Critical Dance

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Critical Dance interviews Stacy Lowenberg, Noelani Pantastico, Jonathan Porretta, Casey Herd and Jodie Thomas

By Toba Singer
Thursday, July 4, 2002

The stage door reception desk has wrapped itself and the adjoining snack bar in a firestorm of red, white and blue. I grimace, shiver, and give that imploring look to the receptionist that people behind desks often get from those hobbled by being on the other side. By way of explanation, I say that one of the ancillary benefits for me of coming to London was for once ESCAPING all the bunting and puff- patriotism that July 4th detonates in the U.S. She explains as demurely as she can, that the goal was to make the dancers feel at home, and indeed, what she says is completely in keeping with the warm reception the dancers have received from the technical and house staff at the theater. So, I softly tiptoe off my soapbox, and wait patiently for Dwight Hutton, the Company Manager. He escorts me to the backstage area, where he introduces me to Marketing Director Margo Spellman, and she and I work on a quick plan for interviews.

Margo suggests a name to me. I put out a name to her, and then we’re in the wings, where our game of checkers ends, and we chart the time it will take to complete each interview. Company class is moving swiftly into grand allegro. The men are getting their last chance to practice the hottest windups they know. Margo shows me to a seat in a box, and we agree to a list of three dancers: Stacy Lowenberg, Noelani Pantastico, and Jonathan Porretta. I have already arranged a joint interview for later in the afternoon with Casey Herd and Jodie Thomas.

Stacy and I had met the evening before. As she and Patricia Barker were exiting the stage door, Stacy stopped to admire my friend’s shoes. Patricia quipped, "Watch out—don’t take them off. She’s the type who’ll steal them if she gets the chance!" Almost always unable to resist an opening, I said, "Oh, I get it. She’s the one who hangs around with her nose at the lost and found all the time." Patricia laughed and nodded vigorously. Luckily, Stacy forgave me.

Originally from Bettendorf, Iowa, Stacy attended the school at Pacific Northwest Ballet, and then having had a short stint with the company as an apprentice, left for three seasons to dance with Oregon Ballet Theater, and has just now returned. For Stacy, the adjustment is not to being in London, so much as to being back dancing with the company. She said more than once during our interview, "I just can’t believe I’m back!"

While away, she recuperated from a foot injury, and expressed her concern that companies invest more resources in injury prevention and treatment, while noting that PNB has taken big steps in meeting those needs for its dancers. I asked Stacy what her hopes were for the London tour, and what she found to be at variance with those expectations now that she had arrived. She said, "I expected a bigger theater. It was such a surprise to go out on stage and be able to see individual faces in the audience." She said that she found that she liked that, and said that "feeling the energy from the audience" registered the real impact of the company on Londoners, and helped diminish the deflation of the puncturing reviews.

I asked Stacy what she liked and did not like about London. She said that she didn’t care for the food all that much, and found the city dirtier than she had expected. On the positive side, she expressed delight that there is so much theater and so many people who are interested in the performing arts. Her long-term ambition is to found a company in one of the Mid-West cities of the United States. Her short-term goal is to visit Italy, as soon as the tour is over, accompanied by principal dancer, Jeff Stanton.

My next interview was with Jonathan Porretta, who I subsequently learned had been interviewed earlier in the week. I had met Jonathan in San Francisco, about five years before, when he danced in "Death in Venice," as a child member of the ballet cast of the San Francisco Opera’s 1997 production. Jonathan has just been promoted to soloist, and it is quite apparent why. He dances musically, adroitly and with tremendous presence and verve, as if the stage were somehow his natural habitat. This is Jonathan’s third year with the company, and his third tour, having gone to Istanbul and Hong Kong on past outings. He, too, expressed his enjoyment of the house. “I love it. I love being close to the audience.” He compared it to the Mercer Arts Arena [ed. this is the temporary theater for the Company], which is enormous and where dancers are not close to the audience. “Here,” Jonathan quipped, “I felt like I could read the program along with the people.”

Poretta says that his promotion is “a dream come true.”  His training is impressive. On scholarship at the School of American Ballet, he also studied at the American Ballet Theater with Ricardo Bustamante, Christine Spizzo, Cynthia Harvey, and Olga Kostaritzky. In London, he has had a chance to spend time shopping on Oxford Street, and has visited the opera house at Covent Garden. His advice to dancers just starting out is: “You can have whatever you want. If you work hard and you love it, it will come to you.” Since everything seemed to come so fully to Jonathan, I asked him whether there was anything he found difficult in his career. He said he found it frustrating to have to educate people who don’t know that being a ballet dancer is just as important as being in musical theater. He looks forward to a future career as an artistic director, a role that in his case, is a cinch to envision him playing.

