I’m teaching Red Angels at two,” Peter Boal informs me several months earlier. “Can you come watch?”
He says this at the end of a morning meeting in August 2007 where he and PNB executive director D. David Brown have agreed to let a total outsider who has written millions of words over the years without producing more than a handful about ballet—me—spend a year or so observing pretty much anything that happens at Pacific Northwest Ballet: rehearsals, casting discussions, orchestra preparation, set building, costume design, school classes and outreach, ticket sales, staff and board meetings, who knows what else.
PNB is by most accounts one of the top five ballet companies in the country, which is a nice way of saying that in most years it has the fifth or sixth largest budget but by some subjective artistic measurement probably ranks behind New York City Ballet, American Ballet Theatre, and San Francisco Ballet but arguably ahead of all, or just about all, the rest. Boal and Brown have just bought into the outsider’s idea that even eager fans of ballet have almost no idea what goes into making a company’s season, that a cogent book could help explain it, and that an unschooled ballet fan might actually be a reasonable candidate to write it, in part because he wouldn’t take anything for granted.
Burnt out on technology (Windows Vista was the last straw), I was on sabbatical from my Forbes magazine “Digital Tools” column when the idea sprouted. At a particularly striking PNB performance, I turned to my wife (who had decades ago turned me on to this art) and said, “You know what I enjoy watching more than anything? Baseball and ballet.”
A few weeks later I happened to join a backstage tour PNB occasionally offers its donors. In a spookily empty hall before a performance, the stage manager talked about the astounding $200,000 budget for shoes, the conductor explained the special skills involved in leading a ballet orchestra, the production manager revealed where the sets go between acts and some of the manpower that gets them there, the costume shop manager showed how the laundry gets done between performances, and dancers began turning up onstage to do superhuman pre-show stretches. This glimpse behind the scenes revealed that the Land of Ballet, confined in my knowledge to the box within the proscenium arch, was a deeper, richer, more layered world than I had ever considered. I went looking for a book to explain it all to me.
There were lots of books, many quite fascinating. But they invariably fell into one of three categories: biography, history, or instruction. None began to tell me what I wanted to know: How do dancers keep from running into each other? How do they learn a work by a choreographer who is no longer alive? What do they do all day? How do all those stagehands and costumers and musicians fit in? What does all this cost? In sum: How does ballet happen?
Coming up empty in my literary research, I suspected the way to find out would be to hang out at PNB and create a book of my own. I proposed the idea to Boal and Brown, and they decided to let me try it. Three days into the project, I explained it to Doug Fullington, Boal’s endlessly knowledgeable more-than-assistant, and he shoved Joseph Mazo’s Dance is a Contact Sport into my hands. It turned out to be a lot like what I had in mind, but written about New York City Ballet more than thirty years ago, when the astounding George Balanchine was still alive and creating dances people still perform today and his dancers might take home $500 a month. I figured things had to be at least somewhat different now.
True enough, but some things haven’t changed. Ask a ballet dancer about his or her greatest peeve with outsiders’ view of the profession, and you’ll almost inevitably hear “They don’t understand it’s a real job.” It’s as if the audience believes this particular kind of dancing requires such sublime aesthetic purity that it must abide in the ivory tower of Art For Art’s Sake in the spare moments dancers can tear themselves away from the subsistence wages earned by gracefully slinging Big Macs. To those in the seats, ballet can seem elitist, inaccessible, opaque, the dancers regal, strangely clad gods and goddesses as untouchable as jeweled music boxes on museum pedestals.
But unlike the fantasy realms in The Nutcracker or The Sleeping Beauty, the Land of Ballet turns out to be a very down-to-earth place, where professional dancers (like their enablers the stagehands, musicians, and dressers) are fast-learning, hard-working, card-carrying (when not in their skimpy pocketless dancewear) union members who get contractually stipulated rest breaks and mandatory overtime when forced to work beyond their long hours on the job. “In making ballets,” George Balanchine, ballet’s Beethoven, Basie and Babe Ruth, famously wrote, “you cannot sit and wait for the Muse. Union time hardly allows it, anyhow.”
The Land of Ballet extends from the Opéra de Paris and Lincoln Center to remote venues throughout the world, anywhere somebody puts down a floor, puts up a mirror, and hangs out a sign that says “Dance Studio.” The network is so broad yet so close-knit that you can bet the former dancer who pays for that floor has some sort of direct personal connection to somebody or many somebodies performing in or running some grand hall of culture.
