Critical Dance

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Critical Dance Goes Backstage – A Daily Diary

July 5, 2002

By Emma Pegler

At Critical Dance, there was a great deal of excitement and anticipation at the prospect of meeting and reviewing Pacific Northwest Ballet on its second trip to London. We have strong links with Seattle and know of PNB's good reputation back home. Our moderators and correspondents in the U.S. spent time with the company before it left for London and reported back on the preparations for the tour. Dancers [Ed: Patricia Barker and Olivier Wevers] and company executives [Kent Stowell and D David Brown] were interviewed to give more of a flavour of just what a tour of this magnitude involves. By the time the company finally arrived in London last weekend, we felt as if old friends had come home.

That feeling was compounded by the general warmth and friendliness that the company exudes. My first encounter with company members was on Monday morning at the Jury’s Inn Hotel in Islington where PNB is installed for the week. Conveniently located for Sadler’s Wells, it has a wide foyer furnished with armchairs, and various long, slim dancers were draped over the chairs like panthers and pumas at slumber. Some were waiting to be interviewed, some were waiting for their pals to appear so that they could use the Monday morning, their only real time for exploration, to get out and about. Margo Spellman, PNB Marketing Director, has spent the week whizzing around as if on wheels to ensure that the dancers are in the right place at the right time. She had a bit of a challenge on this particular morning because one of the dancers had apparently missed the note pushed under his door that told him I would be there to interview him. This was quickly sorted but the extra time gave me the opportunity to observe the dancers in their natural habitat, as it were. I could see they get on well and the rivalry that you so often hear about in connection with high-class, highly-strung ballet companies, was unapparent. Co-Artistic Directors and husband and wife team, Kent Stowell and Francia Russell, were happy to be introduced to me. With their approachable and kindly faces I could tell that there was none of the ‘I’m too busy to have this conversation’ attitude that many dignitaries are guilty of.

Later in the week when I crept, late, in to company class as an observer, I expected to be ignored or at best shoved towards a seat with a restricted view at the back. Instead, there was a row of chairs at the front in prime position and Kent Stowell beamed a smile at me. I think I even heard him mutter, "Welcome." Now THAT doesn’t happen very often. Permeating the inner sanctum of the ballet dancer's world – company class – is rarely permitted and when it is, you are rarely watching a real “warts and all” class, but more like a sanitised, staged version. It’s good to see dancers getting things wrong and trying again. This demonstrates just how difficult ballet is, and by understanding the workings behind the finished machine, you appreciate more even the simplest, and seemingly insignificant, of steps. At the end of class, I stayed behind to wait for my interviewee and was treated to the boys practising amongst themselves Ali’s jumps for Le Corsiare pas de trois which was programmed as part of the mixed bill. The boys were helping and tutoring each other and then showing off a little. The camaraderie again came as a surprise to me. The extra practising seemed to be necessary because the cast for the mixed bill pieces was to be different on each of the three nights. That seems like an awful lot of work for the dancers, directors and ballet masters. Yet it is a democratic approach and guarantees that all dancers are properly exposed to the London audience.

And exposed is what they must have felt when the reviews came through for their opening night. As if stuck up on the top of a mountain at night with nothing but a pair of tights and some old leg-warmers. Silver Lining had been chosen, I was told, to appeal to a broad London audience – not just those that like the ballet, but also the musicals crowd. A series of high-stepping and high-kicking numbers, choreographed by Stowell and set to Jerome Kern songs, might not show the company off to its full artistic potential and might even be a bit of a bore for the dancers if repeated too often, but it was bound to get those London feet tapping. Up to a point it did. Opening night saw an extremely warm and gracious response from the audience and in one corner there were some standing ovations (and I checked – they were not company plants). However, the newspaper critics were not impressed and said so. They had clearly expected a great deal more from PNB, rated as it is in the top five ballet companies in the United States. The piece is pleasant and didn’t deserve the slamming it received. I cringed when I read some of the acid drops on certain of the printed pages. The first night of the mixed bill received another positive response from the audience and we waited with bated breath for the critics’ responses. My interviewee, Bulgarian principal, Stanko Milov, gave a good account of himself as Ali. At six-foot-five, he crosses the small Sadler’s Wells stage with merely two strides and Margo’s prophetic words about him probably needing to go round this stage a couple of times to get all the jumps in, rang true. He looked good doing it in any event. I saw him leaving the theatre with his wife as the theatre lights were being switched off for the night. As the long slim silhouettes disappeared into the night , I felt rather sad that these very good dancers have not had quite the break they deserved in London. I hope that doesn’t mean that they won’t be back.

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