17: Noelani                                        

 

. . . Noelani Pantastico was born on the Hawaiian island of Oahu. After her father died of cancer, her mother remarried. The new family, including her three brothers, moved to New Hampshire when Noe was four. At six, she was attending a dance school in Portsmouth, but she doesn’t remember precisely why. “I heard a story once from my mother that someone saw me at a pizza shop or something in New Hampshire and said ‘You need to put her in ballet.’ I think my mom just put me in it because I had a lot of energy.” And it wasn’t really ballet. “It was only like creative movement.”

Her stepfather was in the military, and when the family moved to Colorado Springs a couple of years later, she stopped dancing. Then it was back to New Hampshire “to the same exact house,” and Noelani returned to dance at the age of nine. This time she began technical ballet training, leading to a starring role: “When I think about my childhood memories, I will never forget doing Clara in The Nutcracker in New Hampshire. But at that point it was not like something that I was obsessed about.”

A couple of years after that, her father retired and pulled up stakes again. “Before the move, the teacher that I had in New Hampshire said to my mother, ‘You really need to have her keep dancing. . . . She actually has talent.’ I don’t think they had said anything to my mother prior to that about me.”

They were moving to south-central Pennsylvania, settling into the borough of Carlisle, population 17,970, a long commute from where her father would be working. There was one major reason: A school that her teacher in New Hampshire had talked about, Central Pennsylvania Youth Ballet.

In Carlisle and in the Land of Ballet, everybody knows about CPYB. Elsewhere, it’s a source of surprise to discover one of America’s most productive ballet schools in a community whose nearest big city is Harrisburg, the state capital with a population of just 50,000. And like many other ballet schools, this one is a tribute to the dedication of one person who inevitably has become the subject of something of a personality cult—a petite, now elderly but still energetic woman named Marcia Dale Weary, whom everybody refers to as “Mar-see-a”.

“She’s an extraordinary woman,” says Darla Hoover, a former CPYB student and New York City Ballet dancer who became one of Noe’s teachers and CPYB’s associate director. “Extraordinary. People who don’t know her but know what she has done picture her as this large statuesque woman, strong, and you know, she’s tiny. She’s shy. She’s very mild-mannered—except when she’s in the classroom. When she’s teaching, she’s in her element. Then it’s very direct, and it’s very focused. She loves working with children. . . . She has an extraordinary syllabus. She’s creative. And she has a dedication to this art that’s unparalleled. But she instills a passion in her students from day one. She makes them fall in love with this, which is why it’s so easy to be driven when you’re in that school—because you’re hungry for it. And that hunger really never leaves you.”

Pantastico had no idea of the school’s repute, and neither did her mother. “My mom wasn’t really into the whole idea of ballet,” Noe recalls. “So I don’t even know why she did it. . . . When she heard the schedule, she was like, ‘This is crazy. We’re never going to see you.’ And she almost didn’t put me in the school.” When Noe auditioned, Weary asked her mother “‘How tall is her father?’ because she was trying to get an idea of what I would be like when I was older. She said, ‘I think you really need to keep her here.’ I don’t know how she did it, but she talked my mom into it.

“When I first went to the school and just sat and watched a class, the kids there . . . people say it’s in the water. Just prodigies, left and right. I remember, knowing enough about ballet technique but not knowing enough to be able to do it, watching those classes and thinking, I want to be like that. There were girls that were three years younger than me doing amazing, amazing things, like already wearing pointe shoes. Eight-year-olds wearing pointe shoes. I had already gotten my pointe shoes, but when I joined the school they took them away from me because I wasn’t strong enough.” Closing in on her twelfth birthday, she rose to the challenge. “After a couple of months in the school, I was hooked. Once I learned basic technique and how to work, it was like my obsessive-compulsive technique thing took over, and I loved it.”

