If I were a member of this community,” conductor Sir Thomas Beecham famously declared in 1941, not long after arriving to lead the Seattle Symphony, “really I should get weary of being looked on as a sort of aesthetic dustbin.”What he apparently meant was that the city should develop its own cultural institutions rather than continuing to rely on second-rate touring companies,but the comment rankled locals for years until 1962’s Century 21 Exposition, better known as the Seattle World’s Fair, managed to put the city on the map. Among the fair’s cultural achievements was to bring Seattle native Robert Joffrey home to choreograph dances for a Seattle Symphony performance of Verdi’s Aida. The next year, Seattle got its own opera company; a few years later, the Pacific Northwest Ballet Association was formed to bring City Center Joffrey Ballet from New York for several summers.
But the city didn’t begin rolling its own ballet in earnest until 1974, when Janet Reed, a former New York City Ballet principal dancer, was imported to lead a company and school under the Seattle Opera’s umbrella and the name of Pacific Northwest Dance. In 1976, Melissa Hayden, another former City Ballet principal, took over the reins. She resigned after just over a year, in part because the organization’s president disapproved of her smoking and cursing in class and told her that “while her gutter language might be okay for New York, it was unacceptable in Seattle.”
Her successors were Kent Stowell and Francia Russell, who had danced as soloists with the New York City Ballet in the Balanchine era. Russell served as one of Balanchine’s ballet masters, Stowell joined the Munich Opera Ballet as a dancer and choreographer, and in 1975, the married couple was named co-artistic directors of Frankfurt Ballet. When they arrived in Seattle for a similar post in 1977 (with Russell officially head of the school but only associate artistic director until a 1985 promotion made her co-artistic director as well), they inherited a company of eighteen dancers still called Pacific Northwest Dance, housed in a former home for “wayward girls” and giving no more than a dozen performances a year on a budget of about $800,000.When they left in the summer of 2005, Pacific Northwest Ballet, an independent institution for twenty-seven years, had more than forty dancers, a robust endowment, several buildings in Seattle and its suburbs, international acclaim, and a budget of $16.3 million that funded a burgeoning school and more than eighty-five performances annually.Over the years, Stowell choreographed many of the company’s productions and created a Nutcracker that would gain national attention and become a local tradition and cash cow. Russell staged its many beloved Balanchine performances and ran the school. Their efforts transformed PNB from an awkward duckling into a beloved Seattle swan at a time when the city’s cultural institutions were gaining both money and prestige.
In 2004 Stowell and Russell announced their impending retirement. Board chairman Cathi Hatch proclaimed publicly that the company would be looking for someone who would “respect what PNB is now, but they wouldn’t necessarily have to be slavishly bound to it.”Peter Boal first heard the news of the job search via a phone call from his old friend Mark Zappone, a member of PNB’s costume department. Zappone told him he had to apply.
Boal wasn’t so sure. He was definitely thinking about retiring from his dance career, and he’d prepared himself for the future by learning the ropes of arts administration with Peter Boal and Company. But he had never run anything remotely as large as PNB, and he suspected Stowell’s son Christopher, a former principal dancer at San Francisco Ballet recently ensconced as artistic director of Oregon Ballet Theatre, would want the job. Zappone told him otherwise. “Chris doesn’t want it. He’s talked to his company and said he’s staying there.”
Boal talked it over with his wife, Kelly. Her reaction: “I don’t want to be married to an artistic director. They’re so horrible. There’s not a nice one in the bunch.”
Boal countered with “the classic line: ‘Well, I’ll just apply. What are the chances of getting it?’” He called Kent Stowell and said he was interested, “but I don’t want to apply unless you’re comfortable with me applying.”
Stowell told him, “Peter, we were waiting for your call.”
Boal thought, “Gee, that was odd, because my name wasn’t out there. I wasn’t a contender for any artistic directorships before that. But it was a nice way to start.”
The application deadline was May 31, 2004. Boal delivered his papers in person. “A lot of people use the mail,” Stowell joked.
