When the dancers return August 20, Phelps Center is immediately thrust into a state of urgency. At any given moment four or five pieces may be in rehearsal at once, and some of those must begin with a casting process that requires all or most of the company to be in one place for a sort of cattle call. Not even a top dancer can be in two places at once, but casts overlap.
In addition to the five pieces for the gala and three for Rep 1, which follows just one week later, a work that won’t hit the boards until much later in the year will begin rehearsals soon, because the stager, the person who knows it and teaches it, is available now, not then. As if all this weren’t enough, the company will be rehearsing several extra pieces for a performance at the annual Seattle Labor Day weekend festival called Bumbershoot and a forthcoming lecture-demonstration by Doug Fullington, Peter Boal’s polymath assistant, covering the influences of the great nineteenth- (and, briefly, twentieth-) century choreographer Marius Petipa on the work of George Balanchine.
“It’s going to be a bloodbath,” Boal says. It’s the task of ballet master Paul Gibson to manage the dancers’ union time. Stagers “are going to be at his desk just pummeling each other trying to get hours. It’s hard. The tricky thing is you have a guest come in. You’ve hired them. They have two weeks to stage a ballet. You’re not going to tell them ‘We can’t give you rehearsal today.’” A stager from out of town is in Seattle for a limited time and a fixed price, and the meter’s running. “So then people get pushed around,” and those assigned to teach ballets may find themselves with less time than they expect and need.
The reflection of that bloodbath is the daily schedule, the document that rules every dancer’s life. As one says, “It’s kind of hard to set up a dental appointment when you don’t know where you have to be the next day.” According to union rules, the schedule is due out every day by noon either one, two or three workdays (depending on when in the rehearsal cycle and what’s being performed) before the day it governs. The first schedule of the new season, for today, Monday, August 20, appeared on the bulletin board and in email Thursday the 16th. It includes seventeen separate rehearsal sessions in studios A through D between noon and seven o’clock, along with a couple of twenty-minute costume fittings.
Gibson danced with the company for ten years, eight of them as a principal, and as the newest of PNB’s three ballet masters, he takes responsibility for the schedule along with duties in the studios. And it’s not just a matter of scheduling the dancers: “I have to schedule the ballet masters. I have to schedule the PDs”—Professional Division students dancing with the company. “I have to schedule the pianists” who play at rehearsals. “I have to go through the whole schedule and make sure my dancers aren’t teaching the school. I have to see when the studios are available in the back. . . . And when Peter’s free.”
He admits “It’s crazy.” Thanks to union rules, the dancers can only rehearse six hours a day, just five during performance weeks. No dancer can be scheduled to work more than three hours in a row without an hour off. But every stager and choreographer wants the maximum time possible. “So I have to just get things in a puzzle, so people get the most rehearsal they can.” That can leave Gibson in his office until nine-thirty at night whacking away at the schedule after teaching company class at ten-fifteen in the morning and directing rehearsals the rest of the day starting at noon. Lunch break? What’s that? There’s no union for ballet masters.
Randall Chiarelli, a bald, bug-eyed bundle of energy and talent universally known as Rico, is the company’s technical director, the man in charge of the sets and lighting and virtually everything else backstage apart from the wardrobe. He’s been here since 1979, with the exception of an unhappy 2005-06 season in the same job at San Francisco Ballet. He wants to be sure I understand that in ballet “everything is so immediate. As opposed to drama or opera. . . . And television and film, which I really couldn’t stand, because you can never get anything wrong, you can always shoot it over. What’s exciting about what we do is that the potential for disaster is always sitting right next to you.”
The company feeling is important too. Dancers “tend to be human beings. There’s not a caste system that you’d see in other forms of theater. You see dancers marry stagehands and musicians,” says Chiarelli, whose wife is Victoria Pulkkinen, a teacher and former dancer. In his opinion, there are two reasons: “One is that they’re physically working so hard themselves. They don’t have time to consider themselves that much. And second, they are here full-time. It’s not like an opera company where you hire a group of singers and put the production together and everybody dissolves.”
