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Peter Boal teaches class. Photograph by Angela Stirling

Peter Boal, Devoted to Dance

Born in 1965 and raised in the town of Bedford in Westchester, New York, Peter Boal began studying ballet at the School of American Ballet at age nine. His life has been devoted to the art ever since. Boal joined New York City Ballet’s corps in 1983 and became a principal dancer six years later. In 2003, while still at City Ballet, he founded the eponymous Peter Boal and Company, a risk-taking chamber ensemble that commissioned original works, often from little-known postmodern choreographers. (He had also been a full-time faculty member at his alma mater since 1997.)

He retired in 2005, after a critically acclaimed career as one of the most lyrical and pellucid danseurs to perform Balanchine’s stripped down, spiky modernist repertoire. An intelligent, elegant interpreter, Boal was also a favorite of guest choreographers such as William Forsythe and Twyla Tharp. Of his farewell performance of an excerpt from “Apollo,” the New York Times’ Gia Kourlas wrote, “His transcendent interpretation of one of Balanchine’s greatest roles was once again poignant for its purity of line, its veracity and its wisdom.” 

Two years later, Boal made the leap, so to speak, to Seattle, where he became artistic director of Pacific Northwest Ballet and director of its affiliated school, succeeding Kent Stowell and Francia Russell. Founded in 1972, PNB is currently celebrating its 50th anniversary. It is one of the largest and most highly regarded ballet companies in the States and has presented more than 100 performances each year of full-length and mixed repertory ballets at Marion Oliver McCaw Hall in Seattle and on tour.

The troupe has also toured Europe, Australia, Taiwan, Hong Kong, Canada and throughout the U.S., and will perform in Los Angeles at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion, closing out the season series of Glorya Kaufman Presents Dance at the Music Center. The triple bill PNB presents July 15–17 consists of Alejandro Cerrudo’s 2012, “Little mortal jump,” which PNB took on in 2016; Crystal Pite’s “Plot Point,” commissioned by Netherlands Dance Theater in 2010 and added to the PNB repertory in 2017; and the PNB 2013 original, by Twyla Tharp, “Waiting at the Station.”

I had the chance to speak with Boal by phone from Seattle, where the troupe was about to open a run of an all-Tharp program. Our conversation ranged from helming a company and touring with an orchestra to PNB’s upcoming Los Angeles gig.

First of all, I want to congratulate PNB on its 50th anniversary. And now that you’ve been at the helm since 2005, has running a company been all you thought it would be, and do you miss performing?

I do miss performing, but I think physically I don’t miss it. There’s something about artistic input that’s so rewarding—this sense of teamwork that extends to other dancers onstage. You feel it with the orchestra—a collective accomplishment. That part I still have, but not taking a bow.

I didn’t know what it was going to be like, running a company. I just showed up. There’s a fire extinguisher outside my office, because there are little fires all the time, and you want to put them out. You want to be ready and talk things through.

What a perfect metaphorand hopefully you haven’t needed to break the glass too often. Still, your time as director has proven fruitful. How many works are in the troupe’s repertory nowand is it true that you added a whopping 57 ballets in your first five years?

I’m not sure about that number, but we’ve done active repertory-building in my tenure here. Next year we’re doing six works on commission and doing another work new to the company. It stimulates the whole organization. It’s a build for the costume shop, there are new cues to learn from the stage manager, and dancers feel like it’s a clean slate when choreographers walk in. It feels energizing to have choreographers in the building.

 We have an active repertory that’s more like 60 within the last five years. And our inactive rep is probably close to 200.

How many dancers are in the company, how often do you hold auditions, and do you still teach?

This year we started with 46 and now have 44. We’d like to have 50; that’s aspirational. I don’t often hold auditions—I only held two or three in the last 15 years. We mostly draw from our school. About 95 percent of our hires are from the school, [where] I teach two times a week. But we do hold auditions for our school summer course [in] 21 different cities around the country. We have teams that go out, and I do eight cities. It’s nice to have geographical representation, and it’s easier for us to go to people. Last year we had 600 dancers submit audition materials. I look at them all and get back to them.

