Peter Boal was born October 18, 1965 in Mount Kisco, New York. His father, R. Bradlee Boal, was a patent lawyer with a Harvard family pedigree; his mother, née Lyndall Cadbury, was a social worker and descendant of the famous chocolatemaking family. “Unfortunately, they were very socially conscious, so they were always giving their money away, so none of the great riches came down to me,” he says. But his grandparents did set up two trusts for him, one charitable and one educational. “The charitable trust means that I have X number of dollars that I can give to any not-for-profit organization, so if you look closely you’ll see my name around town supporting the Seattle Library system and the Seattle Art Museum and Spectrum Dance Theater and Children’s Hospital” and the like, as well as charities in New York. “The other was to pay for my sister’s and my education until we were twenty-five.”
Boal grew up in Bedford, New York, an affluent suburb in Westchester County. His parents “were sort of ambitious on where they were headed in life, and we had a massive house. We went to things like the symphony and ballet.” Boal recalls his younger self as “the A student and oddly adult-like and humble.” He spent time in “summer gymnastics camps, summer school, a summer on the diving team, a year playing the violin, a year playing the piano.” People saw big things in him: “Someone would approach my parents and say, ‘You know, this is it. We see the possibility of him going to the Olympics with his diving abilities.’ Then somebody wanted me to go to the Olympics for my gymnastic abilities.”
Boal had been taken to ballet performances since he was five. He had danced around his living room to the music of Cat Stevens and Fleetwood Mac. But at the age of nine, when he was heavily into track and field at school, “I went to see a performance of Coppélia at New York City Ballet, and I asked my mother if we could talk about lessons. I said it’s what I want to do, and I told her that I had won the high jump and I had won the long jump and I had won the fifty-yard dash. I was convinced that those were the three things you needed to be a great ballet dancer.” Boal’s mother called New York City Ballet and asked what she should do with a boy who wanted to study. They told her to call the School of American Ballet, the famous SAB, which would be holding auditions in the fall.
“I said I would go to the audition, but I wouldn’t wear the tights. . . . So I wore my Izod shirt, which was all I ever wore, and cut-off jean shorts, and bare feet. And I didn’t know what I was doing. But they don’t have you do much: They have you run across the floor, and you could do anything you wanted, so we had done what we’d call stag leaps in gymnastics.”
“Nice instep and extension,” Antonina Tumkovsky, a top teacher, wrote on September 17, 1975, about an almost ten-year-old boy auditioning for the school, a New York City Ballet affiliate. “Nice body, good looking. Excellent material.”
His family got a call that night. “They took any boy who auditioned at that time, so it was no great accomplishment.” Boal was put into the A1 level in a sort of accelerated program for kids who start after the age of eight. That meant taking classes three times a week in a class with two other boys and twenty girls.
But he wasn’t done with extracurriculars at the private Rippowam Cisqua School in Bedford, named for two Indian tribes. “They’re all obsessed with sports, because that’s how you win on Wall Street. I’m convinced that’s their theory. . . . In fourth grade we had a faux economy. We had a stock market, and we had stores. Showing where our school wanted us to go. And everybody did: They all went to work on Wall Street or became lawyers or something. Nobody became a ballet dancer. And I was certainly on that track. I loved school.”
Boal was still doing the school’s hour of sports at the end of the day. It was a long way to go afterward, so “that first year, we hired somebody to drive me” into New York for lessons three days a week, a scheme he found embarrassing.
His first year, he played one of the kids in the Party Scene in George Balanchine’s version of The Nutcracker. He also caught the eye of famed choreographer Jerome Robbins. “I was a ten-year-old, and the School of American Ballet was affiliated with New York City Ballet, and they came over to choose three small children to be in a Robbins ballet called Mother Goose Suite. The other two: One was the Messenger. He was the coolest. He got to ride an artificial horse. Then there was Hop-o’-My-Thumb. He was the cutest. And then there’s this other sort of wimpy boy who was Cupid. And you know I got that one. It was really embarrassing, because I had to wear a little white muscle T-shirt, because all the dancers were in practice clothes. And ten-year-old boys aren’t comfortable like that. That was the easy part. The worst part was they gave me my costume, and it was huge pink wings. And I had friends in the audience.” He did his job too well: Robbins cast Boal as Cupid four years running.
Still, he wasn’t fully committed to dance. “I was in this pattern of the year: violin a year, piano. The summer of diving, the gymnastics on and off. . . . I didn’t know that this ballet thing was going to stick. I thought ‘six months.’” At the end of the first year, “I said, ‘Great, liked it. Don’t want to do it anymore.’
