A richly memorable era will end on June 5th, when Peter Boal dances his final performance after 22 years with New York City Ballet. Mr. Boal's career has been marked by his innate classical purity and technical fluency and by his ability to breathe fresh life into legendary roles such as Apollo and Prodigal Son, as well as his appetite for contemporary choreography. His modestly intense performances have set a high standard within the Company, earning him the admiring respect of his peers and the enduring affection of the audience.
Many members of that audience can claim to have watched Mr. Boal grow up, since he first appeared on the New York State Theater stage in George Balanchine's The Nutcracker as a ten-year-old. His first encounter with Balanchine occurred at a rehearsal, when the great choreographer made a point of showing Mr. Boal, portraying the feisty child who is dragged away by his father, what he wanted him to do. "That was our first contact‹Balanchine telling me, 'When I pick you up, you have to kick me and punch me as hard as you can!'" Mr. Boal said during a recent interview at the School of American Ballet. "So he scooped me up under his arm, and that's what I did."
It was probably the only time Mr. Boal behaved anything less than elegantly on stage. Two years later, he was coached by Balanchine on a loftier level, learning the famous mime sequence the Nutcracker Prince performs in the ballet's second act. He performed the role for two years. By the time he was featured in the School of American Ballet's 1978 Workshop Performances, he knew he had found what he wanted to do. "Performing in Quadrille, by Jean-Pierre Bonnefoux, made me realize that this was something I was really interested in, and that the audience was responding."
Attending SAB and aspiring to join the Company were very natural developments for Mr. Boal. "My grandparents got a City Ballet subscription the first year they were available, and my mother first got hers in 1960. That was what my family did for fun; they went to see the New York City Ballet," he recalls. As a teenager, he attended the premieres of Union Jack, Vienna Waltzes, and Opus 19/The Dreamer.
Mr. Boal's official entry into the Company was bittersweet, coming on the day Balanchine died, April 30, 1983. Not only was he one of the last new Company members to have first-hand memories of the great choreographer, he had been one of eight advanced students selected by Balanchine for a special men's class at SAB, taught alternately by Stanley Williams and Andrei Kramarevsky. "Balanchine told us, 'In my mind, you are the principals of tomorrow.'"
By 1989, that prediction had come true for Mr. Boal. But his route to that point had some uneasy moments. Although major roles came his way early‹he learned Prodigal Son, Tschaikovsky Pas de Deux, and Oberon in A Midsummer Night's Dream while he was still in the corps‹he reached a low point in 1988. "For the American Music Festival, many choreographers came in to create ballets, and none of them chose me. That makes you question your level of talent, and I decided to take some time off, to go to Europe for six months, where I danced with Ballet du Nord."
Soon afterwards, he was taking class at SAB, not yet officially back with the Company, when Peter Martins called, asking, "Can you learn Apollo in a week?" With his innate nobility and the luxuriant way he inhabits its vigorous, quirky classicism, he put an indelible stamp on the role, which he has danced throughout his career. Former principal dancer Margaret Tracey, who often danced Terpsichore to Mr. Boal's Apollo, says, "I think he's one of the greatest Apollos ever," and recently made sure her six-year-old son had the opportunity to see Mr. Boal perform the ballet.
He vividly remembers his introduction to Prodigal Son, as a young corps dancer. "Peter called me to learn it‹there were six of us learning it at the time‹and he probably thought I would perform it in a couple of years. But while I had been out there in roles where I could show my technique, I now wanted to demonstrate that there was something inside me that wasn't brought out by those roles‹and I had a feeling for Prodigal. So I asked Peter for the part, and he said, 'OK, you have a week.' Jerry Robbins asked to work with me, so there we were, together in the studio every day for a week, working on Prodigal, one on one‹everybody out of the room, doors closed. Mainly, he gave me really intensive coaching on acting the role."
Mr. Boal's association with Robbins was long and fruitful. The choreographer featured Mr. Boal and Wendy Whelan in his last ballet, Brandenburg. "We spent two years making that ballet, but it was worth it. I loved that man. He always helped me so much, and I'm so grateful. He was always pushing me. He knew that I had more to give, and he wasn't afraid to tell me." In part due to this relationship, Mr. Boal has chosen a Robbins work, Opus 19/The Dreamer, for the June 5th performance. "Opus 19 was a very important ballet to me, and I worked so closely with Jerry on it," he said. When he attended the ballet's premiere back in 1979, he could not have known that the lead role, first performed by Mikhail Baryshnikov, would become one he would perform with luminous distinction, and in which he would make his farewell appearance.
In addition to his final NYCB performance, the first weekend in June is the annual School of American Ballet Workshop performances, which will mark Mr. Boal's departure from the school's faculty. Since 1997, Mr. Boal has been a much-admired teacher at the school, teaching up to 13 weekly classes, mainly boys'. At NYCB, he has shared the stage with many of his former pupils, and notes with pleasure that Pacific Northwest Ballet, the Seattle company where he will be the new artistic director, has 15 of his former students on its roster.
Mr. Boal is moving on to the next phase of his career with the grace and poise that have always marked his dancing. "There's a subtle refinement Peter has that very few dancers have," Ms. Tracey notes admiringly. "Dancing with him, I felt so safe that I could go to places that I maybe wouldn't have gone with other partners." She adds, "He's a wonderful role model. He conducts himself in a way that is a wonderful example to young dancers." Another frequent partner, principal dancer Yvonne Borree, says, "His naturalness and his ease always made you calm. That was very instrumental for me."
For his repertory in his final season, Mr. Boal has chosen some of his favorite roles, and he knows that his emotions will be intense. "I can already feel how much I'm going to miss getting out on the State Theater stage," he said. "I feel I've had this incredible relationship with everybody who was out there in the audience, from day one. There was this mutual respect and love coming from me to the audience and from the audience to me. It's a privilege to have known that."
Susan Reiter is a freelance arts journalist who writes for Newsday and other publications.