contract before she even graduated from the Vaganova Ballet Academy. Still, when she joined the Mariinsky Ballet last summer, there was no guarantee any of it would translate to stage prowess.
What's next for the dance world? Our annual list of the dancers, choreographers and companies that are on the verge of skyrocketing has a pretty excellent track record of answering that question.
Here they are: the 25 up-and-coming artists we believe represent the future of our field.
At six feet tall, Jesse Obremski dances as though he's investigating each movement for the first time. His quiet transitional moments are as astounding as his long lines, bounding jumps and seamless floorwork. Add in his versatility and work ethic, and it's clear why he's an invaluable asset to New York City choreographers. Currently a freelance artist with multiple contemporary groups, including Gibney Dance Company and Limón Dance Company, Obremski also choreographs for his recently formed troupe, Obremski/Works.
Last night at Parsons Dance's 2019 gala, the company celebrated one of our own: DanceMedia owner Frederic M. Seegal.
In a speech, artistic director David Parsons said that he wanted to honor Seegal for the way he devotes his energy to supporting premier art organizations, "making sure that the arts are part of who we are," he said.
It's a bit of an understatement to say that Bob Fosse was challenging to work with. He was irritable, inappropriate and often clashed with his collaborators in front of all his dancers. Fosse/Verdon, which premieres on FX tonight, doesn't sugarcoat any of this.
But for Sasha Hutchings, who danced in the first episode's rendition of "Big Spender," the mood on set was quite opposite from the one that Fosse created. Hutchings had already worked with choreographer Andy Blankenbuehler, who she calls "a dancer's dream," director Tommy Kail and music director Alex Lacamoire as a original cast member in Hamilton, and she says the collaborators' calm energy made the experience a pleasant one for the dancers.
"Television can be really stressful," she says. "There's so many moving parts and everyone has to work in sync. With Tommy, Andy and Lac I never felt the stress of that as a performer."