Chiarelli studied art at the University of Washington, “but I worked my way through college as a stagehand, so I taught myself lighting in the meantime. And I had some really good teachers. What I would do typically is sneak into a theater when somebody I respected was working and just sit behind them and watch what they do. It was a pretty terrific education.” In an era when ballet companies routinely toured the country, “I would sneak in and watch people like Tom Skelton and Jennifer Tipton,” two of the greatest lighting designers. “I really did use my stagehand’s keys to sneak into the building. And if the theater was dark, I’d sit two or three rows behind them and watch them work.”
The major change in the lighting profession stems from computerized light boards. “For years since the mid-seventies, the control end of it has been computer-controlled. . . . It was unusual to see a show with more than forty-eight dimmers in the old days, in the fifties and sixties. Now you see shows with three thousand dimmers and five thousand lights.” At PNB, “we typically put up about four hundred lights,” but the ballet rarely uses newer instruments that can be physically moved via computer control. “Once you get them running and teach them all the tricks they can do some pretty wonderful things, but it takes a shitload of time just to program them.”
Chiarelli has to look ahead in the same time frame as Boal. Right now he’s beginning to design a model for the set for one of Tharp’s pieces for next year. “She asked me to use de Chirico as a reference.”
Ballet, he says, is masterful at doing things on the cheap. “The opera spends more than four times putting a show together than we do. With three times as many people.” Chiarelli has an interest in old wooden sailing ships, and to him, “the ballet is a corvette, a two-masted schooner,” a boat that’s quick to maneuver, whereas “the opera is a four-deck ship of the line that takes three days to turn 180 degrees in the other direction.”
Other parts of the upstairs level are abuzz with activity, notably the costume shop, a big L-shaped room that looks from the hallway windows like some grandmother’s attic, with dressmaker’s dummies naked and clothed, bulletin boards cluttered with photos of dancers, big wooden-topped tables, a homemade ironing board, some sort of steamer contraption, bolts and samples of fabric on and off racks, sewing machines and thread holders, hangers with costumes in various states of development, an assortment of unfinished hats, and bins and drawers holding pins, needles, pencils, chalk, seam rippers, hooks, eyes, elastic, and a boning material with the delightful name of Rigilene. The amiable clutter, enhanced by posters, late or early Christmas decorations, overstuffed file folders, and random souvenir tchotchkes, is completely at odds with ballet’s classical sense of order, yet seems entirely appropriate. And for the moment its spirit extends into the hallway and the lounge, where rolling hangers and wooden wardrobe boxes hold costumes for upcoming performances, including Nutcracker stuff both sumptuous and comical in for early repairs.
Larae Hascall, who learned sewing as a child, has been at PNB twenty-four years and manager of the costume shop since 1987. She presides over her domain with a world-weary, seen-everything bearing that also gives off a strong air of “We’re all in this together.” Robin Emerson is officially her assistant, but that, says Hascall, “doesn’t describe what she does at all,” which includes shopping, phone and computer research, and managing rental wardrobe and inventory.
Wendy Oberlin, the company’s dyer and painter, presides over a nearby restaurant-grade forty-gallon soup vat that supplies color. She’s currently working on replacement Nutcracker hats. Victoria McFall, a former San Francisco Ballet dancer and one of the company’s two drapers, is working on new designs for a piece the company won’t be doing until spring. Mark Zappone, the other draper, an accomplished costume designer and Peter Boal’s best friend, is away at the moment, but has a varied complement of projects at his table. Jennifer Stone, listed as milliner/crafts, specializes in hats. Lisa Petersen and Pauline Smith, officially known as first hands, “do a little bit of everything in terms of technical aspects of producing costumes,” including pattern-making and stitching.
A separate room tucked under one of the zigzags of the roof houses the wardrobe department, run by Sherri Thompson with Barbara Pritchard and Patrick Stovall. When the building was remodeled, it was supposed to hold all the wardrobe, but that almost instantly became impossible, so the company now has offsite storage in several locations. Today the wardrobe room mostly holds some current costumes, neat columnar stacks of stiff black and white tutus, plus overflow fabric in file boxes with labels like Milliskin Dark, Stretch Velvet and Flesh Mesh, plus walls of boxes holding things like Men’s Tights, Snow Bodices, and Misc. Tiaras. The real action here takes place at the sewing tables and machines where the wardrobe folks make the adjustments that fit the costumes to the dancers.
