Thursday, May 22, 2014

Leta Biasucci Has A Dream

PNB dancer Leta Biasucci in George Balanchine's "Diamonds"
photo by Lindsay Thomas

Most people see only the sparkly side of ballet: the live performances, with dancers in costume, pointe shoes tied, orchestra in the pit. Whether it’s the annual holiday production of “Nutcracker” or an edgier, contemporary work, a performance is like a reward for many of the dancers at Pacific Northwest Ballet. PNB corps de ballet member Leta Biasucci says “sharing an experience we hope the audience enjoys is what makes it worthwhile for most dancers.”

The “it” Biasucci refers to is the grueling training, the daily hours of practice essential for anyone to make it as a professional ballet dancer. Thousands of little girls (and maybe hundreds of little boys) dream of being on stage. The truth is, the sparkly, seemingly effortless performances are the result of years of constant hard work. Only a few dreamers have the talent and discipline it takes.

On a recent Tuesday morning, Biasucci and a roomful of her fellow PNB company members warm up before the daily 90 minute class that starts out each day at the ballet company. There are no tutus, no tiaras here. Most of the dancers wear ratty tights, leg warmers, tee shirts that advertise dance clothing companies or past arts festivals. At 10:15 sharp, PNB Artistic Director Peter Boal comes to the front of the room to put his dancers through their paces.
Leta Biasucci and PNB company members in daily class
photo by Hannah Burn

“We’ll start with plies,” Boal says. Each dancer places a hand on the nearest barre, bending slowly at the knees until thighs are parallel to the floor, heels lifted. With arms gracefully arced overhead, they rise up from the deep bend, then sweep their torsos forward from the waist, heads stretched toward their toes. This is the first of a series of exercises that become increasingly complex as the class goes on. A pianist in the corner keeps up a steady accompaniment.

Leta Biasucci is positioned near Boal at the front of the studio, her curly dark hair pulled back from her face. At 24, Biassucci is one of the younger company members, but already she’s invested years training for this job. She started ballet classes as a five year old in Pennsylvania.

“I loved it, I loved it, it was what I wanted to do,” she explains. “It was what I did when I went home, I tapped around the house. I loved it.”

At 9, Biasucci enrolled in the Central Pennsylvania Youth Ballet, considered a “serious” dance school. The young girl was attracted to the rigor of the daily classes. She spent every afternoon there. “Maybe I liked it because I was sort of good at it,” she laughs.

To succeed at ballet you need to be more than “sort of good” at it. According to Peter Boal “I don’t know that it has to do with the gifts that you receive when you’re born.”  More so, Boal believes a dancer’s success is built on determination and intelligence.

By the age of 16, Leta Biasucci thought she had what it takes to pursue a professional dance career. She was accepted to San Francisco Ballet’s trainee program, where she attended class and dreamed they might hire her when she finished the program. Most big companies like SF Ballet hire only a handful of trainees or apprentices every year. Biasucci didn’t make the cut. She consoled herself with a job at the smaller Oregon Ballet Theater. She was happy to be dancing professionally, but still, she dreamed of something more. After three years in Portland, Biasucci decided to audition for Pacific Northwest Ballet.

“I remember sending an email to Peter (Boal’s) assistant, Doug Fullington, saying if you’ll have me, I would love the opportunity to come up and take class.”

That’s ballet-speak for an audition.
Leta Biasucci attends company class in Vail
photo by Lindsay Thomas

The class Biasucci attended was much like the one Boal leads most mornings: a series of technical exercises progressing to step combinations, and finally to ballet’s signature jumps. Biasucci remembers it was fast paced, very challenging. “And I was, of course, very nervous.”

Boal says “Leta came, and I remember looking at her in company class and thinking, that’s not quite right, that’s not quite what I was looking for.”

But there was something about this girl that intrigued him.

“I asked Doug, can you ask that Leta girl, I can’t remember her last name, can you ask her if she can come back a second time?”

A few weeks later, Biasucci returned to PNB.  “I sort of willed myself to have this confidence,” she says. “I said, okay, I’m here, I’m doing it.”

