An Interview with Pacific Northwest Ballet Principal Dancer Paul Gibson

A Dual-Edged Talent Discusses Performing and Choreography

by Dean Speer and Francis Timlin

September, 2003 – We recently met with PNB Principal Dancer Paul Gibson during a break from "Swan Lake" rehearsals at PNB’s spacious home, the Phelps Center. Excitement was in the air as all departments of the ballet were in the home stretch, preparing for the premičre of PNB’s new production of this classic ballet tale.

Thanks for taking the time out of your busy schedule to meet with us. How did you get started in ballet?

I come from Altoona, Pennsylvania and participated in everything -- dance, gymnastics, softball, baseball and bowling. I went to a tap and jazz school through the eighth grade. Then I auditioned for Allegheny Ballet Company and went there when I was in tenth grade. That was my first real exposure to ballet. The second year I was there, Allegheny Ballet became part of Regional Dance America. I attended Central Pennsylvania Youth Ballet (CPYB) during the summer between eleventh and twelfth grade and switched to public school for that year in order to have more time for ballet.

Tell me about your experience at SAB.

I studied with Stanley Williams, Richard Rapp, and Andrei Kramarevsky. For choreographic workshop, I was cast in a Lisa de Ribčre piece -- it was called "Quasars." At the post-workshop conference, I was told that the teachers there thought I should quit ballet and switch to modern dance. That year, I went to San Francisco Ballet School for winter session, where I was placed in Level 5. I still went back to SAB the following summer for the choreographic workshop. I got injured with a fractured tibia -- which I danced through -- but recovered. Back at SFB, I skipped Level 6 and went to Level 7. I was not being used in the company at all but decided to take it upon myself to go to a "Rubies" rehearsal with Bonita Borne. I learned the piece and performed it on 45 minutes notice when someone got injured. I skipped Level 8 and became an apprentice, which lasted for three weeks, when I was offered a corps contract in 1988-89. Some of my representative roles at SFB were the "Grey" pas de deux in Kylian's "Forgotten Land," as a demi-soloist in "Sinfonia," the corps in "Theme and Variations," and "In the Middle, Somewhat Elevated." I really like Forsythe and was fortunate to have the opportunity to work with him on this piece.

How did you learn partnering?

I learned at Allegheny Ballet, where I was the only boy and was partnering all the time. We had three or four guest choreographers per year, so I had exposure to a variety of styles.

So, let's continue with your experience at San Francisco.

I was in the corps for five years and was promoted to soloist during my sixth season. By that time, I felt that I was more ready. Sometimes dancers tend to think that if they are performing soloist roles, that means that they are ready to be promoted. I really think that dancers should view soloist roles as an opportunity to learn and grow, and not treat them as if they represented some sort of entitlement to a promotion.

Have things improved for men in the ballet repertory?

Yes -- Morris, Kudelka, Forsythe, Kevin O'Day -- all of the new choreographers are doing better work for men. There is an eight-minute solo in Kudelka's "The End" that I particularly admire, because he likes to push dancers toward the extreme edges of physical stamina. In order to build stamina, you have to rehearse -- a lot. That means full-out rehearsal, not marking. Full-body movement.

How did you decide to come to PNB?

In 1993-94 I was a soloist at SFB and had been thinking about leaving -- auditioning, seeing what else might be out there. I talked to Christopher Stowell, who talked to Kent and Francia who suggested that I come and take class. I got a contract in April for 1994-95. I stayed at SFB through the Paris tour that summer and came to PNB at the same time as Jeff Stanton in 1994-95.

Do you see differences in artistic direction between SFB and PNB?

There is a wonderful feeling of trust and familiarity here -- Francia reminds me of my teacher back home. At the same time there is something to be said for an artistic director who has a certain "scare" factor to keep the dancers on the edge.

What are you looking forward to this year?

I am not going to be around much during "Swan Lake" -- only a couple of performances as Wolfgang -- because I will be going to NYCB to choreograph as part of the New York Choreographic Institute. As far as the season repertory goes, I am looking forward to "Artifact II," "Agon," "Carmina Burana," "Brahms-Schoenberg Quartet," and the new ballet by Nicolo Fonte.

How did you get started with choreography?

I started in school, just teaching older ballets to other dancers. I like to pick music that inspires me. I did six or seven ballets for Allegheny Ballet and a Piazzola work, which was chosen to be performed at the Jackson International Competition. At SFB, I did a choreographic workshop when a performance in Hawaii was cancelled and did pieces for SFB School. I would like to try a story ballet, but you really need a lot of experimental time to do this. I have done three ballets for the PNB School and have two pieces in the Company repertoire. I have to find the music first; I need something that draws me in. It can be collaborative with the performers, especially in solos and pas de deux, but obviously big group numbers have to be thoroughly worked out. For the New York Choreographic Institute, I was called by Mikko Nissinen, who nominated me. I am one of four choreographers -- the others are from Hong Kong, Australia and Pennsylvania Ballet. I have chosen music by the Balanescu Quartet. It seems a bit Forsythian. I am planning to set it on PNB for the workshop in April. I try to do one ballet each year.

Where do you see yourself going?

I want to be an artistic director with a company where I can choreograph, as well as serve as a ballet master. I think I have also gained a bit of management perspective from serving as one of three AGMA delegates. I also liked the speaking role in the Dominique Dumais piece from last season. I really enjoyed the challenge of learning lines and moving together, and it helped me build confidence in my public speaking ability.

What do you enjoy during your non-dance moments?

I like going out with friends. I am setting down roots in Seattle -- I just bought a condominium! I really want to dance at least two more years and go out on a season that ends -- ideally -- with a mixed repertory. I prefer rehearsing ballets to teaching class.

Any other thoughts?

Jazz and modern come in handy -- they help with your grounding for contemporary work. They give you a sense of the freedom that comes with moving.

Edited by Lori Ibay

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