Patricia Barker

Bringing world-class dance to the Midwest

Barker coaching dancers at Grand Rapids Ballet

In the years since Pacific Northwest Ballet’s homegrown principal Patricia Barker left the stage, she has tackled many dance-related ventures. Most notable is her ambitious re-envisioning of the Grand Rapids Ballet. When Barker was called in after the former artistic director left, taking much of the company’s repertoire with him, she had only two weeks to plan the upcoming season. Now in her fourth year of leadership, she’s commissioned premieres by Seattle-based Whim W’Him director Olivier Wevers and sought-after freelance choreographer Annabelle Lopez Ochoa.

Her goals for the company: “We’re the only professional ballet company in Michigan, and I want to become its cultural export—a destination for exploring. When I came, the repertoire lacked variety and the dancers weren’t being fulfilled artistically. We had to fight back to get the community to think we’re a vibrant organization, and that was key to our survival.”

Dancer vs. director: “When I arrived, compartmentalizing my time was most challenging. When you’re a dancer, your rehearsal schedule goes up 24 hours in advance and everything is planned for you. Now I have to find my organized head. It was also hard to know which decision was the right one. I realized, though, that you just have to commit and know that just because you make one decision doesn’t mean you can’t make another down the road. Don’t get on a bus and not know where it’s going. Create a clear idea of where you want to be.”

Tough love: “There’s nothing like having a talented dancer in front of you who doesn’t understand hard work. After I spent one year as an apprentice and another in the corps de ballet at PNB, Francia Russell didn’t renew my contract. (It was renewed at the end of the summer.) At the time, I didn’t realize what the company wanted from me and didn’t know what I wanted for myself. And I definitely learned a lesson from that. It’s my job to take a younger dancer with a lot of talent who is rough around the edges, and make sure she understands her social graces and work ethic. I don’t let my dancers get away with anything.”

On women as leaders: “It’s funny; when a woman does the Sleeping Beauty variation, she’ll always do those hops on the right leg. But when the man takes the stage, he can do his turns on whichever side is his best. I was lucky enough to work under a female director, so I never thought that I couldn’t be an artistic director one day. Now we have Karen Kain (The National Ballet of Canada), Victoria Morgan (Cincinnati Ballet) and Lourdes Lopez (Miami City Ballet). So maybe all that’s changing—women in dance are evolving.” DT

At PNB, in Balanchine’s Theme and Variations

Performance Career: danced with Pacific Northwest Ballet for nearly 30 years

Dance-Related Ventures: created BKWear, a dancewear company; was a pointe shoe consultant for Bloch; stages works for The George Balanchine Trust

Health Advocate: helped create Fit to a T, which spreads awareness to young dancers about bone health and osteoporosis

Photos by Michael Auer and Angela Sterling, courtesy of Grand Rapids Ballet

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