“So we went in to talk to the school, and said, ‘Thank you, it’s been a terrific year, but no, he’s not going to come back next year.’ And that’s when they said”—“they” being Natasha Gleboff, the school’s longtime executive director—“‘Oh, no, he is coming back. He has to come back.’”
It was the first time in his recollection that somebody had told Boal he couldn’t quit at something. “It was like an order, and I was notoriously good at doing what I was told. And I did like it.”
The second year meant class four days a week, “four boys with twenty-five girls in the class. And it was just getting dismal, because it was all about preparing the girls for the pointe work. And the four boys, the teacher would make fun of us ’cause we didn’t know the combinations, and all the girls did. . . .
“So then Jean-Pierre Bonnefous comes along. He’s a principal dancer with City Ballet and had been with Paris Opera. Somehow he comes up with three more boys, so he takes seven of us and gives us our own boys’ class. Which is a first for SAB, but thank God, because it was great. He was just more keyed-in to how boys were learning and what was exceptional about male dancing. So that was it. That was how I picked. I loved it. There was no turning back.”
Boal’s home life was not exactly typical. “I think my parents were so interested in equality that they really wanted to create a life for my sister that had very special things about it. She had been the first one to dance and the first one to go into gymnastics, but then when her brother got into gymnastics, everyone said, ‘I think with the right training, we can get to the Olympics,’ and when her brother went into ballet, it was Jean-Pierre Bonnefous who said ‘If we train now’—this is when I was ten—‘we can go to [the prestigious ballet competition at] Varna, and I’m sure you can be a winner at Varna’”—an idea his parents would quash as a bit too competitive for their young son.
His sister pursued equestrianism. “My mother and sister would leave every weekend to go to these horse shows, sometimes driving as far as Virginia, where the horse show was in the winter months.” Or flying to Florida.
“And my father,” a liberal Republican who would become chairman of Bedford’s Town Planning Board after being unseated from the county legislature by an anti-abortion candidate supported by the local Catholic Church, “would have to go on various business trips. He was the treasurer of International Planned Parenthood, just as a hobby.” This often left young master Boal alone on weekends. Sometimes he’d go home with a classmate and end up in St. Matthew’s Church in Bedford, “where I’d wear a jacket and tie and it was very stuffy.” Sometimes, “I couldn’t arrange a weekend date with a friend, so I would go home with one of our two nannies, and I would spend the weekend with them, and then I would go to the very black, very Baptist church on the weekends. I’d be the only white person in the neighborhood. I would sit there in the middle. And my dearest nanny Mrs. Wilson was in the choir, so I wouldn’t even sit with her.”
After two years, Boal was promoted to SAB’s intermediate men’s class, and, after a summer course, to the advanced men’s level. But his parents told the school “This is too fast and too early, and he wants to stay at his private school at Westchester. So can he do another year in intermediate?” During the week, he did, but took advanced classes on Saturdays.
Intermediate was at five-thirty, so his father would pick him up at Lincoln Center every night at seven. “We’d go home together and I’d get to commute with him, and that’s a lot of time commuting. So I got to spend a lot of great time with my dad that I wouldn’t have” otherwise. And began giving up sports. Dance is “now six times a week, so I’m now starting to have friends that are just ballet friends, and I’m starting to really get a feel for it, for my talent in it.”
Bonnefous picked him for Quadrille, an original piece in SAB’s annual performance known as the Workshop. “It was really a little ballet. To have this twelve-year-old come out and do these advanced classical ballet steps, the audience just went wild.” It was the piece that stuck in writer Eric Taub’s memory nearly three decades later.
Balletomanes were not the only ones to notice. CBS did “about a twenty-minute segment on my life when I was twelve” on one of its magazine shows. “They filmed me going to my private school in Bedford wearing a jacket and tie every day, and me at home, dinner with the family, we got the whole family together, it’s really tense in the film, and then me at ballet class. . . . The funniest thing is that, it’s my voice throughout, but I haven’t reached puberty yet, so my voice is like this,” he squeaks.
Between SAB sessions, Boal attended New York State Summer School for the Arts in Saratoga Springs, directed by City Ballet principal dancer Robert Weiss. There he met a girl from Buffalo named Kelly Cass. “We were both fourteen. That was my first summer away from home.”
