Staying Put

by Leland Windreich

Published on CriticalDance.com August 2003
(This article originally appeared in the PNB Magazine)

Not too many years ago, the promising, ambitious dancer trained in the schools of America's regional ballet troupes had little choice but to move to New York for the challenges that only a mainstream ballet company could provide. American Ballet Theatre, New York City Ballet, and the Joffrey Ballet were the prime targets, and while employment was possible for many, only a few made it to the top. As the companies in the major American cities grew to become civic establishments, each flourishing with a rich and unique artistic product, the tide suddenly turned. Dancers began to desert the big three companies, looking for the opportunities of a more versatile repertoire and a chance to perform major roles in the ballet classics maintained locally. Thus, companies in San Francisco, Seattle, Houston and Boston became the lures for many dancers who had begun their careers in major troupes, both in America and abroad.

In the last two decades a new breed of ballerina has been developed in the regional schools, a wholly home-grown artist who has flourished in a constantly nurturing environment. For Lauren Anderson in Houston, Patricia Barker in Seattle, and the recently retired Evelyn Cisneros in San Francisco, no mainstream organization could have provided them with the repertoire and artistic challenges that they have enjoyed in their own home theatres.

Ms. Barker was particularly lucky. Starting her training in Kennewick, Washington, she was advised by her teacher, a former soloist with the Boston Ballet, to continue her education in the East. There she studied at the Boston Ballet's school for a year and took additional classes in various studios in Manhattan. But her training in a highly competitive environment and the harshness of big city life threatened the focus and structure she required to advance.   She returned to Seattle, not defeated but determined to succeed on her own terms in a setting that could offer her the proper direction.

She continued her training at Pacific Northwest Ballet School and eventually became a Company apprentice. Her appointment as a regular member quickly followed. Ms. Barker's first role of significance was the Rose in Lew Christensen's version of The Nutcracker. As a member of the corps de ballet, she had a constant supply of splendid role-models in the principal dancers appearing with PNB--some staying only a few years and others performing until their retirement. Because of the demise of the touring companies, inspiration came not from fleeting impressions of celebrated visitors passing through the community, but from long-term, intimate exposure to the gifts of PNB resident artists. For the young Patricia Barker, perfection of the craft of dancing became an ongoing objective, with artistry achieved by observation and osmosis.

Ms. Barker's exposure to a spectrum of dance styles started almost immediately and continues to this day, affording her the chance to sample nearly 150 years of ballet expression. From the light, bouncy approach of the Bournonville Danish style, derived from the 19 th century French modes, to the lunge and thrust of the hard-edged, caustic ballets of William Forsythe, the range contains all the traditional and experimental manifestations of ballet popular in the 20 th century. In developing an eclectic repertoire for their company, directors Kent Stowell and Francia Russell have tapped many sources.   As a result, Ms. Barker has had the opportunity to work with the world's major choreographers and their disciples.

From her earliest professional days, and as a result of Russell's particular affinity to the ballets of George Balanchine, Ms. Barker has emerged as one of the most sensitive living interpreters of his choreography. She now has 22 of his works in her resume. Equally at home in such dramatic creations as The Prodigal Son and A Midsummer Night's Dream, she tackles the sassy wit of Western Symphony and Stars and Stripes , and the taut, stringent   figures of his Concerto Barocco, Agon , and Stravinsky Violin Concerto with a canny affinity to their purposes. She is currently unsurpassed in the embodiment of elegance required by Ballet Imperial, Divertimento No.15   and Theme and Variations.

She has served as a muse to Kent Stowell for nearly two decades. Early in her career he began making ballets to complement her emerging gifts. As her career moved forward, taking her into the roster of soloist and ultimately principal dancer, he devised more ambitious and challenging creations. Their relationship is symbiotic, and the growth of their individual creative powers has advanced in a parallel progression. Barker's wealth of talent has inspired Stowell to create new ballets of refinement and skill.

Staying put in Seattle has not restricted her accomplishments elsewhere. On tour with PNB to other American cities, she invariably becomes a press and an audience favorite.   Critical response abroad abounds in high praise. Audiences in Melbourne, Edinburgh, London, Istanbul, Montreal, Hong Kong, Prague and Copenhagen have extolled her gifts, many citing her as one of the greatest living ballerinas. Starring in the 1986 commercially produced film of the Stowell/Sendak Nutcracker and appearing as Titania in the B.B.C. television production of George Balanchine's A Midsummer Night's Dream, she continues to reach and enchant audiences all over the world.

Barker's triumphant debut in Petipa’s The Sleeping Beauty last year found her at the pinnacle of her career. Not only did she meet all the demanding technical challenges of the story-length ballet, but she conveyed a profound appreciation of the English style of classical dancing, passed on to her by Ronald Hynd and Annette Page in their staging for PNB. A few months later she demonstrated a mastery of the sassy, aggressive attack required for Hans van Manen's florid Five Tangos.   Even in roles requiring fewer technical   investments she is able to find new facets of expression and a fresh coloring in her assignments--capabilities common only to the mature artist.

Much of Ms. Barker's success is surely due to the stabilty of having a home in Seattle, a caring husband, and a safe and secure base for operation. As a "stay-at-home ballerina," she has no reason to believe that she might have had a livelier or more rewarding career anywhere else in the world.


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