The Journeys of Pacific Northwest Ballet's New Director and Two of the Company's Finest Ballerinas

June 30, 2008

In July, his first month as artistic director of Pacific Northwest Ballet, Peter Boal had a crash course on the wide-ranging nature of his new job. “I presented my first [ideas for repertory] programs and the musical director said, ‘You haven’t thought about the trombones.’ I said, ‘I certainly haven’t.’ And he said, ‘Well, they don’t have anything to do for three months and they’re part of our orchestra.’ So, we did some juggling and we have happy trombone players now.”


Boal, a native New Yorker who retired in June from an illustrious 22-year career dancing with New York City Ballet, took the reins from retiring co-artistic directors Kent Stowell and Francia Russell, who had run the PNB company and school for the past 28 years. Boal is also director of Pacific Northwest Ballet School, which has 28 teachers and more than 800 students, and he teaches one upper-level class a week.


The 43-member company has long had a reputation for excellence in performing Balanchine ballets—thanks to the influence of Stowell and Russell, who both danced with NYCB—but Boal hasn’t felt the burden of history on his plans for the future. “Kent and Francia have offered me help and guidance, but at the end of every sentence they say, ‘You need to do what you want to do.’ What Boal wants to do is build upon what Kent and Francia created, balancing commissions and the work of choreographers less known to PNB audiences, with the familiar repertory and the classics. “I want people to come to the ballet to see Swan Lake and Romeo and Juliet, but at the same time I want them to be eager to learn about a whole range of choreographers they’ve never heard of,” he says. “Even someone like Jerome Robbins isn’t necessarily a familiar name here; PNB has never done a Twyla Tharp work before. I want them to trust that if there is an evening with four choreographers unknown to them that they should still want to come to the ballet to see what it’s all about.”

The Dancers

Since his appointment was announced, Boal has received more than 200 resumés from dancers; 140 people came to an audition in NYC. Auditions aren’t planned for the immediate future, though, as there are no positions open at this time. “This season, we brought in two new dancers,” he says. “I was insistent that [the current] dancers stay, because I wanted to work with them—it’s an enormously talented group and I didn’t want to clean house.” He is clear about what he looks for in dancers: “I want dancers who can move and dancers who can move me. I want dancers who can cross the footlights and come into the audience when they’re performing.”


While Boal, who retired from dancing while he was still in peak form, says he has no long-term goals of performing or choreographing, he had planned to dance at this season’s opening night gala, but tore his calf muscle the day before. (Instead, he made a cameo appearance in Duo Concertant.) But the time he spent in class and rehearsal alongside the dancers was nonetheless worthwhile. “I think it was weird for them at first, but it built up a sense of camaraderie and commonality. It was a nice way for me to get to know the dancers,” he says, adding that they are receptive to new ideas. “I have been asking them to move faster, to never let the music go. Everything that I have asked they have been willing to try. I give them a company class that they probably don’t like, as it’s not especially comfortable. They roll their eyes every now and then, but they realize that this is a new person coming in with a different energy.”


The main difference Boal has discovered between PNB and NYCB is the rehearsal and performance schedule. NYCB performs a different program six nights a week during two-month winter and spring seasons, while PNB performs each of seven different programs in two-week blocks over the course of nine months. “It means a different pace in preparing the ballets,” says Boal. “At NYCB we got into crisis mode [where we] could prepare a ballet in a couple of days. Here, the dancers have a longer preparation process.” Boal is adapting quickly. At the opening night gala, “there was a great feeling of momentum and excitement,” he says. “The public was willing to move forward and to follow my lead. Somebody said to me, ‘You blew the doors off this place.’ I guess that’s even better than opening doors.”


At 16, Noelani Pantastico auditioned for PNB, on a whim, while in NYC to try out for PNB School’s summer program (which she had attended the previous three summers). The cattle-call company audition was the day after the summer program audition. “I asked my mom if we could stay another day and she said, ‘Why not?’” recalls Pantastico, who was offered an apprenticeship on the spot.


With a stepfather in the military, Pantastico, born in Hawaii, has lived all over the country (with the bulk of her training at Central Pennsylvania Youth Ballet in Carlisle). Still, she had a hard time moving to Seattle on her own. “My family helped me move, but I was all alone,” she says. “It was scary.” She rented an apartment down the street from PNB headquarters with a friend from the summer course, and finished high school through correspondence. “It all worked out, but I didn’t feel comfortable for about three years,” she admits. “Being in the corps, it’s competitive. People can really hate you. You have to find your friends, stick close to them and ignore the gossip. It’s in every company.”