By ninth grade, when he started taking advanced men’s classes every day, “I couldn’t do a private school in Westchester and make it in at twelve-thirty, so I switched to the Professional Children’s School” near SAB’s Lincoln Center facility. And his independent weekends and summer turned into an independent life. “My dad found an apartment while I was still fourteen, on West 74th Street between Central Park and Columbus. . . . I started staying there in September, and my dad would stay with me two nights a week. But it didn’t make any sense, so by October I moved in, and my dad stopped staying with me. So there I was.” At, on the eighteenth of the month, the age of fifteen.
He found a roommate, a fellow student named Jeff Edwards. “This huge one-bedroom apartment, beautiful: Up on the eighth floor above all the brownstones, this view, I loved it. But it was five hundred a month, and Jeff gave me two-fifty, and I lived off that for the month.”
At fifteen Boal learned two pieces for SAB’s Workshop. When he was told he wasn’t actually going to be in them, “I went home and I just cried. But I was also fifteen, and I was the type of fifteen-year-old who really looked twelve, and for me to be out there as the male dancer, it just wasn’t going to work.” But the next year he appeared in a classical guitar ballet, the first piece ever choreographed by City Ballet principal Helgi Tomasson and in Chinese Dance, an excerpt from August Bournonville’s 1860 piece Far from Denmark staged by the brilliant Danish-trained teacher Stanley Williams.
Williams at the time taught an advanced men’s class at half past twelve. Boal recalls it as “the biggest dance event in New York City, because you had the students of the School of American Ballet. That’s forty percent of the class. You had members of the New York City Ballet that came to take it. That’s another forty percent.” Then came the biggest names in the business: “Baryshnikov, Nureyev, Fernando Bujones, Peter Martins, the Panovs, Patrick Bissell, Darci Kistler, Merrill Ashley. And Stanley was constantly, ‘Rudi, come show . . . Peter?’ He’d pick a student, and it was always me.”
Even the doorways were packed. “So everybody knew what was going on in that class. Mr. B’s response was, you know, these eight talented kids are way behind Patrick Bissell and Rudi, and their teachers are not really able to work with them directly. . . . He said, ‘We’ve got to fix this.’” So Mr. B., the great George Balanchine, created a class known as “special men’s.”
“He wanted an additional class for what he called his future male principals, even though I was sixteen at the time. . . . He came in and hand-picked the eight students to go in that class, Jeff was one of them, and me. And then he came to that class five times during our first year, not to teach, but to watch and to lecture us on things that we had to be mindful of as our careers went forward and why he’d pulled us out for this class.” Here, only students were allowed.
But during that year’s Workshop performance, Mikhail Baryshnikov, director of American Ballet Theatre, City Ballet’s cross-plaza rival, noticed one particular sixteen-year-old, which led to Boal’s being called into Natasha Gleboff’s office. “This is how the meeting went: ‘We wanted to inform you that you have received an offer to join . . . American Ballet Theatre.’” This was news to Boal. “And they said, ‘We wanted you to know that Mr. Balanchine has responded negatively to the offer.’ Which is kind of the biggest compliment I ever got, but in the most backward way.” It was the first time Boal had been told Balanchine wanted him for New York City Ballet.
“I only wanted to be in the New York City Ballet. I was so flattered by the offer, because ABT was a big deal then and Misha [Baryshnikov] was a big deal, and I was, you know, sixteen, but now looked fourteen, so to be made an offer like that at that age was a huge feather in my cap. But I would have turned it down. I would have consulted the school and had them speak with Balanchine, and then I would have turned it down.”
Late in 1982, Boal visited the dying choreographer in the hospital with fellow student Zippora Karz. “We walked in together, we were standing in the hall with knees shaking ’cause he was Balanchine, he was the whole . . . I mean, I kept saying, ‘I just want to work with Balanchine’ because all my family talked about was, ‘It’s the Balanchine premiere.’ Robbins was something else, but Balanchine was what it was all about. I was obsessed that one day I would work with him, and then I just couldn’t believe that he was dying. We got a sense that he was sick, so in December we went to see him in the hospital, and we ended up spending an hour with him, which was great. We walked in and he said, ‘I know who you are’ to me, ‘but I don’t know this beautiful girl.’ So I introduced Zippora.
“But I’d been there since I was about eight, so he’d seen me. And I’d been the Nutcracker Prince, so he’d rehearsed me in those roles. It’s his production, he was the choreographer, so he’d come to the final rehearsals. I’d also done a piece when I was sixteen, L’Enfant et les Sortilèges,” which Balanchine choreographed. “Part singing, part theater. It was done for filming in Nashville. They didn’t have enough dancers, so they called two boys from the School of American Ballet, and I was one of them. So I worked with him on that. There’s actually a photograph somewhere of him and me and the entire company in this group, but I’m in a frog costume.” Boal also remembers Balanchine’s rehearsing school performances.