Like dance itself, the Land of Ballet extends not just across space, but also across time. Ballet is rarely written down, so great performers carry a couple of centuries of ballet tradition in their brains and bodies and pass it along to the next generation with a touching generosity. It’s not hard to find working members of the Land of Ballet whose mentors danced at the dawn of the twentieth century. Those mentors’ mentors, a generation back, might well have had something to do with creating the original Swan Lake or Nutcracker.
So ballet turns out to be a lot like—indulge me for a moment—baseball. As more than one dancer has remarked, if every American boy wants to grow up a ballplayer, every girl wants to be a ballerina. Like baseball, ballet is a matter of bodies moving through space and time. Like the not-so-imaginary realm that American Poet Laureate Donald Hall christened the Country of Baseball, the Land of Ballet is full of bright, focused young talents who are often looked down on because they didn’t go to college. As Hall puts it, “the business of baseball like the business of art is dream.”
In both domains, you’d better start young if you want a professional career, and you’d better be able to endure endless repetitions of highly specific, often unnatural movements. In both, the distribution of talent is pyramidal—lots of feckless competence at the broad bottom, pinpricks of star caliber at the minuscule top, and fierce competition for the few places close enough to the pinnacle to assure financial survival.
In ballet and baseball, semi-pro, minor-, and major-league outfits offer ascending monetary rewards. In both, careers tend to peak around the age of thirty, and a forty-five-year-old still playing professionally is a rare Swan or Cardinal. In both, injuries can set back or snuff out promising careers, and those who retire from performing often remain in the profession for life as teachers, coaches, and managers.
Even their histories link baseball and ballet. Dances with music and games with balls are deep-rooted in the human psyche, but ballet and baseball as we know them today go back no further than the nineteenth century. After a long multinational history of bat-and-ball precursors, the first recorded organized baseball match between two separate clubs took place at the Elysian Fields of Hoboken, New Jersey in 1846. The long multinational history of performances called something like “ballet” begins with fifteenth-century Italian dance masters, prances past the advent of equestrian ballets, and pauses at the starring debut of Louis XIV, future builder of the Champs-Élysées—French, of course, for Elysian Fields. In Jean-Baptiste Lully’s 1653 thirteen-hour extravaganza Le Ballet de la Nuit, the fifteen-year-old monarch plays La Soleil, a role that some say won him the nickname “Sun King.”
Ballet’s five classic body positions were codified by 1700. Gluck’s influential 1762 opera Orfeo ed Euridice includes a ballet in, yes, the Elysian Fields. But La Sylphide, the first major ballet to feature a ballerina dancing on something considered pointe—the tips of her toes—debuted in Paris in 1832, just fourteen years before opposing second basemen capered in Hoboken.
Baseball’s “modern era” began in 1901 with the formation of the American League. The modern era of ballet arguably began in 1909 with Sergei Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes team in Paris and rocketed into public attention with the riotous 1913 premiere of Vaslav Nijinsky’s Le Sacre du Printemps (The Rite of Spring) to Stravinsky’s shocking score in, yes, the Théâtre des Champs-Élysées.
Although minor leagues thrived throughout the United States for years, it wasn’t until the move of the Dodgers and Giants from New York to California in 1958 that major league baseball went national. The establishment of first-rate American ballet institutions outside New York and San Francisco can be traced in great measure to a nearly $8 million Ford Foundation grant that strengthened the finances of the School of American Ballet, the New York City Ballet, and six regional companies, in turn spawning countless more. That process began in 1963.
Baseball scorers have developed many personal notation systems for recording the action of a game. Ballet has many official systems of notating steps and moves, but they are largely ignored in favor of personal ones. And baseball broadcasters, writers, and photographers like to think of the sport as balletic: Witness Neil Leifer’s book Ballet in the Dirt: The Golden Age of Baseball, play-by-play man Ernie Harwell’s declaration that “Baseball is ballet without music,” and any number of shortstops and second basemen compared to ballet dancers. Ballet has returned the compliment: Ruth Page’s Billy Sunday, about the ballplayer-turned-preacher, premiered in 1948; Lisa de Ribere’s The Mighty Casey, based on the venerable Casey at the Bat, was created on Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre in 1990, revived several times since, and covered in Sports Illustrated.