The last time Boal had visited Seattle was just after his father’s funeral, when New York City Ballet was continuing its tour. “So Seattle had this awful feeling. I hadn’t been there in twenty years.” He wanted to check things out for his wife and three young kids. “I’d never anticipated living anywhere but New York or the surrounding area, so I felt I had to come and look at Seattle and see what it was like and try to imagine us living here.” He spent the weekend touring the city with his old friends Zappone and Julie Tobiason, a former PNB dancer. He got in touch with Stephanie Saland, a former City Ballet dancer living in Seattle.
Stowell asked him to watch company class on the sly. “You can sit in the gallery conference room with the lights off. No one ever looks there.” But corps dancer Brittany Reid, a former student of Boal’s from SAB, spotted him from below, said “Oh, my God!” and pointed him out to everyone else who’d known him in New York. The rumor that he was applying spread instantly.
Fifty applicants quickly got whittled down to fifteen, including the company’s reigning ballerina goddess, Patricia Barker. Then it came down to Boal and four others: The husband-wife team of Colleen Neary and Thordal Christensen, former City Ballet dancers and PNB principals; Victoria Morgan, artistic director of Cincinnati Ballet; former PNB principal Ben Houk; and Boal’s longtime friend Jeff Edwards, associate artistic director of the Washington [D.C.] Ballet.
The Final Five went through a succession of interviews with the various constituencies that an artistic director must work with, answer to, and charm. “There was a community leaders’ group, there was a musicians’ group,” Boal recalled. Dancers had their own group. “There was a search committee dinner and preliminary event, there was a board meeting. It was a two-day period, teaching class and working in rehearsal, and time with Kent and Francia. It was just insane.” Boal saw it as “probably the hardest two days of my life. It was so grueling, so unnecessarily hard. . . . I felt completely spent. And there was a moment when I thought, no way am I going to be able to handle this.”
There was supposed to be yet another cut for the top two or three, “and I remember thinking after those two days, ‘If I don’t get this now, there’s something wrong with the process.’ . . . I gave everything I had. I left it all on the table.”
Kelly was with him in a “massive” suite in the local Westin hotel, “and I’d come home exhausted.” But he had the feeling he’d won the job. “Kent and Francia were members of the search committee, but non-voting and non-speaking, so they would sit there and just listen. But I felt from them that they were really, really pulling for me, and I felt it from the dancers. And I thought, if an institution can’t follow what their dancers want for artistic direction, and what their former artistic directors want, that would be a mistake. And I think the skeptics were maybe a couple of board members.” But in the end, search committee chair “Carl Behnke called me and said, ‘Don’t tell anyone, but we decided to cut the last phase, because it’s so clear that we want you.’” In October 2004 PNB announced that Boal was the “lead candidate” for the job;the next month he was officially named artistic director of PNB and director of its school.
When Boal went looking for houses, he toured one the owners had lived in for thirty-three years. “They were very nice. They liked the ballet.” As he was leaving, the owner said, “Can I just ask you? Boal is so familiar, because I grew up in New Hampshire, and I went to school with a boy named Brad Boal.” That was Peter’s father, with whom the homeowner went to Exeter and Harvard and Harvard Law School. He had lost track of him, “but it seemed like that Seattle circle was meant to come around. And I bought this house from a friend of my father’s.”
For Boal’s initial appearance, the Seattle Post-Intelligencer reported,
he was persuaded to give one performance in Seattle at Saturday night’s gala. Balanchine’s ‘Duo Concertant’ was going to be his brief Seattle debut and goodbye as a dancer. However, it was not to be as Boal, and PNB, had intended. On Friday, in company class, he tore his calf muscle, he announced regretfully in a pre-curtain speech. The disappointment was palpable in the house. Then, he added, he would make a cameo appearance at some point in the evening.
Louise Nadeau, a PNB principal dancer who was a classmate with Boal at the School of American Ballet in New York, remained in “Duo,” joined by Olivier Wevers, scheduled to dance the role in subscription performances this week. . . . At the very end of the piece, the stage is dark except for the two dancers, and it was at this moment the switch was made. There Boal was on stage, giving everyone in the house a taste of why he has been so widely admired for so long. The performance was remarkable. There was expressive amplitude in those few gestures, as well as lively elegance and wit. His bow was not a bow: He left that to Wevers and Nadeau. He returned to the stage only to give Nadeau her flowers, then promptly left. That is style.
