On the Rise: Jonathan Porretta

July 22, 2007

Eight years ago in
The Village Voice
, Kate Mattingly identified 21 “Players in the Field” who had “mastered a position in the dance world.” Among luminaries like Ronald K. Brown, Bessie Schonberg, and Peter Boal, the list included “rookie” Jonathan Porretta, then 15 years old. Mattingly described him as “An American Misha—though his idol’s Peter Boal.” This July, Porretta again shares the spotlight with Boal, this time in Seattle, where the former New York City Ballet principal takes the helm as artistic director of Pacific Northwest Ballet and Porretta appears as the company’s newest principal.

What sets Porretta apart from the precise dancing typical of PNB are his exceptionally high jumps, breathtaking hip flexibility, and commanding stage presence. The emotionally mature performer that Mattingly saw in the teen-aged Porretta is even more evident today. His star turns this past season in Balanchine’s
Prodigal Son
and Glen Tetley’s Rite of Spring thrilled audiences, in part because Porretta matched the pyrotechnics with a high emotional intensity.

Rite of Spring
, he was like a wild animal,” says retiring PNB co-artistic director Francia Russell. “Glen Tetley wanted them to push themselves into a state of euphoria, which Jonathan did. He approached Rite of Spring like he does all his work—the audience knows there is nothing he won’t give onstage.”

Says Porretta: “I like to not think when I’m onstage and just be the character. Ballets are so different—they’re like fingerprints. For
Rite of Spring
, I was very nervous because it was the first modern piece I had ever danced. I nearly passed out when I got a note from Glen saying, ‘You made it seem as easy as breathing.’ ”

Before his debut in
Prodigal Son
, Porretta had a one-hour rehearsal with Peter Boal. “It was amazing,” says Porretta. “He wanted to fit in as much coaching as possible. For him it wasn’t about the steps, but about the character.”

Porretta’s early years of jazz and ballet training paid off with regional and national titles (Junior Mr. Dance 1994 and Teen Mr. Dance 1997 from Dance Educators of America and others) and featured roles with Dances Patrelle. He credits the experience of performing in competitions with helping him become comfortable onstage.

Porretta studied for four years on full scholarship at the School of American Ballet, dancing in Stanley Williams’ special men’s class, which emphasized timing and speed. “Whoever was in that class, Williams felt that they had something special and would go on to be principals somewhere,” says Porretta. During that time, he appeared in the movie
Center Stage
as an extra, completed his high school degree through correspondence, and took classes from Boal. After SAB, Porretta joined PNB as an apprentice. He was promoted to the corps the following year, in 2000, and then to soloist in 2002.

“At SAB, his dignity was there even as a teenager,” recalls Peter Boal. “He had a splashy side, but he was intelligent, open to correction, and musical. You could see that with his personality and technique he already was a principal dancer—it was just a question of how much time it would take. Now, there is no question that he is a dancer who has arrived.”

Adds Russell: “In rehearsal, he’ll try anything and everything, giving himself completely to the choreographic process. He’s not worried about how he looks—he’s such a willing instrument. He simply doesn’t know how to put on any airs. He is generous to a fault.”

Porretta is very much a team player, which is why he’s so happy at PNB. “It’s my family, and that’s what makes coming to work every day a dream,” he says. Porretta takes little for granted, and credits his mother, Jane D’Annunzio-Drehetz—who flies out from New Jersey for his performances, and to whom he talks on the phone every day—for keeping him grounded. Porretta is good at following his own advice.

“I try to stay focused on my goals and just enjoy dancing. For me, dancing is like breathing, it’s my lifeline. Being on the stage is the most comfortable, scary, amazing place to be. You have to realize you might not be doing much in the next rep, so when you’re on top, you have to savor those moments.”

Gigi Berardi is the author of
Finding Balance: Fitness and Training for a Lifetime in Dance (Princeton Book Company).