Soaring leaps are part of the job for a dancer — mostly on stage, but sometimes off. Noelani Pantastico, a longtime and beloved principal dancer at Pacific Northwest Ballet, is about to take a new kind of leap: away from performing, and toward teaching. PNB’s upcoming production of Jean-Christophe Maillot’s “Roméo et Juliette” in February will mark her last dance with the company before she heads off to Carlisle, Pennsylvania, to join the faculty of Central Pennsylvania Youth Ballet.
The decision to end her 25-year performing career was bittersweet, Pantastico said, in a telephone interview earlier this month: “I would have loved to dance more.” But the offer from CPYB, where Pantastico trained as a young dancer, was impossible to resist: to relocate near her family, who still live in the area, and to “be part of a place that basically gave me my career … It was intriguing to think that I could go back and be a part of making other dancers.”
“As soon as I decided, I realized it was the right decision,” she said, “because I was suddenly very relieved, knowing I would not be putting my body through the stress I’ve been putting it through, especially during the pandemic. It’s just gotten harder at my age.”
Pantastico, now 41, joined PNB in 1997 as a teenaged apprentice; quickly flying through the ranks, she was a principal by 2004. A dancer of crystalline technique whose warmth and natural charisma immediately drew audiences to her, she especially excelled in dramatic roles like Juliette — a signature role for her at PNB for many years. In it, she would disappear into the shivery rapture of young love; watching her, you became young again yourself, marveling in the beauty of her storytelling.
Peter Boal, artistic director of PNB, said that Pantastico’s great strengths are not only her remarkable technical proficiency, but how comfortable she is in her own skin. “There’s a genuine quality,” he said, “and I think that’s why she connects so well to an audience. She’s ethereal, she’s not us, but yet there’s something about her that feels like we can relate to her. She takes the best of our humanity and puts it in front of us.”
When Maillot’s ballet made its PNB premiere in 2008, Pantastico was scheduled to share the role, but another dancer’s injury meant Pantastico danced the entire run. Immersing herself in the role, she fell a bit in love herself with Maillot’s work. She left PNB that year to join Maillot’s Les Ballets de Monte-Carlo; after seven years of dancing and touring the world with the company, she returned to Seattle and PNB in 2015.
It would be, she said at the time, her “last chapter” as a dancer; luckily for us, it lasted seven years. Those years brought some remarkable new work — her gorgeous, swimming-through-air pas de deux with Lucien Postlewaite in Alejandro Cerrudo’s “Silent Ghost” is forever etched in my memory — and some new challenges. With fellow PNB principal dancer James Yoichi Moore (her frequent onstage Roméo), Pantastico founded Seattle Dance Collective in 2019, which has brought both live and virtual contemporary dance to local audiences.
It’s no coincidence that Pantastico is ending her PNB career as Juliette; it’s a role she knows, she says, “like a second skin … Of all the things that I dance still, it feels the best in my body.” It felt right, she said, to bring down the curtain with this role. After many years and countless performances, she feels now “able to improvise more effectively on the truth in each moment,” making each performance unique and genuine. Those final Juliettes at PNB will “wrap up my whole career, and push me in a new direction in my life.”
At CPYB, she’ll be initially working with advanced students, helping them prepare for their initial steps in the professional world. But she looks forward to eventually working with dancers at earlier stages of training, “to see them grow and learn and attack new ideas.” Though Pantastico has done a fair bit of teaching over the years, it’s mostly been master classes and other short-term courses; now, she’s excited by the idea of helping create a dancer from the ground up. “I feel like I have a lot to give,” she said, “and I just haven’t been able to do that.”
Boal speculated that Pantastico will approach teaching “from a really empowering and nurturing place.” Though he hasn’t seen her specifically working with students, in daily class he has often observed her “moving around the room and offering the quietest advice and corrections and pointers and support” to fellow company members. “She’s not obvious about it, she doesn’t do it for show — she does it to help the other person. That’s the sign of a really great teacher: it’s not about the credit, but making the individual the best they can be.”
Though she’ll be physically leaving Seattle soon, Pantastico emphasized that this is not goodbye, just farewell. She’ll continue as co-artistic director of Seattle Dance Collective and will “still try to make the city proud and PNB proud of whatever I do next.”
“It’s just another step in the path,” she said. “I’ll be a dancer forever.”