Ezra Thompson with Pacific Northwest Ballet in Alejandro Cerrudo’s “Little Mortal Jump.” Photograph by Angela Stirling

PNB was last seen in Los Angeles in 2016 on an all-Forsythe bill, but with two other companies. This time it’s all PNB. How do you decide on a program—in this case works by Cerrudo, Pite and Tharp?

These are works we have done recently, works that the company excels in, works that haven’t been widely seen. If you’re a ballet fan, these are fairly new works. Alejandro Cerrudo is our resident choreographer, and I’m a big fan of his work. There’s a fluidity to his movement that I love.

His dance, which is set to the music of an array of composers including Philip Glass, Max Richter, and Tom Waits, has been described by the “Ballet Herald” as “witty and whimsical.”

“Little mortal jump” is a light piece; he packs a punch, [and] the dancers can just grab you when you don’t expect it. It’s theatrical, and suddenly it’s emotional, and you’re not sure why. There’s something innocent and human about his work that I hope audiences will like.

Crystal Pite—she’s brilliant. She’s so much smarter than me. She has a mind that is so unbelievable [and] deals with subject matter that could be tricky. It’s her analytical way of looking at [the subject] that fascinates me. There’s this distillation of anxiety, elements of fear, violence, suspense—all rooted in movement, music, and choreography. It’s a work that when you see more than once, layers peel away. There are different structures, backgrounds, iterations.

In the fall we’ll do our third work by her. She values her time and wants to do a certain number of weeks [since] there are various stages in assisting her. The scenic and costume elements are never simple, so it’s quite an investment. And audiences are taken aback—if you’ve haven’t seen her work before.

Pacific Northwest Ballet in Crystal Pite’s “Plot Point.” Photograph by Angela Sterling

Ah, but the music to “Plot Point” is absolutely key! Opting to set the dance to the iconic sounds of Bernard Herrmann, who scored a number of Hitchcock films. Crystal takes the music from Hitch’s classic horror film Psycho to a new level. And those stabbing, angst-producing strings!

Yes, there are those moments in the shower scene, but she does it in such an unexpected way that feels organic and arresting all at once. In a way, she allows us to see Herrmann’s composition in such a different way, like Balanchine made us see Stravinsky. We weren’t initially hearing it that way.

You complete the program with Twyla’s “Waiting at the Station,” which was made for PNB and is set in the 1940s to a selection of tunes by the late Allen Toussaint, with costumes by Tony award-winner Santo Loquasto.

This was the culmination of three [Tharp] works, with the third being the biggest. It had a theme, a story, lots of costumes, tons of hats, and intricate lighting. The dance is dense and action-packed: limbs are flying. Allen Toussaint was New Orleans–based. He played our first performances and since passed away. It’s nice to take our orchestra along on this journey. They get huge rewards out of the process. It’s a feel-good piece that’s poignant [and] personal, but at the end of day you end up dancing in the aisles.

Pacific Northwest Ballet in “Waiting at Station” by Twyla Tharp. Photograph by Angela Stirling

How would you describe your working relationship with Twyla?

I love Twyla. She’s a complicated person, and I first met her when I was 18. She came to City Ballet to choreograph and came back when I was 35. She’s also had a long history with PNB: [made] three works on this company and we’ve performed eight of her pieces. It’s a longstanding and ongoing relationship.

PNB is one of the rare troupes that has its own orchestra, which you’re bringing to L.A. That’s such a luxury these days, but it makes a huge difference. Does the orchestra usually tour with you, and what are your thoughts on live music?

I’m such a fan of live music. I’ve also danced to recorded music; the predictability can be positive and negative. I used to love, as a dancer, when sometimes it’s faster, sometimes it’s slower. It called for musicality each time, and it enlivens the entire space you’re in.

Again, it’s the human quality. There’s a humanity in how to dig into the violin strings, or when a ballerina goes into piqué arabesque. Our orchestra is so talented. We love them and the results are incredible. On our all-Tharp program, “Brief Fling” was only done to a recording until we did it. “Sweet Fields” is done to Shaker hymns and we [had] a choir coming in to sing that live. It’s nice to take two recorded works and move them into the realm of live music. Seattle’s a music town.