The company’s Nutcracker is in its twenty-fourth year, and costumes must be monitored constantly. “There are costumes that are still original in Nutcracker because of the fabrics and the kind of wear that was put on them, and there are other things that have been replaced multiple times,” Hascall tells me. “Unitards wear out. The rubber goes, the elastic. The latex doesn’t have that long a life with all the repeated washings and wearings.” Nutcracker has seven machine loads of laundry plus hand washing for every show.
In some cases, replacements are not exact. “The hats that Jen’s working on, those are duplicates of the originals, and they’re worn out. We’re trying a different technique. We’re trying to improve it so it looks the same” but lasts longer.
Right now Hascall is girding herself for what promises to be a busy time, with dozens and dozens of fitting sessions. “It’s a huge week for all of us,” getting ready for the gala and Rep 1. The costumes for the big, opulent Balanchine Tchaikovsky tutu extravaganza Ballet Imperial “haven’t been on the guys for a long time,” and there are new members in the company. Sometimes fitting a costume is mostly a matter of adjusting hooks and eyes that allow a single piece to work with several bodies. Sometimes it’s not. “You take it apart, lengthen the sleeves, shorten the sleeves, shorten the pants . . . take in side seams, restitch the garment.”
Costumes are built with extra wide seams to allow for adjustments. Hascall and her team do a mental lineup of who’s likely to fit into which costume, figuring in such issues as “this is the one they wore last time, but they’ve gained thirty pounds.”
In studio C, the big one, it’s the dancers’ first day back from a two-week layoff that’s part of the twelve weeks each year they don’t get paid for. Thanks to union rules, company class isn’t mandatory, but it’s a daily workout and ritual that everybody attends as an essential part of ballet life. The ninety-minute session doesn’t officially begin until quarter after ten, but fifteen minutes before that, dancers move in, exchange greetings and work on stretches they may have started half an hour earlier in the therapy room.
Dancers all have the slimness that ballet demands, and they tend to walk with turnout, the essential rotation from the hip that turns their legs and feet to the side to achieve greater extension and more beautiful line. Still, the group is hardly uniform. The women’s bodies range from petite to statuesque, the men’s from short and compact to tall and lanky. Ages span a quarter-century, from the late teens to the mid-forties. The dancers come from all over the country and all over the globe: California and New Jersey, Pennsylvania and Washington State, Louisiana and Iowa, Texas and Ohio, not to mention Belgium, France, Bulgaria, Cuba, Brazil, Japan and Mongolia.
A couple of female dancers lug a heavy gray portable barre to the center of the room. In a panoply of warm-up gear ranging from fashionable dancewear to a University of Michigan T-shirt, half a dozen other women sprawl on the floor beneath the viewing balcony at the right side of the room. Coffee cups and water bottles are everywhere, and, since dancewear is not long on pockets, the floors near the walls house bags of every description: bright plaid, striking red, subdued khaki, functional backpacks.
A couple of men at the back are already stretched enough that they’re doing splits. Some are barefoot, some in slippers, some in just the ends of their tights. In front, one tall female dancer applies masking tape to each of her toes. As the starting time approaches, smiles and hugs make their way around the room. One dancer fiddles with his iPod; another slithers back and forth on a cylindrical foam noodle. Girls whose hair is not already in buns tie theirs back in ponytails. One sews ribbons on a pointe shoe as she chats with her friends.
The class pianist, Don Vollema, a big man with a long blond ponytail, arrives with coffee in hand, removes his jacket, opens the piano, and throws the blinds of the neighboring window wide open. It’s warm in here, for benefit of the dancers—the union contract actually includes rules about temperature to accommodate heat-seeking muscles—but outside, it’s unaccustomedly gray and rainy for a Seattle summer day.
Somehow six portable barres find their way to the center in three lines parallel with the side wall. One dancer rubs her slipper-clad soles on the pipe that extends out from the barre at floor level. A sense of anticipation begins to fill the room, eagerness mixed with an urge to get on with it.
Dressed all in black, Otto Neubert, oldest and most veteran of the company’s three ballet masters, arrives at 10:14. There’s some byplay as Jonathan Porretta, an animated principal dancer and audience favorite, slips through a door at the very last minute. His colleague Olivier Wevers hands him a T-shirt emblazoned with the words “Jonathan Strange & Mr. Jonathan by Jonathan.” Porretta laughs, puts it on, and adjusts it in the mirror.