Boal’s first season at PNB’s helm featured eight works new to the company, including three by George Balanchine. He added pieces by Jerome Robbins, Twyla Tharp, and Ulysses Dove, all of whom he’d worked with, plus Marco Goecke’s schizoid solo Mopey, the piece Boal had commissioned for Sean Suozzi in New York the year before. Also new to PNB: Susan Marshall’s Kiss, a duo performed on dangling ropes, and the season’s sole original commission, Dominique Dumais’ Time and Other Matter. But despite the inclusion of Kent Stowell’s Hail the Conquering Hero, and, inevitably Nutcracker, PNB’s era of the resident choreographer was unmistakably over. Boal, one of the rare artistic directors with little personal choreographic experience or ambition, would henceforth be calling on outside talent.
Boal’s 2006-07 subscription season would bring back Stowell’s Nutcracker, of course, and also his popular version of Swan Lake. But this time Boal programmed nine works new to PNB, including one each by Balanchine, Robbins, Tharp and Dove, as well as his friend Molissa Fenley’s State of Darkness, an infernally difficult solo to Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring, which Boal himself had performed before his retirement. The one world premiere was by hip-hop-influenced choreographer Victor Quijada.
Boal’s breakaway move for the year was his Celebrate Seattle Festival, a series that included subscription performances of Stowell’s Carmina Burana as well as Pacific by local-boy-made-good Mark Morris. But an extra week of three programs sprinkled into eight performances offered a dozen works by noted choreographers with Northwest origins or ties including Robert Joffrey, Merce Cunningham, Val Caniparoli, Trisha Brown, Toni Pimble, and several others. Seattle star soprano Jane Eaglen sang Wagner for the Joffrey piece; guests from Ballet BC performed a piece by its director, John Alleyne, and the local Spectrum Dance Theater showcased the work of its director, Donald Byrd. A full seven of the twelve works were new to PNB, running the season total to seventeen.
The festival did poorly at the box office, but it definitely attracted attention, and not just in the Seattle area. Alastair Macaulay covered it for The New York Times, in what amounted to a celebration of its own:
When you consider that Merce Cunningham, Robert Joffrey and Mark Morris were also born here, and first studied dance here, you can’t help wondering if some dance-friendly ingredient flows in the air. You wonder the same again when you recall that Seattle’s Pacific Northwest Ballet has been among America’s foremost ballet companies since the 1980s, reaching international stature in the 1990s.
Until this month these and other Northwestern dance strands felt unconnected, and a local complaint about Pacific Northwest Ballet has been that it isn’t Northwestern enough. Now, however, Peter Boal, its artistic director since 2005, has made more local connections than one would have imagined possible, in a “Celebrate Seattle!” festival . . .
As thousands will recall Mr. Boal was an adornment to New York City Ballet for more than 20 years. (I recall his first Sugar Plum cavalier in a 1983-84 season Balanchine “Nutcracker.”) A dancer of unfailing lyricism, devoid of affectation, he exemplified to an exceptional degree the courtesy and chivalry crucial to the ethos of classical ballet. It seems that he exemplifies those virtues still. His friendly manner before the curtain each night made the audience feel like family.
His festival’s sum was larger than its parts, though some of these were definitely considerable. . . . the dancing was such that even formulaic works became satisfying. And Mr. Boal’s programming was such that each work, appearing in sharp contrast, looked absolutely individual. . . . And glow was what the company did throughout this festival: a fine omen for Mr. Boal’s regime.
Phelps Center, PNB’s headquarters, is part of the Stowell/Russell legacy. A tour de force of recycling, it began as the 1962 Seattle World’s Fair’s Fine Arts Pavilion or “World of Art.” A three-story building with an unusual zigzag folded-plate roof of pre-stressed concrete, it initially encompassed a huge interior space with a balcony along all four walls. Nearly a million and a half visitors poured through its doors to see works by old masters western and Asian, as well as post-1950 works from around the world and a collection of Northwest Indian art.
