PillowVoices: Dance Through Time

Regional Ballet: Pacific Northwest Ballet, Boston Ballet, Houston Ballet

Episode Summary

Pillow Scholar Nancy Wozny explores the history of regional ballet in America through conversations and stories of three distinct ballet companies. Featured are artists with Pacific Northwest Ballet, Boston Ballet, and Houston Ballet - three companies who came together here in 2021 for a program called 'Ballet Coast to Coast.'

Episode Notes

Pillow Scholar Nancy Wozny explores the history of regional ballet in America through conversations and stories of three distinct ballet companies. Featured are artists with Pacific Northwest Ballet, Boston Ballet, and Houston Ballet - three companies who came together here in 2021 for a program called 'Ballet Coast to Coast.'

Additional Resources: 
Read - Point Spread: The Marvel of Regional Ballet, by Nancy Wozny

Watch - (clip) Pacific Northwest Ballet, Second to Last

Watch - (clip) Houston Ballet, Reflections 

Watch - (clip) Boston Ballet, Home Studies

Episode Transcription

[Music begins, composed by J.S. Bach, performed by Jess Meeker]

NORTON OWEN: Welcome to PillowVoices, a production of Jacob's Pillow Dance Festival with content from the Pillow archives. Hi, I'm Norton Owen, the Pillow’s Director of Preservation and it's my pleasure to introduce Pillow Scholar Nancy Wozny your host for this look at regional ballet. We'll hear the voices of dancers and directors of companies in Boston, Seattle and Houston as Nancy retraces both history and current trends in ballet coast to coast.

NANCY WOZNY: On a glorious summer day, dancers from Boston Ballet, Pacific Northwest Ballet and Houston Ballet took over the Henry J. Lear outdoor stage in a program called Ballet Coast to Coast that concluded the 2021 Jacob's Pillow season. This episode gives us a glimpse of the state of ballet across the country, through the lens of these three companies who share the stage that brilliant sunny day. Ballet Coast to Coast was an ambitious endeavor, especially in the middle of a pandemic. Yet the event proved a sign of strength, hope and resilience. It was also a window into important changes happening in the field today. Houston Ballet first soloist Harper Watters, describes the moment in this 2021 Pillow Talk. 

HARPER WATERS: And I felt a little nervous. I'm like, okay, the other companies are here, you know, and they're gonna see it and what are they gonna think, and it's just it's a, it's a healthy pressure of, I wanted to, we’re the Houston Ballet dancers. We’re only three of us, you know, there's a, we're a company of 60. So I want them to think that our company is great. And I want to represent them well. And it's like, when you have beautiful dancer sitting and being like, I want it, I want it to do well, but it was never like, if you fell out of something that anybody is like oooo I saw that! It’s just yeah, it was like a it was definitely this healthy, like, I just everybody wanted to rise to it, I think and it was like day one, it was like, Okay, this is really happening. We are three companies here about to put on nine shows in four days. You know, and we're gonna we have to do this. 


NANCY WOZNY: It’s easy to look at these world class dancers and think that the institutions they represent were always in place, as if ballet just appeared in America like the magic that this ethereal art form spins on a stage. The story of ballet in America is a long and complicated one, but it's amazing how much we can learn from this one Pillow engagement. How each of these three companies came to be cultural pillars in their respective communities was by no means a straight shot. There were earlier iterations of each: Houston Ballet Foundation, Seattle Opera, and the New England Civic Ballet. There were difficult times: artistic directors with one-year stints, funding setbacks and other struggles that are simply part of building a cultural institution. Regional ballet is a term that has come to mean for many people, not New York. There’s no doubt that New York City with New York City Ballet and American Ballet Theatre, along with their prestigious academies, provided a base that did in fact play a role in fueling enthusiasm and the spread of ballet across the country. But I have to ask, isn’t it also a marvel that ballet studios, conservatories, and yes, strong ballet companies, can be found throughout the rest of the country? The fact that these three companies grew to their current status as major institutions in the US, reveals not only a story of incredible artistic striving, but one that also uncovers some key tenets in the growth of ballet within US borders. Scholar in residence Theresa Ruth Howard gives us her take on the meaning behind Ballet Coast to Coast.

THERESA RUTH HOWARD: In my mind, this was a curatorial exercise of what ifs. What if we brought together three companies to create a collage of what and where American Ballet is today? What if we created a program where the dancers and choreographers were representative not only of America, but reflective of the actual participants of the world of ballet? What if we were to create a program that somehow attempted to illustrate the shifts in landscape and mentality of the field?