What do you look for when you commission a work? What’s the process like and what happens if you don’t like the way it turns out?

That does happen, but a lot of times there’s value even if the end result isn’t [to your liking]. I’ve seen choreographers, for example, who are accustomed to creating in a smaller venue, and you watch it in a small rehearsal. But when you put that into a 3,000-seat auditorium, the piece gets lost.

I care more whether it’s fulfilling to the participants and the box office, but you don’t always get that. I also like to commission choreographers more than once. It’s hard to do a one-shot deal. You’re better when they’re familiar with everything.

 I’m a free rein kind of director. I watch quietly from a balcony or corner of the studio. It’s a bit like giving an artist a canvas. And if you want the top line to be blue, have a strong line across the bottom, and add pink there—who’s doing this? Is it me or you?

It’s about empowerment. I love watching that process unfold. Some are collaborative and they want to teach dancers how to achieve that. Thirty-three works were made on me and I enjoyed every process.

What about youdid you ever want to choreograph?

I have choreographed four pieces. I’m average at it, and I know that. I’ve done two things for school performances and a retirement piece for dancers. There are people who are better at it, and the investment is worth it.

One of the nice things about the world today, with ballet as well: who you are is part of the evolution of ballet. You’re not who someone tells you to be, and that makes it a better experience. That’s the shift: instead of fitting the model, now, hey, you’re the model.

The pandemic was hard for everyone, especially in the arts. Did many dancers leave the company and how did you manage to survive?

We did a full-on digital season immediately. Some works were easy to pull together, but I wanted to keep choreographers working. There are 350 in all, with our staff, the orchestra, a full-time faculty. We did our best to keep everybody working. It wasn’t quite at the level it had been, but our doors are open, the art was coming, and audiences are connected.

What do you think about the state of classical dance today?

Balanchine believed in evolution. His famous quote was, “Dancers are like butterflies. They’re beautiful while they last, but they don’t last forever.” He would be surprised ballet is such a pillar. [For example,] we’ve done work to revive Ulysses Dove. He’s not seen much anymore. He died in his 40s in New York, so it’s nice to take [his work] out and revive it.

Today, dancers are adept contemporary movers; there used to be five or six who could do all the moves. Cerrudo, for example, is front and center in classical ballet these days, and his training is going to pull from classical forms and build on technique.

So, today, yes, but tomorrow I don’t know. The world’s changing so much. Look at the state of movie theaters today. People are rediscovering books, books you can hold in your hands. With theaters, people are having a collective experience. When the orchestra starts, when the Swan Queen pines for the Prince and vice versa, it’s an immersion into art by blocking out the rest of the world.

I’m a fan of Netflix, but for experiences you can’t find somewhere else—to prioritize the experience that way—it’s resonating. Eighty percent of the audiences will be there tomorrow and be strong tomorrow. Dance is such a moving experience, and in life it’s one we seem to need.

You became enamored with ballet at age nine and never looked back. How would you describe your career and are you going to join the throngs of fellow dancers who’ve been penning memoirs these days?

I joined the ranks at nine, but I tried to quit at 10. The ballet school told me, “You can’t quit.” I listened, and they were right. After one more year, I thought, “This is it, this is me.”

Funny, you should ask. I wrote a book that’s coming out, Illusions of Camelot. It’s about growing up in Bedford, New York [and] my family, my community, but I only go up to age 19.

Sounds like that’s just volume one. Who’s publishing it?

It’s a tiny house, Beaufort Books. I wrote it ten years ago, and it got shopped around. I signed with an agent in February before Covid. It’s been a slow go, because no one’s ever heard of me as an author.

I can’t wait to read it. So, where do you see yourself in the next five to ten years?

I like my job. I hope people want to keep me in it. One day I want to walk away, though. I do stage ballets, I love to teach, and I imagine those things will continue. I’ve also got my family and my dog.