After the fair, the building became Exhibition Hall, leased out for events like local dog and cat shows. But since it was right across a small plaza from the Opera House where the ballet performed, it seemed perfect for the growing company’s new home. By 1993, the building had undergone an extensive and expensive renovation that layered the single lofty space into four floors. The basement remained a cut-down Exhibition Hall, but the aboveground space was devoted to ballet and renamed Phelps Center after Sheffield Phelps, the predecessor company’s first president and PNB’s first chairman.
Today a staircase leads up from street level, which houses primarily ticketing and telemarketing offices, to the first floor. The five rooms to the right of a wide corridor are high-ceilinged ballet studios of various sizes, the first three of which are generally in use by the company, the other two by the school. To the left are school facilities—offices, library, faculty lounge—plus a boardroom and three more studios whose lower ceilings can interfere with adult dancers’ big lifts and are relegated primarily to classes. At the back is a room for Pilates work.
What’s singular about the studios is that they all have windows that face the outside world as well as ones that look into the hallway. The exterior windows bring in daylight; the interior ones encourage students to watch the pros go about their business.
The upstairs level houses everything else but the offsite scenic shop and warehouses. The artistic staff, meaning Boal and his ballet masters, all have offices with windows that look down on individual studios below. Also overlooking studios are a smaller conference room, a balcony for visitors, the costume shop, and a staff lounge. Across the hall are the wardrobe room, music library, archives, dressing rooms for men and women, and the physical therapy room. The rest is divided into offices for management and staff.
When I return to the building on August 14, the downstairs corridor is tomblike compared with the previous week. Exhausted summer school students have departed for home and what’s left of their vacations. The company dancers are not yet officially back from their summer layoff, though some come in for a daily class to stay in shape. The bulletin board outside the upstairs dressing rooms, where dancers first see their schedules for rehearsal days and casting for performances, is usually a hub of the company’s life outside the studio. But like the always-social landing at the top of the stairs, it’s empty today.
In his office, spare except for some minor clutter on his desk, Peter Boal is contemplating not just the season immediately to come but also the one after that. The artistic director of a ballet company is something like a combination of a baseball general manager and field manager. He or she hires and fires the players, decides when and if to promote them, and figures out when they’ll turn up in the lineup or ride the bench. But an artistic director also plays a key role that’s delegated to others in professional sports: devising the company’s schedule and deciding what it will perform.
Boal has just finished his first pass at programming for the 2008-09 season, the beginning of which is more than a year away. The initial draft has the words SUBJECT TO CHANGE on it in big red letters, a serious understatement. Boal points out that Draft 1 of the budget, a document dependent in part on the program, is usually several million dollars off, and this is year is no exception. This draft’s current projected deficit happens to be $4,130,335, precisely $251 more than last year at this time. “So then we go back and we revisit and we talk about ways we can balance the budget. And programming enters into that discussion. I would say I’m pretty determined to program what I want to. So we try to find creative solutions to do things less expensively.”
“Somehow we always get there,” says executive director D. David Brown of the process of trimming next year’s budget. “I can’t yet tell you how or how soon.”That’s because ballet isn’t cheap. For the 2006-2007 fiscal year just past, according to PNB’s independent auditors, total expenses for the company and school amounted to about $19.6 million. Dancers’ salaries were about $2.4 million, musicians’ $1.5 million, technical, costume and wardrobe staffs a total of $1.5 million, and payroll taxes and employee benefits another $1.6 million. Other artists, mostly choreographers and stagers from the outside, got nearly $600,000. Nearly $200,000 went for scenery and stage expenses, a similar amount for costumes and shoes, $150,000 for music and instruments, and more than $450,000 for rights to choreography. Renting the performance hall amounted to nearly a million dollars. Nearly $500,000 went to expenses such as touring and rent on PNB’s headquarters.
That’s about $10 million on the artistic side, just getting ballets onstage to the public. Running the school cost more than $2.9 million. And significant additional expenses served both company and school, including marketing costs of about $3.5 million, administrative costs of about $1.7 million, and development (also known as fundraising) costs of about $1 million. Total: about $19.8 million. (For the same fiscal year, expenses reported on IRS form 990 at New York City Ballet ran about $59 million; at American Ballet Theatre, about $40 million; at San Francisco Ballet, about $38.5 million; at Boston Ballet, about $25 million; at Houston Ballet, about $16 million.)
