Wednesday, March 1, 2023

To Lesley Rausch, With Love


Lesley Rausch as Odette in Kent Stowell's Swan Lake
photo @ Lindsay Thomas

I knew it was coming but I still wasn't ready when I got the news.

After 22 years at Pacific Northwest Ballet, Lesley Rausch has announced she'll retire at the end of this artistic season. Lesley is currently the longest-tenured dancer in the company, one of the few who has straddled the artistic directorships of Kent Stowell and Francia Russell and Peter Boal.

Lesley Rausch and former PNB principal dancer Seth Orza in Balanchine's
Slaughter on Tenth Avenue. Photo @ Angela Sterling

As I said, I knew it was a matter of time, but every ballet dancer's retirement hits me hard, as if I'm losing an onstage friend.

I've spent a lot of time talking to PNB dancers over the years, but I didn't know Lesley particularly well. Then, almost two years ago I ran into her on the street near Seattle Center. Although the pandemic was still in full swing, we’d just started to emerge from isolation, emboldened by the new vaccines.

Lesley was on her lunch hour; Pacific Northwest Ballet dancers were back in the studio, although they weren’t yet performing for in-person audiences.

Lesley Rausch at Seattle Center, September 2021
photo @ Marcie Sillman

I didn't really know Lesley, but we struck up a conversation. Remember, most of us hadn’t been face-to-face with other humans for months and months, so every encounter felt like greeting a long-lost relative. 

That was mid-2021; Lesley was 39, an age when many ballet dancers are planning the next phases of their lives. Lesley had been certified to teach Pilates, but she was one of the few dancers of her cohort who’d chosen to return to PNB for the coming season instead of retiring. We talked a bit about why she’d made the decision to keep dancing rather than step into her new career. 

Lesley with former PNB principal dancer Karel Cruz in George Balanchine's Agon
                                                              photo @ Angela Sterling

Despite her well-made plans for life post-PNB, Lesley didn’t intend her ballet career to fade away during Covid. She wanted the opportunity to dance again before a live audience.

Made sense to me.

We ended that chat, wished each other well, and parted ways. But I was intrigued by our conversation. A couple of weeks later, I approached Lesley to see if I could interview her regularly over the course of the 2021-22 artistic season. I was curious to hear more about how it felt--both in body and mind--to come back to the stage after months away from the rigors of the studio and regular performances. I wanted to know what drove her to keep dancing.

Lesley Rausch and James Kirby Rogers in Giselle, 2023
photo @ Angela Sterling

Lesley agreed to my request, and it was my great fortune to talk with her several times last season, and to write stories both here and for other media outlets. 

She was candid about the discipline required to prepare her body for the rigors of ballet: hot (“hot hot hot” in her words) showers, regular Pilates and physical warmups before she even headed into the PNB studios, great physical therapists (she thanks PNB's Boyd Bender in her goodbye announcement) and, above all, persistence.

Lesley told me that sometimes, after a full day in the studio, her body was so exhausted that she just came home and cried. She also told me how much ballet meant to her. She’d started classes as a very young girl in Ohio and climbed through the ranks at PNB to become a principal dancer in 2011. 

More than the professional accomplishements, Lesley thinks of the dancers and PNB staff as her second family. She met her husband, former PNB principal dancer Batkhurel Bold, at the company.

Lesley with her husband Batkhurel Bold, photo @ Angela Sterling

After more than two decades at PNB, Lesley is the most senior company member, the dancer who performs Giselle, Aurora or Odette/Odile on opening night.

But that wasn’t always the case for this graceful---and technically skilled---artist. PNB had other wonderful principal dancers when Lesley was coming up: Kaori Nakamura, Noelani Pantastico, Carla Korbes and Carrie Imler to name just a few. She kept working, kept performing, and has danced hundreds of roles over her career.

Lesley has always been a technical whiz, a dancer who executes the classical choreography with precision. But I first really noticed her artistry in the 2017 PNB production of Jean Christophe Maillot’s Cendrillon (which we English speakers know better as Cinderella).

Lesley as the stepmother in Maillot's Cendrillon, 2017
photo @ Angela Sterling

Lesley performed the role of Cinderella’s stepmother, dressed in the most outrageous costume; it looked like she had a dragon’s tail. And I remember so clearly how Lesley imbued that character with a touching pathos. We usually think of the stepmother as full of spite; in Maillot's version, Cinderella’s father remarries after his wife dies, but can’t quite forget his first love. Lesley showed us the pain of a woman who can never measure up to somebody else's memory; she showed us the roots of the spite and malevolence.

I asked Lesley about that performance; I was curious to know when she felt able to bring herself fully to the story ballet roles she loves. I was surprised when she told me it hadn't even been 10 years. Her focus had been on the choreography. Only when she felt it in her bones could she reveal her emotional side to audiences. It's been worth the wait.

Over the past two post-pandemic in-person seasons, Lesley has shown us an exquisite Giselle, a tender Odette and her a devil-may-care alter-ego Odile, plus her first “sock” ballet, in a lovely dance created by Alonzo King. And, of course, she was electric in Ulysses Dove's Red Angels.

Lesley in Dove's Red Angels. Photo @ Angela Sterling

One of PNB’s first pandemic-era videos featured the exquisite principal dancer Dylan Wald as Apollo and Lesley as one of his muses. At one point in the video, Lesley touched Dylan’s finger. I confess the shock of seeing two humans touch after the long months of social distancing was something to savor. 

Lesley Rausch and Dylan Wald in George Balanchine's Apollo
Photo @ Lindsay Thomas

A dancer’s career is far too short; just as she reaches her peak artistry, her body tells her it’s time to move on. I’m so grateful to have gotten to know Lesley a bit more, to have a window into her hard work and mental preparations, and, above all, to watch her end her career the way she’d intended: dancing the roles she loved, giving audiences indelible moments to remember.

Lesley Rausch and Ezra Thomson in George Balanchine's A Midsummer Night's Dream
Photo @ Angela Sterling

We hope to see Lesley perform in April in George Balanchine's A Midsummer Night's Dream. PNB will honor Lesley’s career on June 11 at the Season Encore performance. I’ll be sitting in McCaw Hall that evening to show my appreciation for an artist and for a truly lovely human being.



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