She confesses, the second time around, she was better prepared for what Boal would demand of her.
As the head of one of the best known ballet companies in the nation, Peter Boal can make or break a young dancer’s career. He likes to remind his students that they shouldn’t take his rejection as a final say on whether or not they’ll make it as professional dancers. But Boal is a taste maker. And Leta Biasucci was a dancer to his taste.

“I haven’t been a speed dater, but I imagine with speed dating you click or you don’t.”

Boal clicked with Leta Biasucci. A month after her second visit to PNB, he offered her a job in the corps de ballet. The corps are the dancers you usually see grouped at the back or sides of the stage, framing the stars of each performance. They’re like supporting actors in a film, or the chorus in a big Broadway show. Each corps member dreams of being singled out from the crowd. Realistically, only a few will realize that dream. Sometimes it takes a lucky break.

For Leta Biasucci, that break came during a run of the classical ballet “Coppelia”. She’d studied the title role, but Biasucci wasn’t likely to get a chance to perform it.

“Leta was in the fifth cast,” says Boal. “But then, the dancer in the fourth cast couldn’t go on. I said, just step in for today, do what you know,” he laughs. “Well, she knew everything!”
Leta Biasucci as Cupid in Alexei Ratmanksy's "Don Quixote"
photo by Angela Sterling

Since that performance, Boal has selected Biasucci for a bevy of featured roles. She’s thrilled with the opportunities, but the spotlight can be scary. She has to deliver the goods in each performance, to prove she earned that spotlight.

Biasucci has been learning a new role for PNB’s upcoming production of “Giselle.” It’s a featured duet she’ll dance with company veteran (and audience favorite) Jonathan Porretta. At a recent rehearsal, Biasucci’s billowing tulle skirt throws her off.  She’s flustered and embarrassed by her mistakes. Porretta and ballet master Paul Gibson calm her down and the second run through goes much more smoothly.
The challenging role in “Giselle” is just the latest step in Leta Biasucci’s career ladder. You can’t rest on your past successes if you want to keep your job. “There’s always another rank,” she says, “you always want to be promoted, there’s always another role.”

Biasucci’s boss, Peter Boal, says the promotions are coming for Biasucci.

“In three months, six months.” But Boal defines success as more than a job title. “It’s about watching a fully accomplished artist develop into what they’re capable of.”

Sometimes Leta Biasucci has to remind herself that, whether or not she gets her promotions, this is the life she has worked for since she decided to become a ballerina at the age of 9.

“I feel I’m living the dream. This is it. And it’s great.”
Leta Biasucci, with James Moore, in Kent Stowell's "Nutcracker"
photo by Lindsay Thomas

Monday, May 19, 2014

Whim W'him: The Courage Of Conviction

Whim W'him company members in "Les Biches" by Anabelle Lopez Ochoa
photo @ Bamberg Fine Art, courtesy Whim W'him
It takes vision and passion to make art. It also takes discipline, resilience and maybe most of all, it takes courage. Courage to try to re-create what's in your mind's eye. Courage to ask friends, family, and strangers to give you money to make your dream into something tangible. Courage to put that artwork out for public comment, hoping it will resonate.Courage to push yourself beyond your last success, or your last failure.

Choreographer Olivier Wevers has spent more than five years propelled by the courage not only to make dances, but to forge a dance company in the worst economic climate since the Great Depression. His company Whim W'him is in the midst of its spring program at Seattle's Erickson Theater. #unprotected is an evening of three new works by Wevers and two guest choreographers. They're a manifestation of not only Wevers' artistic vision; they're also the fruit of his courage and perseverance.

The evening opens with Belgian-Colombian choreographer (and longtime Whim W'him guest artist) Anabelle Lopez Ochoa's "Les Biches." It's a stunning exploration of femininity and other-worldliness, performed by the company's four female dancers.
Whim W'him dancers in "Les Biches"
photo @ Bamberg Fine Art, courtesy Whim W'him

Dressed in flesh colored leotards and helmeted in retro swim caps, eyes accentuated by dark, almost sinister makeup, these women are hyper-females, using those eyes to seduce the audience. They beckon us with long red talons that extend their fingers several inches beyond the living hands. They are not the female deer the French word "biche" denotes. Instead, they are haunting creatures from some underwater realm.