What paid for all that at PNB? About $14 million in “earned income,” including about $11.5 million dollars in ticket sales and $2.4 million in fees for school and conditioning programs. Then there’s $6.3 million in “contributed income” from individuals (about $3.1 million), corporations ($800,000), foundations ($700,000), government entities (about $300,000), some special funds and events ($800,000), and nearly $600,000 from PNB’s own foundation, a $15 million endowment whose income helps fund the Ballet itself.
Last year a $4.1 million initial budget overage for the 2007-08 season was whittled down in small increments and large. Renting the sets and most of the costumes for the new Roméo et Juliette instead of building them saved half a million dollars. A spring Laugh Out Loud! comedy festival was reduced from three separate programs to two. Jerome Robbins’ antic ballet The Concert would appear not just in the comedy festival, but also in the final All Robbins rep. And as usual, a few dances were brought back from previous years, saving the cost of new stagers, sets, and costumes and typically allowing for cheaper royalties.
Brown’s business plan for 2007-08 includes one hundred performances in nine programs, including forty-two Nutcrackers. Thanks to Boal’s aggressive push for new works, there will be fifteen additions to PNB’s repertoire, including two world premieres, one choreographed by company principal dancer Olivier Wevers, the other by Broadway veteran Susan Stroman. There’s a summer tour to the Vail International Dance Festival, and two smaller tours to Palm Springs and Kennedy Center in what Seattleites call “the other Washington.” Two new dancers have been added, bringing the total to forty-six. And there are union-contract-mandated compensation increases of 6.3 percent for dancers and 3.5 percent for musicians, plus 3 percent increases for administrative staff.
The idea is to have a surplus every year, in part to whittle down a roughly $2 million operating deficit PNB accumulated over the years. Last year’s surplus came in at about $275,000, about $75,000 ahead of projections; this year’s budget projects a surplus of about $90,000 despite a total of more than $1,100,000 of lower expected ticket revenues and increased expenses split roughly equally. Brown counts on making up the difference via two sure things and one strong probability. The gimmes are the sale of PNB’s production (sets and costumes) of The Merry Widow to Houston Ballet for about $110,000, and a delayed gift from the PNB Foundation, the company’s $15 million endowment. The probability is a growing knack for raising money via a campaign called the New Works Initiative that allows contributors to sponsor particular pieces. The “must makes” at the end of his plan are ambitious sales goals for Nutcracker and Roméo et Juliette, $305,000 in increased New Works donations, and the goal for the season opening gala known as First Look. But he’s hoping Roméo will do even better than the goal.
Brown, a former principal dancer with Boston Ballet, recalls business guru Peter Drucker’s famous remark that the product of a non-profit institution is “a changed human being,” and he is passionate about the link between the company and its board and volunteers. “Without strong connection to the community, without strong and high-quality education, we can’t sustain the audience for what we really do, which is performance.” But in his daily job, he sees himself as “the facilitator and the firefighter.” As facilitator, he wonders where the company should be concentrating its energy. “Should we be focusing on fundraising? Should we focus on marketing, building up the repertoire?” As firefighter, the questions include “Do we have a complication where what we budgeted for a production is now too low for what we really think it’s going to cost?”From where Brown sits, ballet “makes no economic sense at all. Everything loses money except Nutcracker. You have to understand that.”
The specific financial issue bothering him at the moment is that subscriptions here, as almost everywhere else, are declining. In times past, “the convenient transaction was one check, one envelope. You knew the dates and you got the tickets. Now, the most convenient way is to go to the PNB website, buy the ticket, print it out at home, and come the next day to the performance.”But subscription revenue remains essential, amounting to about $3 million of the company’s $11.3 million in annual ticket sales—more than the total annual single-ticket sales for all programs apart from Nutcracker, the $6 million annual bonanza.