At the front of the room, dancer Maria Chapman asks for attention and explains that Second Stage, the program she leads to help dancers with their post-ballet careers, will be offering classes from Seattle University this year. She needs commitments from everyone who’s interested. The class applauds her, and she returns to her spot at the barre.
Neubert stands alone at the front of the room and music begins. It’s pliés first, knee bends that help dancers to loosen up but are also at the very core of dance technique. But this doesn’t look quite like a class in ballet school. Some dancers are going farther than others, some not so much; some arch backwards, some stretch forward. After their layoff, they’re slightly rusty, and their personal experience has taught them precisely what they need to do to bring them back into condition. Birdlike Louise Nadeau, at forty-three the oldest in the bunch, looks pained and worried, as though she almost might burst into tears.
Extra bodies are in class today, including Boal’s old ballet schoolmate Julie Tobiason, who retired a couple of years back but has just founded a small company called Seattle Dance Project, featuring other dancers with a bit of age on them. Ballet master Paul Gibson is here too, to stay in shape, and so is Edwaard Liang, a tall, muscular New York City Ballet dancer here in his choreographer hat to set one of his pieces on the company. Neubert begins calling combinations—series of steps—quietly enough that he’s barely audible at the front of the room, but everybody seems to know what to do.
The pace of the music quickens a bit, a slow rag giving way to a march and then a tango. By now, most of the dancers are doing the same increasingly difficult moves together, but some are still dancing to their own drummers, and some begin brief chats with their neighbors. The tiny Nadeau breaks into a welcome laugh in a conversation with another veteran, Ariana Lallone, at 5′ 11″ (and rising another seven inches or so on pointe), the tallest of the company’s famously tall women.
Neubert, like so many dancers and ballet masters, thinks with his hands, waggling them to serve as foot surrogates as he mentally works out the next combination of steps for the class. In the warm atmosphere, sweat begins to break out on shirts even though the dancers haven’t strayed from their barres yet.
There’s a brief break. Everybody descends to the floor for independent stretches and, for the women who didn’t start with them, pointe shoes. And tape. One woman tapes the whole front of one foot instead of individual toes, but just the big and second toe of her other foot. When everyone returns to the barres, they begin with big kicks to the side with huge extension, as though the leg were restricted neither by anatomy nor gravity.
A few minutes later, the dancers tote the barres from the middle of the floor to the sides to clear out the entire space for what’s known as center work. Neubert sets a combination that includes a variety of moves including pirouettes, signified by a little twirl of the index finger. He warns the dancers about maintaining beautiful hand positions, and off they go, about half the group at a time, most watching carefully in the mirror, for two repetitions each. When a roomful of women does those pirouettes, the toes of the pointe shoes grind noisily against the floor.
A medley of “Stairway to Paradise,” “Bidin’ My Time,” and “Nice Work if You Can Get it” played with strong emphasis on the beat accompanies a combination that involves what Otto calls “many” turns. This time it’s three rows of dancers moving forward on the floor until they get to the very front and have to scurry off to the side. Occasionally Otto pulls a dancer aside for what’s known as a note or correction.
This is getting harder. Dancers begin to pant and grab their thighs to warm them. Otto sets a complex figure that the dancers initially have trouble understanding. As they try it, they smile sheepishly at first with the shit-eating grin of incomprehension because they don’t quite get it. Later they laugh triumphantly because they do.
Then Peter Boal drops in with Jaime Martinez, a short, intense, wiry dancer here to stage David Parsons’ tour de force solo Caught. Martinez is here to examine the raw material—four men and one woman Boal has recommended for the piece. “Peter made the first choice, which is a little unusual,” Martinez says. Usually, “I’ll come in and do an audition and I’ll pick the boys that I want and usually one girl. Because it’s very different to see a woman doing this particular piece. It gives a particular kind of energy.” This time Boal did the picking, and Martinez is willing to ratify his decisions “because we have such a time crunch.”[vi]
The class’s intensity increases, and by time the session draws to a close at quarter to twelve, everybody’s doing amazing leaps left and right, jumps with slam-dunk hang time that they’ll show off in class far more often than they ever will onstage. “Thank you very much, everyone,” says Otto, and the class applauds—as every dancer has learned to do since his or her very first lesson. A twenty-minute break follows, during which the dancers socialize, grab snacks, and get ready for their first assignments on the merciless daily schedule. It’s posted not only on the upstairs bulletin board but also on mini-boards outside the studios.