NANCY WOZNY: We should probably take a step back and bring Pillow founder Ted Shawn into the conversation. Although he was not a ballet dancer, he did train in ballet, and he played a significant role in supporting the regional ballet movement. Scholar in residence Maura Keefe speaks to Shawn’s devoted mission in her pre-show talk for Boston Ballet in 2004.

MAURA KEEFE: In the 1950s, Ted Shawn became very interested in the civic or Regional Ballet movement that was burgeoning in the United States. At that time, a regional ballet companies from Atlanta, Washington, Miami, and Boston all made their Pillow debuts. And then Ted Shawn, in the last year that he did programming for the pillow before his death, offered a rare two-week performance stint to Boston Ballet.

NANCY WOZNY: In this clip, we hear Ted Shawn himself giving us his definitive opinion about the benefits of ballet in a 1963 television documentary. 

TED SHAWN: This is a necessary foundation for precision, exactitude, and for a discipline that no other form of dance gives.

NANCY WOZNY: There’s no doubt that audiences did and still do get excited about ballet. Who better to listen to than the late Jacques D’Amboise, former New York City Ballet dancer and founder of the National Dance Institute. According to Roslyn Sulcas of the New York Times, D’Amboise “shattered stereotypes about male dancers as he helped popularize ballet in America.” In a rare appearance during a 2008 Pillowtalk, D’Amboise evangelizes the gifts of ballet.

JACQUES D’AMBOISE: Ballet is an art for the elite. Meaning it strives to make a public expression through the art of moving and dancing, that we're better than earth-bound, that we're better than the garbage that we have to put out every day, or the beds we have to sweep under because dust collects that there is a world of good manners in the air, the stratosphere, the ionosphere, that we all want to strive for.

NANCY WOZNY: Let’s get back to 2021 and that sunny day for ballet in America. Looking at these three companies allows us to gather quite a bit of knowledge about what anchors a ballet company, how they grew into the sturdy institutions they are today, about their stalwart leaders who kept the ballet fires burning, and most importantly, their communities, who continue to say, “yes, we want a ballet company here.” Sure Seattle, Boston, and Houston are major American cities, but that doesn’t necessarily mean they were ballet-loving towns. That needed to be cultivated. Let’s start with Texas, perhaps the least likely place you might think a ballet company would flourish. A state known more for football, floods, oil and a space program is the same place that has three ballet companies with multi-million-dollar budgets within its borders. Houston Ballet has a great origin story, and it all goes back to the Ballets Russes popping into Houston for decades! I trace the role of the Ballets Russes and the great ballerina Anna Pavlova in the seeding of ballet in Houston in a 2018 pre-show talk I gave at the Pillow before Houston Ballet’s performance. 

NANCY WOZNY [archival]: It all started with the Russians. Although Houstonians may have caught a ballet dancer here and there traveling on the vaudeville circuit. I'd like to think that Houston's true ballet baptism occurred when the legendary Ana Pavlova danced on the Majestic Theater stage in downtown Houston on February 28, and 29th 1916. Later that same year in December, another troupe popped in the Ballets Rousses, with none other than Vaslav Nijinsky, considered to be the greatest dancer alive at the time, performing Les Sylphides, Schéhérazade, Le Spectre De La Rose, and Prince Igor. The company spent a week in Texas with a two-nighter in Houston at the famed Music Hall, which is long gone, but occupies the same footprint as Jones Hall, Houston Ballets first home, it would be Nijinsky sole appearance in Houston, but it's hard to imagine that it didn't have a lasting impact. So it was that pavlova and Nijinsky lit the very first ballet fire in the Bayou City, 

NANCY WOZNY: Pavlova, and the Ballet Russes galvanize an interest in ballet in Houston, so much so that the city longed for its own hometown team. Here's what happened. 

NANCY WOZNY [archival]: Most ballet companies are started by one headstrong person. Houston Ballet was started by a group of its citizens determined to grow a ballet company in their city. This community of early ballet lovers which called itself the Houston Ballet Foundation, hired Ballets Russes veteran Tatiana Semenova in 1955, Nina Popova, another Ballets Russes dancer took over the operation in 1967. As the foundation moved towards growing a professional company, she was on the faculty of the New York, New York's High School for the Performing Arts and had an amazing Rolodex of ballet stars, including Italian ballerina Carla Fracci, known for her interpretation of Giselle and the dashing Eric Bruhn both came to dance with the Houston Ballet Foundation students for an elegant full length production of Giselle in December 1967 for Fracci and Bruhn were then a world famous partnership and the performance lit a spark that kept those early years moving forward. 