Responsible for selling the season to the public is Ellen Walker, a short, dark-haired dynamo with experience as a consultant to many of the city’s arts groups and marketing director for the well-respected Seattle Children’s Theatre. During her five years at PNB, she worked through the transition from the Stowell/Russell era to Boal and, last year, the retirement of the beloved and highly marketable prima ballerina assoluta Patricia Barker. With Barker’s departure, Boal has become the star of the show (if you don’t count Nutcracker), but Walker has her own worries about the “issue of long-term commitment” to subscriptions, in part because of “the wealth of choice in this town” when it comes to cultural events. Seattle is a cultural dustbin no longer, and “What we’re seeing is sort of the evolution of the cherry pickers. They pick two things here, and two things at the Rep[ertory Theatre], and two things at the opera, and people are just incredibly short on time.”
All these financial considerations are the most obvious checks on an artistic director’s freedom. Boal couldn’t afford to hire a troupe of only brand-name star dancers even if there were a lot of them, and since the era of Baryshnikov and Nureyev and Makarova, there aren’t. He can’t do a season filled only with wildly expensive productions that nobody has heard of, because nobody is likely to show up. Still, his first draft for next season is exceptionally ambitious, with several world premieres and many pieces new to the company. But Brown has already warned him that the absence of a proven crowd-pleaser like Swan Lake in that schedule will sacrifice hundreds of thousands of dollars of potential revenue.
“The goal has been to defray that need for the one blockbuster,” Boal says with some frustration. A new student production of Pinocchio, choreographed by Bruce Wells for the family matinee trade, “can do $100,000 in one day.” Boal is also hoping to do the first production outside New York City Ballet of the Balanchine version of Coppélia, the piece that made his nine-year-old self want to become a ballet dancer. “It’s not going to do what Swan Lake did” at the box office. “Swan Lake did a million. Hopefully Coppélia will do $400,000. Maybe $450,000.” Boal figures mounting this ballet will cost between $1 million and $1.2 million dollars, but he should be able to cover about $800,000 of that from New Works donations. In an ideal world, he’d love to commission the sets and costumes from Ian Falconer, the witty artist best known for his Olivia books about a feisty pig but also a designer of ballets and operas.
Since Boal is not a choreographer, one of his programming goals is “to build collections of choreographers’ works. I didn’t want a company where we did one of everything and you remembered the ballet but you didn’t remember who made it. I wanted people to have the chance to look at a body of Jerome Robbins’ work. So that’s why we’re going to add I think our fifth Jerome Robbins ballet since I arrived. . . . And the same with Christopher Wheeldon and Twyla Tharp, so that our audience knows all these people’s names. Just as you would study different phases of Picasso’s work. You wouldn’t just look at ‘Demoiselles d’Avignon’ and say, ‘Oh, I saw that painting.’ This is a phase he went through. So I wanted that broader scope for the audience. And for the dancers.”But many companies have a resident choreographer like Kent Stowell, and the lack of one can mean paying plenty for outsiders’ works.
If Boal has his way, Robbins will be represented next year by two works new to the company: the quiet, hard-to-sell Dances at a Gathering (“probably Robbins’ greatest ballet work”) and the potentially lucrative West Side Story Suite, a selection of favorite moments from the musical. The Robbins Rights Trust, which administers the late choreographer’s oeuvre, still has to decide if the company is ready to perform those works; that will be up to Christine Redpath, a trusted Robbins stager who will arrive in Seattle shortly to teach the company his comic The Concert. Boal says determinedly, “She will decide that we are ready.” Still, until that decision is made, he can’t just “say we’re doing this ballet.” And there’s another problem: The slot he’s penciled in for West Side Story Suite may not work, because all the stagers who can teach it “are going to be in Paris with New York City Ballet”at the time he needs them.
One thing is sure: Twyla Tharp, a modern master and something of a mentor to Boal, will come to Seattle, to create a world premiere. She keeps changing her mind about what she wants to do, but at the moment it looks like a trilogy she’ll develop over eight or nine weeks at PNB. That will cost around $150,000 just for Tharp’s presence and her choreography; everything else—music, costumes, sets, travel—will be extra. But there’s no bigger name in choreography than the versatile Tharp, even though her recent The Times They Are A-Changin’ to Bob Dylan’s music flopped and closed on Broadway after just over three weeks. Before that, her Movin’ Out, to the music of Billy Joel, was a hit that ran more than three years.
