Artistic Director’s Notebook: Empire Noir, Her Door to the Sky, New Suite

With each Pacific Northwest Ballet production, Artistic Director Peter Boal creates a Director’s Notebook. We’re inspired today to bring you his latest editorial for DIRECTOR’S CHOICE, opening March 17.

Even though I try to steer clear of politics and a few other subjects because of divisiveness, in November of 2008, I slipped and snuck a sentence into my Director’s Notes about my excitement for the arrival of a new president. I promptly received an admonishing letter asking me to set any mention of my personal political beliefs aside. The letter went on to say people did not come to the ballet to hear political views. In retrospect, politics and art are truly intertwined, and separating one from other is not so easy. So, if you are the author of that long ago letter, please ignore what’s coming. No, I’m not excited about the arrival of a new president, but I do have politics on my mind.

Yes, you guessed it and you probably already knew: I’m a Democrat and a liberal. My great grandmother was a suffragette, chaining herself to the gates of Parliament to fight for the right for women to vote. After poking the arresting bobby with her hat pin, Elsie Pearce landed in a London “gaol.” The arrest and publicity opened the door for her employment as one of London’s first female journalists, which may well have been a contributing factor to Great Britain’s decision to allow women to vote. My maternal grandparents founded International Planned Parenthood Federation of Canada, and several other family planning centers around the globe. My grandmother worked alongside Margaret Sanger. Ironically, Jessica Lang’s new creation for PNB, Her Door to the Sky, received generous support from the Virginia B. Toulmin Foundation, which is directed by Alex Sanger. When I met Mr. Sanger, I asked if he was any relation. Turns out our grandmothers shared a common cause and many impassioned correspondences, which Mr. Sanger sent to me in their original penmanship, or penwomanship.

We debuted Jessica’s enlightening work this past summer at the Jacob’s Pillow Dance Festival to rapturous ovations. The Pillow helped to fund the commission. To our delight, one member of our audience was Elizabeth Warren, a Pillow regular, who asked to come backstage in order to congratulate the cast. Tears, smiles, and selfies followed.

Senator Elizabeth Warren with PNB Principal dancer James Moore at Jacob’s Pillow.

The work takes inspiration from Georgia O’Keeffe and, in particular, her patio door series. Bradon McDonald’s earth-toned costumes, edged with vibrant gemstone colors, create a wonderfully playful palette. Lighting designer Nicole Pearce (no relation to Elsie) seems to steal the Santa Fe sky and bring it indoors. The team Jessica brought to this work, with invaluable coaching from Clifton Brown, was cohesion personified.

Peter Boal with Jessica Lang in rehearsal for the 2015 PNB premiere of The Calling.

New Suite offers a delicious sampling of duets from William Forsythe (Democrat, VT). The mix of dances differs with each company who performs the work, which was created for Dresden Semperoper Ballet in 2012. The common denominator is innovation. Forsythe is one the great mold-breaker and envelope-pushers, and yet all of his twisty vocabulary stems from the centuries-old lexicon of classical ballet technique.

David Dawson worked for Bill Forsythe as a dancer with Frankfurt Ballet before finding his own voice as a choreographer. Though David’s work is well-known and admired throughout Europe and other parts of the world, PNB is one of the first American companies to present his ballets. Empire Noir was created for the Dutch National Ballet in 2015. Yes, all three works were made within the last four years! Yumiko Takeshima’s silken costume designs add immeasurably to both Empire Noir and New Suite. John Otto’s scenic design offer the bold yet subliminal gesture of a Constanin Brancusi sculpture. David’s choreography is absolutely unleashed, finding the intersection of expression, movement, and extreme. He and Rebecca Gladstone filled our studios with energy over the past weeks, and now it’s yours to enjoy.

Choreographer David Dawson with PNB dancers in rehearsal for Empire Noir.

For Empire Noir and for so much of what we do at PNB, we draw from all corners of the globe and remain grateful to be able to work with designers, choreographers, and dancers from so many different countries. Bringing them to Seattle enriches all of our lives.

We also need the National Endowment for the Arts. Support from the NEA makes this program and so many other vital programs across our country possible. Whether political wills permit the NEA to continue to allow creation and access to art or not is unknown, but if and when it’s on the chopping block, please pull an “Elsie” and take a stand.

Art is powerful and we need it. For some, it is a simple and blissful escape or entertainment, and for others, it is eye-opening—a lens through which we see another perspective and develop a deeper understanding of people and culture. Art allows us to contemplate the new or the unknown and to grow as people. It is one of the great things about Seattle and one of the great things about America. Celebrate art, perspective, and PNB.

—Peter Boal