Go West!

Peter Boal takes his classical heritage and his adventurous spirit to Chelsea and Seattle

Peter Boal's focus must be whipping in about five directions these days. A principal dancer at New York City Ballet and a teacher at its affiliated School of American Ballet, Boal, 39, is also preparing for a run at the Joyce (March 15 through 20) with his own Peter Boal & Company. On June 5, during NYCB's spring season, he'll retire from the company that has been his artistic home since 1983 and take over the directorship of Seattle's Pacific Northwest Ballet from former NYCB members Kent Stowell and Francia Russell.

I catch him in the middle of a very long February day. He has taught a class and worked on staging Jerome Robbins's Andantino for NYCB. After he downs a small sandwich, he's due at the State Theater for a rehearsal of George Balanchine's 1929 Prodigal Son, which he'll dance tonight.

When Boal, an exemplary dancer, performs the opening scene of Prodigal Son, he makes the biblical rebel's restlessness and lust for adventure palpable; he's almost gleeful. Offstage, Boal has demonstrated a similar desire for adventure, ranging away from home in search not of riotous living but of new artistic challenges. And when he moves to the West Coast, he'll maintain a cordial relationship with NYCB; its director, Peter Martins; and the Balanchine Trust, caretaker of the master's repertory. Along with his wife, ex-NYCB dancer Kelly Cass, and their three kids, he's taking his Balanchine heritage to Seattle.

Boal in Balanchine's Prodigal Son
photo: Paul Kolnik
Boal in Balanchine's Prodigal Son

Actually Balanchine is already there. Stowell and Russell, who built PNB from the ground up almost 28 years ago, have mounted 28 of his ballets, along with 39 by Stowell, and dozens by other choreographers. Boal has scheduled Balanchine's magnificent full-evening Jewels for the 2005–2006 season, plus a smaller-scale bijou, the duet Duo Concertant. He'll also introduce Seattle audiences to the lyrical, not–West Side Story side of Jerome Robbins with In the Night.

Boal met Balanchine when he was 10 and played the Nutcracker Prince; the master died the year he joined NYCB. Yet he picked up on how Balanchine valued the individuality of each dancer, even choreographing different versions of a variation for different ballerinas. “I think that's an ideal I'd like to bring to PNB,” says Boal. "I do not want 43 dancers that look the same. I want to go beyond the dancing and see what's there—as Kent and Francia have done." He'll be bringing in the great Balanchine exponent Suzanne Farrell to stage work for the PNB dancers, not just because of her deep understanding of the choreography, but because—as she's proved with her own D.C.-based company—"she'll find what's beautiful and unique about them and bring it out."

To get the job at PNB, Boal not only had to be approved by a search committee and teach a class, he had to be vetted by a committee representing every group in the organization—dancers, stagehands, musicians, etc.—as well as a committee of community leaders, major funders, and the like. Russell says over the phone that Seattle, "which is an understated city and doesn't like big blowhards, really appreciates integrity and intelligence and a kind of civility.” That's Boal. (Wendy Whelan, a fellow principal at NYCB and a member of Peter Boal & Company, says that whenever she thinks of him, onstage or off, one word comes to mind: "gold.”) Everyone was pleased that he wants to build on Stowell and Russell's accomplishments, rather than throwing everything out and starting afresh.

Those two have already helped audiences see the beauty in the plotless ballets so vital to the Balanchine aesthetic. Seattle subscribers are eager to experience new works, understanding that they may not always succeed. They don't expect guest stars. But Boal will inherit a schedule very different from NYCB's—which he's mostly happy about.

NYCB maintains a huge repertory, with different programs every night of three long seasons at State Theater and one in Saratoga. Getting enough rehearsal time for all the older ballets is difficult. (As Boal points out, this was less problematic when more of the dancers had worked under Balanchine; they understood the logic of his choreography in a deep sense. Today's performers often need more preparation time than they can get.)

At PNB, although the dancers are paid for a minimum of 40 weeks (two weeks more than at NYCB), they typically perform six programs for 10 days each, spread over the season, plus Stowell's popular Nutcracker for four weeks. For the new director, a month between programs to prepare a new mixed bill or mount a full-length ballet like Ronald Hynd's Sleeping Beauty will seem like a luxury.

Boal isn't a choreographer, but he's better prepared than most to run a company, even though he didn't realize until recently where his commitment to teaching and his forays outside NYCB were leading. In 1993, he performed a solo, Finding, by postmodern choreographer Wendy Perron in Perron's concert, and became aware of "solos that existed in the world of modern dance that didn't exist in ballet.” Suddenly, in 2000, here was Peter Boal, the superb and versatile classical dancer—the Apollo, the Nutcracker Cavalier—winning a New York Dance and Performance Award (a "Bessie”) for his rendition of cutting-edge choreographer Molissa Fenley's marathon solo State of Darkness. A frustrating day at NYCB galvanized him into putting together a solo program for the 2003 edition of the Joyce's now defunct Altogether Different series (which provided funding, organizational help, and a built-in audience).

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