PNB ballerina Louise Nadeau imbues her roles with passionate energy.
There is a moment in Limón’s The Moor’s Pavane when Louise Nadeau, as the Wife, realizes she’s been betrayed. Her hands wrap around her face. As she slowly turns to the audience, Nadeau conveys the terror, the vulnerability, and the determination with which the Wife accepts her fate. She moves with singular dignity and grace, in deep plié and with slow extensions. With a turn of her chin, she speaks volumes. Here is a performer who is a gifted actress as well as a beautiful dancer.
Nadeau has danced leading roles in over 60 ballets—from Balanchine and Bournonville to romantic story ballets to modern choreographers. She’s been an enchanting figure in La Valse, a goddess of stature and wit in Agon, a master of rhythm in Bournonville Variations, a commanding Odile in Swan Lake, and a delightful Hanna in Ronald Hynd’s Merry Widow. In Kent Stowell’s The Tragedy of Romeo & Juliet, her transformation from a joyful and radiant child to a mature lover is complete.
Nadeau’s poise, confidence, and theatrical intensity took some time to develop at Pacific Northwest Ballet. Nadeau can recall 15 years ago, as a soloist new to the company, “coming home every night and crying. I was the only new girl in the company, and it felt like everyone knew the ballets. I had six hours of daily rehearsal learning new soloist and corps parts. It was hard. I’m a perfectionist and really tough on myself.”
But Nadeau also is determined. As a young child, she danced at the Pittsfield (Massachusetts) Girls Club, “holding on to the back of a folding chair, and dancing in socks on a linoleum floor.” Later, with the Berkshire Ballet, she was Clara to Francis Patrelle’s Drosselmeyer (Patrelle later founded his own company in New York). Then, at 13, she saw the movie The Turning Point and made up her mind to become a ballerina. Says Nadeau, “I told my parents, I’m going to New York.” Within two years, she was dancing on full scholarship at the School of American Ballet. There, in partnering classes, she met Peter Boal, another student. Twenty-five years later, they’re dancing together again.
After four years at SAB, she accepted a position with the Basel Ballet for a year and a half, then joined the Kansas City Ballet. She stayed at Kansas City for five years, developing as a dancer and gaining self-confidence as a principal. She then auditioned for several companies, including PNB, and accepted a soloist position there without ever having seen the company perform.
It was 1990 and former PNB soloist Melanie Skinner, who was a new apprentice, recalls the first day of company class when Nadeau took her place at the barre. “She was so tiny, with a sweet, demure face,” says Skinner, “and I thought, ‘Wow this is the new soloist.’ PNB rarely hired soloists. I remember watching her and thinking, ‘This is someone amazing.’ She was lyrical—delicate but really powerful, and her technique was so strong.”
Now 41, with three decades of dancing behind her, Nadeau says, “I feel like I’ve lived a whole life at PNB. When I joined, I was just newly married. Colleen Neary was in the company, and Debbie Hadley, too, so I was pretty humbled by the talent.” Today, she is a company ballerina who commands respect. Says Skinner, “Every woman in the company looks up to Louise—she’s a true artist and there’s a lot to learn from her. When she was doing the central pas de deux from Kent Stowell’s Hail to the Conquering Hero, the wings were crowded with people watching her. People also respect Louise for keeping her private life out of the studio. In class and in rehearsal, nothing else matters.”
Former PNB principal (and now company ballet master) Paul Gibson partnered Nadeau for almost 10 years. Says Gibson: “She is the quintessential artist. Onstage, she gets into a place emotionally and just sucks the audience in.”
Her current partners—Jeff Stanton, Christophe Maraval, and Olivier Wevers—note much the same. Stanton, a favorite partner for Balanchine ballets, observes, “Louise is so musical, she can hang on each note. She plays with the phrasing, even onstage. She has a way of commanding the stage with the subtlest movement—the way she holds her head and posture, her neck, her gestures. As a partner, you have to be very sensitive as to how you manipulate and hold her. An overbearing partner would just rob her of what she is trying to do.”
Maraval, who partners Nadeau in many of the romantic era story ballets, praises Nadeau’s egalitarian attitude. “She’s such a big artist,” he says, “that when you partner her, you really feel like you’re dancing together. You don’t feel like you’re ‘just a partner’—a prop, to make the girl look pretty.”
Wevers shares Nad-eau’s dramatic flair in both abstract and story ballets. “As artists, we trust each other so much,” he says. “We share a common goal—to tell a great story, and move people. I think for both of us dance is about trying to create a relationship with the audience—we’re both comfortable with acting, and playing off each other.”
Artistic director Boal sees a blend of qualities in Nadeau. “She’s an amazing combination of being quite tough and steely, but underneath, there’s a beautiful vulnerability. That mix provides for this powerful interpretation.”
Nadeau uses terms like “hard working,” “tenacious,” “persistent,” and “caring” to characterize herself. She recalls, “My dad used to call me the ‘iron butterfly’—fragile on the surface, but with a very steely resolve that has helped me through hard times—personal and professional. If I didn’t have that I wouldn’t be dancing today.” Nadeau admits there was a time when “it was tempting to be the chameleon for every choreographer who came in, but I’ve resisted and always held onto who I am as an artist.” During a “lull” before Boal arrived, when she was rarely first cast, she says, “I guess I just made lemonade out of lemons. Whatever I was given, I worked on it to make it my own.”
That same tenacity has helped Nadeau through a difficult pregnancy (including a near-miscarriage while on tour at the Kennedy Center), an arduous divorce, and the challenges of being a single parent to her eight-year-old daughter, Emma. Says Nadeau, “Being a mom has helped me to not take myself so seriously. Kids don’t care if you have a performance that night. They just want you to get on the floor and play with them.” She is happy with the roles of principal dancer and mother, and hopes to be a role model for her daughter, leading by example and showing her how “to strive for goals while being sensitive to others, and to always believe in herself.”
Nadeau’s influence is clear on corps members such as Jessika Anspach, one of the newest members of the company. Anspach attributes her being at PNB to Nadeau. “She’s the reason I wanted to become a ballerina. I saw her do Swan Lake, and I was enthralled by her beauty, her theatricality. To me, she’s the epitome of what a beautiful ballerina should be—on and off the stage. She’s gracious and kind, and has amazing stage presence.”
Nadeau needs time to develop a role and says she appreciates that former directors Kent Stowell and Francia Russell understood that. “They allowed me to take the time to make sense of a role,” she says. “When I dance, I have a running dialogue in my head. Every gesture has to come from a place in the story that makes sense. My partners know that.”
Says Maraval, “Dancing with Louise, I feel really free. By the time we get onstage, we’re performing for each other and it’s so enriching. With Louise, I really feel I grow as a dancer, and that our partnership evolves.”
Because Nadeau is so invested in her roles and in developing the relationship with her partner in performance, she has an emotional sweep that is breathtaking to watch. “To me, what’s thrilling is that I can dance a role over and over and never feel exactly the same thing,” she says. “Maybe the orchestra plays a little faster one night, or the audience energy is different, or my partner’s touch is light. Every ballet is a living landscape and you have to uncover the subtleties in each performance. That’s what keeps me dancing.”
Gigi Berardi, author of
Finding Balance: Fitness, Training, and Health for a Lifetime in Dance (Routledge, 2005), writes reviews for The Journal of Dance Medicine and Science.