NANCY WOZNY: Unlike Houston Ballet, Boston Ballet started with the vision of one strong-willed woman. E. Virginia Williams. Scholar in residence Maura Keefe gives us a vivid description of Boston Ballet’s founder and the company’s beginnings in her pre-show talk before the company’s 2004 engagement.

MAURA KEEFE: The Boston Ballet was founded through a kind of Yankee determination determination by Eve Virginia Williams in the 1950s. She had studied dance in Boston and New York and in New York, she studied with George Balanchine, which started in extensive and long-term professional relationship between them. Her small company, which was originally based in the suburb, Malden, was a place that Balanchine started to shop for talent for New York City Ballet and he would poach people from her her studio. He was instrumental along with Lincoln Kirsten of helping Boston Ballet secure a Ford Foundation grant which made it possible to go from the the regional civic work they were doing to a professional status that they have today.

NANCY WOZNY: Former Boston Ballet dancer Laura Young and co-author Janine Parker discussed their book about Young's life entitled Boston Ballerina: a dancer, a company, an era with Keefe in this 2019 Pillowtalk. Young gives us her frank impressions of Williams. 

LAURA YOUNG: She was a very strong Yankee woman; she had the vision of what she wanted to do. She started teaching, I think when she was 14 in her in her parents’ home and discovered that she loved telling people what to do.

NANCY WOZNY: Developing deep ties to the community are as important as striving for excellence. Young talks about Williams’s clever policy that kept her students training at their home studios in addition to her classes during the growing years of the organization.

LAURA YOUNG: Oh, I know why she did it. She was, she was afraid that she would not get any students to come to her if they came in and stayed and the teachers wouldn't send any other students to study with her. So it was and, so it also it augmented our training in that we had more classes per week. So it was a dual purpose.

NANCY WOZNY: It’s a sign of stability that these three companies are well past the drama of a change of leadership. In fact, these three current artistic directors: Stanton Welch of Houston Ballet, Peter Boal of Pacific Northwest Ballet and Mikko Nissinen of Boston Ballet are approaching, or have reached, their second decade as leaders. Boal talks about succession, transition, and the tension between honoring the past and forging into the future in this 2009 Pillowtalk with Scholar in residence Suzanne Carbonneau.

PETER BOAL: You know, I'd like to think that we didn't take anything away. I mean, I inherited I don't know how many of you know the history of Pacific Northwest Ballet, but for 28 years, there were these terrific artistic directors, Kent Stole and Francia Russell, and they’d done an amazing job of assembling a really important ballet company in Seattle. I inherited this company, and I had a motto for the first year and that was, excuse me for saying this, ‘don't screw it up.’ So, it was my first goal. But I also saw a couple of opportunities where we could expand the repertory. They had a wealth of Balanchine ballets, but we brought in some new ones. And then there were certain choreographers that were not represented. Works by Jerome Robbins, essentially, had not been done by Pacific Northwest Ballet. Works by Ulysses Dove had not been done by Pacific Northwest Ballet. Christopher Wheeldon’s work hadn't been represented there. So I saw it as a as a goal, a journey and exciting for our audience to bring in these newer, more contemporary works.

NANCY WOZNY: Nissinen assumed the helm of Boston Ballet in 2001, launching a time of great growth. He talks about that process in a 2019PillowTalk with Director of Preservation, Norton Owen.

MIKKO NISSINEN: I'm a big believer that the hardest job to take in the world is when everything is in a place. If you want to make your stamp, you have to take everything down, and then build up. And in Boston, things were definitely everything was not in place. There were lots of good things, the company had really good arms, and there was lots of training, good training. At the same time, they were direct lists for a whole year. And you could see it's like a big garden that you don't weed for a year. And there was some, the dancers while they were very talented in their different ways, they were no not cohesive. So, you start working and, you know, step by step and you know, you, you see a change in six months. You see change in a year. In three years, five years, in ten years, you can do profound change.

NANCY WOZNY: Later on, in that same PillowTalk Nissinen discusses his place in the ongoing story of Boston Ballet.