“It’s a big step for this company,” Boal says of Tharp’s new work. “But it’s a logical progression. It’ll be the fourth work of Twyla’s” PNB has done, all since he arrived. “And it’ll be a world premiere. And that sort of puts us in the next category. She’s just done a world premiere for Miami City Ballet, and she’s done one for American Ballet Theatre, Royal Ballet, New York City Ballet, Boston. It puts us on a nice plateau with other high-level companies.” He has her Waterbaby Bagatelles penciled in to fill out the program, but realistically, he’ll probably change that to her Nine Sinatra Songs. “Sinatra’s going to have a broad audience appeal, may sell a few more tickets, which may help the budget.”
He wants to bring in existing pieces by internationally recognized choreographers Ji?í Kylián, Matthew Bourne, and Christopher Wheeldon. And one from Mark Morris, who grew up in Seattle and took classes at PNB from none other than Francia Russell. Boal also has plans for a program of world premieres from three choreographers, including New York City Ballet principal Benjamin Millepied and Kiyon Gaines, a PNB corps member with choreographic talent. And Boal has proposed a Broadway Festival to add more works than the company’s usual subscription series can accommodate.
Despite the poor box-office for his Celebrate Seattle Festival—Boal recalls painfully that 600 people turned up on nights he would have expected 1,600—he remains committed to the festival concept, which did bring in significant financial support from foundation and New Works donations. Boal says it was considered a big deal that in the Stowells’ final season, “I think they did fourteen ballets that year.” With the festival, “We were able to present fourteen ballets in three weeks. It just really ramps up what you’re able to offer. . . . It just means more repertory and more opportunities—and more roles for the dancers.”
It also creates complications in terms of what the season ticket holders get: If West Side Story Suite turns up in the Broadway Festival but not in your subscription package, Boal wonders, “are you mad? Do you call? Do you want a refund?” He and Brown and marketing director Ellen Walker are still tweaking the concept. And ultimately Boal is highly aware of the Platonic nature of this initial plan. “The first draft always looks good. Then we go back and chop it up.”
Like most ballet companies outside New York, PNB takes to its theater several times a year with multiple performances of separate “rep” programs, plus lots and lots of the inevitable Nutcracker for the holidays. The current season will officially begin with a First Look gala performance September 15, a sort of “best of” for the coming year, followed by an optional big-ticket dinner.
This year the company’s customary six reps, each with eight shows over two weeks (adding up to more performances than any American company outside New York and San Francisco), begin with an all-Balanchine September program and move on to a mixed-bag November “Contemporary Classics” show that includes Tharp’s ballet-meets-aerobics In the Upper Room. For the holidays, it’s Nutcracker, Nutcracker, Nutcracker. January ends and February begins with the Monte Carlo Roméo et Juliette. Then it’s “Director’s Choice,” maybe the most outré show of the year, which brings three ballets new to the company, including one by Boal favorite Ulysses Dove and an edgy one by William Forsythe that involves dancing in, on, under and between sixteen aluminum tables to uninviting music at what Brown calls an “obscenely expensive” cost of more than $340,000. Boal amortized that by getting a license allowing for performances in the following season too, but admits the piece, which Brown calls “a test of the audience,” makes him “a little nervous.” Then comes the company’s signature full-length Balanchine A Midsummer Night’s Dream, followed by a weeklong Laugh Out Loud! Festival with eight comedic pieces in various combinations over six shows, none included in season subscription packages. The year ends with an all-Robbins rep and a final one-night-only best-of-season wrap-up.
It’s a highly ambitious schedule, in part because of all the extra logistics that all the extra pieces in the comedy festival will entail, but even the one-night-only gala, a sort of preview of the season that will include three complete ballets and two excerpts, will add extra stress. Because of it, the company has to gear up early for pieces that it otherwise won’t perform until much later in the year. Dancers have to learn their parts, costumers have to prepare the wardrobe, production staff needs to ready sets and lights, all much earlier than they otherwise would. The gala will happen in just four weeks. And among the five pieces in it, the dancers have experience with only one.Read on!