Today the majority of the dancers head back to studio C, the only one with full theater-sized dimensions, where Francia Russell, the company’s direct link to George Balanchine, is teaching that master’s 1941 grand Russian-style Ballet Imperial with ballet master Anne Dabrowski, who specializes in moving big corps of women around the stage. In the smaller studio A, Ed Liang begins work on his quiet duo Für Alina with four dancers and ballet master Gibson. In studio B, which has fewer windows into the hallway and is generally considered the least desirable of the three main venues, Boal’s assistant Doug Fullington has two principals working on his lecture-demo, largely recreating excerpts from nineteenth-century Russian ballets.
And in studio D, usually reserved for the school rather than the company, stager Martinez and ballet master Neubert will lead five dancers in David Parsons’ Caught. In most companies today, new choreography is the exception, not the rule. Of the twenty-two pieces PNB will perform this year, only two will be all new from the ground up, created by a choreographer directly on the company. A few, like Jerome Robbins’ Fancy Free, will be returning to PNB after a short enough hiatus that they can be restaged by one or more of the company’s ballet masters.
The rest, like Caught, will typically be taught by a stager, someone assigned to transmit an existing ballet to a company when for whatever reason—scheduling problems, indifference, death—the original choreographer isn’t around to do it. Despite what books on ballet still insist about choreographers creating on dancers, staging is by far the predominant way ballet gets done today. It’s how dances remain alive for years, and how dancers get what they call “the information”—the steps and movement of the piece—for works that were first performed earlier and, usually, elsewhere.
How much a stager knows can depend on how he or she learned the piece. Sometimes the dancer performed one part of a much larger whole, watched much of the rest from the back of the room, and must figure out the details from observing performances, typically on video. Francia Russell danced for Balanchine, and as his ballet master, learned the details of many dances at his side. Doug Fullington will reconstruct the excerpts for his lecture-demo from dance notation: century-old ink on paper.
And then there’s Jaime Martinez, who has set Caught on others only three times so far, because the choreographer “almost never” lets other companies do the piece. David Parsons originally choreographed it on himself back in 1982, but Martinez was the first to learn it directly from him and danced it dozens of times beginning, coincidentally, in Seattle in 1989. As dancers say, he has it in his body, meaning he knows it cold, and when the short, dark wiry guy with arms of rope who seems like he’d be perfect in a revival of West Side Story moves catlike into the studio, the five principal dancers, the company’s highest rank, four male and one female, who’ve been assigned to learn the piece follow him intently. Otto Neubert is there, too, to serve as Martinez’s ballet master.
Martinez introduces himself and notes that he lived in Tukwila, a Seattle suburb, “in seventh grade for one awful year.” Then it’s time to get down to business. Martinez usually teaches Caught for two weeks, because “this is the most difficult piece I’ve ever learned or taught.” Here he has just five partial days, partial because the dancers have other pieces to learn, and working on this one nonstop would kill them. “This piece is not for the faint of heart. There are about eighty leaps in a three-minute period. You’re gonna feel stuff in your body you’ve never felt before. Try to stay focused, not to get injured.”
Martinez explains the importance of the lighting. The stage is pitch black, but pools of light will appear throughout the piece, and the dancer has to hit them properly in order to be seen. “Think of it as a duet with the person who calls the lights,” the unseen stage manager.
But the big showstopping effect is the way the dancers will be caught by strobe lights that, if everything goes right, will show them at the top of their jumps, suspended in midair. The trick, which audiences rarely guess, is that the dancer controls the effect by firing the strobe via a remote control in his hand. Although it’s been published many times, Martinez tells them to keep it a secret.
He turns on the CD player. The amorphous electronic music by Robert Fripp lacks a strong beat, so it doesn’t help the dancers much in figuring out where they are. “There are no counts,” Martinez tells them. “There are only signposts.”
Off goes the CD. The dancers line themselves up behind him and watch in the mirror. He starts with the first step, no music yet. As he demonstrates and explains, the dancers do it too—in a process known as “marking,” stepping through the moves, not doing them full out. As he teaches, he says, “You can find what works for you. This piece doesn’t have to be the same for every single person.”
