A return home for Seattle ballet dancers

Former Pacific Northwest Ballet principal dancers Lucien Postlewaite and Noelani Pantastico in Jean-Christophe Maillot’s Roméo et Juliette. Credit: Photo: Angela Sterling

Former Pacific Northwest Ballet dancers Noelani Pantastico and Lucien Postlewaite are back in Seattle this, week preparing to dance "Romeo et Juliette" with PNB on Saturday night. They originated the roles at PNB, when the company premiered the ballet here in 2008. 

For both, working with the ballet’s creator Jean-Christophe Maillot was a transformative experience and both are now dancing with Maillot’s Les Ballets de Monte Carlo. Pantastico joined that company five years ago and Postlewaite started last August. They recently finished five weeks on the road with Monte Carlo, two in Brazil and three in Switzerland and France, where they appeared for the first time in Maillot’s new version of Swan Lake called LAC. Pantastico danced the Black Swan role (Maillot uses different dancers for the white and black swan roles) with Postlewaite as her prince.

Alice Kaderlan: When Lucien got to Monte Carlo, It had been 5 years since you’d danced Romeo et Juliette together. What has it been like to do it together again?

Lucien: Noe had been dancing it with other partners, so she has been doing it a certain way. For me, it felt like going home.

Noelani:  We didn’t rehearse it very much because it fits like a glove. But it does feel different because I’m very “Maillot” now and it shows in the work.

What does “very Maillot” mean?

N: Jean-Christophe is the heart and soul of the work. You have to learn his technique and certain phrasing to keep it interesting. We did our best 5 years ago, but there is only so much you can learn in a few days. Now I know exactly what he wants.

L: It is like learning a new language. 5 years ago, we didn’t know what we didn’t now. I thought I got it and we gave it our best, but now, having more time with Jean-Christophe, with the ballet and with the company, we can go deeper.

Will the Seattle audience notice anything different?

N:  Only if they really know dance [laughs] and if they’re sitting really close. Hopefully, it will be better.

When we did it before here, I felt like I was acting it. But with Jean-Christophe, a lot of the work we do is in our heads, about intention. Every step must have meaning to it. In one of Juliette’s first entrances, she comes out and does an arabesque. Recently, Jean Christophe asked me, “What are you thinking at that moment?” I said I didn’t know, so he told me, “You’re waking up.”

What are some other ways that working with Jean-Christophe is different from being at PNB?

L: In my previous training, my focus was on “Is my foot pointed here? Is my turnout right?” But with Maillot, there’s no room for paying attention to things like that, what the company calls “bacteria.” Your pointed foot is a given. Also, in traditional ballets, there are steps and then transitions between steps when you can let down a bit, like when you prepare to do a pirouette. In Maillot’s work, there are no transition steps and [he’s not happy if] he sees you shut down even for a moment. That is not allowed.

And we have mandatory company class. We usually work Saturdays so you can miss 1 class a week, but for any other class you miss, they deduct 30 euros from your salary.

How about the technique? You were both trained in the Balanchine style, but that’s not what you’re doing at Monte Carlo.

L: Our teachers rotate every two weeks and come from all over like Paris Opera, La Scala, National Ballet of Canada. So our technique class is always changing, even though it uses the Maillot technique.

How is that different from the Balanchine style?

L: Combinations are slower, more about lengthening your muscles. In a Balanchine class, you hold a lot of tension and it’s faster, with sharper angles. But you can still move very quickly with less tension because you use your muscles more efficiently. I was more “grippy” with my muscles at PNB; now I’m learning to break apart my muscles, like using only a part of my thigh and not the whole thigh. This lengthens your muscles, which is why most European dancers have longer bodies than Americans.

And Jean-Christophe is also really into focusing the eyes which has made me much more aware of how I use my focus.

Yes, that drives me crazy in ballet. The dancers rarely look at each other and it’s not clear what they’re looking it. It’s weird.

L: Jean-Christophe doesn’t stand for that. He wants us looking at something and focusing the mind’s eye, like looking into your hand, so that your hand has life.

In general, how has Monte Carlo been what you expected and how has it been different?

