Jonathan Porretta, Soloist, Pacific Northwest Ballet
Tri-State Native, All-State Soloist
by Dean Speer and Francis Timlin
It's not too often that you get to talk to someone as mercurial, irrepressible, and vibrant as one of Pacific Northwest Ballet's (PNB) newest soloists, Jonathan Porretta. While late-November preparations for their famous production of Nutcracker were swirling around us in their Phelps Center home and next door at their performance venue of McCaw Hall, we took a few moments to chat with Mr. Porretta about his career.
DS/FT: How did you get started in ballet?
Nobody really knows! [Laughs] My mom says I always wanted to be a dancer, so at the age of 7, I enrolled in the Totowa Dance Center with a combination dance class of ballet and tap and was there for three or four years until I fell off of my bike when I was 10 and broke my foot. I was off for 7 weeks and returned to dancing at a bigger school -- For Dancers Only -- where the focus was on jazz, tap, and lyrical and had ballet only once a week. It was a competition school and was great for forcing people onto the stage.
And, yes, I'm actually from Totowa even though by bio lists my birthplace as Wayne, New Jersey.
I auditioned for SAB[School of American Ballet] when I was 14 and got in! I was SO excited. I was there for four years.
Who were some of your teachers?
I started in Boys' 3 and the Intermediate Men's class and believe it or not, I was in Peter Boal's very first class that he taught! [Mr. Boal at the time of the interview had just been named PNB's new AD.] I had Baryshnikov for one week, Jock Soto taught pas de deux, and Peter Martins. Some of my other first teachers included Olga Kostritzky and Richard Rapp. I was also lucky to have had Stanley Williams during the last Special Men's class that he taught.
How did you get from SAB to PNB?
I never auditioned anywhere as I had been led to believe that I was on the track to being in the Company (NYCB) and was surprised when I heard that Martins didn't think I was corps material. Kay Mazzo suggested that I take the Summer program. Later, Kent [Stowell] and Francia [Russell] were in town and Kent watched me take class. I had NO idea I was being auditioned, nor did I know he was watching class. I hadn't seen Kent before and I assumed that this well-dressed man watching was a donor! I was having fun taking class, messing around with things like doing 32 fouettés and ending on the floor in The Dying Swan's pose and just about died when someone told me that man was actually Kent Stowell. Well, I whipped off my warm-up rags and got promptly into the "audition" mode, although I'm not sure it did any good for réverance! [Laughs] Well, I thought I had blown THAT audition but when I went out into the hall, Kent was waiting for me and asked me if I knew who he was. Of course, I nodded and said "yes!" even though I had only found out a few moments before. [Laughs] I was shocked when he pulled out one of his business cards and offered me a job!
Since I didn't think I had a job, I had gotten into the 1999 dance movie, "Center Stage." I didn't know what to do, but Kent and the producer worked it out so I could be in half of the movie. I'm in all of the dancing scenes and that's my voice squealing, "I got in! I got in!" after the audition results were posted. In the DVD release version, you actually get to see my face! The movie was shot completely backward, which is why I'm in the performance scenes too.
Had you to been to Seattle before?
Never. The transition moving here was very smooth and I already had a couple of friends in the Company such as Jordan Pacitti and it was easy to make new friends. My family visits often; in fact my mother and aunt were just here for the last rep. I don't have much time to run back to New Jersey and, while I still love New York, I can't imagine being anywhere else but Seattle!
What was it like moving from corps member to soloist?
I was one of the lucky corps dancers and as a soloist, they are giving me mostly principal parts. I love everything they are letting me perform!
Speaking of the last rep program, tell us what it was like making your début in "Prodigal"?
I had just wanted to learn it and had dreamt about performing it from a very young age. I took from Edward Villella in New Jersey for two Summers, when I was 11. He even autographed his autobiography for me. I love doing all of his roles and am doing a lot of them here, including Rubies with OBT last year. Patty [Patricia Barker] and I used to kid about our dancing together and when I saw that I was first cast with Patty as the Siren it was a dream come true. And a little overwhelming. It was an amazing experience working with Patty. She has an amazing body and a lot of knowledge. Both Kent and Francia helped me with the acting. When Peter (Boal) was here earlier, he helped me with the variations. It was a great experience.
Let's get "into your head" a little bit about performing ...
I don't think about steps and choreography while performing – I try to be "in" the character and to just have the movement in my body.
Didn't I see you do a double chassé en tournant in during the third movement of "Symphony in C"? That was quite impressive.
The Bizet is very "puffy" and is hard on the legs and takes lots of stamina, but I love it! It was great getting out there with Kaori [Nakamura] and doing those wonderful allegro steps. Yes, it was a double. It had been set on us as a double saut de basque but Kent had recalled doing it as a chassé and so that's the way we tried it and left it in.
I also recall when you did the Jester in "Swan Lake," you did a step I had not seen before – very fast hop turns in a la seconde en de hors to one side and then quickly and seamlessly switching to the other side. Definitely a "wow!" moment!
Oh, you noticed and liked that! Kent and I were looking for something different for me to do there and that's what we came up with.
A new ballet step!
Yes, the "Porretta!" [gales of laughter].
You seemed very disciplined and focused as a dancer...
I love class every day and need it to stay in shape. I think of it as building technique, and yes, I'm totally focused on it in class. We are lucky to have a 1.5 hour class each day, and 1.25 during performance runs. NYCB only gets an hour, which is not enough time. I need the time to mentally focus.
What's on your dance plate this year and what are you looking forward to doing?
"Rite of Spring" and the solo boy. It's a crazy stamina ballet! I would love to learn Apollo. I love my parts in "Silver Lining" but don't want to think about it, as it's Kent and Francia's last show. In "Nutcracker" I have about 6 parts.
Tell us about your performing experiences with Dances Patrelle.
When I was 14, I auditioned for his Yorkville Nutcracker and he choreographed the "Snow Boy" on me. In his "Tango Plague" it was the professional dancers and me! In Vineland Regional Ballet company we did a Bette Midler piece. Working with him gave me some great performance experiences while I was at SAB, as SAB opportunities are pretty much limited to the annual Performance Workshops. I couldn't live at the SAB dorms as I lived within 20 miles, so at first my mom would drive me to class. Later, I got comfortable taking the bus and later the subway and trains. I do have a driver's license for New Jersey but don't drive here in Seattle [Laughs].
Any hobbies or other tidbits for us?
I read Us Weekly. I love horseback riding and used to do this in New Jersey and even used to be a show rider, English style. I like shopping. You may find it interesting that everyone in my family has a "J" name: My mother is Jane and my older brother and sister are Joey and Janey! My new apartment I love as it has great views of the Sound and it reminds me of how much I like being in Seattle. I enjoy sharing laughter and time with close friends.
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