Pacific Northwest Ballet's Victoria Pulkkinen Takes Off for San Francisco
by Dean Speer and Francis Timlin
August 10, 2005 -- Phelps Center, PNB Headquarters, Seattle, Washington
We chatted with Pacific Northwest Ballet’s Curriculum Supervisor, Victoria Pulkkinen, during the last week of PNB’s Summer School and shortly before she moved to San Francisco. Pulkkinen reflects on her career as a dancer and her lengthy and influential one as a teacher and pedagogue.
How did you get started dancing?
Both of my parents were Russian émigrés who felt that culture was important and as I was the last girl, I took everything – tap, acrobatics – starting at the tender age of three. I began serious ballet training at 14 in Ottawa with a teacher who had been in the Ballets Russes.
I went to Banff’s summer ballet school and met Arnold Spohr there. I then went to the Royal Winnipeg Ballet School and performed with the company before working with John Neumeier at Hamburg Ballet from 1972 to 1976, and then went back to Royal Winnipeg Ballet for two years.
I came to Seattle and worked with First Chamber Dance Company and helped Perry Brunson for a year, until that group folded in 1979. I then joined PNB and danced in the Company for two years. Francia [Russell] asked me to begin teaching – she saw that in me – and I began with the summer course of 1984 and have stayed through this one [summer of 2005]. My entire teaching history has been at PNB.
I both needed and wanted to change my entire technique when I joined the Company – and this helped me with teaching. I wanted to learn both the technical and the “dancey” or “moving” aspects of the work. The pointe work of the Company, even then, amazed me and I wanted to do that, that way – that kind of precision and control. I’m glad that Peter [Boal] is someone who will continue the tradition and not change styles.
I feel like I’ve come full circle – students who were PDs (Professional Division students) whom I started in ‘84 are now retiring from performing and starting to teach in the School.
What’s on the horizon for you?
There are lots of guest teaching opportunities in San Francisco as well as in Europe. I’ll actually have the time and freedom to accept some of these offers. Also Ben Houk and his wife Lauri-Michelle Rhode [former PNB dancers] have asked me to come to their ballet school in San Diego to help with a pointe syllabus.
I know you studied with the great Vera Volkova. Can you please tell us a story?
I was lucky that Spohr brought her to guest teach in Banff. She used to say, “I can give you technique; but the passion for dance is up to you!” David Moroni came from my ballet school in Ottawa and he had, even then, a great presence and became an excellent teacher.
John Neumeier’s “The Nutcracker” is one of my favorite versions. Tell us a little about him and what he was like to work with.
He was wonderful. Probably only about in his early to mid-40s and new to Hamburg, as I was. His “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” ballet and the works of his Mahler period are all good pieces and it was exciting working with him on them.
I was fortunate to work with John and here so much with Francia. My first Balanchine ballet was here, where I did the first theme in “The Four Temperaments,” in which I was partnered by Dennis Spaight. “Serenade” certainly influenced me. The majority of rehearsals were with either Francia or with Kent – you couldn’t get away with anything [laughs]!
Rico, my husband, likes to tell me that he first fell in love with me during my first arabesque in 4Ts [Ed: George Balanchine’s “The Four Temperaments.”] My arabesque was rather good [laughs again]!
What are PNB’s audition tours like? I’m sure you’ve gone on many...
We search for talent but not necessarily the perfect body, but someone who really has the passion for dance and who will really get something out of a five-week intensive. PNB does not recruit or bargain against other schools’ offers. It’s more like our Dance Chance screenings. We really want students who want to be here. Of course, it’s lucky to be able to have both talent and the desire.
I’m so pleased to note that Patricia Barker was one of these talented persons and now in her career has gone beyond her technique -- it’s awesome to see.
You mentioned the word syllabus. What’s the PNB syllabus and what does this mean?
A syllabus -- at least a good one -- is always evolving with new ideas, and we have to be open to that. It also depends on the students themselves. We always try to suit the class to the student, and every class has a bottom-middle-top to it. We try to teach to the top, but bring the rest along. Our faculty gets together regularly to discuss the syllabus and shape and change it.
One of my most interesting and challenging teaching assignments of late was when I took over the Dance Chance Boys’ Class -- it’s a totally different mentality. They love competition and, I have to note, are susceptible to bribery (aka incentives!).
You’ve been a Character Artist with the Company. What’s that been like?
I started with Kent’s “The Tragedy of Romeo and Juliet” in 1987, and that’s an interesting story as I remember going through the halls of our previous location thinking, “I wonder who they have in mind for The Nurse?” Francia asked me if I would consider doing it, and I have had fun with these parts ever since. It’s been fun to be in company rehearsals. I found myself reverting right back to a “dancer mentality.” Complaining! [Laughs.]
I used to find it hard to go backstage after I stopped dancing, as I felt out of place, and this really helped with that. I also started teaching Company Class about this time.
What’s it like giving Company Class? I’m sure there must be some differences in how you approach this...
There are huge differences between teaching students and company members. Different rehearsal schedules have to be accommodated -- some might be rehearsing all day and some maybe for only one hour in any particular day. Also you’ve got all ranks in the same room. And certainly Company Class is “for them.” You can’t treat them like kids.
I believe that the dancers who take class honestly and truthfully are the ones who make good dancers.
This week is a little bittersweet for me, as I’ll be teaching my last Company Class on Thursday (tomorrow).
Tell us a little bit about your hobbies and your stepdaughter.
Lia is the associate director of marketing here at PNB. She’s getting married in December, so I’ll be back for that! She tried Level 1 ballet for a year, but it wasn’t her thing.I like to read and watch movies. I love to read cooking books, but don’t cook! [Laughs.]
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