No Small Potato - Thomas Talks Ballet:
An interview with Pacific Northwest Ballet soloist Jodie Thomas
by Dean Speer with Francis Timlin
We met with the lively Pacific Northwest Ballet soloist Jodie Thomas in mid-August to discuss her career and training. This is a summary of that chat.
I thought we’d begin with the question that we ask nearly everyone: Where are you from and how did you get started in ballet?
I’m from a very small town in the panhandle of Northern Idaho; St. Maries. It is south of Coeur d’Alene and is so small, there isn’t even a movie theatre!
But there was a dance school – Janene’s School of Dance, which I don’t think is there anymore, that offered tap, jazz, gymnastics, and ballet. I recall I started taking classes there around age six or seven. As I became more serious about ballet, I began taking classes from American Festival Ballet (now defunct) in Moscow, Idaho.
Prior to coming to PNB as a student, I studied in Spokane with Lynne Williams-Mullins, who had been the teacher of Patricia Barker in the Tri-Cities. After taking from Lynne, I made the decision to move to Spokane so I could study with her, which I did for two years. I first came to PNB as a Summer Course student when I was 14 and was placed into Level 6. This was when PNB was still at its previous home at the Good Shepherd Center. Eventually, I stayed for the year-round program and then Francia [Russell, former Artistic Director of PNB and PNB School] offered me an apprentice contract with the Company. She said that at first she didn’t think I’d be the one, but was pleased to be able to offer me the position.
Lynne is also known as a pedagogue, so I’d like to focus a bit on her teaching – what was her training of you like and what do you feel you particularly got out of her classes?
Lynne taught me to become a serious student of ballet – that it wasn’t just a “side show.” She taught me to make ballet the center of life. I spent every day and night – many hours – at the studio. I didn’t do the usual high school “scene.” Ballet requires rigor and a level of commitment if you want to be a professional. An intensive schedule is the norm.
And describe what being a student in the Professional Division here at PNB was like.
The PNB School program was and is very intense. I was also very fortunate to have some of the best teachers that have come through the studio doors: Nina Daniliova, Truman Finney, Jonathan Watts, Flemming Halby, Victoria Pulkkinen were all fabulous. The schedule was busy: An initial technique class of that was anywhere from an hour and a half to an hour and three-quarters, followed by an hour pointe class, followed by two hours of rehearsal with the Company, another technique class, and more rehearsal! It really prepared me well for the life we have of dancing six or more hours on a daily basis.
How did the School prepare you technically but also as an artist?
Technique was taught, our bodies trained, and our muscles formed. Teachers like Finney taught musicality, like the way at they do at SAB. He wanted us to be musical and have the precise footwork of the Balanchine style. We were taught through technique and musicality how to become an artist in the American way. I like the Balanchine repertory.
What have been some of your career highlights?
I began as an Apprentice during the 1995-96 season and was in the corps de ballet from 1996 through 2000 and was promoted to soloist rank in 2000. I’m shorter than what was then the company norm – too short to be first cast Barocco corps or first cast Divertissement corps in “Midsummer.”
As I mentioned, I enjoy the Balanchine repertoire and so some of the highlights for me have been in this area – the “Tchaikovsky Pas de Deux” for example, where the music and steps are just amazing; “Concerto Barocco” which is some of my favorite music and in which I got to do the First Violin part; and probably on that list should be my first performance of the “Midsummer” Divertissement pas de deux. Last season I had my first opportunity to be in a Forsythe work, dancing in his “Artifact II” with Jonathan Porretta. Forsythe is a whole other genre of movement and you really have to work out everything mutually with your partner – and really trust your partner. I’m very proud of the work we did in that piece. Jonathan and I have danced together often – “Nutcracker” for example, in addition to “Artifact.” He is very present in the moment and he really elevates your performance to a high level.
I enjoyed “Rubies” and it was a big challenge. I was okay with it by the last show, but it’s still a work in progress. I did the “McBride” role; the pas de deux.
Who are some of the choreographers that you’ve enjoyed working with and can you relay some working stories?
I really enjoyed working with Kevin O’Day (I was first cast in “Sound Around Dance”) – he has a very specific use of legs and body. Victor Quijada is making a new work for this season. His background is in hip-hop and break-dance and he moves totally different than how ballet dancers move. He’s trying to teach us how to feel the movement his way, so we’re rehearsing in socks. It’s been very positive, energetic, challenging, physical, and rewarding!
What has been your legacy from Kent [Stowell, along with Francia Russell, Artistic Director of PNB] and Francia?
I started with them when I was 16 and they were my mentors in terms of ballet and of my career – they got me where I am now! Certainly Francia’s Balanchine stagings and coaching have been most memorable and valuable and Kent’s work in the studio has helped shaped me. It was an intense, working relationship – you had to be at your best, as they knew what they wanted – and through this, I found a strong drive to be the best. I believe it’s good to instill this from a young age.
And working with Peter [Boal, current Artistic Director of PNB]?
Peter is a “next generation” director – he’s more in tune with what it’s like to be a dancer, having just retired himself from performing. It’s a different feeling – maybe a little more relaxed atmosphere – more up to people to find “it” in themselves. He may not be there to hold your hand the same way – this requires more motivation, self-discipline and control to attain the same results.
Francia is a major stager for the Balanchine Trust and Kent was and is a choreographer. Peter is neither of these, so [he] relies on other people to fill those roles. It’s interesting to work with different stagers. I enjoyed Susan Pilare who had high energy and was very demanding – she had the company doing Mr. Balanchine’s “Symphony in Three Movements” with the right dynamics and intensity. Shelley Washington, who staged Tharp’s “Nine Sinatra Songs,” was also a good experience. For “Artifact,” Paul Gibson [a former PNB Principal and now Ballet Master] and Louise Nadeau [a PNB Principal Dancer] helped stage this and it was a good experience learning from them too.
What are some of the things that you’re looking forward to doing this coming season?
Paul is making a new work, part of which is debuting at our Gala [September 2006]. I’m really excited about the Robbins “Fancy Free” which Judith Fugate is staging; I get to be the Girl with the Red Purse.
There’s lots of dancing this year, with lots of different styles – a really “on your toes” and “shifting gears” sort of season. The Festival is a new idea and it will be exciting to have other companies around.
Many of our readers would enjoy hearing what kind of pointe shoes you wear and what kind of special care and “feeding” do you do to them?
I wear Freed and my maker is Castle, who is retiring. I’m trying to find a new maker! I’m trying D and Z right now. I wear a size 4XX. I flatten out the box and like extra hardness in the tips and shank. I bend the shank at the point where the arch bends. I then sew on the ribbons and hope it’s a good pair!
Have you tried your hand at teaching?
I have tried teaching a very few times, and am not sure it’s my thing. Maybe administration of some kind or marketing or management might be better suited to my talents. Melanie Skinner and Marisa Albee have tried teaching, like it, and are making a success of it.
What are your interests outside of ballet? Any hobbies?
I’m interested in interior design and am always looking for ways to renovate/redecorate my apartment. One of our former PNB corps dancers, Kim Smith, has made this field a second career and I am going shopping with her right after this interview! [Laughs.] It’s been great maintaining friendships with many of the former PNB dancers, such as Melanie Skinner, who is teaching now and on our faculty, and the same with Marisa Albee.
What might you say to a young, aspiring dancer?
It’s against all odds that I’ve become a soloist here at PNB. I believe with hard work, dedication, and determination and desire, you can go far. Find your right place, where people believe in you and will help you.
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