The more difficult obstacles were at home. “My siblings didn’t think it was fair. My mom was very strict about chores, and I always got to leave the house and go dance, do something that I loved.” Though the studios were a five-minute drive away, her mother sometimes refused to take her to class. “She would just decide one day, ‘You’re not going to ballet.’ And for me, that was the worst punishment ever. You could take away my allowance. You could make me only eat vegetables. You could do anything, but taking away my ballet was the worst thing that you could have done to me. I think in a sense it fueled me even more, to want it even more. It was like I was rebelling against my mother, but doing a good thing. That was a really hard thing growing up, and I didn’t understand.”

As part of her scholarship at CPYB, “I had to clean the studios once a week. They have chores there. Like you can clean the bathrooms; that was a chore. Or you vacuumed the whole place. That wasn’t hard, because I cleaned so much at home that I was a good cleaner.”

At thirteen, she almost quit. “It was too hard to fight with my mother. I would show up half an hour late for class, and the teachers would yell at me and say, ‘Why are you this late?’ It wasn’t my fault. It was because my mother didn’t want to take me.” Worse, “Any class you miss at the barre, you’d have to make up. By the time I left the school, I think I had sixty-six classes to make up.”

As Pantastico remembers it, “Marcia said, ‘Why do you want to quit?’ I told her ‘It’s just too hard. I want to try other things.’ I think I scared my mother a little bit because I think she thought I really did want to quit. But I only wanted to quit because it was too hard to battle every day whether or not I was going to be late for ballet.” And she couldn’t explain it to Weary, because “I was scared out of my mind. . . . It was really a tough, tough time. It wasn’t fun, and it was embarrassing.”

“I never beg kids to stay,” Weary says, “because I feel ballet’s too hard. It’s a very difficult career. Unless you love it, you shouldn’t do it.” But Noelani’s trials were as singular as her dancing. Her parents “wouldn’t drive. She was getting so frustrated. They’d have her baby-sit the younger ones. She’d miss rehearsals. . . . It was hard for her. It really was. Darla sometimes would have to go pick her up, I’d have to go pick her up, because the parents—it was a couple miles. Sometimes they’d just make her walk.

“I hardly ever beg kids to stay, but with Noelani, I said, ‘Honey, please. Wait until you’re sixteen and then make up your mind. You’re too young. You have great talent. This will get you out of the situation. You can go somewhere with this.’ I was crying, almost, because I was afraid she was going to quit. I couldn’t sleep at night. She stayed, thank goodness.” But Weary was used to reality being different from her hopes. “I knew she had that talent, but I didn’t know if she had whatever it took to stay with it and not give up.”

Noe did. She auditioned for the summer course at New York’s School of American Ballet, but “all along, I thought, well . . . they’re not going to like my body.” She’d been told her thighs were bulky, and “kids remember that stuff.” And “I was right. I got on the waiting list.”

But “story of my life, I was late” for her age bracket’s Washington, DC audition for PNB’s summer course. So she simply lied about her age and took the audition for the older kids. She got “a great response” from teacher Victoria Pulkkinen, who told the other kids “number fourteen has the correct timing. You have to look at number fourteen.” At which point “I knew I wanted to come here.” At the age of fourteen, she got a full scholarship.

“First time I saw my father cry,” Noe remembered of her departure from Carlisle. “My first summer was amazing. I actually got to do a little solo at the end of the summer course. . . . They picked girls to do different variations, and I got to do Don Q,” the Land of Ballet’s nickname for Don Quixote. “It was like a magical summer for me.”

In December 1994, the Harrisburg Patriot-News called her “exceptional as the Dewdrop Fairy” in CPYB’s Balanchine Nutcracker. She went back to PNB the next two summers, largely because it was the one place that took her and offered a full scholarship. “It was like fate. I didn’t need to make a decision ever. It was like, I’m going to PNB.

