Friday, May 22, 2015

Kiyon Gaines, It's So Hard To Say Goodbye!

PNB's Kiyon Gaines soars as Puck in Balanchine's "A Midsummer Night's Dream"
photo by Angela Sterling
Pacific Northwest Ballet soloist Kiyon Gaines says he didn’t find ballet; ballet found him.

The Baltimore native didn’t start dancing until he was 10 .  He studied tap and jazz. Somebody told him he needed to work on his port de bras; they said ballet would help. So his mother enrolled him in a local class.

He recalls the teacher pulled his mother aside. “Does Kiyon want to take more ballet classes?” the teacher asked. “He would be great at this.”

Gaines was 12 at the time; incredibly late to start ballet training. Despite the fact that he was the only boy in the class, he embraced the challenge.

“And I got hired at PNB when I was 19,” he laughs. “So in the span of seven years, there was a lot of improvement!”
PNB's Lesley Rausch and Kiyon Gaines in Susan Stroman's "Take Five...More or Less"
photo by Angela Sterling

Now, at the ripe old age of 33, Kiyon Gaines will retire at the end of PNB’s artistic season. Say it ain't so!

Gaines' decision to step away from ballet was not an easy one. Like every professional dancer, he knew he couldn’t continue to perform much past the age of 40. From the get go, he had this idea that he'd carve out a second career.

Plus, his mother had urged him to make contingency plans, in case this ballet thing didn’t pan out. 

So, early on, Gaines decided that age 35 would be the perfect time to step away.

“That’s me wanting to be in control of my own career. I wanted to be the one to make the decision when I wanted to stop dancing.”

Unfortunately, Kiyon Gaines’ body didn’t cooperate with his well-made plans.

“I’ve dealt with injuries,” he explains. Specifically, three surgeries in the past four years. “My entire soloist career has been plagued with surgeries.”

So, last fall, before PNB started the 2014-2015 artistic season, Gaines told PNB Artistic Director Peter Boal that this year would be his last.

As hard as that was for Gaines, it also was a loss for PNB audiences. The exuberant, energetic dancer has been a standout during his 15 years in Seattle. Anyone who's seen him perform knows how he lights up the stage with his zillion-watt smile and the joy he infuses into his powerful dancing.
PNB's Kiyon Gaines soars in Twyla Tharp's "Waiting at the Station"
photo by Angela Sterling

We know that watching him now, but Kiyon Gaines had to fight to get here.

As a young, aspiring African American ballet dancer, Gaines had few role models. “Who do I look up to?” he remembers thinking. “Where do I get inspiration?”

After a stint in Pittsburgh, Gaines enrolled in  New York’s School of American Ballet, the feeder for the New York City Ballet. He recalls, at that time, Albert Evans was the only African American male dancing with NYCB. But even Evans wasn't the perfect role model.

Where Evans had the long, lean stereotypical ballet dancer’s body, Gaines is shorter and more compactly muscular. Not only was Gaines a black man in a predominantly white art form; he had the “wrong” body type for ballet. 

But Kiyon Gaines believed in himself. He kept working. In 2000, he came to Seattle as a PNB Professional Division student. Former PNB Artistic Directors Kent Stowell and Francia Russell hired him as a corps de ballet member the next year. He’s been in Seattle ever since. Gaines says he's the loyal type.

Kiyon Gaines believes the only way to challenge the traditional ballet aesthetic is to be a role model, to encourage “more people who look like me” to embrace ballet. And he'll have the chance to do that after he retires.

Starting next season, Kiyon Gaines will teach at the PNB school, and he'll work with PNB’s Dance Chance program. Dance Chance offers scholarships to kids who might not normally enroll in ballet classes, or even consider that ballet is something for them. Some of those kids have moved on to professional ballet careers, including Eric Hipolito, who also leaves PNB at the end of the season (not retiring, but heading to Ballet Arizona; our loss!)
Gaines does Balanchine at PNB
photo by Angela Sterling

Gaines also will continue to choreograph, in Seattle and for companies around the country. PNB will reprise his "Sum Stravinsky" in the 2015-2016 season.

