Q&A: PNB's Peter Boal

Last month, Peter Boal paused briefly between meetings, consultations, and classes to talk about his hopes and plans for Pacific Northwest Ballet. He has been thinking a lot about the future, and not just the next year or two. "Last week, I sat down and tried to organize my thoughts by imagining that I was about to retire from this job in 2025 and reporting to the board about what we'd accomplished in the 20 years. It ran eight pages and listed about 100 ideas." Like? "I don't want to go into details. But if just three of them actually get accomplished . . . " What about the near term? "Well . . . I want lots of new choreography. I'm not going to do it myself because I want it to be good choreography. I want to see us perform more in Seattle. Not en masse, but in small groups; not at McCaw Hall, but elsewhere in town, maybe in collaboration with other institutions. I want everybody to see the company, invite everybody to come to the ballet; I want them to know it can be relevant to their lives. I want to reach out to the entire dance community. Four times this year, before particular rep programs, we're going to be inviting dance students to come to watch a class at Phelps Center: We're calling it '$5 Fridays.'" Is the idea to recruit students? "We don't need to recruit locally. Our school is absolutely among the top three in the country. I think this school could compete for students internationally, if we had some way of handling them. I was at New York City Ballet in 1991 when the company opened its own dormitory for students living far from home, and it absolutely transformed the school. You want to start professional-level training no later than age 16. Without a properly equipped and managed dormitory, we can't even think about recruiting students until they're 18." The same day I talked to Boal, I was given an opportunity to watch him teach. The occasion was an advanced men's class introducing summer students to a "variation"—a solo—from Theme and Variations, made by Balanchine in 1947 to the music of Tchaikovsky. It's brief, less than a minute long, but step for step one of the most demanding exhibitions of pure classical dancing in the male ballet repertory. The dancers, most of them in their late teens, were understandably a little keyed up. Boal set to work calming them down. "Hi, guys. So, what are we working on today? What company was it made for? Who danced it originally? What's the set like? . . . Different companies use different sets, but you always have to be careful because there are so many people onstage that you essentially can only move one panel in depth." He points to one boy. "You start. Walk on very slowly. Turn center to face the audience. Walk downstage, one foot in front of the other. Acknowledge the courtiers on your right—no, your courtiers are too far upstage. . . . That's better. . . . Now the courtiers on your left. Now you present to the audience . . . and . . . " For the next hour and a half, Boal demonstrates the steps of the variation four bars or so at a time. Groups of three or four students more or less successfully imitate his moves. When they've grasped the routine, he moves to the next four bars, puts them together with the first four, then on to the third set, and so on. It's a little like an actor learning lines, but without the help of a printed text. The student has to observe the teacher's movement, somehow translate what he sees into messages to his own muscles, which then play back the sequence. At first, all you see is disjointed rote repetition. But under Boal's gentle coaching—"Good turnout on the developpé; more of an angle from breastbone to belly button, and turn out that heel. You look a little shady, looking down like that. Open your arms out; it's a signal something big is about to happen. . . . " With each repetition, the disjointed movements begin to melt into a phrase. The phrase becomes legible, meaningful, like the blurred frames of a film beginning to run together into a movie, balanced yet gathering momentum. Before the end of the class, with the help of the music, the dancers are beginning to fit the phrases to their own bodies. The dance, without losing its precision of meaning, begins to show individuality, like handwriting or a speaking voice. It is taking the first step toward becoming ballet. rdowney@seattleweekly.com

 
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