“But my third year, my body had changed significantly, and I did not have a good summer because I felt so self-conscious about my body. I went through puberty, and my legs didn’t look as long. I was getting hips. I think Alexandra Ansanelli, who was a principal at City Ballet and is now with the Royal Ballet, was there that summer. They were just in awe of her, and I wasn’t like the golden child anymore in the summer course. I was sort of sloughed off to the side. So I wondered, maybe they don’t like me anymore. Maybe this is not going to work.”

Pantastico spent another year in Pennsylvania, complete with a nice New York Times mention for a performance in the city, and decided to audition for PNB’s summer course one more time. “That’s where I want to be, and if they don’t take me, then that’s it. Maybe I’ll just stop dancing.” But the day before she left for the summer course audition in New York, someone at CPYB asked her if she was going to audition for PNB’s company too.

“And I thought, well, maybe I can. Maybe I just should. Sure. So I told my mom, ‘I think I should audition for the company while I’m out there.’ It’s the next day. Why not?” The mother of Carrie Imler, a former CPYB student already dancing for PNB, was still working at the school and helped Pantastico get a résumé together, complete with a “tiny wallet-sized picture.”

Noe finished the school audition and “felt really good about it.” Afterward, Francia Russell smiled at her and said hello. Noe took the opportunity to mention that she was going to take the company audition tomorrow, “just to see how she’d react. It was sort of gutsy on my part.” And Russell was “sort of shocked that I was doing it, because I was sixteen.

“The next day, I went in there, gave them my little picture and my résumé and did a cattle call audition. . . . Big names were in the audition. I was this sixteen-year-old girl in full ballet garb, like a uniform, pink tights, black leotard, pointe shoes, hair pulled back really tight. Everyone else was in their junk . . . professionals!”

Afterward, Russell asked if she had another photo. “That was the only thing I had, and it was a picture of me in Marzipan in Nutcracker, a pose. A really bad picture. I said I didn’t. She said, ‘Well, I think we want to hire you as an apprentice.’ She said, ‘I think.’ She said, ‘I’m going to talk to Kent,’ because Kent wasn’t there.” They also wanted a video. Noe didn’t have one of those either, but her teacher Darla Hoover put together one of her dancing Sugar Plum Fairy in Nutcracker with Albert Evans, a New York City Ballet principal guesting with the school.

When the mail came, “I thought, they’re going to tell me to come and join the school, and, yeah, we’ll definitely look at you in the future. I really did not expect to get in the company.” But when she opened the mail, she found an apprentice’s contract. “It was shocking for me, and it still is shocking. . . . I was the one that they hired out of a room of 100. 150, maybe.”

The Patriot-News announced the appointment in a local-girl-makes-good story:

 “When I was little, I always wanted to do this,” the North Middleton Twp. girl said. “It seems like a dream still, but it’s finally come true.”

“She deserves it,” said Marcia Dale Weary, Youth Ballet artistic director. “We are all really excited for her. I think it’s one of the best companies in the U.S.”

Mary Lou Carroll, Noelani’s mother, said her daughter made her own success. “Her first thing was her love for ballet,” Carroll said. “It’s been tough affording this, but she’s worked her way through this. She’s earned a lot of scholarships, and she’s so disciplined.”

In fact, Carroll said, with six children, household chores are a priority, and dancing sometimes had to take a back seat.

“It’s hard for her to have the regular chores like another kid, because she’s dancing every hour of the day,” she said.

 A month later, the paper reported on Pantastico’s forthcoming trip with CPYB to the Aoyama Festival in Tokyo. “I think it’s a wonderful experience for the children to see another country and how dancers in another country perform,” Weary told the reporter. “I’ve never been out of the United States. It will really be quite an undertaking for me.”

In Seattle, Pantastico quickly began to make her mark on the company. She met her future husband, Brady Hartley, in 1993; when she became an apprentice, he was finishing the school, and they started dating when she was eighteen. But he did not get into the company, and he left for Ballet Met in Columbus, Ohio and then Sacramento Ballet. “During that time, I wasn’t feeling really good here at PNB.” She wanted to dance more, and she wondered about her relationship with Francia Russell.

