Pacific Northwest Ballet began its 30th year, its first season under Peter Boal, with grand plans, lofty anticipations. As usual, the Seattle audience paid no attention to plans or projects and waited to be told by someone else that it was safe to take the plunge. But the annual round of Nutcracker sold better than expected, and by the third subscription program— February's four-premiere "Valentine" program, word was out: PNB was the place to be. Ticket sales for that show nearly tripled the company's goal.
What had changed? "Many things," says PNB Executive Director D. David Brown, "but most of them are hard to express. They don't have clear, tangible outlines." I understand his caution; Brown's primary concern upon Boal's accession to the artistic directorship was that of continuity: "No matter how carefully you plan and prepare, a change of artistic directorship always presents uncertainties and risks. At Boston Ballet, I worked under three ADs, so I was prepared." And in the event? "Everything has gone better than I possibly could have hoped."
Boal sums up the experience of his first year on the job in almost identical terms. "I thought I was prepared for most of the problems which might come up. But most of the ones I anticipated never materialized, and those that did were never the ones I expected. I'm very pleased to be over the finish line, but all in all, this has been one of the most satisfying years in my life."
Good answers both, but they beg the question: What changed? Because something has, markedly. One feels it entering McCaw Hall for a program, feels it waiting in line for tickets, feels it in oneself: a feeling of anticipation, even excitement, about what one's about to see. There have long been fine dancers, good dances, and satisfying programs at PNB. Maybe the best way to sum up the difference this year is that the steak, always wholesome and well prepared, regained its sizzle. And from the first bite, one realized that wasn't all. The steak was juicy, strong flavored, and almost daringly rare.
PNB has never shunned new works, but it's never put such an emphasis on the new before. In the 8 Encores celebration that concluded the season last Sunday, six of the eight featured pieces were new to the company this year, and five of those were on the very verge of what one expects to see on a ballet program. Also striking is the number of new dancers in featured roles—not always new to the company, but newly in the spotlight—corps dancers like Jordan Pacitti, Lesley Rausch, Kari Brunson, Lindsi Dec, and James Moore.
Something else is new, so subtle I hesitate to mention it. PNB has always been a well-schooled company, working in a consistent style. Now, that consistency is somehow enlivened. The precision is suffused with a fluid, expansive sureness of attack and follow-through, of musicality, in fact. And the solidity and sureness extend to pieces that aren't strictly ballet at all: Marco Goecke's frazzled Mopey, Dominique Dumais' Time and Other Matter. Works like these are modern—no, hypermodern—dance, but performed with an edge and clarity that only thoroughbred ballet dancers can bring.
The range of new material offered for next season, even excluding works performed by guest companies during next April's three-week "Celebrate Seattle" festival, is even broader than this year's. They range from Balanchine's notoriously neurasthenic psychoballet La Sonnambula to Molissa Fenley's one-dancer marathon to Stravinsky's Rite of Spring to Mark Morris' long-delayed company debut with Pacific (made for San Francisco Ballet), plus new rep items by already established favorites like Nacho Duato, Twyla Tharp, and Ulysses Dove.
I find myself out of space without even beginning to touch on the good nonchoreographic news of PNB's year: the booming box office in single tickets, the payoff of construction on the company's Bellevue school, a foreseeable solution to the long-drawn-out dispute over paying cost overruns on the construction of McCaw Hall. But another time for that. For now, the word is: Things are looking up—way up.