Friday, November 4, 2022

The Art and Soul of Ballet

Dance Theater of Harlem Artistic Director Virginia Johnson, left, with former company artist Anthony Santos and company artist Amanda Smith. Photo courtesy DTH/STG

November 2, 2022 was World Ballet Day, but if you aren’t part of the ballet world, or even ballet-adjacent (fans, observers, writers) the occasion probably escaped your notice. 

For true ballet nerds, World Ballet Day offers an endless on-line cornucopia, performances, interviews, rehearsals and the like, all available at the click of your mouse. I was lucky to have had a front-row, in-person seat to one of the many events streamed to audiences that day. Specifically, I was in the gallery above Pacific Northwest Ballet’s biggest rehearsal studio, Studio C, watching a company class that featured not only PNB’s wonderful dancers, but also members of Dance Theater of Harlem, who have been in Seattle this week, one leg of a month-long national tour. 

Choreographer Crystal Pite, right, with Pacific Northwest Ballet dancers, 2013
photo @ Lindsay Thomas

I’m so grateful that I’ve been allowed to sit in on PNB classes and rehearsals many times over the past years. But this was only the second time since March, 2020 that I was invited into one of PNB’s studios, and I was thrilled for a number of reasons. 

First, even though PNB first welcomed back live audiences to McCaw Hall in September, 2021, health and safety concerns have limited access to the company’s home base, the Phelps Center, where the dancers train and rehearse. I had seen new company members perform everything from Swan Lake to Twyla Tharp’s Waiting at the Station, but when you sit in the rehearsal studio, you’re offered a glimpse of the hard work that goes into each performance. I was delighted to watch the new apprentices and other dancers who’d arrived in Seattle during the pandemic. 

Beyond getting a closer look at PNB company members, the joint class allowed me to watch the Dance Theater of Harlem guests at work, a particular treat. Their polish and poise, even in a class situation, was remarkable. Perhaps they were extra sharp because the class was being streamed live, but I’m guessing they always look good. 

I was particularly interested in the DTH guests because the day before, my doubleXposure podcast co-host Vivian Phillips and I had the chance to interview their artistic director, the iconic Virginia Johnson. [Find the entire interview here]. We spoke about how and why Arthur Mitchell and Karel Shook founded Dance Theater of Harlem almost 54 years ago; how Johnson was one of the founding dancers, and how she was tapped to lead the company back from financial crisis. 

Kiyon Ross (ne Gaines) in Twyla Tharp's Waiting at the Station
photo @ Angela Sterling

But the ballet nerd in me was curious to learn more about how Johnson was thinking about ballet’s future, both in terms of what is presented on stage, but also who we see. While Johnson believes classics like the 19th century story ballets and George Balanchine’s neo-classical repertoire need to be preserved and performed, she’s adamant that ballet needs to be responsive to contemporary society.

“We have to be brave innovators,” she said. That means not only tapping a wide array of artists to create new ballets that reflect a diversity of stories and visions; it also means expanding the artists who are on stages depicting and embodying those artistic visions. And it means that audiences need to open our minds and our hearts to embrace the innovations, whether that means a flock of swans of different sizes, shapes and colors, or a program of contemporary programs that push traditional notions of what ballet is. 

And for ballet newbies, Johnson says just give your brain a rest when you enter the theater. Open your heart to what unfolds on the stage in front of you. Yes, we can—and should—admire the physical prowess and technical precision we see, but for Virginia Johnson, ballet at its best gives shape to our inner spirit. 

Choreographer Donald Byrd working with PNB dancer Leah Terada on his ballet Love and Loss
photo @ Lindsay Thomas

“Ballet is about humanity,” she says. “Ballet is about human beings doing something aspirational.” 

Watching the joint company class on World Ballet Day, savoring the joy on the face of PNB’s new Associate Artistic Director Kiyon Ross as he put these talented dancers through their paces (even dashing off a couple of jetes himself!), I was reminded of Johnson’s thoughts, of her passion for her art form. Ballet is evolving, expanding, moving on the tides of the 21st century. So glad I get to fly above the waves to watch.

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