MIKKO NISSINEN: First of all, I'm so respectful for E. Virginia Williams and every single director because they all do we all do the step in a ladder forward. And you know, she had a great view, it's the hardest job to be the pioneering director. It's a lot easier after that. She did the heavy lifting. And since then, you know, there there was Violette Verdy, Bruce Marks, and Anna-Marie Holmes. And, you know, the company has evolved. And you know, it takes so much work, it takes a board, it takes a community, it just does not happen. So, I have a tremendous respect for that, but I understand that the E. Virginia Williams had a great broad scope have a point of view what she was pushing.

NANCY WOZNY: A leader needs to have vision. We can see it in all three of these directors. In 2011, Welch came to work with the ballet students at The School at Jacob’s Pillow. In this archival artist interview, we hear a director imagining his company’s future.

STANTON WELCH: Houston Ballet performed here thirty years ago. So actually, more I guess, thirty-five, I'd love to bring the company back. It's time for us to come back. That's been something I've thought of a lot how much our dancers would really enjoy this experience. I think they love this kind of atmosphere and I think would be great for them to come.

NANCY WOZNY: Welch would go on to premiere Son of Chamber Symphony with the Joffrey Ballet’s Pillow engagement in 2012, and Houston Ballet returned to the Ted Shawn stage in 2018, exactly a year after Hurricane Harvey flooded their home theater and building, and nearly three decades after a group of Houston Ballet soloists performed on that same stage in1979. We can also look at the works performed at Ballet Coast to Coast and dig deeper into why these companies have become such beacons of ballet outside of New York. It’s not just about leadership, companies are also molded by the dances they perform. Boal explains this well in this discussion with Howard in this 2021 Pillowtalk.

PETER BOAL: I do think the choreographers shape companies, be it Bill Forsythe, be it Stanton, be it Alejandro, be it, Helen Pickett. You do see, and Leah Shaping, as a choreographer, but there is a stamp on companies and the big answer is companies are getting more and more the same.

THERESA RUTH HOWARD: True. What do you think that PNB is like signature would be if you could - if you have one?

PETER BOAL: I think right now it's contemporary work. I think every dancer in the company right now is working with Alejandro. It's not just sort of these twelve. It's every dancer in the company. So, they're growing through the work and I think right now, that's, I mean we're still Sleeping Beauty and Nutcracker and Swan Lake, but what we're developing this contemporary side that I find exciting.

NANCY WOZNY: Pacific Northwest Ballet presented a historic all Ulysses Dove program at the Pillow in 2009, just five years into Boal’s tenure as artistic director. His choice to include Red Angels on the Ballet Coast to Coast program connects to his own mark on the company. Boal worked directly with Dove when he set Red Angels on New York City Ballet, so we see that Dove DNA moving through the dancers because of Boal’s experience. Boal gives us a flavor of what it was like to be in the studio with Dove in this 2009 post-show talk with Carbonneau.

PETER BOAL: Ulysses work is not easy to set. I mean, I think I've set red angels for Pacific Northwest Ballet and also for Ballet West. The challenge is Ulysses was his personality and his spirit was such a part of the rehearsal process. He was loud. He made sounds that I was embarrassed to make when I was setting the ballet. I mean, he gave us phrases and the phrase wasn't something we'd find in the music, but it was a phrase that we would feel he would guide us there and the sounds he would make would be brrrr, pow, pit shhhuuu.

NANCY WOZNY: Boston Ballet brought the world premiere of Helen Pickett’s Home Studies Parlor Floor Life to the Ballet Coast to Coast program. From the very beginning, the company was known for showing a wide range of choreography, including works by Anna Sokolow and Talley Beatty. We learn more about Williams’s choreographic curatorial vision from this discussion between Keefe and Young.

MAURA KEEFE: So I want to talk about the repertory because I think one of the striking things about Boston Ballet’s repertory since the beginning it's always been varied I mean, from Swan Lake and Nutcracker, to Balanchine’s Scotch Symphony and Serenade to works by Anna Sokolow, which I'm gonna ask you about, to [Sam Gough], Birgit Cullberg, Norman Walker, Joyce Trisler, Margo Sappington, among many, many others. So, it's more common in the late 20th century and early 21st century that dance companies really ballet companies really start to think about having a kind of diversity of what they do. Why was Williams from the beginning interested in that kind of diversity?

LAURA YOUNG: Foresight she she did it from the beginning. I mean, Norman Walker, and Pearl Lang coming in and Joyce Trisler, all of those people.

MAURA KEEFE: Coming from a really serious, modern tradition. 

