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Sunday, September 17, 2006 - Page updated at 12:00 AM


Dance Preview

PNB's fleet-footed season: 21 new ballets

Special to The Seattle Times

Every studio is in use. A tightly scheduled maze of daily rehearsals extends from noon until 7 p.m. Dancers keep five or six new choreographies in their minds.

There is a pulse of excitement in Pacific Northwest Ballet's Phelps Center that is being felt from the rehearsal studio to the box office. As the new season opens this week, the word seems to have gotten out: One of the hottest tickets in town is to the ballet.

The stir started just over a year ago when Peter Boal, former principal of New York City Ballet, came on as PNB artistic director. Curious about the newcomer, people came to the opera house and discovered edgy, compelling movement performed by some of the most highly trained dancers in the country.

Of course, for decades, Pacific Northwest Ballet, under Kent Stowell and Francia Russell, offered a rich mix of contemporary dance, modern classics and traditional story ballets. Long-term audience members were conditioned to expect a range of experimental ballets as well as the perennial favorites. The PNB dancers have been accustomed to throwing themselves into any style of choreography. Boal, now, at the beginning of his second season, has taken these expectations and run with them. The dancers, and the audience, have risen enthusiastically to the challenge.

Coming up

Pacific Northwest Ballet 2006-2007 season: Subscriptions can be bought in packages of four to six ballets for prices starting at $108 by calling 206-441-2424, going online at, or by visiting the PNB Box Office at 301 Mercer St., Seattle. Programs and dates:

"Director's Choice": Sept. 21-Oct. 1

"All Premiere": Nov. 2-12

"Nutcracker": Nov. 24-Dec. 28

"Swan Lake": Feb. 1-11

"Wheeldon, Duato & Balanchine": March 15-25

"Carmina Burana & Pacific": April 5-15

"Celebrate Seattle Festival": April 5-22

"Stravinsky 125": May 31-June 10

Boal has fished out some of the most compelling pieces from the existing repertoire, like William Forsythe's "In the middle, somewhat elevated," which will be on the first program opening Thursday. He is continuing to present the George Balanchine works, which have been an important part of PNB's reputation — such as "Theme and Variations" staged by former director Russell, also on the opening program. He is adding a number of works by great American choreographer Jerome Robbins. "Fancy Free," the 1944 sailor ballet to the music of Leonard Bernstein, is having its PNB premiere Thursday.

Boal is not neglecting the great iconic ballets. He is presenting "Swan Lake" in February. It is Boal's commitment to acquiring new work, however, that is energizing dancers and drawing in a new audience.

This season he is adding an almost unbelievable 21 new ballets. The record for PNB is the 25th anniversary season of 1997 and 1998, with 17 premieres. Adding 21 new works, while continuing to present major ballets already in the repertoire, is a big reach.

"The dancers are working hard, but I think they love the challenge," Boal, said. "There's a ripple effect. If the dancers are happy and challenged, it spreads outward, to the administrative staff, to development and publicity. Everyone gets charged up and the audiences and the community respond."

How is he managing to fit in all the new dances? Boal produced a daily schedule pinned to his office wall. A graph of five studios listed full rehearsals with ever-changing dancers. "It takes some maneuvering. I like a challenge."

This season Boal is enthusiastic about the Celebrate Seattle Festival in April, which will include "Pacific" by Mark Morris. He is also looking forward to the all Stravinsky program in May, which features "State of Darkness" by Molissa Fenley. This ballet is a grueling solo to Stravinsky's "Rite of Spring," which Boal himself danced to critical raves.

Victor Quijada, a Montreal-based choreographer and director of Rubberband Dance Company, is making a new work with four PNB dancers for the November program. Quijada has taken his LA hip-hop roots and translated them into contemporary and classical dance. He and his assistant, Anne Plamondon, don't use the ballet terms "fouette," "tour jete" and "entrechat," which dancers in a studio can instantly transform into movement. Instead they speak of physical reactions.

"Here it's as if somebody is pushing against the back of your neck. It's all in the core. Move all in one piece," Quijada told the dancers during a recent rehearsal.

They work through a moment of complex partnering in which the women somersault over the men's backs and end up standing on their hands. It looks scary. At the end of the rehearsal one of the dancers puts out her shoulder. (By the next day she is dancing again.)

"These dancers have been incredibly courageous. I'm asking them to go way outside of their comfort zone. This is so far from classical ballet," Quijada said.

In another time slot, Dwight Rhoden teaches Ulysses Dove's "Dancing on the Front Porch of Heaven." Boal sits in front of the mirror taking notes. Next to him, well-known choreographer Christopher Wheeldon, who has flown in that morning from New York, watches the dancers intently, observing them in anticipation of staging his own work, "Polyphonia" for the March program.

In another rehearsal, Judith Fugate, of the Robbins Trust, teaches four couples the steps of Robbin's "Fancy Free." Ballet terms are back in use, but there is no ballet term for a helicoptering leap followed by a turn upside down that the women take into the men's arms.

"Part of the excitement for the audience of seeing new work is the sense of discovery," Boal said, "the sense that maybe this is going to be the piece that goes down in history."

Mary Murfin Bayley:

Copyright © 2006 The Seattle Times Company



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