(An unedited version of my recent Seattle Times story, because I felt like a lot of good schtuff got cut)
Click here for the published piece and read on for the whole enchilada...
Pacific Northwest Ballet Celebrates 50 Years Onstage
Half a century ago, a small resident dance company called the Pacific Northwest Dance Association formed under the umbrella of Seattle Opera and marked a turning point in Seattle’s live theater scene.
By the end of 1978, the company now known as Pacific Northwest Ballet was under the leadership of former New York City Ballet stars Francia Russell and Kent Stowell. On September 23rd of this year, Pacific Northwest Ballet will celebrate its 50th anniversary season.
Pacific Northwest Ballet continues to evolve into a larger and more diverse institution. With a performing company of forty dancers, a school for children and pre-professionals, and several programs for community and professional development, PNB is moving forward into the post-pandemic era with a new approach to leadership. Beginning with the 50th anniversary season, former principal dancer Kiyon Ross will bring 22 years of experience at PNB to his new position as associate artistic director.
“I feel like I’ve had the longest apprenticeship to become the associate artistic director!” says Ross.
Ross’s Pacific Northwest Ballet career began at the PNB School in 2000, quickly followed by a company contract in 2001. He obtained a BA in nonprofit leadership from Seattle University through PNB’s “Second Stage,” the dancer and donor-funded program allowing artists to earn a college degree during their performing careers.
After his 2015 retirement from the stage, Ross became a faculty member at the school and manager of PNB’s pre-professional program Next Step. In his new role, Ross will assist artistic director Peter Boal with the artistic management of the company, rehearsals, and communicating with the numerous departments under the PNB roof. The magnitude of the new role, especially in the wake of the global pandemic and Black Lives Matter-era discussions for increased diversity in the arts, does not dull Ross’s joy with his new leadership position but pushes him toward a greater purpose.
“There is space for a collective feeling of joy in all of this work,” he says. “We can move through all of this together. Art is meant to pull us out of our day-to-day [lives] and give us an experience of something transcendent–especially after what we have just experienced as a society.”
Ross is referring to the 2020 pandemic lockdown, which abruptly shut the doors of theaters around the world. Many did not reopen. With a staff of 350 full time employees and 200 part-time staff members, Boal and PNB executive director Ellen Walker suddenly had the well-being of an entire organization at their feet. Additionally, the resulting social upheaval around economic inequality and the Black Lives Matter Movement pushed Pacific Northwest Ballet to face inequities within its own ranks.
As Pacific Northwest Ballet reopened in 2021, signs of cultural evolution began to emerge. Season repertoires included more contemporary choreography, including previously unseen works from resident choreographer Alejandro Cerrudo. A few more dancers of color were added to the company roster. While traditional story ballets like George Balanchine’s “The Nutcracker'' and Kent Stowell’s “Swan Lake” remain foundational pieces of PNB”s repertoire, steps were taken toward a more inclusive approach to the best-selling ballets. Dances in Balanchine’s “Nutcracker” were altered to remove racist imagery (note! This happened in 2019). In “The Nutcracker,” “Swan Lake,” and other ballets, roles previously reserved for female dancers were performed en pointe by dancers born into male bodies.
Artistic director Peter Boal agrees that the march toward gender and racial equality in the arts is a controversial subject but trusts that PNB’s core principles are leading the way.
“Keep doing what you know is right every day,” says Boal, “with ears open, listening, learning, willing to change.”
As PNB enters its 50th year, many of its artists and audience members notice an increase in the company’s contemporary repertoire, but Boal says this distinction between ballet and contemporary dance is more nuanced.
“Everybody collects choreographers of their time,” he says, pointing to famous New York City Ballet choreographer George Balanchine’s works as fairly experimental for their time.
“Balanchine came from the Imperial (Russian) ballet heritage,” says Boal, but explains that with Balanchine’s penchant for long-limbed dancers and the expansive New York State Theater, ballet began to change into what is seen today as traditional, but was quite novel in the middle of the 20th century.
Company soloist Jonathan Batista describes PNB’s artistic evolution as a merging of tradition and innovation.
Batista describes approaching the role of Tybalt in Jean-Christophe Maillot’s “Romeo et Juliet” as “walking into a new apartment you hadn’t yet moved into, where you can write your own story.” This unique opportunity to grow his creativity within a classical story role opened new doors, said Batista, both as an artist and as a person.
Additionally, Batista’s first season with PNB brought the surprise of performing the lead role of Prince Siegfried in Kent Stowell’s “Swan Lake” with principal dancer Angelica Generosa.
“I think our ‘Swan Lake’ was important to the community because having a black man and a Filipina ballerina carried weight,” he said. “Ballet has a big opportunity to showcase cultures, a special part of American ballet culture. I’m proud of that.”
Batista explains that this wasn’t always the case throughout his career with ballet companies in Brazil, Canada, and the U.K. Many European companies are funded by the governments, he explains. “Since American ballet isn’t funded by the government, leaders have to be creative and find new ways to move people, find new works that can connect people with different art forms and kinds of dance.”
State-funded ballet companies, such as the Frankfurt Ballet which PNB co-founders Kent Stowell and Francia Russell directed before coming to Seattle, often had extensive material resources but were not as free to produce new, more experimental art as the directors may have wanted.
“In Frankfurt there was a scenery shop, costume shop, they even had a cobbler in there for shoes,” says Stowell. “In the New York City Ballet you never saw any of that stuff, it was done out of house and in New Jersey or something!”
Francia Russell explains how their institutional experience at Frankfurt Ballet melded with the artistic experience with donor-funded New York City Ballet to create the unique model of the Pacific Northwest Ballet company and school.
“We wanted to create a ballet company and a school that were what we would have wanted as young students and dancers,” says Russell. “I wanted a really well thought-out syllabus and curriculum that would give the students, whether they became dancers or not, a lifelong preparation for dealing with so many things. We were the first school in this country to have a holistic program with psychologists, nutritionists, therapists, people to give counsel to students because growing up as a serious ballet student without anybody to turn to for advice is not good. That was my situation.”
That marriage of direct action with dancers’ professional and personal lives carries into the kind of art that is made at PNB, says Batista. It allows expansion into more experimental dance that may attract–or repel–audience members. Whatever the response, it is clear that audiences can connect more closely with dance that they empathize with.
Establishing this connection requires a mastery of artistic voice and technical skill. Principal dancer Elle Macy describes working with choreographer Alexei Ratmansky, the American Ballet Theater artist in residence commissioned by PNB to create a new work on the PNB dancers for the 50th season opener, as a challenging mix of both. “He’s very classical,” Macy says of Ratmansky, “he wants to see the precision.”
“Ratmansky wants you to do these specific steps, to challenge us a little outside of our comfort zones,” says Macy. “It’s really different from some choreographers who come in to really make a ballet around the dancers they’re presented with.”
Macy’s experience working with outside choreographers spans both scenarios, originating roles in works from Twyla Tharp, Alejandro Cerrudo, and Jessica Lang, and others. “Having both of those [scenarios] is what creates growth in our careers and in the art form,” she says. “It’s good to have the challenge, but it’s also nice to be embraced.”
In addition to Ratmansky’s premier, yet untitled, and Kent Stowell’s 1993 “Carmina Burana,” the season-opening rep includes George Balanchine’s “Allegro Brilliante,” which was first performed by PNB in 1977.
Asked if they imagined that Pacific Northwest Ballet would grow to its current size when they came to Seattle, Francia Russell laughs. “Yes, we did!” she said, “That’s why we came here!”
“You know,” says Stowell,” if you don’t start off with great expectations, you don’t get them.”