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Toni Pimble, Artistic Director of Eugene Ballet

Fortuitous Twists and Turns: A Chat with Eugene Ballet's Artistic Director and Founder, Toni Pimble

by Dean Speer

October 23 , 2004 -- Eugene, Oregon

While I had met Toni Pimble before (I had auditioned to be the Company's balletmaster about 15 or so years ago), I had never really gotten to know her all that well, so I looked forward to hearing about her background and more about the artistic inner workings of Eugene Ballet and its leader. We met over lunch in a downtown Eugene café.

DS: Typically, I like to ask how someone got interested in ballet and about their background.

TP: Well, my mother thought that she would have me take piano lessons, like my brother. I think I was seven or eight at the time. But when I was supposed to be practicing by myself -- we had a little piano in the living room -- instead of practicing the piano, I would be dancing around the living room. My mother would think to herself, "That's odd, there's no music coming from the living room." So she would go in, and sure enough, I wasn't practicing; I was dancing around. I did actually take Grade 1 on the piano but nobody could understand how I passed it. So she gave up and decided that I obviously needed something more athletic to do. We had a teacher in Camberley at the time. Her name was Ivy Kirby and she had actually danced with Pavlova.

After dancing, she married an American and lived in California for awhile. But then I think they got divorced and went back to England and ended up in Camberley, having a small ballet school. She was a good teacher, so I was very lucky in the formative years.

So you were about seven or eight, and this was RAD work that she was doing?

She didn't just teach RAD work, but I do remember vaguely taking the exams. On Saturday, she had sort of a mixed class, where we learned all kinds of different dancing. We did some tap and I do remember learning some cha-cha. It was great. Although I think I was taking ballet three times a week at that point. So Saturday was kind of play time. But then, she wanted me to audition for Elmhurst Ballet School. Elmhurst is in Camberley. It was really fortuitous that it was my home town. So I auditioned & I was accepted. And I went to Elmhurst from ages 11 to 18. The first year that I was there, Helen Fisher ran the school, but then she died and Bridget Espinosa, of the Espinosa family, became the head of the school. The Espinosas were well-known in England for dance. So we were very lucky to have her and she was wonderful. Now Elmhurst has moved from Camberley to Birmingham and has become the top school for the Birmingham Royal Ballet. The British Council gave out a lot of money to make the move. It was a very smart move of theirs to move to Birmingham. Most of England has pretty good ballet schools in which to train. And oddly enough, one of our dancers now in the company, Peter Orlov (who's Russian), went to Elmhurst.

Small world. So you're 18 ...

I didn't have a job, and I believed that I was probably going to end up working in Germany but I thought that for a year I was going to study in London and figure out what I was going to do. Well, the company in Kiel (Northern Germany) had a dancer that injured her knee and was out. So the ballet master, who was English -- his name is Antony Taylor -- came over to England and auditioned me at Elmhurst because he had already done an audition in London and then he was driving to see his folks in Berkshire. He stopped off in Camberley and gave me an audition, and at the end of the audition, he asked if I would like the job. I agreed and then he said that we start next week. You know, I was 18 years old, I didn't speak a word of German, didn't have a passport, and I had never been abroad. So I called my folks and I said, "Mum and dad, I got the job!" They said that it was great, so I told them that it started the next week and they went, "Oh no!" And I remember that final week: my dad and I spent the whole week in London, trying to get me a passport and papers. It was just a frantic scramble. Then they stuck me on the plane, and I just remember waving goodbye. They told me that I looked so lost. So off I went to Germany.

Could you tell me about the company?

Actually it's truly amazing because you get a 13-month contract; you get really spoiled compared to the US. I mean, everything is taken care of and you work year-round.

Kent and Francia were talking just the other day in an interview, and I was in the audience. They were talking about their 13-month contracts at Munich and Frankfurt.

You got an extra third of your wage at Christmas and you got two-thirds in the summer. And you got six weeks vacation. It was phenomenal. And at 40 years old, you could retire on a pension. And they would pay for re-education at 40 if you wanted to go back to school and learn another trade. It was just phenomenal.

Sounds like a good deal.

Yes, it was a good deal!

And how long were you there?

I was in Kiel four years and then I went to Bonn with artistic director, Ottavio Cintoliesi. He brought in a number of interesting choreographers; Mikko Sparemblek , Michel Descombey, Nils Christie, Madame Marika Besobrasova and Hans Brenaa, so the repertoire was very versatile, from contemporary to Bournonville, which we loved.

Tell me more about this person.

Cintolesi is South American and he had done a lot of work all over the world and then ended up in Bonn, which I don't think suited him really because he didn't understand German politics. So it was very hard for him. I noticed you were in Cannes; did you meet Madame Marika Besobrasova?

No, she's actually in Monaco, I believe.

Cintolesi brought her in to stage Paquita. She was certainly an interesting lady. I believe she is still going strong. Nils Christie also came and choreographed a work for us. This was when he was just getting started as a choreographer. In Germany, we had a lot of guest choreographers, which was really wonderful.

Sounds like it.

