Face to Face: Peter Boal

Reviving Giselle in the Pacific Northwest

Peter Boal with principal dancer Carrie Imler

Balletomanes everywhere know the story: A young peasant girl falls in love with a deceptive duke and dies of a broken heart. But Pacific Northwest Ballet will be the first American company to stage Giselle using primary sources that date back to the work’s 1841 Parisian premiere. Artistic Director Peter Boal, now in his sixth year with the Seattle-based company, is staging the Romantic ballet in collaboration with dance and music scholars. Doug Fullington, PNB’s assistant to the artistic director, is reconstructing choreography from Russian Stepanov notation circa 1900. Marian Smith, University of Oregon associate professor of musicology and author of Ballet and Opera in the Age of Giselle, is utilizing French sources from the 1840s and ’60s.

Boal, a former principal dancer with New York City Ballet and instructor for School of American Ballet, has seen his company perform The Nutcracker, The Sleeping Beauty, Swan Lake and Coppélia. However, introducing Giselle to PNB has presented Boal and his dancers with new challenges and opportunities. “We’re making this fresh,” he says. “Other versions can inspire, but at the end of the day, you have to come up with your own Albrecht or Giselle.” The work will premiere at McCaw Hall in Seattle on June 3.

Dance Teacher: Why did you decide to restage Giselle this season?

Peter Boal: To perform a Romantic era ballet will be a new and welcome challenge for our dancers. Giselle is one of the great chapters in the evolution of our artform and one that belongs in our repertoire. I decided to stage a new version for PNB because of Doug Fullington’s ability to read Stepanov notation and Marian Smith’s proximity to us in Portland. Doug had successfully reconstructed parts of Giselle for PNB School before we elected to mount the full production for the company.

DT: What were the challenges of interpreting the notation?

PB: The notation doesn’t include port de bras. It’s 98 percent legs and floor patterns. So I’ve focused on applying what I learned during a six-month leave of absence from City Ballet in 1988, when I took class with the Paris Opéra. The port de bras taught, with the elbow leading and the fingers arriving late, was sublime.

DT: What did the dancers find difficult when learning the choreography?

PB: Certain passages were challenging as far as speed and clarity are concerned. We determined that some of the leg heights that are used in today’s dancing weren’t there originally, so dancers in the 19th century could move more quickly. But, in most cases, our dancers were able to perform the notated steps at the speed required. I don’t have a female dancer’s sensibility since I’ve never danced on pointe. So the dancers have had input and dialogue.

Another challenge came with re-creating mime passages. Dancers today don’t often perform mime. Clarity and timing in their acting were areas that we had to develop. (There are 56 minutes of mime  and 60 minutes of dancing, according to the 1841 score.) Pacing the mime correctly requires finishing a movement and allowing a stillness to happen.

DT: Do you view contemporary works differently as a result of this process?

PB: Balanchine, who saw versions of Giselle with the Ballets Russes de Monte Carlo, was beautifully respectful about his heritage. The women in his Serenade, in their long, tulle Romantic skirts, are reminiscent of the Wilis from Act II. Also, there is a moment in Giselle when she falls to the ground. That same movement occurs in Serenade.

 

Leslie Holleran holds an MA in dance history from the University of California, Riverside.

Photo by Angela Sterling, courtesy of PNB

Teaching Tips
A 2019 Dancewave training. Photo by Effy Grey, courtesy Dancewave

By now, most dance educators hopefully understand that they have a responsibility to address racism in the studio. But knowing that you need to be actively cultivating racial equity isn't the same thing as knowing how to do so.

Of course, there's no easy answer, and no perfect approach. As social justice advocate David King emphasized at a recent interactive webinar, "Cultivating Racial Equity in the Classroom," this work is never-ending. The event, hosted by Dancewave (which just launched a new racial-equity curriculum) was a good starting point, though, and offered some helpful takeaways for dance educators committed to racial justice.

Keep reading... Show less
Higher Ed
The author, Robyn Watson. Photo courtesy Watson

Recently, I posted a thread of tweets elucidating the lack of respect for tap dance in college dance programs, and arguing that it should be a requirement for dance majors.

According to onstageblog.com, out of the 30 top-ranked college dance programs in the U.S., tap dance is offered at 19 of them, but only one school requires majors to take more than a beginner course—Oklahoma City University. Many prestigious dance programs, like the ones at NYU Tisch School of the Arts and SUNY Purchase, don't offer a single course in tap dance.

Keep reading... Show less
Teaching Tips
Getty Images

After months of lockdowns and virtual learning, many studios across the country are opening their doors and returning to in-person classes. Teachers and students alike have likely been chomping at the bit in anticipation of the return of dance-class normalcy that doesn't require a reliable internet connection or converting your living room into a dance space.

But along with the back-to-school excitement, dancers might be feeling rusty from being away from the studio for so long. A loss of flexibility, strength and stamina is to be expected, not to mention emotional fatigue from all of the uncertainty and reacclimating to social activities.

So as much as everyone wants to get back to normal—teachers and studio owners included—erring on the side of caution with your dancers' training will be the most beneficial approach in the long run.

Keep reading... Show less

Get Dance Business Weekly in your inbox

Sign Up Used in accordance with our Privacy Policy.