Kiyon Gaines will give his final PNB performance on June 7th

But it won’t be his last onstage appearance. On Sunday, June 14th, Gaines will don cap and gown and stride across a platform at Key Arena to receive a Bachelor of Arts degree from Seattle University. Not only did he get the college degree his mother hoped he'd puruse; on June 12th, he's being honored with SU's Fine Arts Department Buhr Award. It goes to the student with the highest GPA in his major. 


“Mom will be here, my aunt will be here,” he says with a smile. “They’re going to be so proud!”
Kiyon Gaines works with PNB dancers on "Sum Stravinsky"
photo courtesy PNB

Monday, May 18, 2015

I'm All About The Arts, Boss

PNB Principal Dancers Lesley Rausch (rear) and Lindsi Dec in David Dawson's "A Million Kisses to My Skin"
photo by Angela Sterling
Sometimes I wonder why I'm driven to write about art, especially dance.

Frankly, it's an impossible task, to translate my visceral response to an artist or her work into mere words. If those words were enough, we wouldn't have symphonies or ballets or great paintings, would we?

Besides, outside of people who already love and value art, the general reception for my mere words is pretty tepid.
PNB's Chelsea Adomaitis and Stephen Loch in William Forsythe's "New Suite"
photo by Angela Sterling

But I persist.

From time to time, people invite me to come give little talks about what I do. They want to know how I started out, or my opinions on burning issues of the day (I don't reveal those); most often, they want me to dish about famous people.

Inevitably, somebody asks what I most love to write about. The answer is automatic: dance. When they ask why, I am forced once again to ask that question of myself.
PNB Principal Dancer Jerome Tisserand with former Principal Kaori Nakamura in "Giselle"
photo by Angela Sterling

The answer is always the same: a great artwork resonates with something deep in my heart. I imagine it's something like a spiritual tuning fork, and I start to vibrate with the same invisible frequency as the tones that emanate from that art.

All of the above is a long and windy preamble to some thoughts on this weekend's PBS American Masters' documentary about American Ballet Theatre.

The New York Times laid into this film. The critic said it didn't have enough specifics about ABT, not enough Baryshnikov (is there ever enough???).

I loved it.

Mostly for the fabulous commentary from Jennifer Homans, author of the great ballet history "Apollo's Angels." That book propelled me into what feels like a never-ending exploration of the connections between dance and grace. This film reminded me of the ineffable beauty that is ballet, the quest that dancers pursue to bring their technique and their artistry to a performance that can lift them (and the audience) beyond ourselves.
Former PNB Principal Dancers Lucien Postelwaite and Noelani Pantastico in Jean-Christophe Maillot's "Romeo et Juliette"
photo by Angela Sterling

Insert sigh of pure bliss right here!

Okay, now that I'm done waxing rhapsodic, some upcoming events of note:

Olivier Wevers' Whim W'him performs a new program called X-Posed, 5/29-31 at Cornish Playhouse at Seattle Center.

Pacific Northwest Ballet presents Kent Stowell's "Carmina Burana" and Alexei Ratmansky's "Concerto DSCH" May 29-June 7th at McCaw Hall.

Catch the Seattle International Dance Festival June 12-27 all over town.
PNB Principal Carla Korbes in Kent Stowell's "Swan Lake"
photo by Angela Sterling

And Sunday, June 7th, you can say goodbye to a slew of great PNB dancers: Principal Carla Korbes and Soloist Kiyon Gaines retire this year, at the ripe old age of 33; wonderful corps de ballet members Raphael Bouchard, Jahna Frantzikonis, Charles McCall and Eric Hippolito leave for greener pastures in the dance world. PNB said goodbye to corps member Brittany Reid earlier this spring.
PNB Soloist Kiyon Gaines in the studio
photo by Lindsay Thomas