And also, as a guest, we worked with Michael Descomby. He had been the director of the Paris Opera Ballet.

And what did he do?

He did ballets with very strong political messages which were interesting. We did a whole piece in spacesuits, and it was a comment on pollution in our world, and how we would end up moving to the moon. Pretty "out there" stuff. (Laughs). A very eclectic repertoire, which was fun. Later I saw, the work of Lothar Hofgen in Mannheim. I loved his work, so I auditioned and he offered me a job. So I went there for a year.

In Mannheim?

Which I hated. It was a dirty city. The year I went to the company, he was offered a job in Hanover. That was unfortunate because I had wanted to go there to work with him, but he was barely there. And at that point, Riley and I thought, "You know, I'm really tired of this shifting sand thing -- never having a director stay in a company for very long. It was just constantly shifting. Also, we wanted to dance more, and it wasn't enough; Lothar Hofgen dropped a whole show in Mannheim because he was busy in Hanover. So the morale of the company was low.

That doesn't sound too good.

No. A teacher in Eugene was retiring and she said that she was trying to sell her ballet school. So we decided to come here and buy the school. Maybe even start a little ballet company.

That was '78?

Yes.

So you took over the school?

Yes and I don't think that we were here more than a month when a group called the Pacifica Players asked us to choreograph "The Soldiers Tale." And so we did.

Teaching

The RAD is a wonderful tool for both the teacher and the student, as far as progress because you're not going to pass those exams if you can't do those steps. If you can't do the set barre work, if you're not pointing your feet, if you're not turned out, you're just not going to pass those exams. And it's a clear indication if you're improving or not.

Teaching is one of my passions. I've done a lot of guest teaching and it's very interesting to me that I find the whole range out there - from not being trained well enough to be able to properly hang onto the barre to those students that are actually quite good. And often there is a lot of in-between.

You can't teach just RAD syllabus, and certainly at Elmhurst, it was a separate class. Our RAD classes were taught in the evening twice a week. But it was really a benchmark for our school. We went and took those exams because you either pass the exam or you don't. And that's really clear. Either you're improving or you're not. Plus, you have to learn the vocabulary which in itself is really important. I find a lot of dancers don't know vocabulary and are not really analyzing the movements. They're just kind of doing it, but not really looking into what they are really doing. But with a syllabus -- not just RAD syllabus -- it forces you to analyze your movements and to break them down. And that becomes valid for all forms of dance that you're learning.

At Elmhurst, we also had the opportunity to have different guest teachers. We had teachers in Graham technique, a jazz teacher who was very good and David Drew from the Royal Ballet. Usually in the Fall, he would come with three of the Royal Ballet's younger male dancers and we would have a class with them on Saturdays. And, of course for us girls, it was wonderful to have these young men who were in the company to assist us in partnering. It was just a wonderful experience. David Drew was such a great teacher. At times very temperamental and scary but altogether very inspiring.

I'm glad that scary can be inspiring.

Yes. We also had a teacher of classical Indian dance. Mrs. Balasundari was her name. One term she taught us a classical Indian solo dance. She was quite pregnant at the time and when it was finished, she missed classes while she had her baby. She then came back with her baby. We had dutifully practiced this dance and we were so proud. So she sat down and asked us to show her the solo. We showed her the dance and halfway through she sat shaking her head and saying, "Oh no, oh no." We were wondering what was wrong. I guess we had Westernized the music in the way we were performing it. We had Westernized the rhythm of it. And it was something, to us, that was rather incomprehensible. But she tried to explain how she heard the music with quite different ears than Westerners. It was very interesting.

I remember this one girl, when I was at Cornish at the college program there, who was here from China to study ballet. She had also been trained in China in traditional Chinese dance and she said that feeling was the most important thing. We can learn the movement but we can never do it. We just don't have that sensibility.

Why don't we talk now into your choreography. I'm wondering what has influenced your work.

These experiences, but also I think that the whole English sense of theatre probably has influenced my work quite a bit. But I also like to take a break from the theatre side of dance and do pieces like "Slipstream" which are just pure dance.

And how did "Slipstream" come about?

"Slipstream" was inspired by a piece by Michael Nyman. He is a contemporary composer. And actually, it's made up of two string quartets. String quartet #2 is a piece that he wrote because he had seen a classical dance performance of a solo artist and was fascinated by the rhythm of the music and of the dancer's feet because a lot of the dance was about stomping out those rhythms on the floor. So he conceived the string quartet, which was very influenced by classical Indian music and rhythms. But that piece is seven movements and some of the movements were extremely complex. I just felt that it would be too challenging to try to do all seven movements. So I took the first four movements but then I also heard his third string quartet and the first movement of that was very melodic and had a lot of pathos in it. So I dropped that in. For dance, for what I was trying to do, I felt that I needed something that was more adagio because I felt that the whole string quartet would be very challenging. For dancers, it's very challenging, as well as for the audience too, musically.

So when you choreograph, you keep the audience in mind?

