Pacific Northwest Ballet’s Nutcracker takes a bow.

The snow scene from the Sendak/Stowell Nutcracker

Pacific Northwest Ballet’s Nutcracker has been a holiday tradition in the Seattle area for more than 30 years. But this season is the last for the ballet, designed by the late author and illustrator Maurice Sendak, with choreography by former PNB co-artistic director Kent Stowell.

Current PNB artistic director Peter Boal announced earlier this year that, starting in 2015, his company will present a new production of George Balanchine’s The Nutcracker, with sets and costumes by Ian Falconer, creator of the Olivia children’s books.

“We felt so much love coming out of the community for this (Sendak/Stowell) production,” says Boal. But he stresses that fondness hasn’t translated into ticket sales in recent years. “At the end of the day, we made the decision to refresh, to renew.”

Kent Stowell wonders about the wisdom of tinkering with a holiday tradition. “It’s an iconic production for our profession, and it’s an icon for the city,” he says. “It’s like if we said, ‘Well, I have a great idea for a new Space Needle, so we’re going to tear it down and do another one.’”

Seattle-based dance writer Sandra Kurtz agrees that jettisoning the Sendak/Stowell ballet could be a tactical mistake for PNB. She says it distinguishes PNB from companies around the country that present Balanchine’s Nutcracker. “It never lost its ‘wow’ factor,” she says. But Kurtz thinks the holiday classic is resilient, and ultimately a new Nutcracker will probably find an audience in Seattle.

PNB principal dancer Carla Körbes agrees. Körbes spent six years at New York City Ballet, where she danced in Balanchine’s Nutcracker. She says it will take time for the PNB dancers to learn the Balanchine choreography but adds, “I think it’s going to be exciting for everybody to try something different.”

PNB’s Peter Boal is confident both his dancers and his audiences will grow to love the Balanchine Nutcracker. “Everybody is attached to the Nutcracker they grew up with, the first one they saw,” he says. In Boal’s case, it was the Balanchine production, which he saw as a child and danced in hundreds of times during his own performing career at NYCB. “I know the Balanchine production so well, and I have such great faith in that choreography, the magic that it’s brought to so many audiences over the years,” he adds.

Pacific Northwest Ballet’s final performance of the Sendak/Stowell Nutcracker is December 28. DT

For more: pnb.org

Marcie Sillman is an award-winning arts reporter based in Seattle. Her radio stories have been featured on NPR, Voice of America and other networks.

Photo by Angela Sterling, courtesy of PNB

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Teaching Balanchine to a new generation

Russell and Pacific Northwest Ballet rehearsing Concerto Barocco

Like many who stage the work of George Balanchine, Francia Russell danced for him while at New York City Ballet (1956–1961). Unlike her fellow répétiteurs, she began teaching the work under the choreographer’s watchful eye, and she became NYCB ballet mistress in 1964 when she was just 26. Two years earlier, Balanchine had sent her to Canada to stage Allegro Brillante for Les Grands Ballets Canadiens de Montréal. “I went in fear and trembling,” Russell says. She took with her a spiral notebook in which she’d written down every step of the dance. Russell relied on that notebook, and her memory, to teach the ballet.

Russell’s staging methods haven’t changed significantly since then, although she now has almost two dozen meticulously detailed notebooks, one for each Balanchine ballet she stages. She has traveled the world for The Balanchine Trust, from Russia to Seattle, where she and her husband Kent Stowell were co-artistic directors of the Pacific Northwest Ballet for 28 years. She continues to stage work for PNB, including, at the time of this interview, Agon and Concerto Barocco for the company’s 2013 engagement in New York City.

Dance Teacher: Where do you begin the staging process?

FR: I use everything available, body and brain for sure, but I always use notes, because memories aren’t trustworthy. We alter things without the intention of doing so. The longer I’ve worked on staging ballets, the more I realize not only each detail is important, but it’s easy to lose tiny fragments, and then the mosaic of the ballet doesn’t come together the way I want. I’ve always taken copious notes for the ballets I stage. Except there are a couple—Serenade and Symphony in C—I’ve staged so many times and danced so many roles in them, that if the music starts, the steps just come out of me.

DT: These days performances are available on videotape. Do you use them in the studio when you are teaching?

FR: I use videotape as an aid to memory. I seldom bring videos into the studio until I have taught the choreography. I think the process of transmitting what the choreographer wanted is so important—and in ballet, it’s so personal—that to lose that and just rely on videotape doesn’t seem real to me. Maybe that’s an old-fashioned point of view. To learn from videotape is not the same as to learn from those of us who were in the studio with Balanchine. Plus, a videotape is a record of one performance. It may be wonderful, or it may be flawed. I do often talk to the dancers about the ballet they are about to learn, something Balanchine never did!

