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Famed ballerina Patricia Barker returns to Seattle

A scene from Olivier Wevers' "A Midsummer Night's Dream" with the Nick Bottom character in the center. Credit: Grand Rapids Ballet

World-renowned ballerina Patricia Barker, a Pacific Northwest Ballet principal dancer for 20 years, is now making her mark offstage, just as she did onstage. She has used her PNB experience, both as a dancer and as an instructor, to reinvigorate a Michigan ballet company. Next week, she will bring her troupe to Seattle for performances that reflect her roots and her ambitions to contribute to ballet’s future.

After her celebrated career as a performer here ended in 2007, Barker worked internationally staging George Balanchine’s works before becoming Artistic Director of Grand Rapids Ballet in 2011, a position she had held on an interim basis for a year. She was instrumental in preventing the regional company, which is Michigan’s only professional ballet company, from shutting its doors. And, under her direction, both the size of the company and the breadth of the works it performs have grown.

Now, the Eastern Washington native is reaching another milestone, bringing Grand Rapids Ballet’s 33 dancers to the Pacific Northwest for a five-day run of performances. “I’m going home and bringing my dancers to Seattle,” she says. While the company is based in Grand Rapids, Michigan, Barker and husband, Michael Auer, have kept their Seattle home and return a few times a year.

Although Barker brought the company to Bellevue for performances at the Meydenbauer Center in 2014, this will be Grand Rapids Ballet first Seattle appearance in its 44 years. Getting here took a lot of hard work.

Patricia Barker Credit: Grand Rapids Ballet
Patricia Barker Credit: Grand Rapids Ballet

One of the biggest challenges Barker faced in her new position was rebuilding Grand Rapid Ballet’s repertory, the collection of works it performs. GRB’s previous artistic director, also a choreographer, had taken the rights to his works with him. For Barker, this meant putting together a whole season in a matter of weeks. When asked how she managed to do this, she says, “You call your friends. You ask for favors and help.”

Twyla Tharp gave her rights to Nine Sinatra Songs. Internationally acclaimed dancer and choreographer Mario Radacovsky choreographed a new, full-length Romeo and Juliet. The George Balanchine Trust, for which Barker still serves as a stager setting Balanchine’s works on companies around the world, gave her Who Cares?

While she was dancing with PNB, Barker had the fortunate experience of learning many of Balanchine’s works from Francia Russell, PNB’s former artistic director. Russell had been both a dancer and a ballet mistress – learning all of the roles in a ballet in order to be able to teach them to the dancers – with New York City Ballet under the great Balanchine. Barker considers herself “a grandchild of the group.”

Russell had recommended and promoted Barker to Balanchine’s trust to stage his works. Russell says, “Patricia truly knows and understands the ballets we worked on together.” Today, the Grand Rapids Ballet has four Balanchine works.

Yet, Barker has gone beyond yesterday’s choreographers in creating her new company’s repertory. She is committed to having her dancers work with contemporary choreographers and to giving today’s dance-makers opportunities to bring their ideas to life.

Seattle’s Olivier Wevers, also a former PNB principal dancer and dancing partner of Barker, is one such choreographer. Today, Wevers is the artistic director of his own contemporary dance company, Whim W’him.

Next week, GRB will give three performances of Wevers’ full-length ballet, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, which he made specifically for the company. While Seattleites may be familiar with Balanchine’s ballet of the same name, Barker says, “This [Wevers’] is nothing like it.” Wevers tells a new tale using the characters of Shakespeare’s play. The central character of Wevers’ ballet is Nick Bottom, a young boy who dreams of being President of the United States. Wevers uses events from his own childhood to develop this character. The ballet also includes the ingenious use of sets.

The other program that GRB will present next Saturday and Sunday, is a mixed bill of four choreographers, called MOVEMEDIA. Two of these choreographers, Annabelle Lopez Ochoa and Penny Saunders, have had other works presented in Seattle last year. The others are Mario Radacovsky and well-known contemporary American choreographer David Parsons.

While Barker credits many people with helping her to succeed in her new role, her mentor, Francia Russell, provided her with a role model for being an artistic director. Barker says of her experience, “It was inspiring. I wanted to be like her one day.”

Of course, the mentor-mentee relationship goes two ways, and Russell is proud of the director Barker has become. She said via e-mail, “Both her artistic values and her strong, personal management of her employees are true to the principles Kent and I had wanted to instill in her all those years she was with us at PNB. Nothing could make us more proud than that.”

Barker has given herself another big challenge – to expand GRB’s reputation beyond its region. She told Pointe magazine earlier this year, “What continues to drive me is not only helping this organization to thrive and be noticed, but for us to become Michigan’s number-one arts export.” Touring is now an important priority. Given her demonstrated perseverance and determination, it won’t be surprising if she manages to bring the Grand Rapids Ballet to the ranks of the top ballets nationally. First stop, Seattle.

If you go: Olivier Wevers’ A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Cornish Playhouse at Seattle Center, Oct. 7-9; MOVEMEDIACornish Playhouse at Seattle Center, Oct. 10-11.

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