N: I didn’t expect anything. I just wanted to work with Jean-Christophe again. I guess I imagined that a lot of things would be the same, but [Monte Carlo] has a very different way of operating, because it’s mostly a touring company. At the beginning, I became sick of touring, moving around so much, dancing on so many different stages — some are raked, some aren’t, some are sprung, some are cement. Touring was very hard for me physically, but now I’m quite used to it. After a while you just do what you have to.

L: When you have home base [like at PNB], you can get fussy and develop little habits. Before every PNB performance, I would eat the same things, but on tour you have to go with the flow and not get caught up in little mental tricks. And you can’t have expectations, because if something is bad now in a week it will be great. And even if it’s great, it will also change.

I was lucky to have some friends in the company, Noe being one who gave me warning of what to expect. She told me to know that it takes time to get integrated into the company. I think my mentality was that I would be fully integrated right away — as if I was coming to PNB. But it takes time to get to know people and have them know you.

Any big surprises?

L: I was used to having my hand held a little [when learning a role]. At Monte Carlo, you get there and you’re on your own to learn it. You ask the first cast to help you, you get tapes, you watch rehearsals, but basically you learn the roles on your own time.

N: You teach yourself a role and then Jean-Christophe loves it or hates it. He may want to change some things, but he also gives us artistic freedom. It was hard to come into LAC because I was copying his first cast, thinking he had a certain idea of the role.

But he wanted me to bring something different to it. In one rehearsal of the Black Swan pas de deux, Lucien and I did something and he liked it, so he changed [the choreography].

Even though you do fewer performances, you have a longer season – 52 weeks. How is that for you?

N: It’s harder on the body. We’re employed 52 weeks a year, but we don’t have set breaks. Here [at PNB] I always knew when I would have a week off. Right now we have a week off, but we didn’t hear about it until a couple of months ago. We probably won’t have another break until summer, but I’m used to it.

How have both of you adjusted to not being principal dancers?

N: Nobody [at Monte Carlo] knows what I did before; they have no idea of the career I had. For some time I struggled with that, but then I realized nobody cares what you were before. It’s about what you are now. My second year was the hardest because the first year there’s so much adrenaline, but by the second year I thought everything would be peachy and I would be in everything. But there’s a pecking order and you have to understand the work. Jean-Christophe knows when you’re faking it. That’s why I stay – to make sure that I’m doing the work correctly. It’s been 5 years now and I think I finally get it.

L: You have to change your reference point and accept that it’s a different experience. I had warnings, but hearing about it and living it are different.

N: I said that to him.

L: But I thought, no it will be different for me. [They both laugh.] I always had the view that if I don’t like a situation, I can change it, but I quickly realized that if you compare your life to a previous life, it will handicap you.

Before you went to Monte Carlo both of you had danced only with PNB and mostly in Seattle. How are the audiences you’re now performing in front of different?

N: In Italy, they’re louder and rambunctious. In Monaco, the audiences are small, a lot of old money and more conservative types and not many subscribers, but the audience is open to whatever is on the stage.

L: In Europe, there’s a lot less clapping at interludes when a scene finishes. Here, if there’s a crescendo, people feel like they have to applaud, but that can be distracting. In LAC, there’s a scene where the pause in the music is just a little too long, so we’ll get some random clapping but that’s unusual.

And Europeans do this unison-clapping thing at the end. At first, I thought it was just that we were doing really good shows, but that’s just the way they are. And they sometimes do standing ovations. We got one at our premiere of LAC , which always makes it nicer.

So are you celebrities in Monaco as members of the national ballet company?

L: [Laughs} There are perks. You can name drop in Monte Carlo, which gets you a table at a restaurant. And if you get stopped by the police [who do random stops of people on the street] you just say “I’m with the ballet,” and they let you go.

It’s been great seeing you both again. Anybody who attends on Saturday night is in for a real treat. Merde to both of you!

[Note: “merde” is the way dancers wish each other good luck, comparable to “break a leg” in theater.)

If you go: Noelani Pantastico and Lucien Postlewaite in Romeo et Juliette, Pacific Northwest Ballet, McCaw Hall, 7:30 pm, Saturday February 9. Only a few tickets remain but other performances with different casts are available through February 10. Tickets $28-$173 at the box office, 301 Mercer Street, or 206.441.2424http://www.pnb.org/Season/12-13/RomeoetJuliette/

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