‘Balanchinian’ ballet group chassés into Victoria

On Stage

Dance Victoria presents Pacific Northwest Ballet

When: Friday and Saturday, 7:30 p.m.

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Where: Royal Theatre

Tickets: $29 to $90 plus service charges at rmts.bc.ca or 250-386-6121.

The first words George Balanchine ever spoke to Peter Boal were, “When I pick you up, I want you to punch me and kick me as hard as you can.”

Boal was just a boy at the time, playing a bratty kid carried away kicking and screaming from the party scene in The Nutcracker. Balanchine, now regularly called the foremost contemporary choreographer in the world of ballet, was less than a decade from death.

Now 47, Boal is artistic director of Seattle’s Pacific Northwest Ballet — a company he calls loyal to the New York choreographer. The company itself is a good example of the small clan that is the ballet world: Connections to Balanchine range from direct ones — both Boal and his predecessors were long-time dancers with Balanchine’s New York City Ballet — to the look and musculature of its dancers.

But the program it brings to Victoria Friday and Saturday is also rife with lineage linkages.

All three of the choreographers — Balanchine, Jerome Robbins and Christopher Wheeldon — had strong ties to the New York City Ballet, as well as sharing some history with Boal himself.

Balanchine’s Coppélia was the piece that made Boal want to dance.

“I really just danced because I wanted to work with him,” Boal said.

Their work together, in reality, was limited. But despite only passing interactions during Boal’s children’s roles and teen apprenticeship, Balanchine recognized him when he was in hospital in 1983, just before his death.

“I spent an hour with him in the hospital. He was wonderful. He knew who I was when I walked in and was very happy to have the company,” Boal said.

Though Balanchine’s degenerative brain disease meant he wasn’t always lucid, he was having a good day when Boal and his friend arrived.

“He talked a lot about how proud he was of his School of American Ballet, where we were students,” Boal said.

Boal would become one of the leading interpreters of Balanchine’s Apollo, a piece he danced as part of his final program with the New York City Ballet after 22 years with the company.

“I must have danced that role 100 times in my career,” Boal said. “As a dancer and a stager, I think I was just struck by the human quality of Apollo.”

Many dancers want to emphasize the statuesque and majestic god-like qualities of the role, but Boal called Apollo an unformed, mischievous and boyish character, stumbling to find his way.

“Then when you do find your way at the end of the ballet, it’s even more god-like,” he said.

In Victoria, Pacific Northwest Ballet will perform Apollo as well as Agon. He called Agon a standard against which ballets have been measured since it debuted in 1957, defining neo-classism at the time.

Boal had a much closer relationship with Jerome Robbins, who choreographed decades of pieces for the New York City Ballet. They worked together for 12 years.

When Boal was about 20, he was cast in Robbins’ Afternoon of a Faun, which Pacific Northwest Ballet performs in Victoria. Boal calls it one of his favourites now, but he never ended up dancing it for Robbins.

“It’s funny. I lay on the floor and I turned my head to the left. … All I had to do was turn my head,” he said. “And I did it at the wrong time, so he cut me.”

The high standard Robbins demanded is the reason Boal has called him the most important person in his development as an artist.

“I was surrounded by everybody who thought I was really good and told me that,” Boal said. “But not Jerome Robbins. He always told me, you’re not as good as you could be, but you could do more.”

In another case, Robbins coached Boal in his role as the Prodigal Son — a role choreographed by Balanchine and premièred by the New York City Ballet with Robbins in the title role.

“It’s nice to have those things passed from Balanchine to Robbins to me. And now I pass it on to this company,” Boal said.

Christopher Wheeldon, who choreographed After the Rain on the program, represents a newer branch of the ancestry. He was younger than Boal and the two had limited interactions at the New York City Ballet.

“He arrived in New York when he was 20 and I was probably 30 — just this sort of fresh young kid and dancer and choreographer,” he said. “His talent was so obvious at such a young age.”

They’ve worked together more often since Boal’s move west seven years ago. Pacific Northwest Ballet has performed several pieces by Wheeldon.

Boal said Balanchine, Robbins and Wheeldon’s works combine well. Although it’s a smaller group of dancers, he said it doesn’t feel like a compromised program.

“It really feels like you’re getting a taste of three of the great choreographers of the last 100 years,” he said.

Part of his goal in taking the reins at Pacific Northwest Ballet was to expand the repertory — they weren’t performing many works by Robbins or any works by Wheeldon when he arrived. But it’s also meant filling in the gaps with Balanchine, their forefather.

“We’ve done 40 Balanchine works in our 40-year history,” he said. “I think we like to think of ourselves as, if there’s a word, a Balanchinian company. We’re certainly in the Balanchine lineage.”

asmart@timescolonist.com

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