“In the hospital he had a calendar, and it was of a swimsuit issue with Christie Brinkley. When he spoke to us in the hospital, he spoke a lot with his hands. He was an avid gardener, and he had had a gardening accident that I didn’t realize, and he was missing the tip of his index finger, which took me by surprise. He was a man of tremendous pride; apparently he tried to hide that every time there was a photograph.”
In January, Boal was made an apprentice with New York City Ballet. Balanchine kept getting “sicker and sicker, and then the day of School Performance,” April 30, 1983, Boal was late and took a cab to class. “And I heard on 1010 WINS that he had died, and I was really upset.” At School of American Ballet, there wasn’t much reaction. “They had never seen him, had never met him, didn’t know who he was, they were laughing in the halls.”
But when he went across the plaza to perform in a matinee of Robbins’ Mother Goose, where he had finally shed his Cupid costume, “there were tons of cameras and reporters outside the stage entrance. This is major news in New York. And then the company was just devastated. Lisa Hess was the Princess in Mother Goose, and showing her finger that was supposedly pricked like Sleeping Beauty, tears were rolling down her face. People just couldn’t perform, because they were crying—such a different mood between his school and his company. And then I performed that night in the School Performance, and during the day with people just crying and a wreck everywhere, Natasha Gleboff said, ‘You know, amidst all the turmoil, nobody’s been able to tell you that you’re now a member of the company, but I will.’ There was a thing that if you do three parts in the company you become a member, and Mother Goose was my third. So that was the day that I joined, and I actually signed my contract the following Tuesday” to become a full member of the corps.
Boal remembers it as a “Very strange time, because people were just destroyed, New York was destroyed, at the loss of Balanchine.” It was hard to overestimate that loss. “All the great intellectuals of New York gathered nightly at the New York State Theater to watch Balanchine’s company. That was where the hang-out was. At intermission all the great authors were there and the great political minds, just an amazing group, sculptors and fine artists . . .” Now that epoch had come to a close. “The public was just destroyed, and the dancers were really . . . nobody thought there was any purpose in carrying on. That was sort of the dramatic first-day response, and then you realize okay, well, we still have the ballet, we have a responsibility.”
The succession had already been provided for: Peter Martins was to become the ballet master in chief, Balanchine’s modest term for what virtually every other company called artistic director. “Balanchine had really handpicked Peter at the end of his life, which didn’t go over that well.” Martins was still a principal dancer, “and he was a peer. He was younger than a number of members of the company, and he had been standing at the back of the room with them, complaining about the rehearsals, and ‘Gosh, isn’t it a pain to work with Jerome Robbins?’ Not to say that he was wrong, he was just a typical principal dancer. And suddenly he was casting, and he was casting a lot of his friends, and not casting a lot of his friends. So it was just a really difficult transition.
“And also, who would want to follow Balanchine in that position? And then the added stress of Jerome Robbins stepping up and saying, ‘You know what? I’m the co-ballet master in chief.’” Now came the challenge of “the thirty-seven-year-old Peter trying to manage the sixty-four-year-old Jerry and his past and his needs and his ego” along with his own new role, when “it’s not a role that is shared well.”
The applecart had been not just upset, but exploded. “You just felt it everywhere. And then the critics just blasting New York City Ballet from ’83 for a long time. You’d do these premieres and you’d be in these new ballets, and you’d go and read and it was just Argh! It was just, boom, boom, banged down. There’d be nice things like, ‘So-and-so danced beautifully’ and ‘It’s nice to see this young talent rising’ or certain nice points in reviews, but basically just, ‘What’s happened to the company? What are these new works? What is Peter Martins doing?’”
The Balanchine age had ended just as Boal’s career was beginning. But in his first New York Times review as a corps member, critic Jennifer Dunning called him “the promising Peter Boal, whose commitment and easy classical refinement are a joy to glimpse throughout this new ballet,” Helgi Tomasson’s Ballet d’Isoline, in the premiere of which Boal had been praised a month earlier at the School of American Ballet Workshop.
“It was hard for me to see objectively,” Boal recalls, “because I was so excited to be in New York City Ballet, and it was the dawn of my time. And here it was just deemed as the end of an era, no purpose to go on. That’s where Jerry emerged as a great creative force there. And Peter did a ton of things that I really admired. . . . He brought a lot of people in. He brought in Lar Lubovitch and William Forsythe and Eliot Feld, all these people who really hadn’t been in before, or hadn’t been in for a long time.”
