Fall Arts: PNB at 40

Our critic traces the evolution of an institution.

When Pacific Northwest Ballet was founded in 1972, it was pretty clear what a ballet company was. The art form dates to the 16th century, and although different choreographers rang changes on its basic vocabulary, these were mostly variations on a theme. Seattle audiences had seen performances by touring ensembles (as well by our amateur and student groups), so the expectation was that a new professional company would essentially offer more of the same.

But just as the Seattle arts community took the momentum unlocked by the 1962 World's Fair and ran with it, the dance world was on the verge of major changes. The dance boom of the 1970s was about to reconfigure our definitions of what dance could be—and who could be doing it. Performances mixed styles and genres with abandon, cross-pollinating in ways that had been unheard of before; and ballet, a dance form that had carried its aristocratic roots close to its heart, was swept along in the spirit of change. PNB may have launched from a clearly defined world, but it has morphed along with its environment.

Part of that evolution had to do with its leadership, which didn't gel until 1977, when the board convinced Kent Stowell and Francia Russell to leave Europe and run a very young dance company. The choice was pivotal. While Stowell and Russell had great credentials, dancing for New York City Ballet and later directing the Frankfurt Ballet, it was their determination to create an independent ensemble, not a junior version of NYCB, that put PNB on the right track. (Soon after, the company took its present name, having started as the Pacific Northwest Dance Association.)

Stowell and Russell programmed works from the heart of classical ballet and their own neoclassical heritage, but they also presented dances far outside the canon—hybrids of ballet and modern, contemporary works from Europe, and a string of commissions from across the spectrum. They built an adventurous repertory and nurtured a larger, more diverse group of dancers.

When Peter Boal assumed company leadership in 2005, the changes were more in degree than in kind. Taking a sort of Olympian point of view ("Further, faster, higher"), he added an even wider variety of works to PNB's repertory, initially increased the number of performances, and sent dancers on tour—to New York and beyond. (And significantly, the New York press now comes to Seattle for a major opening like 2011's Giselle or Twyla Tharp's premieres for the company.) Boal's choices as director here seem guided by earlier side projects, commissioning and dancing in new contemporary works—experiences even more influential than his time at NYCB. Some of the most radical dances he's brought, like Marco Goecke's Mopey (premiered in 2005, seen last year) and William Forsythe's One Flat Thing, reproduced (premiered in 2008) reflect that adventurous spirit.

All of which makes the coming highlights of PNB's 40th-anniversary season seem like pictures in a family album: You can see the resemblances between child and adult, but also recognize the changes. Works like Swan Lake (next April), coming from the deep history of ballet, are programmed next to hybrids from Twyla Tharp and Ulysses Dove; a pair of neoclassical ballets by George Balanchine; and a number of new commissions—including two (by Mark Morris in November and Christopher Wheeldon in May) that promise to be significant additions to the art form. The season opens this Friday with Stowell's Cinderella—a tribute to both Russell and him—and, after the inevitable holiday Nutcracker, returns the popular Jean-Christophe Maillot Romeo and Juliet (also to be performed in New York next February).

Probably the most extraordinary thing about this year is that it's not that unusual for the company. While the original founders had high hopes, it's not clear that even the most ambitious and imaginative of them could've predicted the institution that Pacific Northwest Ballet has become. And from my seat, over three decades, I've seen the company grow in depth, skill, and daring. During the '80s, in a summer series at the old Seattle Rep, I remember watching dancers attack Balanchine's Allegro Brilliante like it was the biggest challenge they'd ever faced. At last June's season finale, a new generation tackled David Dawson's fiendishly tricky A Million Kisses to My Skin as though born to the task. In a constantly evolving dance world, PNB has found itself on the cutting edge of change, working in the upper-left-hand corner of the map.

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