DT: What do you mean when you say you take notes?

FR [pulling out a worn spiral-bound notebook]: I wrote down Ballet Imperial when reviving it for New York City Ballet. Every step, every count, every port de bras is in here. I generally have patterns and special added notes on the left side, opposite all the steps on the right side, all the counts along with all the steps.

Agon rehearsal in 1957. Russell is seated in the foreground. Balanchine and Stravinsky confer at the piano.DT: Did you do this from memory?

FR: Yes. I went in a room by myself, danced the whole thing and wrote it down. Some ballets I had to go around and pester the [NYCB] dancers. They would see me coming and run, because I was always asking questions. “Show me what you did right here in the four Ts [The Four Temperaments]. What’s this variation?”

DT: Did you ever ask Mr. Balanchine for help with this?

FR: No. I don’t know a single choreographer who really knows his or her ballets. If he staged his own work, he’d want to tinker, or change it.

DT: Do the counts in your notes correspond directly to the musical score?

FR: Even Balanchine didn’t always count the way Stravinsky would have. He counted what we could hear. The dancers in New York City Ballet at that time devised our own counts. Because in some places, things we could hear in the orchestra, those were our signposts, like a buoy out in the water. But Mr. B had innate musical abilities. He trained at the conservatory, he played violin and piano. “It’s all in the music, dear,” he’d tell me. When I was ballet mistress, our offices were side by side, with a connecting closet. Balanchine studied all those scores, played and played them. I’m not aware that he planned steps [to the scores]. He planned numbers of people, groups, entrances and exits. But when he made up the steps in the studio, the music was inside him.

DT: Once you get into the studio, how do you begin teaching the dancers?

FR: I start from the beginning of the first movement, generally. I ask the dancers to stand in fifth position, then I call out the steps. Sometimes I have to physically demonstrate. It’s not beautiful, but I can do enough that the dancers can tell what I want.

DT: Do you assume that dancers have the necessary technique to perform Balanchine?

FR: I do teach a lot about pointe work, port de bras and épaulement, because if the technique of a Balanchine ballet is difficult and uncomfortable for the dancers, they get all rigid and straight and lose all the beauty of the movement. Balanchine always, always, always talked about the importance of tendus for the development of the feet, ankles, indeed, the entire body. Making the feet work like hands is what he always wanted. Or, he said, “like an elephant’s trunk,” how flexible that is, no joints.

Apollo, performed in 1957 by Jacques D’Amboise, Russell, Diana Adams and JillanaDT: Why do people call it Balanchine technique?

FR: There isn’t really a Balanchine technique; it’s Russian classical ballet. But he asked his dancers for more: higher, bigger, slower, faster, everything more. And no time to sit and think, in preparation. He’d say, “If you’re going to do a pirouette, just do it.” Unfortunately, there are exaggerations that he used to make a point. Exaggerated hands, for instance. He didn’t want what he called Royal Ballet paws, so he had dancers exaggerate like they were holding a cup of tea. He wanted people to dance on the balls of their feet, for the lightness and swiftness, but the heel goes down and comes up again. You are not dancing around on demi-pointe, which is destructive.

DT: You went to the Kirov in 1988, the first person authorized to stage one of Balanchine’s ballets at the company where he trained and first performed.

FR: I had a really hard time with them. There was a sort of reluctance; the attitude was terrible, especially the principals. It became clear nobody knew anything about Balanchine. It was just the beginning of glasnost. I had a wonderful interpreter. I said, “We’re not going to rehearse this hour. I’m going to tell you why I’m here and who I represent.” I told them about Balanchine, what I could conjure up: his life, the speed and musicality he wanted in his ballets. I assured them that if they gave themselves over to the process open-mindedly and generously with their bodies, they were going to love it in the end. And most of them did.

DT: Is there a line between carrying out Mr. Balanchine’s vision and bringing your own artistic interpretation to his work?

FR: I’m sure I put myself into the ballets, and there must be people who disagree with that. I try to feel the foundation, the technical aspect, the steps, the choreography, from the time I was in New York City Ballet. I’ve retained it from there. And then, my memories of what Mr. Balanchine said, what he wanted here or there. You know, I feel it’s important to pass on what he said, but I’m sure it’s all filtered through my taste, my memories. And you know how fallible that can be! DT

When Balanchine died on April 30, 1983, he left behind dozens of ballets in active repertory at New York City Ballet and at dance companies around the world. The George Balanchine Trust was established in 1987 to manage the choreographer’s artistic legacy. After a company receives the rights to perform a Balanchine ballet, the Trust sends a répétiteur, or stager, to prepare the dancers and to oversee the production. “A stager is someone who should have all the information, the steps and the choreographer’s intentions,” says répétiteur Francia Russell. “They should be able to oversee the costumes, the lighting, spacing onstage, to work with the orchestra in the theater. They are responsible for every step of the production.”