In 1984 Boal appeared in Brahms/Handel, co-choreographed by Jerome Robbins and, in her first work for City Ballet, Twyla Tharp. For a William Forsythe original called Behind the China Dogs, Boal was slated to be an understudy to one of the principals, “and then actually he got injured so I got to work with Forsythe quite a bit, which was great. It just starts that relationship, once you know him, and then if you call him twenty years later, he says ‘Oh, yeah, I remember you. You were in Behind the China Dogs.’”
Boal learned of his father’s death while on tour with the company. “My mom called me in Berkeley. We didn’t have phones, so I had to go to the payphone and call her, and I was in full makeup, I was going onstage in six minutes, and she just told me the news. . . . It was just really horrible.”
His grandfather died a year later, and an inheritance let him buy his own Riverside Drive apartment overlooking the Hudson at the age of twenty-one. But Boal “wasn’t terribly happy in the company. I spent four years in the corps. Promotions were so delayed, because Peter and Jerry would go head to head and one would say, ‘I want to promote these four,’ and Peter would say, ‘No, I want to promote these four,’ and then they would just not speak and go away for a year. The only person who landed on both lists was me, but . . . Four years in the corps was great, was so valuable, and you learn so much, and all the time dancing The Prodigal Son, and Tchaikovsky Pas de Deux, and Oberon [in A Midsummer Night’s Dream]—you know, all these great roles while I was in the corps. It didn’t really matter, the rank.”
He was promoted to soloist in the fall of 1987. “We did a festival called the American Music Festival, and fifteen choreographers came in, and they all picked the people that they wanted to work with. Well, we went down that list, we were at fourteen, and nobody had wanted to work with me. Laura Dean came in and picked me to be in the corps of her piece, and I was a soloist,” generally not expected to do roles beneath his rank. “I said, ‘You know what, I’m nothing, so I’m yours. I’ll be in your corps.’ Which was great, she built something for me, but it was really kind of demoralizing, and I just felt like maybe I wasn’t the dancer that I thought.
“I think in the end Peter [Martins] did the fifteenth ballet and called all the people that weren’t in anything, which is kind of worse. It’s like, ‘Oh, consolation ballet!’ So I said, ‘You know what? I’m going to take a year. I’m just going to go to Europe.’ Everybody else who went through school did a year abroad or semester abroad, and I have family in Europe, and I just want to go. I spoke French fairly well,” and had taken drawing, painting, and sculpture courses. “So I told Peter that I was going to go to art school in Europe.”
Word got around. Alfonso Cata, director of France’s Ballet du Nord, was in New York, “and heard the rumor and called me that night and said, ‘Listen, you need money in Europe. You’re going to need a job; you can’t just show up at art school.’ So he said, ‘Come dance with my company in France for six months, and then go to art school for the next six months.’ So, okay, I’ll do that.”
Boal told Peter Martins he was going to dance in France. “It really changed Peter’s feeling, because he said, ‘You’re going to art school, I felt one way. But now you’re going to dance for another company, so I feel another way.’ He said, ‘No guarantees that we can take you back.’
“I was like, ‘Really?’
“‘You would have to audition.’
“I said, ‘Okay, I’ll audition.’ There was no ill will, but I think in a way he was maybe a little put out that I was going to dance with this other company. But I struck a deal with Cata, so I danced with them for three months.”
He got a six-month air ticket, beginning in summer 1988. “That was a great time: three months of dancing and then three months of just traveling Europe from youth hostel to youth hostel. And I’d made some friends and I’d met Mark [Zappone, now a draper in PNB’s costume shop] over there.”
Boal came back in January but wasn’t supposed to rejoin the company for a couple of months. Peter Martins told him that because of injuries, the company was short of Apollos and wanted him back sooner. “I said, well, okay. And then as soon as I was scheduled to do Apollo, they said, ‘Well actually Peter Frame’s out again, can you do Behind the China Dogs?’ So it was kind of nice. I got into the final week of the winter season. I got a paycheck again. I was eating crackers. I had no money.”
His debut in the role of Apollo in Balanchine’s seminal 1928 ballet was deemed “electrifying” by Anna Kisselgoff of the Times: “Mr. Boal was the center of attention: his bursts of dancing came as a spurt of emotional release. There were marvelous reaching leaps of great classical purity and a sense of power as he pushed his palms upward, like a male caryatid supporting an invisible load. At the end of his second solo, his seamless flow into the famous Michelangelo pose was heart-warming.”