Martinez has names for many of the sculptural moments. “Knock knock knock” describes a motion that looks like somebody pounding on a door. “The stockade” has the dancer’s arms dangling as if hanging from the colonial punishment device known as a pillory “until the right one stops.” Jaime takes them methodically through the first part of the piece—“It’s going to be black, so count how many steps it is to get back. . . . You’re going to catch the light with your hand.” He stops just before the strobe section and has them start at the beginning again, still without music. When he thinks they have it, Martinez has Neubert play the CD and explains a few musical cues. “This music is so weird, but I swear it will come.”
Next comes the part with all the strobe flashes. For now, Martinez demonstrates a couple of leaps and tells the dancers to get the feeling of snapping their fingers at the top of their jump, the precise moment when they would click the remote to flash the strobe in performance. He steps quickly through the opening motions. “And then the hell really begins.” Snap!
Break time. The union contract ensures that dancers get a five-minute break at the top of every hour. Rico Chiarelli and a couple of stagehands arrive with an electric lift that whirs and sends a stagehand to the top of the room’s single window to the outside world, where he attaches a blackout curtain. As the stagehands roll the lift to the other side of the room so they can black out the glass that looks up at the costume shop, Chiarelli fiddles with two essential strobe lights that seem to be working inconsistently. But for the dancers, the five-minute break is over, and one at a time, Martinez has them try the steps they’ve learned so far. Some do those steps full out. Some just mark them to get the basic idea.
Now it’s time for the “circle of leaps.” For one in particular, a “straight leg jeté” that has the dancer’s legs completely extended as he flies through the air, Jaime marks rather than going full out. “Because my calves are so bad, I have pictures.” The dancer in the photo he shows to the group looks as if she’s dancing on some planet with zero gravity. “This is how the jump should be. Try to keep that back leg up.”
Noelani Pantastico, known in the company as Noe, pronounced NO-ee, has been in the company since the age of sixteen. Slim and delicate but with the tensile strength of steel cable, the native of Hawaii has the looks and smile of a Jessica Alba. She goes first and completely nails the leaps—to appreciative applause from the others. “Make sure you’re snapping when you feel you’re opening completely,” Martinez reminds her.
Jonathan Porretta, a dark, compact, acrobatic firecracker from New Jersey with a drama queen’s sense of theater, goes next. “Nice!” Martinez tells him. Olivier Wevers, a lithe, elegant Belgian PNB veteran with a sly sense of humor, gets a “Good!” Casey Herd, a big, muscular Salt Lake City native who looks at first glance more suitable for football than for ballet, gets surprising height on his jumps, but seems tired by the end.
“Eighty leaps,” says Martinez. “This is the beginning of eighty leaps. I mean, this is so sick.” He decides to demonstrate the next few jumps.
Batkhurel Bold, the company’s angular, enigmatic principal dancer from Ulan Bator—his parents both danced in Mongolia’s only ballet company[viii]—tries the new leaps, but knows he isn’t close to doing them right. Winded, he points out that this is the first day back and “I didn’t do anything for a week.”
Pantastico says, “I don’t think I can do ’em,” then makes a liar of herself and nails them all.
“I broke my leg doing this piece once,” Jaime tells them matter-of-factly. “So when I came back, I did it the other way.” He demonstrates new sections called “the egg” and “blowback” in which the dancer explodes from a semi-fetal position backwards across the stage as if shot from a gun. When the dancers’ applause subsides, he notes that “At this point the audience is going nuts. You can have the audience going nuts if you time it correctly. You’re going to want to vomit. You really are going to want to vomit. Just hold it in.”
At two there’s another break. Bold and Herd head next door to rehearse Ballet Imperial, whose style couldn’t be more different from this; they’ll get another hour with Martinez later this afternoon. For Porretta, Wevers, and Pantastico, it’s time to quit snapping fingers and use the strobe for real.
Neubert turns out the lights, and the room goes dark. Wevers picks up the little rectangular remote and tries the jumps. And for the first time, everybody sees what the fuss is about. Thanks to the darkness, the audience can see only what’s happening the instant the strobe flashes—when things go right, a dancer “caught” in mid-air, without the magic-breaking moments of the takeoff or landing. It’s flash! Flying dancer! Flash! Flying dancer! Flash! Different jump! And when it goes right . . . well, here’s Martinez shouting “Yes! Oh, my god! The first two were above your head!”