There’s another thing about ballet that’s a lot like baseball: Its mix of tradition and modernity. Unlike opera companies or symphony orchestras, which have become largely museums of older productions, ballet has managed to incorporate aspects of modern dance and produce lively new works while curating its chestnuts. Ballet, unlike other theatrical arts, is essentially a collaborative endeavor that generally is manifested first not in some author’s or composer’s study but directly on the bodies of the people who will be performing it. The iterative process of ballet’s “script”—try something, discard it, try something else—generally happens right there in front of the studio mirrors. Like a baseball squad but unlike most theater and opera troupes, a ballet company is a team that lives and works together most of the year. As PNB’s executive director D. David Brown puts it, spectators “have a favorite player, whether it’s the shortstop or the center fielder or whatever. And we would hope that people would have the same sort of identification with our players.”
On the baseball field, players with long-billed caps, leather gloves, and stirrups look like no one else in the world. In a cultural world where orchestras dress in somber black, stage actors make their entrances in realistic garb, and opera singers turn up in raiment that hides their often substantial bulk, ballet dancers arrive in singular body-celebrating costumes a few cloth millimeters away from sheer nakedness. Women’s leotards, tutus, and pointe shoes emphasize their legs; men’s tights likewise accentuate their limbs, and a thong-like undergarment called the dance belt thrusts their genitals front and center. Coupled with this unnatural garb, their over-the-top theatrical makeup gives dancers a look as defining as any catcher in a mask, chest protector, and shin guards.
Like any analogy, this one is illustrative but imperfect. Great moments in baseball are forever, captured not just in the minds of tens of thousands of attendees who happened to show up on a particular night, but for something like eternity in the form of video recordings made with several cameras, audio recordings of brilliant radio broadcasters, and the analytic prose of dozens of students of the game. Great moments in ballet typically happen before a crowd of no more than several thousand viewers, each focused on a slightly different detail as the dance unfolds. Typically, a performance highly similar but never the same may recapture the original, but the only records tend to be the memories of the choreographer, the dancers, the ballet masters and the audience and perhaps a two-dimensional fragment caught on fuzzy video by a poorly-placed camera for an archive that only those within the company will ever see. Only rarely is a performance preserved with care from more than one camera angle, and even then it’s a mere summary of what actually happened in the hall. In ballet, unlike baseball, the evening’s outcome is of course largely foreordained. And the biggest difference is probably the most obvious: women on the field.
Americans know far more about baseball than they do about ballet, thanks in part to exhaustive media coverage. Within the Land of Ballet, rumor may fly faster than a leaping ballerina, but rarely does a newspaper send its critics back repeatedly to report on the hits and errors of second casts and third performances—if it even bothers to cover opening night. It’s no accident that though dozens of baseball terms have made it past first base to enter the American idiom, only two from ballet seem to have stuck: pirouette and tour de force. Inevitably, the rawest, most untalented major league baseball player takes down a bigger annual salary as a mere rookie than all but a handful of the very best ballet dancers in the world will ever see at the pinnacle of their profession.
An estimated twenty-five million kids eighteen and younger play competitive baseball, but the Land of Ballet has lately developed its own hold on its American colonies. Emphasis on “lately”: Only five American ballet companies currently performing existed before 1950, only two, Atlanta and San Francisco, outside New York. Today the nearly ninety American ballet companies with annual budgets of more than half a million dollars spend a total of more than $465 million a year, and one educated observer surmises the United States has between 13,000 and 15,000 dance schools of various sizes and capabilities. Dance Teacher magazine claims its 80,000 readers influence more than twelve million students, though the majority of those may study only other forms of dance.
Ballet may not be the national pastime, but it’s not tiddlywinks, either. New York City Ballet’s annual attendance is nearly 400,000, but in a metro area with less than one-fifth the population, Seattle’s Pacific Northwest Ballet sells roughly 175,000 tickets each year. In 2007, Major League Baseball sold more than 79 million tickets, a record total; a 2009 National Endowment for the Arts survey reported that 6.6 million American adults had attended a ballet performance at least once in the past year (not a record: down from 8 million in 2002), but children, who make up a significant portion of the ballet audience, were not included in the survey.
To lure crowds, ballet relies squarely on its tradition—mainly the Big Three Tchaikovsky tutu extravaganzas Swan Lake, The Sleeping Beauty and, of course, The Nutcracker, effectively marketed by perennially cash-starved companies large and small as The Greatest Ballet on Earth. The Nutcracker does pay the bills, but it has the perverse effect of skewing outsiders’ view of the art to the notion that all ballets must involve tutus, regal poses, and nineteenth-century music. It’s as if baseball played its games between Memorial Day and the Fourth of July by quaint 1800s rules and customs—dead ball, flat-sided bat, pitcher’s mound close to the plate, fielders wearing what look like gardening gloves—and sold those games out, then had trouble getting fans to turn out the rest of the year for games played under modern conditions.