Yes. You know, I try to pace a piece, in a manner, whether it's a full length ballet or a shorter piece so that about two-thirds of the way through it's peaking, so that it has that overall flow, which is very important. There are a lot of different ways that I have been asked to choreograph. Sometimes I've been asked to choreograph a specific thing, like a story ballet. And I've had to create music for it, sometimes it has music, but really I do enjoy looking for music that inspires me personally.

I choreographed a work for the Ballet Idaho summer school students to Rachmaninov's, "Variation on a Theme of Corelli." When you listen to his variations on that one theme - how he made it into different forms - an adagio and then an allegro, how he took just three notes, and made it into a variation - for me, mentally, it was interesting as well as trying to make these young dancers look the very best that they could and challenging them with something they had to work on. So I really enjoyed it.

As a choreographer, if you listen to music, and you don't just listen to it emotionally, but you also listen to it and analyze the structure, it teaches you so much about how to choreograph.

[Referring now to a work she had seen performed by OBT that included a set that had ropes hanging from the flies.]

I thought initially it started out interestingly and then it just didn't go anywhere and it just died for me. Well, what does all the stuff hanging from the ceiling mean to me?

In my reviews, I try to be as constructive as I can be but sometimes you just have to say that it doesn't work.

Yes, but I thought that it was admirable that Christopher Stowell was using live music through the whole program. I think that's great.

Do you see any working relationship between Eugene Ballet and Oregon Ballet Theater?

Perhaps. I've contacted Christopher. Because ballet is so expensive and it's so hard we've been trying to reach out to other companies. In fact, Bruce Steivel and I have been talking about the possibility of sharing the costs on a more expensive full-length ballet. If we do, we would do it in the same season sharing set and costume rental and trucking costs. Ron Cunningham from Sacramento and I have talked a number of times about the same possibility. We haven't worked something out yet but I think we will. You have to get creative because it's so expensive.

They've been doing this in the opera world - doing productions together.

I would like to do that. And I know how to do it. We've already did it with Ballet Oregon and Eugene Ballet in 1988 with a joint production of "Giselle." If we work together I'm confident it could be successful.

When the company tours, it changes names?

Yes, because we're a two city company working in an alliance between Eugene Ballet Company and Ballet Idaho since 1994. It can get complex. The dancers joke that they should have a reversible T-shirt that has Eugene Ballet on one side and Ballet Idaho on the other. But what do you do with Western Ballet Theatre? And the reason that we ended up with Western Ballet Theatre was because we did a tour of "Alice in Wonderland" some years back and the sponsor didn't want us to use the name, Eugene Ballet. So Riley (the company manager) said, "Fine. What do name do you want us to tour under? We'll name it that." So we came up with Western Ballet Theatre. But it does make for complications.

Really what we need is one name that we all use and know. The name, of course is a huge issue between both boards and both boards recognize that, in an unemotional way. They recognize that if they change the name to Western Ballet Theatre, that's a big question in everybody's mind. But it's frustrating for Ballet Idaho when Eugene Ballet gets a great review in Dance Magazine. It's not just Eugene Ballet; it's also Ballet Idaho. They're pouring in a lot of money to be a part of this company, where if it was just one name, we would all have a friendship with that. So those are some of the challenges we face with being a two city company. When we tour in Oregon, we tour as Eugene Ballet. When we tour in Idaho, we tour as Ballet Idaho. And when we tour in the other states, we tour as Western Ballet Theatre.

That's what I thought.

It can get complicated. Dancers show up at the theatre and they say, "Who are we today?" But it was the answer 10 years ago to shrinking art dollars. We were looking at over $100,000 in lost revenue. That was going to seriously change the look of the company. And so that's what we were facing. We tour a lot with "Nutcracker" every year.

I think I heard 38 performances in 20 cities?

Yes, seven Western states in about 18-20 different venues. It varies a little depending on if we have to tour three days in one place, which the dancers love, which means that they won't be on a bus late at night. Everywhere that we go, we include the children from the community -- they are our ladybugs, our baby mice. And that, I think, is a wonderful experience for those kids. A lot of them have never seen a ballet before. The little mice are staring at Jennifer Martin in her tutu and her pointe shoes and they are in awe. And that's the way it should be.

One of my former students in Chehalis who moved to Longview, was in one of your first run-out shows and she still remembers it. She's 31 now.

It's a huge number, thousands, because every year we probably have about 1500 - 2000 kids between all of the shows. Peter Pawlyshyn, our ballet master goes out and auditions all the kids every year, which is a really hard job. And he's wonderful. He's very even-keeled and has to work with lots of different teachers, most are wonderful but some don't even talk to each other in the same community.

Artistically, touring is a huge compromise because in the smaller theatres, you can't put up the same number of sets and you don't have as much lighting and you have a smaller stage but, when you think that many of the people in those cities might never have the opportunity to see a ballet, it makes it all worthwhile.

Riley and I created the Eugene Ballet Company in 1978 and have worked very hard to sustain the company throughout the years which has led us down some unexpected roads such as the alliance with Ballet Idaho. We have had the opportunity to work with many wonderful and giving artists, community leaders and other arts organizations. It's been rewarding, artistically, and I look forward to leading its continuing growth as we move forward into the next decade.

Edited by Staff.

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