Excellent lines in her petit allegro.


"Story ballets" feel less mechanical and more like, well, stories.


To get into performance art after she retires from ballet.

Maybe you wouldn't expect a principal ballerina who's been dancing professionally for 20 years to plop down at Streamline Tavern with a pint of beer in her hand and a denim jacket slung over her shoulders, but that's just how Pacific Northwest Ballet's Noelani Pantastico rolls. When asked, she even busted out her "Pantasticos"—custom shoes made especially for her feet by Freed of London—and banged them on the barroom table. She was demonstrating how she "pounds the noise out of her shoes" so that she doesn't "sound like an elephant" when she leaps across the stage.

Pantastico didn't grow up in a family of dancers. She's a Hawaii-born military kid—one of six—whose parents moved around every few years or so until they wound up in Pennsylvania. At 16 years of age, she secured her apprenticeship contract with PNB, but she officially joined the company at 17. She stayed with PNB for a decade, during which period she became a principal dancer known for her incredible technical skills—huge jumps, lots of turns—until she hit a crossroads.

She could continue on perfecting PNB's Balanchine-like house style (fast-paced, technically rigorous) or she could take a huge pay cut and travel around with a band of Frenchy nobodies at Les Ballets de Monte-Carlo based in Monaco. She wanted to shake things up, so she hauled off to Europe, where she danced for Princess Caroline (and many others) for seven years. Last November, at 36, she returned to PNB a completely new, more versatile dancer.

Though she may have lost half a step in Monaco, she's gained a greater understanding of why she's taking those steps in the first place. She's not just an explosive technician anymore—she's an artist looking to add layers of complexity to the characters she inhabits. And her portrayal of Juliette as a rambunctious and powerful young woman in last fall's production of Jean-Christophe Maillot's Roméo et Juliette showed Seattle audiences just how much she learned.

The difference between an unforgivably sappy gesture and an act of grace that fully expresses the thrill and agony of human desire can come down to a quarter-inch adjustment of the angle of a dancer's wrist. That's the level of detail that Pantastico is examining now when she researches and rehearses her roles. In Roméo et Juliette, for instance, there's a moment when the two young lovers are being pulled away from each other, and then they both try to reach out at the same time, arms strained and fingers fluttering in the hopes of one final touch. During rehearsals for that scene, Pantastico was angling her hand slightly upward. Watching video of this moment afterward, she and the choreographer realized that the wrist should be stiff. The wrist at an angle is a performance of desire, whereas the wrist reaching straight out looks like someone desperately trying to grab ahold of something. It's a small fix, but it's a big moment in the performance, and that little flick of the wrist ended up transforming a cheesy Disney good-bye into a heart-rending moment.

"On the days it works really well, it's all about intention," Pantastico says. "If I'm really being genuine to the actions and reactions, then it's magic, then you're watching me really fall in love up there." That kind of thinking is more complex than "hit the step, hit the step, hit the step," and it's the difference between a masterful but empty performance and one that brings a character—and an entire ballet—to life.