He also waxes philosophical about what happens when it doesn’t go right. “If you do a perfect jump and it doesn’t flash, it’s going to kill you when you go offstage.” So in addition to executing the moves, the dancer in this piece has a special extra to worry about: clicking the remote at the perfect moment in the trajectory. Which fails to happen three times in Wevers’ next moment, the “arrow,” which should look like an archer suspended in air and shooting: “Too late! Too late! Too late!”
Martinez has the dancers come to the front of the room and watch him demonstrate the strobe. Then Porretta goes out to the floor and tries it. “That’s it! That’s it! There you go!” Martinez cries.
He teaches a new move that with the help of the strobe makes it look like the dancer is literally walking on air. “The reason we call them ‘the Johnny Walker’ is that they look exactly like the guy on the Johnny Walker bottle.”
They go on. After many jumps, Wevers is sweaty and winded. Martinez sympathizes. “It’s very very very hard.” He tells them that David Parsons had been a trampoline artist and that this piece came out of his interest in photography. Suddenly something clicks for Porretta: “I never thought of it like that. It’s a great way to think of it—like you take a picture.”
At PNB, three o’clock marks the beginning of lunch hour. Company members bring their own food or run out to one of the nearby supermarkets, then congregate at the top of the stairs and in the lunchroom. Beginning well before ten in the morning and lasting until seven in the evening, the dancer’s workday is almost in its own peculiar time zone.
At four, when the dancers head for the studios from the lounge, Olivier Wevers sits down there with his costume designer, Leslie Fuhs Allen. Wevers has begun a career as a choreographer at various Seattle dance companies, and PNB has commissioned him to create a work for the spring Laugh Out Loud! Festival, his first to appear in one of the company’s official season performances. In town from Paris, former Seattleite Allen shows Wevers the latest iteration of her designs, along with swatches of fabric. Her sketches reveal the costumes as a bright, charming amalgam of 1950s fabrics and eighteenth-century French forms, complete with “buckets” or “panniers” that expand the hips. But the costumes have to fit into Olivier’s still-unfolding choreographic ideas, which he hasn’t yet begun to teach or refine.
For a section currently set to Flight of the Bumblebee, Allen says she thinks of one dancers’ legs as bee’s wings.
“I have that visual idea of her running upstage,” says Wevers, “and jumping into Jonathan’s arms.”
“We could have a second wing. Custom-dye a unitard.” But she’s not sure about the color. “I’m inclined because of the music not to have the first couple use yellow.”
Wevers concurs. “Since the piece is called Yellow, I don’t want people to say, ‘Oh, yellow costumes.’”
They turn to the men’s outfits. “They’re sort of snug through the thigh,” says Allen. “We could go for a looser cut”—maybe pleated cargo pants.
“I love costumes that move,” Wevers says.
They discuss the color and texture of the pants, then move on to the shirts. “Probably what this is gonna be is a T-shirt,” Allen says. “One sleeve from one shirt, one from another. Something with a print.”
“Are you planning on making all the seams perfect? Because I kind of like the idea of messy edges and stuff.”
Allen comes up with a couple of possibilities. Wevers explains his current thinking. “I might change the Vivaldi to a Stravinsky. I’m not sure yet. It’s like a tango, but not really a tango. I’m thinking the Vivaldi is a little . . . hokey, maybe.” He plays some Stravinsky for her on his iBook. He likes the beginning, but isn’t sure about it. He’s hoping to get some rehearsal time soon so he can begin to sort his ideas out on real dancers.
Allen asks about the women’s hair. “I’m not a big fan of hairpieces,” Wevers says, “because it can look a little cheesy.”
As they move to the costume shop, strains of Tchaikovsky’s Second Piano Concerto waft up from the Ballet Imperial rehearsals downstairs. Draper Victoria McFall shows Wevers and Allen a brown paper mockup of a skirt that looks a bit like a teacup. “Working with this teacup idea, I could do more,” she says, but wonders if Allen objects to a lot of seams.
“Doesn’t bother me,” Allen says.
They move on to a different mockup, this one on a dressmaker’s dummy. Wevers points to a detail and says, “When I see this, it looks like an extension of her hip. But this,” he says, pointing to one of Allen’s drawings, “looks more like a tutu. I think I would rather have it flopping more like a skirty thing.”