LAURA YOUNG: Yeah, yeah. And we were seriously ballet trained. We had a few jazz classes. She wanted it that way, because she said, if somebody comes in and wants ballet, they've got ballet. If somebody comes in and they want to see something a little more edgy, they've got a jazz work. If they want to see a Balanchine piece, they've got that. So she tried to diversify the programs, because we didn't have the money for the big ballets at that point, so that they could bring the widest number of people in.

NANCY WOZNY: Houston Ballet performed an excerpt from Welch’s Sons de L’ame set to piano pieces by Chopin. Welch created this ballet with superstar pianist Lang Lang in 2013 for a Paris premiere. It shows off Welch’s finesse choreographing pas de deux, a hallmark of the company’s signature. Welch addresses this company milestone in a post-show talk after the Houston Ballet’s 2018 engagement.

STANTON WELCH: The experience with Lang Lang was extraordinary, I think. Here is a genius of music, who is a savant, in some ways, and would stare at them like this. He had no, no music on the piano, he memorized the whole two hours of Chopin. And the intensity between the dance and the pianist was extraordinary. And at first I thought I can't choreograph two hours of Chopin. But then when I began, and it was very individual to each of the dancers, it wasn't, it was really capturing the musicality of each of the dancers. And yeah, it was it was fun, and to be on the Champs-Élysées and to walk out of the theater and have the Eiffel tower there. And this is the theater where a Nijinsky premiered Rite of Spring and all this history and it was really, it was really a great experience.

NANCY WOZNY: I want to take us back to that stage for the PillowTalk in 2021, because it’s there where we see ballet on a threshold, amidst a flurry of much needed reflection and change. Leading the discussion is Howard, who in addition to being a Pillow scholar in residence, is a former Dance Theater of Harlem dancer and founder of the website Memoirs of Blacks in Ballet or MobBallet. She is also a leading diversity strategist for ballet companies all over the world, as they work towards transitioning to more equitable practices. Considering the radical changes happening in ballet in a world informed by the Black Lives Matter movement, Howard acknowledges Pacific Northwest Ballet’s efforts to create a more diverse institution and addresses the work ahead for the entire field.

THERESA RUTH HOWARD: Yeah, I mean, I really do appreciate the work that you're doing and the sensitivity, the humility, the transparency, because it’s it's the leaders of the fields, they have to demonstrate that it's valuable. 


THERESA RUTH HOWARD: And I What I've also learned working with companies internationally, is it's all high school, everybody wants to sit at the cool table. So if because how to create Get a coke table for all this work. And then people get caught up in the drag.

NANCY WOZNY: She brings the dancers into the conversation to hear their perspective on what’s changing on their home turf. Harper Watters gives us his thoughts about moving into a leadership role in the company.

HARPER WATTERS: Off the bat, I learned a lot. But I think personally, it was a struggle, especially when the you know, BLM started. Because I am the highest ranked, black dancer at Houston Ballet. And at the time, there were two younger dancers in the Corps. And we've actually hired three more, so you know, that's really great this year. But I felt a personal responsibility to advocate for them as someone higher in the company to have a voice. And I thought it was it was challenging to take off the dancer hat and put on the calling out hat, at times. And you know, Houston Ballet has a legacy of being an incredibly diverse company. And Lauren Anderson is like my fairy godmother, you know, at Houston and so she was a huge, huge support system for me, but I think throughout it all and with with the help of Stanton and in the company, I realized that I am the activism. You know, I am by showing up working hard at my craft that is powerful.

NANCY WOZNY: In a spectacular show of unity, Ballet Coast to Coast culminated in a rousing performance by all three companies of Alejandro Cerrudo’s 2013 ballet Second to Last. I will let Howard have the last word as she sums up this historic day for Ballet Coast to Coast.

THERESA RUTH HOWARD: It feels like an olive branch, the collaborative effort by the Pillow and these ballet companies actively working to be better like a polaroid image, we are glimpsing what we hope is the new face of ballet developing.

[Music begins, composed, and performed by Jess Meeker]

NORTON OWEN: That’s it for this episode of PillowVoices. Thank you for joining us today. On behalf of Jacob's Pillow, we look forward to sharing more dance with you through the films, essays, and podcasts at danceinteractive.jacobspillow.org, and of course through live experiences during our festival and throughout the year. Special thanks to the National Endowment for the Arts for helping launch this podcast series. Please subscribe to PillowVoices wherever you get your podcasts and visit us again soon.