From the October 2020 Issue. Read the rest of the issue here.
Language is the way we communicate, the way we gather information, transfer ideas to one another — a way we create connectivity and understanding with each other. Dance, one of the most profound languages we speak, can transform our mental and emotional understandings into physical reactions. Dance communicates what can’t be said through words, it provides pure expression with only one tool — your body. Like old folktales, dance travels through generations, but evolves with each new storyteller.
But, how do we translate dance from one body to another? How does dance become individual without losing its original vocabulary? When can we abandon ourselves in dance without losing the origins of the movement?
These questions have lingered in my head for weeks while alone in quarantine. So come late Summer, when I danced for the first time in six months, I approached my artistic director, Peter Boal, with some of these questions. In a candid interview, I picked his brain on how he, as a teacher and director, translates dance and movement and what he thinks are some of the most valuable assets of dancers.
During his career as a leading Principle dancer at the New York City Ballet and current Artistic Director of Pacific Northwest Ballet, Peter’s career has given him a valuable, analytical eye, rich experiences, and an expansive taste for dance. My goal was to gain insight on his thoughts about the language of dance.
Come late summer, I was working on a solo titled One Body (a work choreographed by the late Albert Evans.) I got a firsthand experience of how Peter is as a teacher and stager and how he implements his ideas. Peter used the steps as a guide, but wasn’t too textbook on how the look of the movement was. He searched for individuality, continually told me to just go for the movement, to find the natural momentum within the steps, and to risk going off my leg. His approach implements a strong trust within his dancers, dares them to go further and to lead by what their bodies naturally want, instead of relying on just technique to carry them through. His way of elevating the dance is to trust the dancer and to push them to go further.
Peter: I do work predominately with really intelligent adult artists and I think sometimes you have to keep throwing the imagery out there because everyone is going to pick up on different little examples. Some people won’t need them and some will ignore them, but others will grasp onto them and say, ‘That image clicks with me,’ and, ‘That really helps me to achieve a different type of movement.’ I think it's both intellectual and descriptive.
Chris: So being a teacher, a coach, and an artistic director, can you give some of the key tools you use to translate what you have? How do you translate movement to someone’s body?
Peter Boal working in the studio.
Christopher D'Ariano working in the studio.
What you say about the imagery aspect - that’s something I grasp onto, especially working on One Body. You give me these moments that have a really clear pathway for a picture to be produced, for a clear photo to be taken and then to have a different intention coming out of that. That’s something that helps me now that I’m in a more artistic place in my dance education. So it's interesting to see how that goes into the story telling aspect of it too. It’s not just black and white; you are shading in all these different colors at that point.
So speaking of One Body, can you give me your thought process on how you were going to stage this solo for the first time since it was created on you nearly 20 years ago?
Peter: Yeah, I think we start by doing what I did. I’m trying to put you into what Peter did on that video tape, but that’s just the first half. After that, the paths have gotten wider. I see what Christopher’s doing or what Dammiel's doing and I’m like, ‘Don’t stop that, don’t try to move it over to Peter,’ because that feels personal and rich and real. I keep thinking if Albert was sitting next to me he’d go, ‘Lets go with that — that’s better for Christopher than Christopher trying be Peter.’ There’s a lot of alignment, obviously we’ve learned the timing and the steps, but then there’s also a little bit of that extra that deserves its space.
This freedom within the process gave security to my instincts as a dancer. I learned that I wasn’t trying to imitate Peter anymore, but rather use him as a source of motivation, a sort of catalyst for the movement. I began to realize it wasn’t about reproducing the movement, but redefining it in my own way.
Why do you think that freedom is important to preach as somebody in the front of the room?
Peter: How good are imitators? I mean they’re sometimes really good, but it has to be an individual’s voice. I think we can’t just mash people into what someone else’s voice was like. I think you have to be true to your own physicality.... All those factors go into it, it's not just whether your leg goes right or left. You have to bring so much to a solo that’s rich in emotion — raw emotion, real emotion.
Emotion. Real emotion. Isn’t that what dance is about? We understand ballet requires a certain level of technique, but isn’t dance an expression — poetry in motion, a way to feel deeply with your own body? Isn’t that what makes movement so valuable? Shouldn’t we all be passing down what freedoms we find through movement?
So is that what you find most exciting in dance, this liberation and emotion? What else do you look for in a dancer as an Artistic Director?
Peter: I think it's fascinating to see people who hold attention in big, vast spaces, and sometimes you can do that by being so small, if it's done right. There’s something about honesty we want to dive into, we want to watch it, and we want to know more. My favorite dancers are also remarkable individuals, and that comes across onstage. If they’re generous, if they have incredible taste, you feel it on stage. Sometimes they feed off of emotion and music — they have a way of including everybody around them, and they have a way of mediating in a very singular way that’s alone. I love eye contact whether it be with an audience or with the sky or with the other people on stage. The execution or the numbers, they don’t really matter so much to me.
It seems to me that Peter’s taste is about more than just dance. It's also about character. It's amazing to hear a director speak his truth and not just give the same talk about technique. It seems that Peter really recognizes quality over quantity, depth over distance.
I’ve come to understand that there’s a certain fearlessness a dancer must have. Without abandon, you can’t find control. Peter’s teachings are a prime example of that, he allows moments to develop and risks to be taken, he’s not afraid to give individuals the freedom of expression in the studio and he’s not afraid to voice his opinion. To me, this is how I want to see the language of dance being passed on — through individuality, through verbal and physical conversation and stories, through the curiosity and risk of being "off your leg.”