Victoria holds a pannier on the mannequin’s hips. “Do you want to see this come out more?” Leslie asks Wevers.
“I love the shape,” Olivier says. “I love the bubbliness.”
“Half-circle, sort of like a moon?”
“Why not? Let’s go for it.” They’ve got plenty of time before spring to change the details around.
At five o’clock, an actual choreographer is waiting in studio A. Edwaard Liang, a tall, lean Taiwan native who grew up in Northern California, wears a short ponytail and a torn cut-off T-shirt that emphasizes his ripped torso. He plays a video of his piece Für Alina for the benefit of the little group gathering in the room—ballet master Paul Gibson, dancers Carla Körbes, Batkhurel Bold, and Rachel Foster, and rehearsal pianist and conductor Allan Dameron. Für Alina, a two-dancer work to a piano piece of the same name by Arvo Pärt, couldn’t be more different from the slam-bang leaps of Caught or the classicism of Ballet Imperial, but Bold is in this one too, his third change of style in a single afternoon. Like the music, the movements on the screen are slow, quiet, pensive, tender. The piece has been performed just once before, at the Miller Theatre in New York, and Liang is using the video to retrieve its memory for himself and the dancers.
Video is perhaps the one great technological breakthrough in ballet since cobblers figured out how to build pointe shoes. Instead of written dance notation, which is so hard both to set down and to understand that it’s almost totally absent in actual practice, video is ballet’s essential but imperfect preservative. Stagers use it to reacquaint themselves with an existing work or learn it from the ground up. Choreographers use it to remind themselves of what they’ve done. Dancers use it to get a sense of a work before they actually take it on or to gain understanding when a stager’s information is unclear.
Liang began choreographing in 2003 at Nederlands Dans Theater in Amsterdam and has since done work in New York, Shanghai and points in between. He’s in Seattle in part because he created a duet called Distant Cries for Peter Boal and Company’s 2005 farewell performance. After winning the 2006 National Choreographic Competition at Chicago’s Hubbard Street Dance Center, he was invited to do a piece for a series at New York’s Miller Theatre and put Für Alina together in five days with City Ballet dancers Wendy Whelan and Craig Hall. Boal decided it would be a good fit for PNB.
A PNB principal dancer whom Boal imported from Brazil to SAB and then from City Ballet to Seattle, the blond Körbes watches the movements of a four-inch-tall dancer on the nineteen-inch screen and copies them. She’s worked with Liang before, when they both danced at New York City Ballet. In a voice as soft as his biceps are hard, Liang explains the first moment for the woman, who holds the stage alone as the piece opens. “You’re in a sacred place for yourself. You bring your arms up as if you’re presenting a flower or anything that is significant to you.” Later: “It’s almost like you’re looking over a cliff, and then you catch yourself.” Still later: “You grab sand and let it go. It’s like you’re watching the dirt.”
Körbes goes through it as the short, dark, intense Foster, one of the comers among the corps, marks the moves with Gibson behind her. The movement style is unusual—“It’s Ed’s,” Körbes says later—and Gibson asks pointed questions to make sure he understands exactly where arms and legs and torso should go at crucial moments. Dameron sits at the piano and observes the scene, making general notes. His score for this piece hasn’t arrived yet, which is why they punch up the video today when they need music. The atmosphere in the room befits the piece: Quiet, calm, serious.
Now it’s time for the man’s entrance. As Bold joins Körbes, Gibson partners with Foster. Normally Gibson would be up front by the mirrors, watching, but he’s out there on the floor today because James Moore, Foster’s official partner for this piece, is out of town at a wedding. “I can give you a borderline of where I like your positions, but slowly feel it out for yourself,” Liang tells them. Bold has trouble with a complicated step; Liang repeats it for him, and he gets it. Then comes a tricky maneuver involving Körbes slinking through Bold’s extended arms. It takes repeated practice to get the effect Liang is after.
His memory isn’t perfect. At one point, Gibson and Foster show Liang how they think one part goes—and when the choreographer consults the tape, it turns out they’re right. A bit farther on, Körbes asks about her arm position; Liang checks the video.
It’s late. Peter Boal comes in to observe. In an aside, he tells me that the six-to-seven hour, the last of the day, is not generally a very productive time. But at the end of the session, Liang tells his dancers, “We did a lot today. Very good.”