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Boal's Bold New Ballet

Peter Boal, Pacific Northwest Ballet’s new artistic director, defines his future in Seattle

by Dean Speer and Francis Timlin

July 2005 -- Seattle, Washington

Amid the un-packing of moving boxes and the smell of fresh paint, we caught up with Seattle’s freshest resident, the new Artistic Director of Pacific Northwest Ballet, Peter Boal, in his office in PNB’s Phelps Center overlooking Seattle’s “arts corridor” – Mercer Street. We found him to be exactly what his advance press claimed him to be: warm, welcoming, articulate, thoughtful, and considered – and relaxed in his new surroundings

We wanted to tackle substantive topics relevant to his position, so avoided subject matter than can easily be found elsewhere such as “How did you get started in ballet?”

DS/FT: What are some of your goals and objectives for the Company and School?

For the Company, I’m looking to traditions; to build on what Kent and Francia have done. I plan on keeping the Balanchine repertory as an essential element of the Company. I’m a big fan of Forsythe, Duato, Robbins, and Tharp. With the exception of Tharp, each of these has already been represented in small ways in the repertory but would like to add more. We are doing Robbins’ "In the Night" this coming season, for example. I love the dancers and the audiences here and want them to stay. Some of my plans include outreach to younger audiences.

There are some vacancies in key positions, such as the Technical Director. Are these being filled or are you re-organizing or...?

We are in that process now. We will hire a full-time Technical Director plus a part-time lighting designer. Rico was both of those in one. In the School, Seattle campus principal Flemming Halby will be retiring in a year. He’s planning on moving to Mexico. I’m happy that Patricia Barker will be teaching regularly in the School and I will replace Francia for some of the classes that she used to regularly teach.

What are some of the Company personnel changes for next season?

We hope to have 43 dancers in the Company but are waiting for a visa clearance on one, so it may be 42. You know already about the promotions of Jonathan Porretta and Maria Chapman, but you may not know that Leanne Larsen has been hired as an apprentice, and that Jessika Anspach has been promoted from apprentice to corps. Benjamin Griffiths, who was a student of mine at SAB, and who is leaving the Boston Ballet, will be coming into the corps as well.

Carla Körbes, who was recently promoted to soloist at NYCB is joining PNB at that rank. She is originally from Brazil. I met her there when I was guesting in "Apollo." She was cast as Terpsichore though only 14! Through an interpreter – I spoke no Portuguese and she no English – I suggested that she come to SAB which she did one year later. She’s been in NYCB for five years now.

Perhaps you’ll be adding Robbins’ "Dances at a Gathering" someday?

The Robbins Trust would like companies to “earn” the right to do this work. "In the Night" is a step in that direction and, yes, I would like to add this piece someday!

Tell us a Robbins story. What was it like to work with him?

He was the most demanding person and possibly the most important person in my development as an artist. I got to work with him for nine years, until his passing in 1998. I was learning "The Prodigal Son" from a video – the piece was being re-established in the NYCB repertory – and Robbins himself asked Peter Martins if he could coach me. As far as I know, this was the only time he coached anyone in a ballet or dance other than his own. There is nothing like the dancer-to-dancer transmission experience and connection.

He choreographed six ballets on me, including his last work, "Brandenburg," which he worked onfor two years. When he did "A Suite of Dances" for Baryshnikov, he used me to “pre-choreograph” on before he went to Baryshnikov as he was nervous about working with Misha. He always treated me with respect. He never yelled at me. Not everyone was so lucky.

Expand on your ideas for outreach ...

We are headed over to Seattle University for a dance demonstration to their dance students. We’re starting a Friday night program - it will be a total of four evenings – here at the Phelps Center where someone can pay only $5 to see a preview of the next week’s repertory. While I believe our ticketing structure to be quite good, even so, there are those for whom tickets can be expensive and our thinking is to give them a one-hour in-studio show for a bargain price and see both the rehearsal process and the dancers right before their eyes.

What are your personal plans for teaching?

