Artistic Director’s Notebook: Afternoon Ball, Waterbaby Bagatelles, Nine Sinatra Songs

My daughter, Sarah, is part of a very chatty carpool to and from ballet classes. According to one mom, the girls were discussing the foot pains that serious ballet students have to endure. (They were nine at the time.) Swapping stories, Sarah chimed in, “My friend, Twyla, has some of the worst bunions ever!” We parents are usually not part of the chatting, but on Tuesday, mom felt compelled to ask, “Do you mean Twyla Tharp?” “Yeah, Twyla…real big bunions.”

In the summer of 2008, we were fortunate as a ballet company and as a community to host one of the great dancemakers of our time for eight weeks. During that time, Twyla not only showed Sarah her bunions but created two distinct world premieres for PNB. She threw herself into the process, attending fundraising events and sharing wisdom with our marketing department, photographers, young choreographers, musicians, designers, and dancers. She attracted and gave interviews to the press and lectured to the general public on the creative process. Honestly, she brought out the very best in every aspect of our institution.

I tell the bunion story not to drop celebrity gossip but to illustrate the point that we got to know Twyla really well. I’m not just talking about the Boals, either. Hundreds of us got to know how Twyla thinks and what she likes and dislikes. She was encouraging to all and understood the scope of creating art and having the public included in the process. There were a handful of regulars who would gather on the viewing balcony in our largest studio to watch the process unfold over two months. Twyla welcomed this interest and often spent her five-minute breaks greeting guests and offering insight. After leaving Seattle, Twyla wrote a book about a year of collaborations. The book looks at four collaborations with ballet companies during 2008. We learn from the chapter on Pacific Northwest Ballet that our appreciation of Twyla was reciprocal. In fact, PNB proves to be the most fruitful and satisfying of the collaborations for all involved.

When we remember Afternoon Ball, we probably think about the extraordinary talent and stage presence of Charlie Neshyba-Hodges. Charlie premiered in the piece alongside Kaori Nakamura, Olivier Wevers, Ariana Lallone, and Stanko Milov. After spending the past year on Broadway starring in Twyla’s latest show, Come Fly with Me, he found time to rehearse casts for our current revival. Charlie’s another one who knows how to bring out the best in dancers. He approaches coaching completely without ego and guides dancers to their greatest potential.

Another favorite stager has been with us for the past few weeks bringing Waterbaby Bagatelles back to life. Shelley Washington staged our very first Twyla work, Nine Sinatra Songs, in 2006. Shelley was an incredible dancer who helped define Twyla’s unique style of movement throughout the 1980s and 1990s. She was as refreshing onstage as she is in the studio today. We welcome Shelley back to PNB and thank her for her excellent and inspiring work.

With her choreography in the repertories of scores of companies around the globe and performed by students at countless universities, with a list of Broadway and film successes almost as long as her list of honorary doctorates, and with an extensive lecture circuit and a handful of books penned, Twyla is a prolific artist, to say the least. She is a singular voice among choreographers and even more so among female choreographers. She has earned and deserves a place among the greats. PNB is lucky to have five ballets by Twyla in our repertory, and two of those were made for us. Hopefully, we’ll be seeing more from this great artist in the future. Seattle loves Twyla.

Peter Boal

Featured photo: PNB dancers in Twyla Tharp’s Waterbaby Bagatelles, photo © Angela Sterling.