Artistic Director’s Notebook: Sweet Fields, The Calling, The Seasons’ Canon

What goes into programming a season? There are more factors to list than my word count allows. Putting together programs for PNB over the past two decades has been a favorite part of the job. I’m also grateful to have input from others and most recently from Associate Artistic Director Kiyon Ross.
I start with works I admire – well-crafted, musical, clear point of view – and ones I believe audiences will find intriguing. I like a mixture of past hits and unknowns. I welcome your feedback at post-performance Meet the Artist sessions.

I consider the current roster, aiming to provide roles that will foster growth for the company, students, musicians, and others. I look at licenses (every ballet at PNB has a license for between one and five years). If a work is performed twice during a license period, there is less to spend, more to earn, and the pleasure of revisiting a favorite. Lia Chiarelli, our Chief Marketing & Advancement Officer, is one of the first people I consult. We create the best estimate for what we think a program will earn and how the mix of programs will help create a balanced budget. Lia’s research shows PNB’s most popular reps include works by Twyla Tharp or Crystal Pite.

I consider the workload for stage crew, number of floors, costumes, wigs, dressers, pointe shoes, and more. I will never forget my first season when music director Stewart Kershaw said, “It’s clear someone has forgotten the trombones.” I confess, I had, and I haven’t since.

We also look at representation – who’s being given opportunities and who’s not. This lens is used for choreographers, composers, and designers. Traditionally, ballet has been dominated by male-identifying dancemakers. PNB is doing its part to shift this imbalance and offer multiple opportunities each season to talented and deserving creators. Did you know our school offers a 38-week course in choreography for young women? You’re about to see a program with works by three female-identifying choreographers. They are all familiar names on our stage and in our studios.

These works are all meditations on existence. Each is thoughtful, engaging, and affecting. Twyla Tharp has taken the music of Shaker hymns as her inspiration for Sweet Fields. Norma Kamali’s flowing white costumes transport us to a celestial realm. The sense of community, support, life, and afterlife fills our soul. Twyla offers joy, play, and reverence to the uplifting voices of The Tudor Choir. Jessica Lang, PNB’s new resident choreographer and the creator of The Calling, was in the original cast of Sweet Fields. The Calling was made in a surge of emotion after Jessica received a lost letter from a mentor years after his passing. The letter arrived at a moment when Jessica needed guidance. It seemed to drop from heaven. After reading, through torrents of tears, she grabbed husband Kanji Segawa, a star dancer with Alvin Ailey, and headed into a studio to create The Calling.

Crystal Pite tends to turn our world around, inside out, and upside down, always leaving us awed. We reevaluate what we thought we knew about dance and its possibilities. I had the pleasure of seeing The Seasons’ Canon not long after it premiered with Paris Opera Ballet. It instantly topped my must-have list. Crystal agreed PNB should be the next company to perform this monumental work. I asked how we would handle the cast of 54 and she said, “I’ve seen your students, and they can handle the material.” What a testament to the caliber of our Professional Division students. The Seasons’ Canon reflects our environment as seen through Crystal’s mind. Colonies of mushrooms, underwater evolution, predators and their prey, snowfall, darkness – the world laid bare before us in all its wonder, as if we were seeing it for the first time.

This season we are seeing an appetite for mixed rep programs like the one you are about to see. Mixed reps offer more opportunities for artists both within the company and from outside of PNB. We welcome your attendance and enthusiasm, and we need your advocacy. If you love what you are seeing on the stage today, tell a friend, and come back and see us again.

Photo credits: Featured photo – James Yoichi Moore in Jessica Lang’s The Calling, photo © Lindsay Thomas. Amanda Morgan and PNB Company dancers in Crystal Pite’s The Seasons’ Canon, photo © Angela Sterling. Kanji Segawa, Jessica Lang, Peter Boal, and former PNB Company dancer Carla Körbes rehearsing The Calling, photo © Lindsay Thomas.