But the Land of Ballet is abundantly alive. Though opera fanatics would be hard-pressed to name a dozen oft-performed works written after 1950, the vast majority of ballets performed today come from the second half of the twentieth century or later. And the vitality of the repertoire is remarkable: the 131 works discussed in the 1954 edition of Balanchine’s Complete Stories of the Great Ballets ballooned to 221 in the 1968 version and a whopping 404 in the 1977 volume, which dropped forty moribund titles from the first two. As Balanchine wrote in the first edition, “Ballets have short lives. Compared to books, paintings, to plays, to pieces of music, they are ephemeral indeed.”
Indeed. In an artistic variant of Schumpeter’s “creative destruction,” many of Balanchine’s own creations disappeared with barely more than a trace. As far back as 1981, you could read that “Dozens of his most highly regarded works can be seen nowhere in the world right now, and many are lost forever. The choreographer himself has an answer: if the ballet is forgotten, make up a new one—to the same music as before, if you like.” Today, according to Ellen Sorrin, the director of The George Balanchine Trust, which licenses performances, no more than eighty-five of the 425 ballets that he devised can still be performed today.
But in the 1977 edition of his book, Balanchine had a further thought: “Ballets of lasting importance . . . like La Sylphide, Giselle and Swan Lake, have held the stage for more than a hundred years. . . . The new ballets that we see nowadays with increasing frequency all aspire to the same longevity. While few succeed, many remain in the active repertory longer than is imagined.” This was prescient. Excessive costs kept most dances of his era from being preserved on film or early forms of videotape, but today’s works are often kept alive by means of a cheap technology that began to appear in the 1980s: the video camcorder.
Still, thanks in part to The Nutcracker’s overarching presence, culturally adventurous theatergoers who eagerly attend plays, operas, and concerts often insist they don’t “get” ballet. To the uninitiated, the Land of Ballet can seem such a serious, solemn, otherworldly place that the only way to engage it is with mockery—a sarcastically effeminate pirouette impugning the sexual preferences of male dancers, say, or a Super Bowl commercial or Disney cartoon with fullbacks or hippos in tutus. But here’s what Balanchine wrote in 1954:
It is strange that many people think ballet is a difficult thing to enjoy. Ballet isn’t any harder to enjoy than a novel, a play, or a poem—it’s as simple to like as a baseball game.
Yet imagine a person who goes to a baseball game for the first time. He hasn’t played the game, he doesn’t know the rules, and he gets confused trying to watch everything at once. He feels out of place and annoyed because he isn’t sure why everyone else is so excited.
If he had played baseball himself, he wouldn’t have this problem. But he doesn’t have to play to enjoy. Once he knows what it’s all about, once he understands why the players run and slide and leap and catch as they do, he begins to appreciate the game. He becomes familiar with its elements, he enjoys it. The same thing is true of ballet.
So when Peter Boal asks this ballet-and-baseball fan if I can come watch him teach some of his summer school students, I do not yet understand that in the Land of Ballet, things often happen fast. “Sure,” I reply, instantly ditching whatever other plans I have for a pleasant Seattle summer afternoon.
At PNB, classes begin with pre-ballet and then go up in terms of age and ability to Level VIII and Professional Division, known as PD, but the summer session in Seattle includes just Levels IV through VIII, and Boal, it turns out, is extremely serious about not just his company (which is out on summer break at the moment), but also his school, of which he is also director. The acclaimed choreographer Twyla Tharp will later state publicly “Peter is the only, I repeat, the only great professional dancer I have ever known to give his time to students when he was in his prime.”
And his pleasant request has brought me to studio A for the first ballet class I’ve ever seen. Mirrors line the front wall. Portable barres that look like something out of a plumbing catalog, all gray pipe and elbows and caps, sit at the edges of the floor, and more elegant wooden ones stick out from the walls. The setting is something of a monastic cell compelling a narrow focus on what’s important; except for the views out the windows, there’s nothing to see in here but walls, barres, other dancers, a piano and its player, and, in the mirror, yourself.
Slim adolescent men of various ages and heights stand around attractively in white T-shirts, black tights and a variety of pants, jeans and leg warmers that they quickly shed when Boal arrives. He explains to them that he was in the original version of Red Angels and that its creator Ulysses Dove was an “amazing choreographer” who died “earlier than he should have” of what he doesn’t mention was AIDS. Then Boal walks to the center of the room and slowly and methodically steps through the eighteen seconds or so of the section he wants them to learn, punctuating the movement with comments: “Stop suddenly like a guillotine fell on you, so there’s tension.”