Boal would henceforth be deemed a cool Apollonian dancer, as opposed to wilder Dionysians like his colleague Damian Woetzel. But when it came to Lar Lubovitch’s Rhapsody in Blue, Kisselgoff approved of Boal’s “torrid performance in this abstraction of big-city romance. Mr. Boal, boyishly impressive from his days as a student, is now dancing with new maturity and power. Put differently, the performance was full of good old sex appeal, couched in the manly, eloquent terms of a highly gifted dancer.”
“During that time, when I was sort of a slightly depressed soloist,” Boal recalls. American Ballet Theatre offered him a job as principal. He considered it but turned it down. He auditioned for San Francisco Ballet’s director Helgi Tomasson when that company was on tour in Washington, D.C. and “went really far with getting a contract, going over the casting, having a moving date and all.” But when he told Martins about it, “roles started flooding in, and it was just weeks before I was promoted” to principal in the spring of 1989, “along with a lot of other people. Sixteen people were promoted that day. So clearly they went ‘Just promote everybody!’” Boal called Tomasson and told him, “You know what? Things are suddenly great here!”
On a busy day in 1991, he had already performed twice as the Bluebird in Peter Martins’ Sleeping Beauty, doing “endless entrechat sixes,” tricky jumps in which the legs cross three times in the air. Then came an evening studio session for big-bucks patrons; when another dancer begged off with a bad ankle, Boal was enlisted even though his Achilles tendon was acting up. “And sure enough, the last solo, during the last six, whissh, my Achilles ripped right there.”
He was out for four months, but his girlfriend Kelly Cass, a soloist in the company whom he had known since that teenage summer in Saratoga, was injured too. “At twenty-three she got a really bad stress fracture in her shin. She took six months off and came back, and it was worse. So then she had a surgery where they take the bone marrow from her hip and inject it into the shin, which promoted a decent amount of healing. But it still bothered her, so she spent from twenty-three to twenty-six sort of floundering and occasionally dancing, and really not dancing.”
The good news: They were both still on full salary. “I had a cast on my left leg, she had a cast on her right leg, but we had enough legs to go to Europe. So we ran off to fall in love. We were together about six months before we got engaged.” In 1992, when they were twenty-six, they were married in the English countryside “at a Cadbury house which is sort of available to family members.” Shortly afterward, she quit New York City Ballet, where “she was really not happy.”
Boal found himself “artistically restless the whole time. I started teaching in early ’96. I’d had so many great roles so early, so it’s just doing them again and then again, and sometimes finding the inspiration was hard, so the teaching was terrific for me. It really brought new inspiration. It also forced me to dissect technique, because it had come to me somewhat naturally, so I had to explain how it all happened to these students. And I think to teach and to dance at the same time is the best way to go, because my students would be at every performance, and they would say ‘Oh, I thought the double tour was supposed to go to fifth, but you landed in third.’”
There was no formal training for teachers at SAB. “We learned by being a good student really, and I was always that. I was always listening. Stanley [Williams] used to mortify me, because with Nureyev and seventy-five people and Gelsey and Peter and Helgi all in the room, he’d say, ‘Peter, could you explain to the class, because I can’t think of the words, what it is about?’ And he’s telling Nureyev, ‘You need to close faster’ and stuff, but he really put me on the spot for that all the time. And he would tell the boys, ‘You don’t understand. Go ask Peter during the break.’ So they were already setting me up.”
When Williams came down with flu, Boal was enlisted to replace him. “And then he didn’t really have the flu. He came in with his tea and sat and watched me teach and pretended he still had the flu so he could get a whole second week, and he’d talk to me after class. Then I replaced my favorite teacher, Richard Rapp. . . . After class we would talk for fifteen minutes about what I’d done well or what he’d done well. But all these conversations were like two peers comparing notes on teaching, which was great. Even though I was the younger and the student and learning, everybody respected me enough to guide me that way, with great and valuable lessons in how to teach. So that was sort of the informal teacher-training course.”
When Rapp decided to retire, Kay Mazzo of SAB called Boal in to meet with her and Williams. Boal thought they might ask him if he wanted to teach one class a week; they asked him to teach ten. “I thought, that’s impossible, because I’m a full-time principal dancer at New York City Ballet.” He agreed to try it for a month. Then he was hooked. “I found teaching really rewarding. It’s amazing, especially when you take eleven-year-old boys and you work them through six months of trying to get it, trying to get it, and then one day in the seventh month, they get it.”
