Pacific Northwest Ballet’s artistic director, Peter Boal: From dancer to mentor.
For many who choose to retire from a job, the retirement age is 65 or older. For Peter Boal, it was 40.
Until he neared that number the lithe, fair-haired Boal was considered one of the finest solo ballet dancers of his generation. A native of Bedford, NY, he fell in love with dance and began training at age nine. And for 22 years he was a principal dancer with the prestigious New York City Ballet and a great favorite—praised by exacting dance critics, lauded by his peers, beloved by audiences, in a wide variety of roles.
Describing his performance in the Apollo ballet, New York Times critic Jennifer Dunning wrote, “[Boal’s] transcendent interpretation…was once again poignant for its purity of line, its veracity and its wisdom.”
But just like many professional athletes who give their all on the field, Boal anticipated and accepted an inevitable fact in a classical ballet dancer’s life. Due to the rigorous physical demands of his art, it would be time to move on and exit the stage while he was still a relatively young man.
Gladly, for Seattle ballet fans, Boal moved on to Seattle. Still boyish-looking and agile, yet with the commanding air of someone fully engaged and committed to his second career, the now 57-year-old Boal is celebrating his 17th year as the artistic head of the Pacific Northwest Ballet. And his unflagging passion for and knowledge of the artform has helped make PNB one of the most admired, forward-thinking ballet companies in the country.
“I was one of those dancers who never had any ambition of becoming an artistic director,” Boal said in an interview last December, after supervising a PNB performance of The Nutcracker at Seattle’s McCaw Hall. “I had my own dance group, Peter Boal and Company, for a while. But when this opportunity in Seattle came up I thought, ‘why not apply?’”
He admitted that he “didn’t know much about PNB, to be honest. I knew I’d be a bit of an unknown, and I was a little uncertain of myself.” He also was following in the footsteps of two local arts heroes: PNB’s longtime founding artistic directors Kent Stowell, a noted choreographer, and Francia Russell, a former New York City Ballet dancer and ballet master who was an expert in restaging the acclaimed works of NYCB’s illustrious leader, the late George Balanchine.
During the couple’s nearly 30 years at the helm they developed PNB into an internationally respected dance organization and academy, and a prime Seattle cultural resource. Though initially anxious about applying to succeed them, Boal “got nice encouragement from Kent and Francia, and that made me feel better about it.” It likely helped that Boal was trained in the Balanchine tradition himself, in a balletic technique he explained that accentuates “a level of speed, risk-taking, willing to go off balance, and a clear approach to music.”
Moving to the Northwest with his wife Kelly Cass, a former NYCB dancer, and their three children was an adventure for the whole family.
“We were explaining to our 4-year-old about going to Seattle, that we’d get on an airplane, and land in our new home,” he recalled. “But we went for a little beach vacation in St. Bart’s first. When we got there she said, ‘This is our new home? This is wonderful!’”
Her parents had to inform her that, no, they were not moving to a Caribbean Island paradise. But the family adapted to Seattle, and from the start of his tenure here Boal was welcomed as a fresh new arts leader who both honored PNB’s past achievements, and refreshed the repertoire with contemporary works.
While continuing to present popular, well-known ballets, Boal (who is not himself a choreographer) has expanded the company’s palette with less familiar works by dynamic modern dancemakers. The organization’s 2021-22 season reflects this. In April, PNB will present Kent Stowell’s version of the classic Swan Lake, followed in June by a program composed of several pieces by the major modern choreographer Twyla Tharp.
In 2009, PNB received a “genius” award from The Stranger weekly newspaper, which commended Boal’s openness to the new artistic trends. Under his guidance the company has commissioned and performed a host of new pieces by an international roster of leading contemporary choreographers of color and women. Among them are Donald Byrd, Ulysses Dove, Victor Quijada, Robyn Mineko Williams and Susan Stroman. In all, PNB has premiered an impressive 125 new works during Boal’s tenure, allowing Seattle audiences to see cutting-edge new ballets first.
The artistic shift has affected both PNB artists and subscribers. “Dancers were really excited to work with choreographers from all over the world,” Boal said. As for the audience, “Some said ‘This isn’t for me.’ But others said ‘PNB wasn’t for me before, but now it is.’”
Though cancelling many live performances due to the pandemic has diminished the company’s box office revenue over the past two years, Boal responded quickly and constructively to the epidemic by offering high-quality online streaming of earlier performances. The response was heartening, he said: “It felt like the public was there for us. We had a full digital season, and it was a lifeline.”
Another aspect of Boal’s job that is clearly dear to his heart is the company’s ballet school. Excellent, long-term training is essential to preparing the next generations of dancers, as he knows from his own experience at New York’s School of American Ballet, founded by Balanchine.
“I teach at the school four times a week, and I hit the road and do the national auditions with the top 50 students. I also hire almost exclusively from that group for our main company.”
The younger students can start movement classes as early as age two, with an adult or guardian accompanying them. “I started at nine,” Boal recalled, with a laugh, “which was practically middle-aged for a beginning ballet dancer.”
Boal has described his own life as a dancer in very personal memoir, Illusions of Camelot, which will be released (by Beaufort Books) this summer.
And when you ask about his second career, in his adopted city of Seattle, and plans for the future, Boal answers without hesitation, “PNB is about to celebrate its 50th season, which is wonderful. And I love it here. This is the only place I’m ever going to be an artistic director. It feels right.”
Misha Berson writes about the arts for crosscut.com and many other media outlets, teaches for the UW Osher program, and is the author of four books, including Something’s Coming, Something Good: West Side Story and the American Imagination (Applause/Hal Leonard).