Celebrating Retiring Principal Dancer James Yoichi Moore

By Emma Love Suddarth

His authenticity is a beacon, captivating many. James doesn’t strive to be something he’s not; he is, and this truth resonates with people and draws them in.” Former PNB principal Noelani Pantastico couldn’t have picked any more perfect words to describe soon-retiring principal James Yoichi Moore.

In the studio, on the stage, or on the street, the James you meet is one-hundred-percent, unassuming, genuine James. “Affable and continuously operating with lightness and positivity,” James has proven himself a bright light for PNB dancers and audiences alike, even in the heaviest, seemingly darkest of roles on stage—Marco Goecke’s Mopey, Balanchine’s Prodigal Son, or, of course, Jean Christophe Maillot’s Roméo et Juliette. Whether it be in the Phelps Center’s dressing room, emphatically discussing fantasy football picks, or on McCaw Hall’s stage, charming the audience as one of the sailors in Jerome Robbins’ Fancy Free, James’ enthusiasm is infectious and his presence irreplaceable. As a San Francisco native looking north, never in a million years did he expect to end up at PNB: “It was a very tall company at the time [I was hired]—long legs, slender bodies—there was a look. That wasn’t me.” However, over his twenty-year tenure with PNB, James has set himself apart as one who defines what the company is today, and for years to come.

Like many little brothers, he “fell” into ballet at age four—dancing around the lobby of Miss Tilly’s Ballet and Theater Arts during his sister’s lesson. From there his studies widened, first at San Francisco Ballet School, then the School of American Ballet—with Peter Boal as one of his teachers—then back to SFBS before setting off on his professional career at Pittsburg Ballet Theater. A west coaster at heart, it was a bit of a culture shock moving to the other side of the country, that is—if you know James—until he went to a football game: “I went to a Steelers game and it all made sense!” And, little did he know, that move east had paved the way for his future lying back on this coast. It was there that he met his now-wife Kristen, with whom he has two beautiful children, and it was there that, while staging Balanchine’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream, founding PNB Artistic Director Francia Russell singled him out and offered him a contract in Seattle. He took it, and, in classic, all-in James fashion, never looked back.

Over his time here, he has defined roles in many of the ballets that have become signature of PNB. His Mopey, shuffling around the stage in the iconic solo, “put [him] on the map at PNB,” he explains. His Prodigal Son was unequivocally authentic—going from rebellious to broken to restored—carrying his audience with him on every step of the poignant journey. His Romeo will continue to break hearts for years to come—defining the doomed couple alongside Pantastico, a partnership for which both will forever be grateful: “[Our connection] was nonverbal—you could feel it. It made every performance something we could look forward to. It was new every time.” And his father in Twyla Tharp’s Waiting at the Station will have every audience member singing and dancing to those jazzy notes the whole way home.

But, while he loves performing, and knows it’s an impossible thing to replicate, true to his character, what James says he will miss most is the day-in, day-out in the studio — the process, the work, the people. “It’s that never-ending quest to improve your technique in class, even though you know you’ll never be able to reach perfection. It’s something to work on every day.” During class, just take a look into the rear stage-right corner of studio C, and chances are you’ll spot him. Even though he doesn’t like learning choreography—”I wish you could just insert a chip and know the steps, so you can just work on perfecting it”—you can regularly spot him on a five-minute break tirelessly reviewing every step.

And, in every instance, you’ll spot nearby the numerous faces he’s making smile, and the countless friendships he’s built. When reflecting on his time, his favorite moments and memories prove testament to his love of his fellow artists: “The last time PNB did Fancy Free I got to perform it with Seth [Orza] and Johnny [Porretta], two of my heroes—I grew up with Seth and always loved him as a dancer, and I met Johnny when I was 15. He’s one of my favorite dancers ever, he’s legendary. We had Noe and Lesley [Rausch] too. That was a heck of a cast—it was always thrilling to be there with them.” Luckily, those bonds he’ll keep with him forever.

“James had a quality that reflected us—and yet he was the best of us, with souls bared, emotions raw, living in the moment,” PNB Artistic Director Peter Boal explains; this applied both in the studio and in life. And while the last twenty years have flown by faster than he or his audience could ever imagine, he can’t wait for every minute yet to come—whether watching young dancers find the joy in the art at the Tutu Schools in Renton and Tacoma he recently opened with wife Kristen, or playing on the floor with his two kids Julian and Layla.

When asked what words he has carried with him throughout his brilliant career, nothing could illustrate James’ true nature better: “When I was young I had a teacher, Christopher Boatwright—he taught the hardest class you could imagine to 10-year-olds. He always said, ‘You’re going to thank me.’ He taught us that ballet was difficult, yet it could be rewarding. In any class, you always start with your left hand on the barre. In his class, after the right side, you turned into the barre to get to the left side, then to the left again to face the center to get the next combination. And so on. You were always turning to the left to get to the next place. He said that it’s because you follow your heart. To this day I have to do it. I’m like Zoolander; I can’t turn right.” Making us laugh while simultaneously leaving us with an unforgettable moment of authenticity—such is James Yoichi Moore.

Celebrate James Yoichi Moore and PNB’s other departing dancers at Season Encore on June 9, 2024. Click here to purchase tickets.

Author: Emma Love Suddarth, Contributing Writer. Emma danced with PNB from 2008-2021. She writes for Pointe and Dance Magazine, as well PNB.

Photo credits: Former PNB Company dancer Noelani Pantastico and James Yoichi Moore in rehearsal, photo © Angela Sterling. Founding PNB Artistic Director Kent Stowell James Yoichi Moore in rehearsal, photo © Lindsay Thomas. James Yoichi Moore in Twyla Tharp’s Waiting at the Station, photo © Angela Sterling. James Yoichi Moore in Marco Goecke’s Mopey, photo © Angela Sterling. Angelica Generosa and James Yoichi Moore in rehearsal, photo © Lindsay Thomas. PNB Company dancers in Jerome Robbins’ Fancy Free, photo © Angela Sterling. Peter Boal and James Yoichi Moore in rehearsal, photo © Angela Sterling.