After just one time through, Boal has his students do it. Though there are probably a couple of dozen separate but connected moves involved, most of the guys seem to grasp them all. Then Boal heads for an audio-video cart to play the piece on a screen so they can watch and listen. After one viewing, Boal has them try the section he’s just taught, five at a time. Every time one group does it, the others give their colleagues a round of applause. Well, almost every time: “Looks like you had a perfect line and then got electrocuted,” Boal tells one guy who doesn’t quite finish a turn.
This is the week PNB’s summer course comes to an end. For the final presentation in a couple of days, Boal asks each student to pick a variation (“variation” being ballet talk for a solo) from the ones they’ve learned this summer. And once they’ve rather tentatively announced their choices, Boal has them switch to working on Tchai Pas, which turns out to be shorthand for Balanchine’s Tchaikovsky Pas de Deux, a duo for a man and a woman, though here they’re concerned only with a solo section. As the rehearsal pianist at the grand in the corner plays the music, it’s clear that not all the young dancers remember every move Boal taught them in previous sessions. And that most of them are checking themselves out in the mirror, as if thinking out loud with their bodies.
Boal watches intently, then offers comments. To one dancer: “When you run, make sure you don’t look down.” For another, Boal holds his arms in an elegant arc in front of him and says unforgettably that a dancer needs to do it “like you’re carrying a balloon and you wouldn’t want to squeeze it or pop it.”
In these dancers-in-training you see talent that can effortlessly defy gravity with graceful hang time as well as callowness that lightens the gravity of their intentions. At the end of class, there’s a round of applause for Boal and the pianist, part of a custom called the révérence. Like most ballet terms, it’s a French word pronounced that way, in this case a term for bowing or curtseying derived from its churchly origins.
Since this is the last of Boal’s classes for the summer, several of the kids approach him, shake hands, offer thanks. One talks with Boal at the window; another stays and practices jumps. Boal, whose middling height and high forehead could lead you to take him for an exceptionally elegant accountant, comes off as low-key and even-tempered, rarely expressing excitement via exclamation. But his love for teaching is evident in the way he treats his students as adults in the making.
He leads me to a cozier studio with a lower ceiling, where half a dozen teachers from the company’s well-regarded school sit by the mirror and tiny but rock-solid veteran company ballerina Kaori Nakamura serves as Boal’s model and collaborator for a syllabus session on the subject of partnering. As the hour progresses, I dimly begin to grasp the amount of detail that goes into ballet training. The group discusses, and Boal and Nakamura occasionally demonstrate, intimate details of how a ballet couple holds hands, how the man grabs just above the woman’s hip bones, why he should use his palms instead of his thumbs, the precise way to support a woman on his shoulder. Ultimately, Boal says, “The most important thing for the male partner is to know her choreography exactly.”
There’s a spirited discussion of how to assign partners in class. Boal advocates making girls work with particular boys to avoid having some left out, despite what one teacher raises as the potential for bad chemistry between forced partners. When Boal was in ballet school, “Nobody would go with me but Debbie, who was five-nine when I was five-four.” Now, he says, “I give the kids a real speech about being generous.” That word, “generous,” it turns out, comes up a lot in the Land of Ballet. And that generous partner Boal mentioned turns out to be Deborah Wingert, who like Boal grew up to be a long-time dancer with New York City Ballet.
It’s not the only lesson about the continuity of ballet in this room. I don’t know the teachers yet, but the most voluble turns out to be the expansive, sardonic Bruce Wells, who talks about the need for a male dancer to use a light touch to keep friction from slowing his partner in the middle of a double pirouette and the need for dancers to learn to do turns both left and right despite their natural tendency to go one way or the other. Wells, I soon discover, was a major character in Mazo’s 1974 book as a twenty-four-year-old New York City Ballet soloist near the beginning of his career. And the one who insisted that Mazo fully experience dancers’ insanely grueling schedules: “We’re in this together. If we stay, you stay,”—which he repeats to me with comically ironic imperiousness a few days later.
