Shaking It Up

July 17, 2007

Since taking over the leadership of Pacific Northwest Ballet, Peter Boal has heaped challenge upon challenge on the dancers. He has added new repertoire, more performances, and more touring. Rehearsals are now shorter and more intense, and company class is shaved by 15 minutes. He has introduced works by Jerome Robbins, Ulysees Dove, and Twyla Tharp as well as Seattle natives Mark Morris and Robert Joffrey. He brought in dancemakers who don’t usually work for ballet companies like Susan Marshall and Rubberbandance’s Victor Quijada. And of course, there is more Balanchine.

How are the dancers faring with these heightened demands? Principal Noelani Pantastico, known for her luscious movement quality, says, “I had to grow up and take responsibility for my dancing and muster up the confidence, all on my own.” Corps member James Moore, who performed Marco Goecke’s strange and bracing solo Mopey, says about Boal, “I totally trust his vision—how he sees the future of this company. You’re exposed to a lot here that you wouldn’t be in other places. He likes speed.”


The emphasis on speed is a natural link to Boal’s heritage as a Balanchine dancer. During his 20 years at New York City Ballet, Boal became a supreme classical artist and a performer with great depth. “A lot of what I program are things that were rewarding for me to experience as a dancer,” he says, “and I’d like these dancers to have that experience.”


This month Boal brings an experience to PNB’s audience that draws on the entire Northwest. For “Celebrate Seattle,” a three-week mini-festival, he’s invited choreographers associated with the region to each set a piece on PNB. It will be a homecoming of sorts for Trisha Brown, Merce Cunningham, and Mark Morris, and Seattle native Robert Joffrey’s pas de deux from Remembrances will enter the rep, which is especially sweet to see since that company hasn’t performed in Seattle since the early 1980s. There will be works by PNB school faculty member Sonia Dawkins and corps dancer Kiyon Gaines, as well as a world premiere by in-house choreographer Paul Gibson.


To widen the concentric circles, John Alleyne, director of Ballet British Columbia and Christopher Stowell of Oregon Ballet Theater are bringing their companies to perform. Seattle-based postmodern groups Spectrum Dance Theater, which tends to have a strident edge now that it’s under the direction of Donald Byrd, and Mary Sheldon Scott/Jarred Powell Performance, who perform Scott’s quirky, dreamlike choreography, are also thrown into the mix.


Although Boal has a great respect for his predecessors Francia Russell and Kent Stowell (also Balanchinians, but from a previous era—see “Dance Matters,” Sept. 2005), he has made some strikingly different choices for the company. While they didn’t want to use guest artists, preferring to give company members as many opportunities as possible, Boal feels that the cross-pollination and subtle competition you get with a guest in the house is worth whatever disruption it might cause. So Seattle audiences have seen Miranda Weese and Rasta Thomas on cast lists. And while the former directors insisted that, if the company were going to tour, the entire ensemble would go, Boal is sending smaller delegations out beyond the region to raise visibility nationally. Ariana Lallone, a veteran of the “everyone goes along” tours, was happy to be part of a small group at Jacob’s Pillow last August. “We got out of our cars and stepped on the grounds of Jacob’s Pillow, and it was very clear—the history and the environment we were going to be a part of for that week. The Pillow is a huge part of dance history.”

Boal’s first season, 2005-2006, was full of the hyper-alert dancing that you get when artists know a new pair of eyes is on them. The year opened with breathtaking performances of Robbins’ In the Night and Balanchine’s Symphony in Three Movements and closed with a pair of full-length ballets, the Ronald Hynd production of Sleeping Beauty that has been in the PNB rep for several years, and a new production of Balanchine’s milestone of abstract ballet, Jewels. Lallone was remarkably tender in the Robbins, and danced the “tall girl” in “Rubies” with her usual powerful sweep. And Patricia Barker, soon to retire, gave her performances in “Diamonds” a kind of regal wildness. Carla Körbes, who was one of Boal’s first hires coming from NYCB, seems poised to step into some of Barker’s roles as a tall, cool blonde. She made debuts in works familiar to her like La Valse, and in new territory as Odette/Odile in Russell and Stowell’s version of Swan Lake last February.


Halfway through its 2006-2007 season, PNB announced its plans for the following year—more Balanchine and Robbins, more Tharp and Forsythe, another spring festival more work from choreographers outside the mainstream of ballet. Altogether, more of everything, and just a little bit faster.


Sandra Kurtz writes about dance in Seattle, WA.