Lighting designer Michael Mazzola creates a series of habitats for these sirens, alternating between eerie and accessible. The world of "Les Biches" isn't soon forgotten.

Andrew Bartee's latest piece, "I'm here but it's not the same" seems a manifestation of this young artist's search for his own identity. Five dancers in hoodies and jeans move slowly across the dark stage, shrouded from us and each other. One dancer breaks away from the line, throws off her hood to glimpse the world around her. Quickly, she flips that protective covering up. The wide world can be a scary place.

Andrew Bartee has spent the past six years in the corps de ballet at Pacific Northwest Ballet, as well as performing with Whim W'him and other Seattle contemporary choreographers. At 24, he's decided to pursue his interests in new work, both choreographically and in performance. This summer he leaves Seattle and PNB to join Ballet BC. He's dared to throw off that cozy hood for real. I'll miss him onstage and off, and I hope we still get to see the fruits of his choreographic vision from time to time.

The final dance on the #unprotected bill is Wevers' "Above the Cloud." Set to Francis Poulenc's ferocious "Organ Concerto," this dance is an exploration of personal, and interpersonal, transitions. The ferocity of the music is almost a counterpoint to the huge white pillows the dancers alternately embrace and discard. Tiny Lara Seefeldt is literally cushioned by the seven pillows as the dance begins, only to have them ripped out from under her, one by one, leaving her exposed and vulnerable to her changed circumstances. We can't hide from our lives, not matter how we try.
Olivier Wevers' "Above the Cloud"
photo @ Bamberg Fine Art, courtesy Whim W'him

"Above the Cloud" reveals Wevers own transition as an artist. He's long been adept at creating intricate and emotional pas de deux ("Monster" and "Flower Festival" are just two examples). With this dance he demonstrates his growing ease with crafting movement for larger groups, as well as his ongoing fascination with inanimate props. An indelible image from this new piece is Seefeldt, held aloft by her six fellow dancers as if on a royal palanquin. She sits up, peers curiously around her, like a fledgling bird observing the world beyond the nest for the very first time.

Whim Whim's #unprotected is more than the three distinct and interesting dances. The program really shows us Olivier Wevers' successful melding of seven dancers into a single creative unit. Throughout his company's short history, Wevers has consistently assembled casts of great dancers to perform in his shows. But now he has a real company, on contract, and with this production we can really see why that matters for a choreographer. Not only are the company members technically proficient dancers, they are people who know and trust one another, who complement each other's movements and personalities. They are the tangible evidence of Wevers' courage. They are Whim W'him.

Saturday, May 17, 2014

Heads Up Seattle Dance Fans!

Karin Stevens (Dieter Zander photo)
Seattle Dance Annual

What a treat for Puget Sound dance lovers! Seattle dance writer and designer Rosie Gaynor has assembled a wonderful compendium of 2013's dance highlights: favorite performers and performances of the year, a list of dance companies, and hundreds of photographs. The site goes live Sunday evening, May 18th:

You'll be able to access this book in several ways: as an online PDF, a high-res downloadable file, even as a soft-cover book available on Amazon. All that information will be available on the Dance Annual site.

Gaynor queried local dance writers (including yours truly) about our favorite moments from last year. Then she pulled those responses together into a beautifully designed book that includes scholarly essays as well as contact information for choreographers and dance organizations. She calls this labor of love part information, part celebration of the Puget Sound region's vibrant dance scene. If you don't find your faves, contact Gaynor at

Another heads up: Whim W'him's May performances at Seattle's Erickson Theater Off Broadway continue this weekend and next. I'll have a review of the show, #unprotected, on Monday 5/19. Also on tap this weekend and next, Spectrum Dance Theater's festival of American music and dance: Rambunctious! Check 'em both out.