In 1997, after they’d had Sebastian, their first child, Boal and Cass auditioned with choreographer Jean-Christophe Maillot for jobs at his Ballets de Monte-Carlo. Kelly “still wanted to do it, she wanted a last stab at it, she was dancing beautifully, she’d gone to Korea to do this full-length Swan Lake.” But though Maillot was willing to take the highly unusual step of offering Boal a contract as an étoile, the equivalent of a principal, he had only a soloist’s contract for Cass. And “Kelly came from this New York mindset of, she’d been a soloist for City Ballet and she wanted to be a principal.” In the end, “my heart was really in New York. . . . I was raised by that institution, New York City Ballet, and the School of American Ballet was home and I loved it. So it was going to be hard for me to leave.”
He didn’t. Later that year, after Stanley Williams died, Boal ended up teaching thirteen classes a week at SAB while performing his duties at City Ballet. In his one concession to scheduling sanity, he abandoned the art history major he had been pursuing for years at Fordham University even though he was just five courses short of his degree.
In 2000, Boal worked again with Twyla Tharp, this time on her new piece The Beethoven Seventh. “I remember having rehearsals with her: She’d be like, ‘Well, you do a double revoltade,’” a bravura turn in which the body revolves 540 degrees in the air. “And I’d be like, ‘Twyla: I am thirty-four, and I used to do those. And now I want a port de bras,’” a simple, elegant movement of the arms. “And she was like ‘No, do it!’ But she had me dancing at a level that I told myself I wasn’t going to do, roles that demanding technically, and she pushed me, pushed me, pushed me. And made me laugh. It was good, it really pushed me to dance, and I think it said, ‘Just stop talking about how old you are and just dance well, because you can.’”
Boal was still restless. At one point he watched Sean Suozzi, a young City Ballet dancer, at the New York Choreographic Institute in a piece by the young German choreographer Marco Goecke. “It was such a cool piece. I just loved it. And then one by one, dancers froze, and this amazing solo for Sean happened at the end. It was just one of those moments where it was perfect, Marco Goecke and Sean Suozzi, and you thought, ‘They have got to work together again. It’s just . . . somebody’s got to make it happen.’” And I thought, “Well, I could make it happen. I could hire Marco Goecke, and I could hire Sean Suozzi.”
“Very concerned that I looked too old” for certain roles, Boal had been asking Peter Martins not to cast him in them. “As a male principal, you have a certain responsibility. You have to do things impeccably. You have to bring the house down. I saw too many dancers doing roles they used to be great in, so I didn’t want to dance one day beyond what I could dance.”
Then Martins left him out of the latest run of Balanchine’s Prodigal Son. “He had thought that I didn’t want to do it anymore. I did, and I wasn’t cast. So I went home that day kind of pissed off, and I called the Joyce Theater and I said, ‘I’d like to start my own small company that I’d like to have premiere at the Joyce, and if you’re interested, call me back.’ They always laugh about that message.”
But Boal wasn’t an unknown quantity in the Joyce’s downtown world. “I was a modern dancer by night. I would run down to the Joyce and do these Molissa Fenley solos throughout the nineties,” one of which would lead Jennifer Dunning to declare in the New York Times that Boal “is often described as a perfect dancer. In ‘Pola’a,’ that perfection takes on the great roaring dimensions of an ocean.” And Fenley took Boal “on the road to Tokyo or to Salt Lake to perform with her. So I was also doing that as a guest artist, along with the other jobs.”
The Joyce enlisted Boal in a series called “Altogether Different” for small New York companies. But first they had him attend a series of meetings. “You show up, you and your manager—I had to find a manager—and they do one on fundraising, one on marketing and PR, one on lighting. There were all these little nuggets that I was a part of in the process.”
Boal told Peter Martins “‘I would naturally want to ask some City Ballet patrons. Would that be a conflict that you’d be uncomfortable with?’ And he said, ‘Well, what is your budget?’ I said, ‘It’s thirty thousand.’ He laughed. He’s like, ‘Oh, that’s not a conflict.’ So I wrote five letters the first year and got my thirty thousand, which was great. . . . Important is that the Joyce put up ten of that thirty to tempt us. So actually I only had to raise twenty.”
Fenley had a foundation called Momenta, “so I borrowed her foundation for charitable donations. People made a donation to Momenta earmarked for Peter Boal and Company.” And Boal enlisted experienced artists’ manager Mimi Johnson of Performing Artservices to help. “She was incredible. She knew the business backwards and forwards. So she guided me and helped me get it done.”
Boal commissioned three solo works, one from Fenley, one from City Ballet principal Albert Evans, and one from Wendy Perron, who had a company of her own and later became editor-in-chief of Dance Magazine. He went solo not because of “ego, but I actually thought it’s such a trial venture, I’d hate to drag other dancers down with me. Also it costs less if you hire only one dancer.”
