Jacob’s Pillow: Pacific Northwest Ballet One-stop tour for Seattle dancers


BECKET -- Pacific Northwest Ballet is going on tour next week, but with only one destination on its itinerary: Jacob’s Pillow Dance Festival.

"We don’t tour very often," conceded Peter Boal, the company’s artistic director.

"But I love going to the Pillow. I like the feeling there. I like the overlap with other artists," he added, noting that the company is busily preparing to open its regular season in September at its home, McCaw Hall, in Seattle. Boal spoke by telephone from his office there.

Seattle is a very special city. Tucked away in a far-north corner of the country, it’s a great place for the arts to thrive, and they do -- a well-regarded opera company; a notable symphony orchestra; abundant theater from touring companies and three resident repertory troupes; five art museums; and, of course, the Pacific Northwest, one of America’s most critically acclaimed ballet companies.

The company was founded in 1972, initially as part of Seattle Opera, under the directorship of Kent Stowell and Francia Russell, originally of New York City Ballet. Boal assumed leadership after their retirement in 2005, following a 22-year career as a dancer with City Ballet.

Pacific Northwest has 44 dancers on its roster and offers about 100 performances each season between September and June, including about 40 "Nutcrackers" over the holiday season.

The company maintains its own scenic and costume shops and has its own pit orchestra, a matter of considerable pride for any company that fortunate -- it has been hailed as "the best ballet orchestra in the country," by Emil de Cou, the company’s music director who is regarded by many as the nation’s best ballet conductor.

The Pacific Northwest Ballet School is among the leading professional dance training schools in the country, its pedagogy structured on that of the School of American Ballet, the official school of the New York City Ballet founded by George Balanchine and Lincoln Kirstein.

Boal said PNB’s school has about 1,000 students, 600 of them under the age of 10, "a lot of little kids dabbling in ballet," he mused. Still, most of the company’s dancers are drawn from the school, according to Boal, but only about three dancers a year are hired as replacements for retirees and other necessary departures.

"There is little turnover," explained Boal. "Dancers like it here."

Boal said he looks for various things when selecting new dancers for the company. "It’s a question of taste," he said. "Sometimes I’m looking for shorter women when I have shorter men to dance with.

"I think these dancers must have strong classical technique, innate musicality -- people who want to work here," he added. "I like it when dancers research our choreography, and can name five of the choreographers. But finally, it’s about carefully fitting people into the family."

Boal said he plans to bring 26 of his dancers to the Pillow for next week’s engagement, the company’s third -- previous appearances having occurred in 2006 and 2009. The program illustrates rather well the wide spectrum of repertory pursued by Pacific Northwest:

Susan Stroman’s "Take Five Š More or Less," mixing Broadway with balletic movement and set to jazz scores by Paul Desmond ("Take Five") and Dave Brubeck ("Blue Rondo à la Turk" and "Strange Meadow Lark"), was choreographed for the company six years ago, according to Boal.

Nacho Duato’s "Rassemblement" is rooted in the music of Haitian artist Toto Bissainthe, in which he projects, through liberating powers of music and dance -- solo, duet and ensemble movement performed in bare feet -- an affecting human rights appeal.

Duato is among the hottest choreographers around just now, his dances proving immensely popular at the Pillow in past performances by the Martha Graham Company, Compañia Nacional de Danza 2, and this season from the Hong Kong Ballet and Hubbard Street Dance, Chicago.

"There are pockets of the world that adore his work, and pockets less enamored," observed Boal. "I like the work, and I like this piece, which is not seen very often. It’s loosely based on Haitian culture, and has beautiful music. He always selects beautiful music."

Annabelle Lopez Ochoa’s "Before After," a duet that portrays the end of a relationship through contemporary movement, is being presented by the company for the first time at the Pillow. It is set to music by Marc van Roon, intersected with recorded fragments of intermittent speech that refers to the changing of traffic lights. "I like the way it has equal levels of strength and vulnerability," said Boal. "You don’t know who has the upper hand."

Boal was amused at "A Million Kisses to My Skin," David Dawson’s title for a tribute to the elation a dancer feels while performing. Set to Johann Sebastian Bach’s Concerto No. 1 in D minor (BWV 1052), Boal said he perceives some of the influence of the American choreographer William Forsythe for whom Dawson once worked.

"This is just pure classical ballet technique extended in every direction, enjoying flexibility and high energy," he said. "It’s another one the dancers love, but it’s exhausting for the nine dancers."

As a bonus to this diverse program at the Ted Shawn Theatre, PNB dancer Jonathan Porretta of will perform Molissa Fenley’s "State of Darkness" as part of the Inside / Out series, 6:15 p.m. Thursday on the outdoor Henry J. Leir stage.

"It’s a crazy solo -- I used to dance it myself," recalled Boal, who explained that Fenley based the 34-minute solo on Stravinsky’s "Rite of Spring."

"Melissa is going to come here and see it. She performed it years ago, and it should be amazing to see it outdoors."


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