An Interview with Otto Neubert and Ariana Lallone
Husband and Wife team Make Their Artistic Mark with Pacific Northwest Ballet

by Dean Speer & Francis Timlin

August, 2003 -- On a recent, sunny Seattle day, we interviewed Pacific Northwest Ballet balletmaster, Otto Neubert, and principal Ddancer Ariana Lallone in the gallery conference room of PNB's beautiful home in the Phelps Center in Seattle.

This conference room overlooks Studio "C" -- the largest company rehearsal space, it replicates the size of the stage at Marion Oliver McCaw Hall, the "new" opera house). It was fun, inspirational and energizing to look down and see co-director Francia Russell rehearsing the corps for the premiere of the new PNB production of Swan Lake which opens in a few weeks. All the spaces at the Phelps Center are great as they remind visitors of dance throughout, due to lots of windows in walls and doors. In fact, several staff members were kidding that, due to "Swan Lake," there were "feathers everywhere!"

Both Neubert and Lallone were on break from rehearsal, he having just put two casts of Prince and Jester through their Act I paces.

I'm curious about your career journey - how you made your way from Bavaria to the New York City Ballet and then to PNB, and what differences have you found, both as a dancer and a balletmaster?
Neubert: I actually began my dance training and performing career in Stuttgart and was there for 8 years before coming to New York. The bulk of the repertoire at Stuttgart were the ballets of John Cranko. And, actually at that time in Europe, there were more Robbins ballets being done than Balanchine. Many of the works at Stuttgart were ones, like period pieces, that required being at the theatre 1 1/2 hours early for makeup/hair. I was looking for a change and heard from a distant relative, Kay Mazzo, that NYCB was looking for men and I auditioned for them while the company was on tour in Paris, having a private audition with Peter Martins, and was invited to join the company which I did in September of 1984.

I found the repertory to be very diffferent in NYCB, the vocabulary, the way of moving (mostly faster!) and with totally different expectations then in Europe. PNB has far greater variety of styles. At NYCB, only recently has the company really opened up to "outside" or other choreographers. At NYCB, there is very close timing between rehearsals and performances. In some cases, it was learn and perform a ballet in the same day!

The dancers were very supportive and helpful, as they are here. NYCB now in fact, has 7 balletmasters to cover the sheer number and variety of ballets and usually each are assigned to certain areas only. Here at PNB, we share the workload and what ballets we are responsible for depends on the season and how busy we are. For example, on one repertory program later this year, I'm supposed to be responsible for each of the three ballets on the mixed bill. I'm not sure how it's going to work out having to do this and be in more than one studio at a time! I'm sure we'll work it out!

W hat roles and ballets are you particularly looking forward to this season? Any favorites?

Lallone: Really everything -- and it is going to be wonderful, particularly in our new home. It's a totally different experience than the old opera house. I'm glad PNB is bringing back "Brahms-Schoenberg Quartet," as I last did it while I was a student in the school in the corps while on tour to DC.

What do you do with your time during company breaks?
Lallone: I like to work on fine-tuning my technique and take classes where ever I can, sometimes back in my home state of California. I've tried teaching and I love it and working with children and have had some great experiences but have found that I needed to prioritize my immediate professional goals and need more to dance and to focus on it right now. I have plenty of time to teach later!

How did each of you start dancing? What are your stories?
Lallone: I was the only girl in a family of five and started in gymnastices. And if you can believe it, was the smallest girl there! They kept having to adjust the equipment down for me!! (Laughs.) It was suggested that ballet would help with my coordination and I started lessons in a local school. I came to PNB the year I graduated from high school. I was so fortunate that I felt welcomed here and my first summer in the school I fondly remember as being one of the best. I always took extra ones! The company, then as now, is known for its diversity of sizes. I really like taking class and intensly love to perform. We are lucky here that at PNB, everyone gets adequate time to prepare, even though we may feel nervous before going on stage! I've been given many opportunities and much support.

Neubert: I had bad posture. I was really good at sports and did the decathlon. A neighbor suggested to my mother that I take ballet to help my posture. I began with one class each week at about age 15. I auditioned for the John Cranko School in Stuttgart and was taken. Like Ariana, I was lucky to be there at a good time and accepted, due to my later start and incomplete eduation. Alex Ursuliak took me under his wing. I learned the entire Vaganova system of teaching, for example, and this helped a great deal in my current job.

How did you find your way to balletmastering?
Neubert: I had had an ankle injury and was looking around for something do to that would keep me in the field. I had heard that Kent and Francia were looking for someone and came out and taught my first Company class here. 12 years later, I'm still here! Both Kent and Francia have been very supportive; instructive and helpful when and where I've needed it. I've learned some by trial and error and also by observing how a master like Francia runs a rehearsal; how to structure them and conduct them.

Teaching the Company class must be a little tricky. How do you plan for class and balance everyone's needs?
Neubert: Well, it's impossible to make everyone happy. I try to have a couple of key exercises and to pace the class so it's not too slow or fast but yet be a little demanding. It helps to know what people have been doing the day before.

Do you find that being husband and wife present any particular work issues or problems?
Lallone: Actually not a problem! We each recognize that our careers are so important. And we find that we're able to separate our personal and professional lives. It's fantastic to have a career in common; that's been great. And, I don't get any special treatment for being married to the balletmaster!

Any last comments?
Lallone: I've had lots of wonderful opportunities to dance many ballets and many different roles. It was wonderful having "Merry Widow" and "Carmen" as my first opportunities to carry the entire evening in a full-length ballet. Each went way too fast! Someday perhaps I'd like to do the Siren in "Prodigal Son."

Neubert: I'm very proud of the company. The level has been very, very high for a long time but has risen incredibily even more, especially for the men. I have to credit our touring for this. Tours have enhanced our credibility and we are at a totally different place after our tours to Australia, New York. Our company looks like the U.N.! Many, particularly in the ranks of the men. We can now do 5 casts of our big ballets like "Don Quixote" and "Swan Lake."

Edited by Mary Ellen Hunt.

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