Reports from Seattle in recent years have confirmed that Peter Boal, the exemplary and beloved New York City Ballet principal dancer who took over as artistic director of Pacific Northwest Ballet in 2005, has been leading an already acclaimed company to new heights. As he expanded and broadened the repertory with numerous premieres by a wide range of choreographers, he cultivated dancers whose technical and interpretive achievements are challenged by that repertory.
New Yorkers have had a few tantalizing _ and highly impressive _ glimpses of PNB when small contingents performed at the Joyce Theater in 2010, and four times at the Guggenheim's Works & Process series. But in February we'll get the real deal when the full company (with its orchestra) returns to City Center for the first time since 1996.
The 46-member company, which is celebrating its 40th anniversary this season, will bring two programs that exemplify the range of its repertory. First, there's an evening of three masterworks by George Balanchine, whose ballets have been central to PNB for decades. Then, there's Jean-Christophe Maillot's sleek, cinematic version of Romeo and Juliet _ a production that Boal added to the repertory in 2008 because he considers it an ideal fit for his dancers: "It had a contemporary edge to it that I thought was right for where PNB is today." Boal succeeded Francia Russell and Kent Stowell, co-artistic directors for 28 years, who established PNB as a troupe of national stature. Both had been members of New York City Ballet and worked closely with Balanchine. Russell has long been an eminent, authoritative stager of Balanchine works, and most of the nearly 40 Balanchine ballets that PNB has danced were staged by Russell. As soon as he arrived, Boal also began staging some of Balanchine's ballets _ particularly ones in which he had danced leading roles during his 22 years with NYCB. Among those is Apollo, the seminal 1928 work in which he performed so memorably for many years. His staging will be performed in February, alongside Russell's productions of Agon (1957) and Concerto Barocco (1941).
"The Balanchine repertory is such a central part of PNB's identity," Boal noted during a phone interview from his Seattle office. "It's a constant, and it's also a key part of our dancing under my directorship. So it's the right thing for us to bring to New York during our 40th anniversary." But he gave this aspect of the City Center repertory careful consideration. "NYCB has an amazing tradition of presenting Balanchine, and I was hesitant, at first, to do Balanchine in New York because of my reverence for what's done there. I really didn't want to invite comparisons. I just would want people to judge what they see _ and not compare."
Boal first crossed paths with Jean-Christophe Maillot, the choreographer who directs Les Ballets de Monte-Carlo, in 1988. After five years with NYCB, the young dancer spent a year exploring the European dance scene. While he was performing with Ballet du Nord, Maillot arrived to create a new ballet. "I kept track of his career ever since. I had friends who worked for Ballets de Monte-Carlo, so I would go visit."
In 1999, that company brought Maillot's Roméo et Juliette (which he created in 1996) to City Center, and Boal was deeply impressed by the production. "At the time, I thought, 'If I was ever an artistic director, I would like to program that' _ and then it happened! I think it shows our company off really well, so it's the right work to bring."
Boal, who never had a chance to perform in a full-length Romeo and Juliet, was initially so taken with what he saw at City Center that he briefly considered joining Maillot's company. "I was really quite struck by his Roméo _ to the point where I talked to him about joining, and auditioned. But then I decided not to." Instead, some years later, he was able to present the ballet's first American production, and ob- serve how ideally suited it was for PNB at this point in time.
"It's very realistic; it's about conveying the characters," he says of Maillot's version, which is set to the complete Prokofiev score. "Romeo and Juliet really look like fumbling, awkward, gawky teenagers who are finding love. It's something really fresh and real and human and raw. [Maillot] insisted on that."
In Maillot's production, Friar Laurence assumes central significance and is performed by a principal dancer, and there are more major roles than usual. "Maillot felt that there were three ballerina roles _ the nurse, Lady Capulet and Juliet. Obviously Juliet is the largest, but it needs three strong women to carry it. Even the corps de ballet is so active and challenged musically, and in terms of acting ability, it really uses the company well."
Boal has nurtured ongoing creative connections between several leading choreographers and PNB. At the time of this interview, Mark Morris was in the studios working on a world premiere for PNB's November program. (The company had performed two earlier Morris works in recent seasons.) Boal enhanced the repertory similarly with works by Twyla Tharp and Christopher Wheeldon. "There's this whole process of building the relationship with a choreographer _ and the culmination is having them create a work on the company. So that's very rewarding," Boal said.
Now in his eighth season at the helm, and with the major anniversary to mark, Boal felt PNB was primed to return to a major New York venue. "My first responsibility was... to build the right repertory here in Seattle, acquire the new works that I thought were right for the company, and build a company of dancers that were dancing in a style that I was bringing to them," Boal said. "I've hired two-thirds of these dancers, so it really is my company. Now is the right time to bring the company to New York. We're overdue for that; it's been 17 years." *
Susan Reiter covers dance for New York Press and contributes articles on the performing arts to the Los Angeles Times and other publications.