Noelani Pantastico’s name was one I had requested. I had noticed her adept footwork the evening before, and the singularity of her line and movement. From Carlisle, Pennsylvania, she describes herself as an “army brat,” who has lived everywhere. In order for her to settle down into training at Central Pennsylvania Youth Ballet, it required substantial sacrifice on the part of her large family. There is an ambient sadness as she speaks about that, which being on tour seems to accentuate. She is a second-year soloist, and participated in the Midsummer Night’s Dream tour in London with the company, which had its definite stresses, having been filmed by BBC World. Still, Noe finds this time quite stressful. She says that she does pay attention to reviews here, as they tend to reflect a serious ballet tradition, and on a more upbeat note, smiled, and said, “but lots of dancers like to log on to You offer so much more to us than these critics do!” What would she do to make the tour less stressful? “I know money is tight, but I wish that there was a way to give us days off during the tour instead of just at the beginning. There are just too many rehearsals packed together. I love London. It’s such a big city. I just wish I could get to see more of it.” I asked her what she enjoys most about her career. “I love the acting, and would someday love the opportunity to have an acting career.”

I was introduced to Casey Herd and Jodie Thomas shortly after I arrived. During the first performance of “Silver Lining,” Casey had to perform a series of three reveltade-type jumps across the entirety of the stage, and on the third one he grunted out loud, with inexorable deliberateness. It was a grunt that could be heard in the last row of the orchestra. The person sitting next to me said, “I bet he gets a note on that one!” Something told me he wouldn’t get a note—that an occasional serendipitous grunt was part of Casey’s rather unique charisma. Sensing him to be a 'dude with attitude,' I was sure I wanted to interview him. Jodie’s 'kicky' personality was also very much in evidence when she danced, and I was glad to learn that they were a couple, and interviewed them in that capacity. We grabbed the upstairs Ashton Studio where it was quiet, except for two principals warming up.

Casey, who is from Salt Lake City, attended classes at Ballet West and then the Kirov Academy in Washington, D.C. He and his sister were enrolled there, and she went on to become an expert makeup artist, who is much in demand among ladies in Washington society. He went on to a professional dance career. This is his fourth season with PNB. He is happy, except for his knee problem, which might have been what accounted for the grunt, I ventured. Casey says that he would have preferred friendlier reviews, but thought that the audience response was what counted in the long run. He described the size of theaters and studios in which he has danced and concluded that he is not a fan of “big.” He prefers the intimacy of the Sadler’s Wells venue because it enables the dancer to reach for the subtle gestures, which in Casey’s opinion are preferable to the grosser ones, in drawing the audience into the mood. Casey is a big fan of touring and loves to travel and wishes that PNB could do more of it. He feels hemmed in by staying in one city, and recently spent three months on tour in Japan with Les Ballets Trockadero—“as a partner,” he and Jodie spell out for me a bit too carefully, in unison.

Jodie is finding it a little harder not performing on home turf, though she finds the Sadler’s Wells more comfortable than the temporary PNB theater space. She says the challenge is to “process the place in between,” and then just go out there and dance. She points out that the preparation time has been short from the end of the home season to the tour, and there was not “a huge rehearsal period.” Her approach is to “learn, do the best you can, and then have fun onstage.” She loves the city of London, and its upbeat energy. She said that during the Midsummer tour, the schedule was busier, and she didn’t get to see as much of the city as she would have liked. She and Casey have decided that this time they will stay over a couple of days to do some touristy things. I asked Jodie what she did while Casey was on tour with Trockadero. “I enrolled in six weeks of art classes” at a famous art school in New York, she casually lets me know.

“And her paintings are hanging in our apartment,” Casey adds, with no small measure of pride.

The sense I am left with after meeting, though not interviewing other dancers such as Karel Cruz and Lesley Rausch, is that this is a company where there is warmth, courage and commitment to fine work. Meeting the dancers, Kent Stowell, Dwight Hutton and Margo Spellman leaves me with the satisfying feeling that the ballet world has at least one company where having talent is not enough: Heart, soul and candor are also held in high esteem at PNB.

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