Pacific Northwest Ballet is back for live performances at McCaw Hall

In spring 2020, Pacific Northwest Ballet was preparing for its fourth performance of the season, Thousand pieces. Resident choreographer Alejandro Cerrudo’s highly anticipated premiere was a major undertaking, involving a crowded stage, mixed media, and dancers hanging from the ceiling. The specter of a new, rapidly spreading respiratory virus hung over the company throughout production, but the dancers remained excited to debut this new work on a large scale. They recorded a dress rehearsal. Then on March 11, two days before opening night, Governor Inslee announced a statewide ban on gatherings of 250 or more people. The rest, as we know, is history.

While the performing arts in Seattle are largely in hibernation that day, the Pacific Northwest Ballet has found a way to move forward. On October 8, 2020, the company launched a digital-only season that would benefit from national coverage and new audiences around the world. Although despite all of its success, the health and safety protocol only allowed a small number of dancers to be presented. Many in the company were seriously waiting to return to work.

This weekend, that moment arrives. On September 24, the Pacific Northwest Ballet performed in front of an audience at McCaw Hall for the first time in 19 months to finally release an excerpt from Cerrudo Thousand pieces. But the company returning to the stage this season is not the one that saw the curtain fall in March 2020. Several familiar faces have disappeared, and the dancers who remain find themselves changed from their divergent experiences of last year, all in a new season that is both ambitious and prudent.

“Many companies have significant sales. PNB usually doesn’t, ”says Peter Boal, artistic director of the Pacific Northwest Ballet. “But we have had more sales than what we have seen in recent years.” In total, PNB has lost eight retired or relocated dancers, including principals William Lin-Yee, Seth Orza, Jerome Tisserand and Laura Tisserand. But with departures comes new energy, says Boal. “As much as you might miss a particular dancer, so many opportunities open up” for the four new names hired this season, and for existing dancers hoping for promotions. “It looks like a refresh in a way.”

The digital season has also brought new insight into the kind of art PNB can create, having made nearly 90 videos, including short films made by the company’s dancers and new works by choreographers designed to be filmed. “We have never had so much art to offer, and our dancers have found new talent,” says Boal, who believes the company will continue to produce dance films for audiences in the future. PNB is also offering a limited digital subscription option for the upcoming season, in part as a precaution, as the Delta variant keeps people wary of public events and to maintain the expanded audience they gained last year. “We found subscribers [and ticket buyers] in 50 states and 39 countries. We cannot abandon them.

Ballet dancer Genevieve Waldorf actually took a year off from dance during the digital season. Waldorf joined the company as an apprentice in 2018, and only had a season and a half as a corps member under her before the pandemic forced her career to rest. “It was frustrating,” she says. “But it’s different from an injury, when it’s just you.” It was happening to the world. It broadens your perspective. Waldorf moved with her parents to California, where she took distance education at Harvard, studied applied mathematics and computer science, and danced when she could. “My parents would be on a conference call, my brother would be in school, and I would take a full ballet class.”

Now that she’s back with the company and gearing up for a new season, Waldorf is experiencing the same weird weirdness as the rest of us re-entering the community and the workplace as the pandemic continues – dancers are relearning to dance with partners like people awkwardly negotiating around handshakes, punches, hugs. How to do that again? But on the day at the end of summer when the whole company got together in the studio for the first time, she will remember it forever. “It was like the first day of school, all this anxiety and excitement. That feeling of normalcy, like we’re actually going to play.

At the start of the digital season, the dancers trained and performed in strict groups of four. But only dancers who were already living together could join forces. Corps de ballet dancers Miles Pertl and Leah Terada had just moved in together in January 2020. At that time, they had only been dance partners once, and for a brief moment in a larger room. After spending the digital season dancing with each other exclusively, the couple are now going through a different kind of transition as they prepare for the One million pieces extract.

“Sometimes there is a period of adaptation to get to know the other dancer,” Terada explains. “So it was exciting to be able to skip that and go straight to where we wanted to.” There were times they would bring home work – a lunch break to move away from the table and try something on the square of the marley dance surface on the thick carpet in their apartment. And acting for the video encouraged them to do multiple takes in their quest to get it right. “As dancers, we strive for perfection, for better or for worse,” says Terada. “Of course we would say, yes, let’s try again. I can do better.”

But something was lost during performances filmed while he was separated from the other dancers. “It’s like writing a chapter in a book, but you don’t know the chapter before or after,” says Pertl. Returning to the studio meant seeing everyone “work, sweat, and give it their all” – longtime colleagues and new faces together creating the kind of energy that seems to only come with organic human collaboration. , messy. “It’s just really refreshing.”

The new season will be a step towards normal, but it won’t look like seasons gone by. The first two rehearsals of this year feature less performance. Mask warrants remain, as well as proof of vaccination or a negative Covid test to attend. And while Peter Boal believes the performing arts will eventually return to pre-pandemic normal, the past year may well have changed everything, and not in a bad way at all. “Equity principles were acquired during this time,” says Boal, in the form of new online options, courses for people with Parkinson’s disease, and access to the arts that extend across- beyond the Seattle area. And these will not go away.

The all-digital season was a challenge taken on with vision, but it was never intended to replace live ballet. Even in its most memorable moments, watching reps from my laptop only made me feel the pain we all feel for something “before” – that eager tendency to wrap us around the things and people that we do. we like; the desire to be the. For company dancers, the feeling is mutual. Like when Miles Pertl and Leah Terada joined part of their PNB cohort over the summer for a live performance in Sun Valley, Idaho. They watched their colleagues backstage and, during a particularly beautiful moment, heard the crowd start to cheer halfway through. A common phenomenon in the pre-Covid era. But by then, Pertl recalls, “hearing the applause took my breath away.”

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