People walk out of the ballet all the time, often because they're bored. (At least that's why the people I know walk out of the ballet.) But how often do people storm out of the ballet because they're incensed, even offended? Several times in the past few years at Pacific Northwest Ballet—and that's a good sign.
Four years ago, PNB hired a new artistic director, a principal dancer from New York City Ballet, to replace the long-reigning ballet power couple Kent Stowell and Francia Russell, who helped found the company in 1977. When Peter Boal flew to Seattle for his job interview, he was only 40 years old, had never run a large company before, and was almost painfully soft-spoken. Of all the interview candidates, he got the lowest marks for "communication skills." (He outscored his competitors in almost every other category, sometimes by huge margins.) Boal's deep charm and robust artistic ideas shone through and won him the job.
"He has a genuineness and great instincts for the important aspects of the pieces," says executive director D. David Brown, who began his career dancing for the Boston Ballet. (PNB is a large arts institution run by artists who are capable on- and offstage: another vitally good sign.) Boal moved into PNB and began a Boal-quiet revolution (other large Seattle arts institutions, are you paying attention?), introducing more contemporary choreographers to the repertoire: William Forsythe, Ulysses Dove, Twyla Tharp, Benjamin Millepied, Jean-Christophe Maillot, Jerome Robbins (the fact that Robbins, who choreographed for Broadway and NYCB in the 1950s, is pushing PNB's repertoire is a little nuts), and others. Boal has also brought new works by PNB dancers Kiyon Gaines and Olivier Wevers, as well as local modern choreographers Mary Sheldon Scott and Donald Byrd, to the PNB stage.
His choices thrilled people who had given up on the ballet as hopelessly fusty. They alienated and angered others. Hence the walkouts. "Peter doesn't mind the sacrifice of an audience member," says principal dancer Ariana Lallone. "As long as they've been moved by a piece—even irritated by it."
During their 28-year directorship, Stowell and Russell built PNB into a nationally renowned stronghold for classical dance training and the works of Russian ballet giant George Balanchine, who collaborated extensively with Igor Stravinsky, became the leading choreographer of the 20th century, and founded New York City Ballet. PNB earned the respect of the classical ballet world as a kind of NYCB-West. But conservatism set in, with Stowell and Russell only adding a few new works to the repertoire each year. Between 2000 and 2004, only 10 new dances appeared in the repertoire, two of them by Stowell. In four seasons, Boal has added 52, none by him, and many that stretch the definition of ballet.
One Flat Thing, reproduced, by Forsythe, inspired scores of walkouts when it premiered in March of 2008. Not coincidentally, it was the most thrilling piece PNB has staged in years. "We have a deliberate pattern of pushing the envelope and then pulling it back to something more familiar," Boal says. "But with that piece, people felt pushed too far, too quickly."
Performed by 14 dancers on and around 20 gray aluminum tables, Thing sounded like rumbling static and looked like a fit. The dancers (dressed in bright American Apparel colors) slid along and under the tables, jumped over and onto them, briefly locked limbs in furious but mechanical couplings, then disengaged. The dance was cold and glittering, with a medicinal aftertaste. As the bright bodies streaked through the gray grid, shoving the tables back and forth as they went, they looked like a riot of metastasizing cancer cells or a pack of cocaine molecules skipping through the brain. It was hard on the dancers, who suffered nicks and bruises. It was also a hell of a lot of fun.
"Oh yes, One Flat Thing was so much fun," says young corps dancer Andrew Bartee. "I got a rush doing that. The contemporary work feels better on my body, if I can be wonky and whack out my leg or whatever."
But Boal hasn't thrown out the Balanchine with the bathwater, or declared open war against the company's past. People inside PNB, in fact, seem to be in denial of the changes that look so obvious from the outside. Executive director Brown emphasizes Boal's "honoring the history of PNB" and the dancers I interviewed—Lallone, Bartee, Carla Körbes—wouldn't admit that much has changed at all.
"Our class time changed by 15 minutes," says Lallone, who has been with the company for 23 years, when pressed to name changes under the Boal regime. "We have shorter rehearsal periods, and now we go on tour to Jacob's Pillow and other places... Peter did do Mopey in his first season here," she allowed. "That was brave."
Yes it was. Mopey, a fierce 15-minute solo by Marco Goecke set to C.P.E. Bach and the Cramps, looks more like an amalgam of modern dance and kung fu than what people think of as ballet. Boal is politic, but his decisions aren't necessarily: Mopey was a shot across the bow. "Let's face it—it's a weird work," he says. "It's not your grandma's ballet. Goecke's choreography looks slapped together and random, but the more you see it, the more you can see his sense of history. He knows what he wants to rebel against."
Does Boal know what he wants to rebel against?
"Gosh," he says, rubbing his chin, searching for the politic answer. "Preconceived notions, I guess. I love it when people come and say, 'I didn't expect that, but I loved it.' The preconceived notions that ballet is older and female, that it's boring, that it's for someone else. That it's not fresh, young, sexy, and relevant."
Young is a key word for the new PNB, which is pushing for younger audiences by offering youth specials ($5 for Friday previews, $25 for two regular tickets for people under 25) and partnering with Teen Tix, a city initiative to get students into art and music venues by offering cheap tickets. The partnership has been so successful, PNB won two awards from Teen Tix in 2008: best-selling show and best-selling venue. They beat out the Laser Dome by 64 tickets and Seattle Rep by 439.
Which is not to say adults don't respond to Boal's boldness. Last year, he replaced Stowell's 1987 Romeo and Juliet (set to Tchaikovsky) with Maillot's more passionate 1996 version (set to Prokofiev). "I wasn't sure the audience would embrace it, so we set a very modest goal for single ticket sales at $300,000," Boal says. PNB hit that goal by opening night and ultimately doubled it. "People were ready for a new way of thinking about the work. That's the thing about taste—you have to keep stimulating it."
Which brings us all the way down to the heart of why PNB has won a Genius Award: because it is an exemplar.
When faced with the challenge of finding a new leader, PNB—one of the city's traditional and conservative arts institutions—didn't take the safe road of hiring a cautious, easily spooked administrator. PNB showed some guts and hired a bold young artist with a thirst for new work. The gamble has paid off. Other venerable Seattle institutions are looking for new leadership or will be soon: Seattle Rep, the symphony, the opera.
Let's hope they're taking a good look at PNB, for their own sakes as well as ours. Imagine what could happen.