The other teachers in the room all had their own careers in ballet, with PNB or with other major companies. Elaine Bauer was a principal ballerina with the Boston Ballet and toured with the ballet god Rudolf Nureyev. Dana Hanson, new here this year, danced in the New York City Ballet and was featured with a certain Peter Boal in the many photo illustrations in the book Suki Schorer on Balanchine Technique. Pick a professional dancer or teacher, and often as not you can trace her educational lineage in a few steps back to the stages of the Paris Opera or the Maryinsky Theatre of czarist Russia. Or maybe the Land of Ballet’s rural outpost, Carlisle, Pennsylvania, a little town that houses both the U. S. Army War College and one of the country’s leading ballerina factories.
Two days later I’m in studio C, the only workspace in PNB’s headquarters big enough to match the stage next door in McCaw Hall, the theater where the company performs. A carpet of students sprawls on the floor watching their colleagues perform in the final event of the summer session. Even in their early teenage years, these kids have amazing gifts, and for this final presentation they’re doing short sections of great works, mostly from the canon of George Balanchine, ballet’s grand master—Divertimento No. 15, Tarantella, Who Cares?—but also nineteenth-century classics like Swan Lake.
In the confines of a studio you see things you never will from the expanses of a theater. The dancing space here has exactly the same dimensions as the company’s performance stage, but with only a few feet from the front edge to the mirror, you are so up close and so personal that you may flinch and draw back to avoid being kicked. The closeness reveals sweat and effort you just don’t see from a respectable distance, as well as intensity that, like light, diminishes as you recede from it. Watching different dancers do the same thing one right after another makes comparisons inevitable for both performers and observers.
You quickly discover that those comparisons are not just a matter of technical or artistic ability, but also sheer physical presence. Body, you begin to realize, really is destiny here, or at least an essential part of it. When two groups of Level VI girls perform the charming “four little swans” dance from Swan Lake, you suddenly realize how different a line of tall dancers looks from a line of short ones. In this case, the short ones look better; there’s a reason it’s called the four little swans. What’s also surprising about these young dancers is how much they’re obviously concentrating on their feet and legs to the exclusion of their upper bodies. These girls have the steps, but can’t quite seem to figure out where to look as they flit from side to side.
The Level VIII girls, their teacher Elaine Bauer tells the audience, are learning to work with props, because a prop is not something you can take for granted. As if on cue, when one dancer accidentally drops her Spanish fan in a Don Quixote solo, she snatches it up so quickly and covers the gaffe so fetchingly with an embarrassed look that you almost wish it were part of the official choreography.
The rapid juxtaposition of performances and performances highlights how strongly differences in personal style create differences in effect. In Balanchine’s Stars and Stripes, John Philip Sousa’s music becomes buoyant when a dancer really comes at you and sells her steps, betraying the influence of the master choreographer’s years in Hollywood and on Broadway. In a different, more introspective piece, another dancer is so intense and wrapped up in herself that instead of coming to you with her sales pitch, she forces you to lean forward and come to her. When the biggest boys do their biggest leaps, they eat up the stage with sheer physicality. Others, smaller or less athletic, have to establish their presence with solidity, precision, and elegance.
These kids are good dancers already; they wouldn’t get into this course if they weren’t. PNB’s summer session is among the most competitive in the country, auditioning about 1,300 kids for about 180 places. The dancers are also insanely committed, willing to spend a big chunk of their school vacations doing nothing but dance, dance, dance, at a very high level. The better older ones may be just a year or two away from beginning their professional careers, and what they’re doing now is much like what pros do. The main differences between advanced students and pros are in how fast they learn and how much artistry they can bring to their performances. And though I don’t realize it yet, a summer course like this one turns out to be a key social element in a dancer’s passage into the higher reaches of the Land of Ballet and in knitting that land together.
The kids not dancing, spraddled and stretching on the floor in tights and warm-ups, watch their peers intently, whether older or younger, and encourage them with spirited applause. “They’re probably being supportive, mostly,” Boal tells me later. “But in this profession at any age, talent entrances. If there’s extreme talent, they’ll know it.”
Boal has intimate personal knowledge of that kind of talent. In 1978, when he soloed in a School of American Ballet performance at the age of twelve, Anna Kisselgoff wrote in The New York Times that “Peter Boal stole some of the show . . . ” She wasn’t kidding: nearly twenty years later, Jennifer Dunning recalled in the Times that “an elegant, tiny Mr. Boal drew gasps from the audience” on that occasion. Ten years after that, at Boal’s retirement, writer Eric Taub looked back on that evening as “totally faded from my memory, except for a solo by a boy of twelve, who wowed us with beautiful pirouettes à la séconde and other grown-up feats, all executed with a beatific exactitude. I happily joined in the whole-hearted cheers.”Read on!