Red Angels, coming up on PNB’s DIRECTOR’S CHOICE program March 16–25, has caught our attention around PNB’s offices. Four incredibly athletic dancers (plus the resounding soundtrack of electric violin) consume the studios during rehearsals of this red hot ballet.
Knowing the late choreographer Ulysses Dove created Red Angels on our Artistic Director (then a New York City Ballet principal dancer) Peter Boal, we were eager for an inside look. We asked him to reveal the process behind Red Angels – both as a dancer and a staging artist.
PNB: Can you describe your relationship with Ulysses Dove?
Peter Boal: We became very close to Ulysses during the multi-week process of creating Red Angels. At first he was a little hesitant to trust us. It seemed like he was expecting resistance from us, but we were all very excited to work with him and open to his ideas. There was something about having only five of us in the room each day that made it so familial. Once trust was earned, we moved forward as a team. I considered Ulysses a good friend.
PNB: Do you think he knew Red Angels would be his final work?
Peter Boal: In truth, it wasn’t. Ulysses made a last work called Twilight about a year later. He used the same cast as Red Angels. Ulysses was honestly so sick from complications from the AIDS virus that we didn’t know if he would live to finish the work. He promised he would and he did, but he could barely breathe during the final rehearsal – a shell of the exuberant young man who bounded around the room a year earlier making Red Angels. He died days after the premiere. It was a very difficult time for us, but the energy and light he brought to his choreography became the solace.
PNB: What was your career like when Red Angels premiered in 1994?
Peter Boal: I like to think I was at the height of my game at the time. I was 28 and had been a principal with NYCB for five years. I was a versatile dancer, but I think Red Angels earned all of us a little more street cred.
PNB: Why did you decide to bring Red Angels to PNB? (Was it something you knew you’d present as soon as you were hired as Artistic Director?)
Peter Boal: We performed Red Angels on my first program as AD – the opening night gala. I knew it was a work I could stage and therefore a contribution I could make to PNB. I also thought I could give notice of my intentions to unleash a tide of bold new works.
PNB: Being so energetic, this looks like a nerve-wracking piece to dance. Is it strenuous to dance the solos – emotionally and/or physically?
Peter Boal: It is certainly charged with energy. The music heightens the excitement. What many may not realize is how technically demanding it is. Ulysses wasn’t just looking for dancers with a cool catwalk. He wanted pure technique. The material demands technique that is deep within and can be tossed off with speed and authority.
PNB: Was there a difference in reactions between the NYCB world premiere and the PNB premiere?
Peter Boal: Certainly I’ve seen many differences in audiences’ responses in the two cities, but for Red Angels the reaction was unanimous approval and ovation.
PNB: Which qualities do those dancers in Red Angels share?
Peter Boal: They all have the ability to hold an audience’s attention. Also strong quads.
PNB: Dove mentioned that he was inspired by Balanchine to make Red Angels. Where do you see that inspiration in the piece?
Peter Boal: Yes. Speed, line, technique, and even assured presence. Balanchine dancers were a breed apart: peacocks, gazelles, and even a few unicorns. Ulysses looked for all of these qualities and pushed us to be our best and most stunning.
PNB: I’ve heard several theories about what Red Angels is “about…” A PNB coworker mentioned a theme of AIDS; Patricia Barker said in an interview that it was about the rockiness of a relationship; Dove himself says that the dancers are angels of the senses. What’s your take?
Peter Boal: I don’t know how much Ulysses would offer. There are various themes one can identify in all of his choreography: religion, strength, conflict. Some works address domestic violence. All he told us was the dancers in Red Angels are of both the air and the earth, torn between the pull of gravity and the absence of it. One could take this in many directions, and I would venture to say Ulysses was torn between a darker world and one filled with light.
PNB: How does Red Angels fit into DIRECTOR’S CHOICE? Is there an overarching theme to the program?
Peter Boal: One theme that I’ve discovered with these pieces is that each choreographer represented on this program was given an initial opportunity to choreograph by their director. Ulysses with Alvin Ailey, Bill Forsythe with Marcia Haydee in Stuttgart, and Ezra at PNB.
PNB: In 2010, The Seattle P-I called Red Angels both “amorous” and “violent.” Would you say that it skews one way or the other – more amorous or more violent?
Peter Boal: Definitely a potent cocktail of the two.
PNB: What do you want audiences to take away from Red Angels at the end of the night?
Peter Boal: I guess I would want them to feel the charge in the air around them and let it inspire. It’s a rush, designed to lift you up and take you forward so just let it.
Featured photo: Peter Boal rehearsing Red Angels with PNB dancers onstage, photo © Angela Sterling.