Pacific Northwest Ballet Principal Dancer Miranda Weese
Moments With Miranda
by Dean Speer and Francis Timlin
Published April 2008
[We met in mid-October with Ms. Weese, who had recently joined Pacific Noorthwest Ballet as one of its newest principal dancers, to discuss her career and move to Seattle from New York City Ballet. This is an edited version of that conversation.]
Let's start with the question that I most often ask: How did you get started in ballet? Tell us a little bit about your background.
I started dancing at the age of five at the recommendation of our family's doctor - as I was severely knock-kneed - who suggested that I try dance as a means to strengthen my legs. I began in combination classes - and I didn't like it! Two years later, our studio got a new teacher who started ballet, and I loved it.
I then was fortunate to have studied with Kathryn Joyce - who was a wonderful teacher - and who sent me on for more study, telling us that she had taken me as far as she could. She had already had one other student go on to NYCB.
Then I moved on to work with Shery Gilbert, who was a new teacher - I was essentially her first student. My father helped build her studio and until that was completed, we'd have class in our garage! I stayed with her until I went to School of American Ballet permanently when I was 15. I had done two summer sessions at SAB and they offered to have me stay as a regular student year-round after that first one, but both my parents and I felt I need another year at home.
What was your SAB experience like?
SAB was at first overwhelming, which was typical for people coming from small ballet schools. We were among maybe 40 others in a class, of all similar build, talent, and singular drive, so it was going from being a big fish in a small pond to a small fish in a big pond.
Who were some of your favorite teachers and what did you get from their classes?
My favorite was Stanley Williams. He had a very different style - always very calm, very focused - yet you could hear a pin drop in his classes as everyone was so intent. He didn't make you feel bad if you weren't getting it right away and he made you want to do it better. He was very inspiring. Whether he was teaching men or women, his style and approach were the same.
Suki [Schorer] played a pivotal role in my development. I was shy, often in the back and Suki told me to get myself to the front and center - so I did! It's important to get noticed. It can be hard but good. You have to push yourself to get up there and get noticed. I took this same philosophy into the company. I was painfully shy and introverted as a young student until I hit the stage. It took me a long time to appreciate the work process as much as the performance process.
I get more nervous before performing than I used to, primarily due to coming through some injuries. Nevertheless, there is nothing like performing.
I was fortunate with one of my first big roles at NYCB. Susan Hendl coached and worked with me for six weeks - every day - prior to my début in "Symphony in C," first movement. We developed a really good working relationship and I've always felt the best working with her. For "Swan Lake," I worked with both Suzi and Peter Boal, who was my partner. We worked on building our characters and tried to take this as far as possible - into the essence of the art form. I felt artistically compatible with Peter.
Speaking of "Swan Lake," I recall seeing the national broadcast on PBS - watching the interview hosted by Beverly Sills with Darci Kistler and Mr. Martins, and then not seeing her a while later doing the part but there you were! What happened?
I was told at 7:00 p.m. that I would be dancing at 8:00 p.m. for the live broadcast performance of "Swan Lake." [Darci had a back problem.] It was very nerve wracking. I was the cover for the part, so I was already backstage, with my hair done, but never thought I'd actually be dancing. Nor had I worked together with Damien Woetzel. He was very enthusiastic and helpful, encouraging me to "just go for it!" He also coached me, sotto voce, in some places to ensure I'd be going the right way. [Laughs.]
I had 15 minutes of stage time to work out some things that were different for camera angles. Suzi told me from the wings, "Weese, breathe and everything will be fine!" I'm happy it turned out as well as it did.
Tell us about your move and transition to PNB.
The last few years at NYCB were characterized for me by an overwhelming workload. It's not a balanced schedule, with everything seeming to be needing to be done at once. Every day we had rehearsals until 6:00 p.m., including those that had performance nights with a show at 8:00. This didn't match up for me artistically, and I felt I needed a change.
I was pleased that Peter got his new position at PNB, and approached him about the possibility of my coming out here. He prudently suggested that I give it - and him - some time. He was right. I guested once and visited a few times - and fell in love with the company and the schedule and pacing. Three weeks to prepare a repertory program; this felt like a luxury to me! And I liked the idea of continuing to be able to work with Peter.
It's been just right for me. I got to work immediately. The six-hour rehearsal days here feel like we're truly rehearsing: At NYCB it's three or four things each day but here it's only one or two but intensively. Last year, I got injured too soon, re-aggravated one rep later and had to drop out of some performances, but now I'm fine and all seems well.
Another reason for me to come out here was the opportunity to do new things. I had been cast in virtually the same roles in the same ballets for years. I had never done "Agon," for example, and now I'm getting to do the pas de trois.
Did you get to work with Francia [Russell]?
I worked with her on my variation when she was here earlier. It's been a really positive experience working with her on "Ballet Imperial" which is a ballet I did do a lot. I was a little uncertain of how our versions might mesh, but Francia was really nice and supportive. I've found the dancers here are quite individual - that individuality is encouraged. This is great as it allows audiences to enjoy two "different" casts. My colleagues are hard workers and good performers.
Performing brings up how you approach your dancing artistically. Can we get "into your head" a little bit and have you describe for us your process?
After 11 years of principal work at NYCB, I bring a different sense of musicality. I feel there is more freedom here - and this is allowing me to bring a "newness" into my dancing that I didn't have before. It is, perhaps, a second chance for me personally.
It's always about the music first and that is my first inspiration. I respond to all different kinds of beautiful music. I like an atmosphere that makes it more than just steps, allowing me to be more creative, have more fun and to escape into what I'm doing.
In the end, it's a live show - the elements of spontaneity and unpredictability make it great. If it becomes routine, then it's time to hang it up!
How do you then approach dances that are set to sound scores or to music that's really "out there? "
I was actually in one of Jerome Robbins' pieces that has no music at all ["Moves"]. You have to tap into a collective rhythm. My approach is that I believe that dance is music in motion and that is what motivates my dancing.
I never tire of the Balanchine repertory - works like "Serenade" or "Theme and Variations." He adds texture and enhances the music. There is always something to discover.
What kind of pointe shoes do you use and what's your program for the "care and feeding" of them?
I wear Freed and my maker is Maltese Cross. I dislike sewing shoes, so try to make them last as long as possible. I prefer softer shoes which make less noise. I don't go through a lot of shoes - I use glue inside to keep reviving them. There is a Company budget for shoes and, even so, I try to keep in mind - as I've done ever since my mother would buy my shoes - just how expensive they are!
How have you found the move to the "Big City" - Seattle?
Seattle is big enough but not as overwhelming as New York. It has an incredible mix of people, which nicely suits my own personality. I'd like more time to explore. Orca whales are among my favorites and would like to get up to the San Juans for some whale watching sometime.
In conclusion, what advice might you have for an aspirant dancer?
It's a short career - keep asking yourself what you want to do. Don't be afraid to change or grow. Explore. Get the most of it that you can!