I love teaching! I was on the full-time teaching faculty at SAB for 9 years where I did 10-13 classes a week. The age range I covered was 12 to 19, some were girls but mostly men. Jonathan Porretta likes to remind me that he was in the very first class I taught. 15 PNB dancers are former students of mine. I plan to teach four times a week during theSummer Course.

When I first took partnering – in the advanced men’s partnering class – I was 13 but looked 10. In trying to find someone to dance with me, I asked Tina LeBlanc who said “no” -- and she had to look down on me to say this, but a couple of weeks later Louise [Nadeau] said “yes.”

I think it’s important to have a regular studio relationship with dancers. I’ll be teaching the Tuesday and Thursday Company classes and will be doing something new for me – staging two ballets: "Duo Concertant: and "Red Angels." Francia will be staging "Concerto Barocco" and "La Valse"and Kent will be overseeing "Nutcracker" and his "Hail to the Conquering Hero." I’ve asked Francia to continue teaching Company class when her schedule permits; perhaps once a week. She’s already gotten lots of offers – to be a guest faculty member at SAB for example, so I’m hoping she’ll be able to fit it in. The dancers really like her classes.

Kent was the “house” choreographer, so to speak. What are your thoughts on perhaps either bringing someone in or developing an in-house resident choreographer? Somewhat along the Christopher Wheeldon model.

I’m very open to this possibility. Of our in-house talent, I’ve seen the choreography of Paul Gibson and like what he’s done very much.

Teaching is also dear to me. I was intrigued by a comment you made about Richard Rapp’s classes for an interview you did for the SAB Newsletter. You mention he had a special method. Could you talk a little about this and give us an example.

He was a great teacher for the intermediate level students and a great inspiration for coming into his classes at about the age of 11. He taught you method to instruct yourself – he was like a draftsman,giving you very clear images and very exact instructions on how to dance in a technical sense – very exact! An example is for rond de jambe à terre, he used to say, “Bring the toes to two o’clock, now to four o’clock and in where the hands meet. Or for quarter rond de jambes, to make the shape of a pizza slice. He would just make up these incredible images right on the spot.

What is your teaching style?

I am a very patient and quiet teacher. I want each student to discover how exciting dance can be. I won’t force anyone to do it. I teach for everyone in the room. Each of them has an individualpotential and I want to help them discover it. I put tremendous emphasis on musicality.

Going back to your plans and goals for the Company. What were some of the expectations and ideas you’ve had in mind coming out here?

I’m committed to finding new choreographers and bringing them to the public. I’d like their work to be more widely known in Seattle and for the rest of the country to see what wonderful work we do. It really is an amazing company and the standard of excellence is at the highest level. Perhaps we might be able to have a smaller, touring company. I want it to be democratic, with opportunities for everyone – not just for principals.

Did the Board articulate their expectations for you?

No, not really. The Board has put tremendous trust in me, with no particular, measurable goals or objectives. I have consulted with Kent and Francia a lot and while I did plan this coming season, I floated two drafts of it before them first. When Kent saw the first, believe it or not, he said, “Too much Balanchine!” When they saw the second draft, they said, “That’s it!”

What about the issue of the size of the Company?

I think that two productions a year that require 65 dancers is fine but the rest of the time, smaller is good. 50 may be optimal and 90 is too many. I don’t think I could have a personal, working relationship with that many.

What are some personal tidbit you’d like to pass along? I’ve read that your children take ballet. Is this still going to be true here?

My wife is very organized and has unpacked and put everything away already. I’m still unpacking my office! Our children all dance and wanted to on their own. Our youngest daughter will be taking classes at the Bellevue location in the class that’s for her age group; 4-5. The two boys took ballet in Stamford, Connecticut and plan to continue.

I’m not too much of a reader and don’t get to read much. I read mostly while I travel and in fact, the last complete book I read was while I was on my way to St. Petersburg last year (when Francia was there) and it was Robert Garis’ Following Balanchine.

We were lucky to find a large house on Capitol Hill, so my commute is only a few minutes. The former owners, who are in their 70s, took an hour and half to show us all of the details of the house and then asked about the Boal name, saying that he had known someone on the East Coast with my surname. Turns out he went to school with my father at Exeter Academy in New Hampshire and at Harvard Law School. [Laughs.]

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