Ever dreamed of being a fly on the wall (or the mirror) while a ballet company goes about its daily business? Stephen Manes did it. Where Snowflakes Dance and Swear, his behind-the-scenes account of Pacific Northwest Ballet’s 2007-2008 season, is a very impressive volume, a guide to the industry that goes beyond the stage to include students, orchestra and crew in the discussion. Many of us know the Seattle-based PNB only from reviews and bits of information gathered online, but by the last page, the company feels like an old friend.
Snowflakes lets us in on aspects of the art form few audience members even know of, no matter how seasoned the balletomane: technical issues and talks of tennis or card games over the crew’s headsets during the performances, board meetings and their jargon, casting negociations, the constant money worries and the petty cost-cutting measures that go with them. Manes is refreshingly matter-of-fact throughout, even comparing ballet and baseball, and he captures PNB’s contradictions with quiet affection, from union conundrums to the chaotic nature of the rehearsals leading up, more often than not, to successful opening nights. The company’s director, former New York City Ballet star Peter Boal, was then in his third season in Seattle, and we see the New York-style culture he brought with him (more new ballets, less rehearsal time) collide with old ways and strong characters.
The season Manes followed was a momentous one for PNB, with modern premieres and a Laugh out Loud! festival in addition to well-reviewed American classics. The most fascinating production chronicled in the book is Jean-Christophe Maillot’s Roméo et Juliette, a company and US premiere meant to replace the version staged by the company’s former directors. The drama surrounding the rehearsal process (not enough time, one of only two Juliets injured less than two weeks before opening night, dancers ready to defect to Maillot’s Monte-Carlo company) makes for compelling reading: you root for Noelani Pantastico, who is forced to play Juliet in all 9 performances, and the lengthy descriptions and interviews highlight wonderful facets of the ballet.
Maillot himself is one of many engrossing characters in Snowflakes (others include Pantastico, Stewart Kershaw, the company’s music director and conductor, and Bruce Wells, a former NYCB soloist who went on to choreograph and is now a teacher with PNB’s school). Like Twyla Tharp, also featured, the French choreographer shows little interest in restaging his past works, but his input when he makes it to Seattle, a few days before the premiere of Roméo et Juliette, seems to be a game changer for the dancers. Stagers recreating a work (and using wildly different methods to do so in the book) are the norm nowadays in ballet, not choreographers, and who is teaching behind the scenes clearly influences the way each work looks on stage, for better or worse, but to an extent the audience will hardly ever know about.
The rest of Boal’s programming at PNB, a diet more daring than what the company was previously used to, also raises interesting questions. With modern choreographers coming in, from David Parsons to Sara Pearson, the dancers are repeatedly asked to be less balletic, less controlled. Some embrace it, others aren’t so pleased with the style or the hierarchy issues that arise, and most choreographers and stagers are aghast at the strict union rules and various other PNB quirks. And yet Boal seems to foster creativity – a Choreographers’ Showcase brings new works by company members, and Principal Olivier Wevers has since created his own Seattle-based dance company, Whim W’him. The dilemmas today’s ballet companies face are evident throughout: is moving forward becoming synonymous with regularly “untraining” dancers and annexing modern dance pieces worked out for very different bodies? Is is the best choice for a large company, is there an alternative?
Snowflakes touches on too many other issues to list, but I was fascinated by the glimpse we get of the complex relationship between director and dancers. For the Principals former artistic directors Francia Russell and Kent Stowell handpicked over the years, Boal’s regime is a seismic change, a fast-paced environment devoid of parent figures, and some feel sidelined or resent the arrival of dancer Carla Körbes, who was very close to Boal in New York and has taken center stage in Seattle. Whether they are sensitive about the number of performances they get or feel they are cast below their rank, issues often seem to arise because Boal is not dictatorial enough, a rare occurrence in the ballet world according to Maillot:
“It’s interesting, because with Peter, we are a little bit similar. We are, the both of us, I believe, a little bit weak with dancers. We don’t see our job like other directors see it.” Typically, “in the ballet world, it’s very much you make the dancers children. You don’t want the dancer to be an adult. You keep them as children. And it’s so much more comfortable.” (p. 450)
(New York City Ballet almost serves as counterpoint in the book: a number of company members have danced there, and the picture that emerges from their profiles is troubling)
With so much information at every turn, When Snowflakes Dance and Swear is on the heavy side (860 pages!), and its structure isn’t always ideal, with abrupt transitions from one topic to another within many chapters. In terms of research, however, it is a colossal undertaking, unbelievably thorough and thought-provoking, a wealth of quotes and details offered without prejudice or judgement. It is left to the reader to form an opinion on what Manes calls the Land of Ballet, and while the Epilogue is pessimistic in some ways (the recession has hit PNB hard in the last few seasons), he obviously doesn’t agree with Jennifer Homans, who concluded in Apollo’s Angels that the art form is dying. In Seattle anyway, the actors of the ballet world seem to have a great deal more to say.