Currently in her ninth season with PNB and her second as a principal dancer, Pantastico is invigorated by the changes in artistic direction. “It’s the same company and the same friends but a new view,” she says. “With any job, after a while you get comfortable. You know what the casting is going to be. I had become good friends with Kent and Francia. [Pantastico remains in contact with the two, whom she calls her “ballet parents.”] Now it’s like, ‘I don’t know this man, and I don’t know what he thinks of my dancing, or what he’s going to cast me in.’”


Boal also upped the ante by bringing in new repertory as well as dancers Carla Körbes and Benjamin Griffiths. “Out here, we’re so separated from the rest of the ballet community,” says Pantastico. “Carla is like a breath of fresh air. She’s different than all of us in terms of her dancing. By osmosis, you can start looking like one another in a company, and I think Peter is trying to make us all look individual.”


Pantastico has embraced opportunities to stretch her wings, teaching at CPYB and Mid-Columbia Ballet and, in 2004, guesting with NYCB, an experience she described as euphoric, if stressful. “My brother came to the show and said, ‘You looked really happy out there, a lot happier than anyone else.’ And I thought, ‘Oh, god, was I being cheesy onstage?’ But I didn’t care afterwards because I really did enjoy myself. It was natural.”


“Natural” is the word that Boal uses to describe Pantastico’s talent, adding that she has “a rare gift for dance and a rare gift for musicality.” This natural talent is augmented by hard work. A newlywed (this summer she married former dancer Brady Hartley, whom she met at PNB her apprentice year), Pantastico balances her time in the studio with her home life, which includes two cats and a high-energy dog. “The whole process is what is so gratifying,” she says. “If I didn’t work, I’d go crazy. I always go into the artistic office and request more rehearsal, because I love working, even though it might not feel so great some days. And I love to perform.”


Carla Körbes’ decision to follow Peter Boal to PNB came just as NYCB’s Ballet Master in Chief Peter Martins promoted her to soloist. Even the promotion didn’t change her mind. “Peter [Boal]’s a very important person to me,” says Körbes. “He literally changed my life when I was 14.”


Körbes, who started ballet in her native Brazil, first encountered Boal when he came to her school and they performed Apollo together. Boal recommended that she audition for School of American Ballet and brought videotapes of her to the school. “The summer program was already full, but he talked to the administration and they let me and my friend come last minute,” says Körbes. After the summer program, she was invited to stay year-round.


Despite her talent, she struggled through her early years in the school and company, learning a brand-new language and coping with injuries. Boal steered her toward Professional Children’s School, where she enrolled in ESL courses, and attended an English class for SAB’s foreign students. “I was shy at that age,” she says. “It was hard for me to talk to people and, being a perfectionist, it was hard for me to speak knowing that I was saying things wrong.”


She was challenged again when, in 1997, an injury sidelined her for two years. She stayed in NYC, though, and did physical therapy and watched classes at SAB. Her perseverance landed her an apprenticeship with NYCB in 1999, and a contract with the company in 2000. After a banner year onstage in 2001, she was injured again; she had just regained her momentum this year when the opportunity to move to Seattle appeared. “I wasn’t improving as much as I wanted to at City Ballet. This is a whole new challenge. And change is good,” she says.


The wide-ranging repertory at PNB is allowing Körbes to explore different aspects of her dancing. “By the end of City Ballet, I was [thought of as] a lyrical dancer, and most of the ballets I did were slow and lyrical. So far, Peter [at PNB] has given me some Balanchine leotard-and-tights ballets; William Forsythe, which is this whole other movement I’ve never danced before; and Jerome Robbins’ [lyrical] In the Night, which is my specialty. I’m getting to do different things, and I haven’t done that in a long time.” Boal praises her versatility, calling her a “naturally intelligent and sophisticated performer.”


Joining a company in the midst of a major transition has reduced the pressure of being new, says Körbes, as has her long association with Boal. “I do feel like the new person,” she says, “but I think it’s going to be an interesting year for everybody.” Although she had only been to Seattle once before she moved, Körbes knew many of the company members from her days at SAB. She spent August finding a house and a car and getting used to a different kind of urban environment. “Seattle is quite a change. It’s quieter, but there’s still enough going on. I attempted hiking—it was totally different for me,” she says with a laugh. “After 10 years in the city, all of the sudden nature is almost scary, with the bugs and stuff, but I’m enjoying it more and more.”


She’s also adjusting to Boal, formerly a colleague, now being her boss, and to performing in front of a whole new audience. “It’s a different energy,”she says. “It’s exciting and the same time it’s scary. It was such a big decision to move from New York, so I hope that I can take full advantage of this experience and grow as a dancer and explore this new part of me. I’m loving it so far.”