Peter Boal Solos was “a great success. It’s big if the Joyce is a sellout. . . . And it was very cool. People loved it. So the Joyce said, ‘You’ve got to do the next step.’” Which was to bring in three other dancers: City Ballet principal Wendy Whelan, Suozzi, and Boal’s protégé Carla Körbes. For that second round, “I wrote like eighteen letters. I was trying to get a hundred thousand. And there were a couple of foundations that stepped up.” This time was “dancer-driven. I would ask Sean ‘Who do you want to work with? Say ‘Marco Goecke.’ Say ‘Marco Goecke.’” And he was like, ‘Marco Goecke?’”
Done. Wendy Whelan wanted to work with noted Spanish choreographer Nacho Duato. “Wendy and I had been in New York State Theater one night when he did an all-Bach evening. Rare that another company was in State Theater, but his company was there. We were just awestruck by this, and she said, ‘I want to work with Nacho Duato. I’m thirty-six and it’s not going to happen.’” That inspired Boal. “We can find choreographers that great dancers want to work with and bring them together, and nobody has to make any money, and we can make art. Like, how idealistic is that?”
Ella Baff, executive director of Jacob’s Pillow Dance Festival, the historic annual event in the Berkshires, helped Boal make the connection. “We started stalking him. We showed up at the Pillow. ‘Hi, Nacho. I’m Peter. This is Wendy. We want you to make a ballet for us.’ I’m kind of relentless when I want to do something, so I kept asking him, and finally I sat down with him over coffee, and he said, ‘Okay, let’s get together in the studio and do some work.’ So we organized a two-hour rehearsal with Nacho and Wendy and me.”
But when Whelan showed up, Duato asked her “Why do you have pointe shoes on?” Boal and Duato clicked, but Whelan never felt comfortable with the choreographer. “He really wanted bare feet, and he said he really like the sort of grounded, earthy” feeling. But “Wendy’s all about the air and rejecting the floor, and it wasn’t a good mix somehow. So we let it drift away.”
At Whelan’s suggestion, Boal had City Ballet dancer Edwaard Liang make a piece for her. Shen Wei, a pioneer of Chinese modern dance, did another. For Suozzi, Boal had eighty-seven-year-old choreographer Daniel Nagrin restage his 1948 Strange Hero, a “very cool solo, very theatrical.” Looking for “interesting work that was off the beaten path,” what he got was “way outside of the ballet world, into the modern dance world. And that’s what people wanted to see. They didn’t want to see us go down to the Joyce to do Tchaikovsky Pas de Deux with no orchestra on a small stage. . . . ”
“Aside from my six months in France, it was probably one of the favorite artistic times in my life. I just loved it. I mean, it nearly killed me,” between rushing uptown to his dancing and teaching jobs and back downtown for tech rehearsals. But Boal recalls watching Goecke’s Mopey with Suozzi and thinking, “‘I did this.’ I didn’t choreograph it, I didn’t dance it, but I made it happen,’ and that was a rush. It would not have existed in this world if there hadn’t been someone with an initiative to bring the pieces together.”
Then retirement loomed. “I’m always getting frustrated and uninspired. I said that I’d retire when I was thirty-five, so we sort of planned it. And then everybody talked me out of it. Actually, Kelly, she’s so wise: I came home one night and I was saying, ‘I want to retire in June’ and now it’s January or something, and she took the pile of bills and she went ‘Phoom! You’re not going to retire.’ . . .
“I was really, really worn down doing full-time teaching and full-time dancing, and I just thought, ‘You know, I like teaching. I seem to be good at it.’” By then he was the primary male teacher at SAB, with “a lot of responsibility. I was then the sort of guidance counselor for all these kids to try and get them jobs and stuff. But it was just a lot of conferences and fighting for students’ rights, as any teacher should. It was more than being just a teacher, so it was kind of wearing me down. So I thought, you know, I’m thirty-five, I could dance till I was thirty-nine. But I’ve done eighty Apollos. Do I need to do ninety-six?”
Boal kept going, “and I’m actually pleased that I kept dancing at a good standard.” In 2004, the family moved to Pound Ridge near his Westchester roots. He talked to Martins, who also directed SAB, about his retirement plans, “and he gave me an amazing raise” for the teaching part of his job. “I would have been a full-time teacher at the School of American Ballet, making enough to raise a family in New York City in the suburbs. . . . I’m always restless, so I would have found extra things to do around it, but that would have been the base.”
Then an opportunity 2,400 miles to the northwest intervened.Read on!