Marcie Sillman is an award-winning arts reporter based in Seattle. Her radio stories have been featured on NPR, Voice of America and other networks.

Photos from top: by Lindsay Thomas, courtesy of Pacific Northwest Ballet; by Martha Swope, © New York Public Library for the Performing Arts; by Fred Fehl, courtesy of Gabriel Pinski

KT Niehoff wanted to dance in Seattle, but first she had to make a dance space.

It’s 7:45 on a Monday evening at Seattle’s Velocity Dance Center. Beginning ballet class is over, and as the students swap dance slippers for street shoes, the doors to the studio swing open. The next class—intermediate modern—is eager to warm up. The ballet students head out into the foyer, lingering to chat or leaf through the handbills strewn on a wooden table. The flyers advertise everything from upcoming shows to used bicycles for sale.

This kind of dance hub is relatively new in Seattle. In the early 1990s, grunge drew aspiring musicians to the city, but dance? Not so much. Pacific Northwest Ballet had a respected school, but there were few resources for contemporary dancers. When KT Niehoff and her friend Michele Miller arrived from New York in 1992 to join the Pat Graney Company, they discovered if they wanted a dance scene, they’d have to help grow it.

The result, Velocity Dance Center, now serves as a de facto clubhouse for Seattle’s contemporary dance community. Fresh graduates from Cornish College of the Arts (Merce Cunningham’s alma mater) and other schools across the country mop floors and work administratively in exchange for class fees. They rub shoulders with new arrivals to Seattle, who’ve come to audition for the many choreographers who call this studio home. And hundreds of people with no professional dance aspirations come to Velocity every month, simply to experience the joy of movement.

Not only did Niehoff and Miller not plan to run a dance studio, Niehoff— now an accomplished choreographer, teacher and artistic director of Lingo Productions—didn’t set out to be a dancer. Her degree from New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts is in theater. One day she dropped in at Dance Space (now Dance New Amsterdam) in New York’s NoHo district, and, on a whim, decided to take a class. “I couldn’t even touch my shins,” she says, but she threw herself into dance, studying for hours each day.

Dance touched her emotionally in a way that acting did not. And the more she studied, the more confident she felt. It was only two years after that first dance class that she moved to Seattle. She remembers sitting in a parking lot, after touring the city’s few dance spaces, wondering if she and Miller had made a huge mistake leaving New York.

The two decided to offer a daily professional class, based on what Niehoff had learned from her mentor, Joy Kellman. Kellman, now on the NYU faculty, had danced with Bella Lewitzky, Daniel Nagrin and Arthur Aviles, among others. But teaching Kellman’s technique, Niehoff admits, was crazy. “I was barely a dancer, let alone a dance teacher.” Nevertheless, the class attracted a loyal following.

By 1996, they were ready for the next step: opening a dance center. The early Velocity Dance Center was strictly a DIY operation, with no major donors, no board of directors. The women approached the owners of Seattle’s Oddfellows Hall. A theater company had set up shop there, and the owners were interested in bringing in other arts groups. Niehoff and Miller asked to rent the building’s West Hall, a huge room with high ceilings and a worn linoleum floor. They scraped together $3,600 for first and last month’s rent and signed a lease.

They invited a cadre of colleagues to teach at their new center. Before they could offer the first class, though, the women marshalled Seattle’s dance community to rip up the linoleum that was firmly stapled to the maple floor. They finished the project just hours before Velocity Dance Center opened for business.

They decided that each teacher would pay a set fee to rent the room. The teacher would keep the money he or she charged the students. If, at the end of every month, Niehoff and Miller brought in more than the rent, the two split the profits. If they took in less, they’d pay the difference from their own pockets. “It’s a good model,” Niehoff says, because it’s entrepreneurial for the teachers. “Sometimes you have to pay to teach, but it’s great if you develop a following because the majority of income comes back to you.”

But by 2000, it was clear the Dance Center wasn’t making money for the founders. Niehoff and Miller recruited a small board of directors, and Velocity reincorporated as a 501(c)(3), with an expanded annual budget. Between 1997 and 2002, the organization grew to offer classes ranging from beginning ballet to hip hop, a summer intensive workshop, a guest artist series and a touring collaboration with like-minded organizations in San Francisco and Minneapolis to co-produce emerging choreographers. In 2001, Velocity got a $150,000 grant to buy the equipment needed to convert the big hall into a theater space. Niehoff hung the lights herself. Velocity didn’t have much money, but it did have a national identity.