“There were times when it wasn’t easy and times when I don’t think she really believed in me, believed that I could do certain things. I remember one time in particular, I was doing Bluebird. It was the first time we did Sleeping Beauty here. Annette Page, who was helping set Bluebird, said, ‘You have to do this like you’re the Swan Queen, so one day your director will look at you and think that one day you could be a Swan Queen.’ Francia was right there. Francia laughed. She was like, ‘Oh, I don’t know about that.’ For me, it was very hard to hear. I don’t think she meant anything harsh by it, but it was like she doesn’t think anything of me.”

She and her boyfriend Brady realized that one way out of their long-distance relationship would be to get into a company together. “What was hard about that was that we didn’t have any money, so all we could do was send videos and send our résumé.” They had one nibble, “but it just kind of fizzled. I think Francia actually caught me making videos, because I was up in the production office and the stage manager at the time was helping me. She was printing out labels, and my name was on the computer, and Francia walked in and saw what we were doing.” Which might have been a wake-up call. “I don’t know if she got scared, or maybe it didn’t mean anything. Maybe she just saw something different in me. . . . But shortly after that, I was given more.

“Kent and Francia, I remember, at first would put me only in the matinees or the second week on Thursday. . . . They would give me those opportunities. But I would get the show that no one wanted.” And even that wasn’t easy. “Dancers have a really, really high tolerance for pain,” Pantastico told the Patriot-News in 2005. “We have to make very difficult moves look easy. Dancers have a way of hiding things very well.” Of a case of acute tendinitis a few years before, she told the reporter, “I was limping around, could barely walk. When you are a young dancer, you don’t want to lose your job. I was afraid to say anything.”

Still, Noelani blossomed in Seattle, dancing many featured roles as well as leads in Stowell’s Nutcracker and Coppélia and Balanchine’s Concerto Barocco, Theme and Variations, and Who Cares? In 2003, at age twenty-three, she was given the opening night lead in Sleeping Beauty—and her first rave review, from the Seattle Post-Intelligencer’s R. M. Campbell, who called her “a new star.”

 From the moment she entered the stage, she was poised and utterly fresh. Those qualities did not leave her at any point in the ballet, including the final act, in which she is dressed entirely in white for her wedding to Prince Désiré.

Among all of Pantastico’s virtues, her youthful vigor, while hardly remarkable given her age, was striking. It informed everything she did. She possessed a feeling of spontaneity, of buoyancy, not just rigorous training. She was fully alive: a young, beautiful woman of great spirit, not just a machine made to produce fabulously difficult steps.

None of the many technical challenges in the role seemed to daunt her. Rarely did she appear near the end of her reserves. Ease of manner was her motto for the day. The famous Rose Adagio in the first act she took in stride, holding the hand of each suitor for support, then letting go— so much resting on so little—then moving on to the next outstretched hand.

She was quick when needed, always supple, wholly graceful. It was not hard to see the power she has at her disposal, but she deftly shaded the steel with silk. Pantastico slow is as impressive as Pantastico fast. She is bold, she is gentle. Her speed is exciting but then so are those beautifully finished phrases. Certainly, there is room for Pantastico to grow—how could there not be?—but what a glorious beginning.

 The critic for the rival Seattle Times called her “absolutely enchanting.” Aside from company star Patricia Barker, she was clearly PNB’s “It Girl” and was promoted to principal in 2004. With Olivier Wevers, she “added excitement to City Ballet’s performance,” as The New York Times put it, by guesting in the second movement of Balanchine’s Brahms-Schoenberg Quartet. She got one of those off-day matinees as the lead in Stowell’s The Tragedy of Romeo and Juliet. And she was the one whose tribute on the retirement of Stowell and Russell appeared in the Seattle Post-Intelligencer in June 2005:

 My parents moved me out here in the ‘97-‘98 season and . . . I had to live and cook for myself and take care of myself. It was a wake-up call. It was scary. It was really frightening, and I remember some really lonely nights.

But the great thing was when you join a ballet company, it’s your family, you know? I mean, it took me a few years to definitely be liked by people and for people to get used to me. But Kent and Francia were like my Mom and Dad in a sense, even though the relationship wasn’t exactly the same. I looked up to them like parents, and they were responsible for me in a sense.

I’m scared of Kent and Francia leaving. I’m very scared of that. But I’m also excited for Peter Boal (their successor) to come in. A lot of the dancers are scared. They don’t know what to expect. I think they have nothing to be worried about. Peter’s a smart man and the company’s going to go so far.

We’re used to a mother and father figure in front of the room and now it’s just one person. And we don’t even know that person very well. We know his past and how famous he is and what a star he is in our eyes, but then to work with him is scary and not know him is scary. ‘Where did Mom and Dad go?’ you know? (Laughs.) But I think that Kent and Francia still will be around and I’m still going to write them and let them know what’s going on in my life. They’re still going to be attending performances and giving me their two cents, I know they are!

Shortly afterward, Pantastico participated in a fiftieth-anniversary tribute to CPYB with twenty alumni, including her PNB colleague Carrie Imler, New York City Ballet dancer Deborah Wingert, San Francisco Ballet soloist Sherri LeBlanc, and host Sean Lavery, City Ballet ballet master. “I’m honored, actually,” Pantastico said. “We are doing this for Marcia. We want to show her what she has accomplished over the years.” Pantastico was literally the poster girl for CPYB’s 2007 summer program, appearing in its advertising.

With Boal’s arrival in 2005, Pantastico believed his protégé Carla Körbes was getting undue favor. “The whole first season it was like, okay, so Carla’s just going to dance everything? That’s what it seemed like for all the principal women. I thought ‘I need to guest more, I need to get out.’ Maybe I should send out my information and see if anyone would want me as a guest artist. But never to leave. Since Peter’s been here, I never thought I wanted to leave.”

But Pantastico does think “I have to work a lot harder to prove myself. He’s got certain people that he really likes and then maybe if someone’s coming in to audition us for a ballet, I need to be up there in the front of the room busting my ass. . . . It’s hard to deal with.”

The fallout from Roméo et Juliette continues. “They kind of let us in on details. Bernice told us ‘In January you might be switching partners.’ We were kind of like, okay. Didn’t think anything of it. Then more and more, she would say, ‘Well, Noelani, why don’t you do it with James this time?’ It was like, okay. I’m with Lucien. Especially once you get a connection with someone, you don’t want to leave that. So towards the end they said most likely you are going to be doing it with James, and Lucien’s going to be doing it with Carla. Bernice said that they couldn’t really find a partner for Carla. . . . Lucien was the best height for her. And James couldn’t do it with Carla, so it would have to be me. So I’m sad, because I feel like Lucien and I . . .” She trails off wistfully.

It’s part of the job. “I just hope I feel comfortable. Because it’s also Lucien’s a gay man, so it’s easy to just kind of do stuff, kiss, and you know. But James is straight. The last time I did The Tragedy of Romeo and Juliet, Kent’s version, the partner that I had was straight, and it was fine. And that actually was an incredible experience. It was really fun, and I did feel comfortable after a while.”

As for her recent pain in the studio, “There’s always something going on. At the end of last rep, my foot just started going numb, just like that. It was only the top of my foot. I thought it was stemming from my back and my hip. I was having a lot of pain in my hip. So I went to the doctor and he said that the signs weren’t pointing to my hip. He was like, ‘I don’t know what it’s from. I don’t know why your foot’s going numb.’ But anyway, my foot’s not numb anymore and my hip and back are better. So go figure.”