From the beginning, Niehoff and Miller co-directed the center. But in 2005, Miller moved to Asia. Though Niehoff was committed to Velocity, she was torn between being an administrator and pursuing her choreographic career. She left in 2006. “Velocity needed a full-time leader,” she says with a sigh. “It was painful for all of us.”

Despite the lingering recession, Velocity Dance Center has thrived. The building was sold and the new owner raised the rent. So Velocity launched  an emergency capital campaign and in 2010 set up shop in a renovated garage. Executive director Tonya Lockyer took over the organization a year after the move. Her first order of business was to finish the $520,000 capital campaign. She sees her job to be creating a “dance portal,” with an expanded range of classes for beginners as well as dance professionals. “This isn’t KT and Michele’s Velocity anymore,” she says. “We believe everybody with a desire to dance should have the opportunity.” She’s also partnered with nearby arts groups to present dance films, panels and roundtable discussions, to expand the organization’s community visibility.

Meanwhile, after six years of touring and teaching,  Niehoff has opened another Seattle studio, 10 degrees, tucked into the corner of an old commercial bakery that she and her husband, Kirby Kallas-Lewis, recently leased. Niehoff’s studio is adjacent to Kallas-Lewis’ craft distillery. They sublease out the other half of the building to two restaurants, covering most of the $9,000/month rent. The relationship is more than landlord-tenant, though. One of the restaurants would only move into the building if it could lease Niehoff’s studio for private dinner parties. Initially, the idea scared her. “I’m chopping off my arm here, giving up a piece of my space,” she says.

But the arrangment makes sense. Niehoff’s dance company received $50,000 in grants this year. Potentially it will earn at least that much from restaurant rentals, which will not only fund her choreography but also subsidize dancers who want to rent 10 degrees for temporary projects. With a steady stream of restaurant rental income, Niehoff can charge dancers very low rates. “I say to people, ‘What can you afford? Give the space half of that.’ I leave it up to the artist,” she says.

Niehoff isn’t looking to re-create Velocity at 10 degrees. She wants a personal artistic home, something she says Velocity could never be for her. But she still has a foothold at Velocity Dance Center. Once a week, you’ll find her leading the same class she and Miller started teaching almost 20 years ago. She says with a laugh, “It’s my Wednesday morning church.” DT

Marcie Sillman is an award-winning arts reporter based in Seattle. Her radio stories have been featured on NPR, Voice of America and other networks.

 

Velocity Dance Center by the Numbers

- Founded in 1996

- Annual budget: $458,000, three full-time staff plus one grant-funded position

- 25 percent of income is from classes and workshops. The balance comes from studio rentals and public events, grant money and private philanthropy.

- 38 classes/week, 2,000 per year, serving 5,300 individuals. Faculty roster of 29 professional artists. Classes are offered seven days a week, morning through evening.

- Three dance studios, one of which can be transformed into an intimate theater. Two renovated restrooms with mirrors serve as changing rooms. The building lease is shared with a sushi restaurant. The two businesses split utilities.

 

KT’s Creations

KT Niehoff feels uncomfortable calling herself exclusively a choreographer—and rightly so. The term doesn’t even begin to describe work she creates under Lingo Productions, where her diverse training has informed raw dance theater. “I’m an event maker, party planner, mess maker. I make immersive experiences,” she says.

Lingo’s dancers don’t just move. They study, sing, improvise and act. It’s Niehoff’s fascination with the audience-performer relationship that makes her multidisciplinary approach effective. Sometimes, accessibility and experiment drive a project. In The Lift (2007), company members pushed passersby up one of Seattle’s steepest hills to test the concept of anonymous trust. Often, she’s focused on creating a new world. Her fictional short film, Parts Don’t Work (2011), which was shown at American Dance Festival in July, follows a go-go-booted gang of caricature-like women through Seattle’s eerie Fun Forest Amusement Park. Click here to see an excerpt of Niehoff's Parts Don't Work.

Niehoff’s newest project, Collision Theory, is funded by the MAP Fund, which is supported by the Doris Duke Charitable Foundation and The Andrew W. Mellow Foundation. She’ll release portions over 16 months, with a full premier in October 2013. The mix of film, fashion, music, visual art and dance at Seattle’s ACT Theatre will allow audiences to venture through hallways and back rooms for a truly site-specific experience. “I got so tired of doing work on the stage,” she explains. “You perform and then it’s over and you go out to dinner. I wanted a connection.” —Kristin Schwab

 

Photo by Matthew Murphy

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