After dancing in Jean-Christophe Maillot’s “Roméo et Juliette” at Pacific Northwest Ballet, ballerina Noelani Pantastico left to join Maillot’s company in Monte Carlo. Now she’s back — returning to dance Juliette again.
Eight years ago, Pacific Northwest Ballet principal dancer Noelani Pantastico fell in love. We watched it happen onstage, as she immersed herself in Jean-Christophe Maillot’s stark, dramatic “Roméo et Juliette,” danci•ng as if lost in a storm of passion.
She was so taken with Maillot’s choreography, and his way of working with dancers to emphasize naturalness and intent, that she made a bold move — she left PNB in 2008 to join Maillot’s company, Les Ballets de Monte Carlo.
Now, after dancing countless Juliettes — and other Maillot roles in Monte Carlo and on tour around the world — she’s returned to where her career began. Pantastico, a native of Oahu, Hawaii, first joined PNB as a teenager in 1997. Late last year, she rejoined the company, and will close a circle when she reprises her signature role in “Roméo et Juliette” (opening Friday, Feb. 5).
Pacific Northwest Ballet: ‘Roméo et Juliette’
Feb. 5-15, McCaw Hall, 321 Mercer St., Seattle; $30-$187 (206-441-2424 or pnb.org).
“I felt like I was done there; I did what I wanted to do,” Pantastico said of her time with Maillot’s company, in a conversation between rehearsals at PNB last week. Now 35, she’s thinking about the final stage of her career, and said that at Monte Carlo, where company rankings are handled differently, an older dancer might find herself back in the corps de ballet. “Maybe that wouldn’t have happened to me, but I didn’t want to end my career like that,” Pantastico said. “I owed it to myself to live out my last years as a ballerina on a high note.”
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She’s returning as a different dancer, after years immersed in another ballet culture. At Les Ballets, the company mostly danced Maillot’s neoclassical, contemporary choreography — at Monte Carlo, unlike PNB, the artistic director is also the person creating the majority of the work — much of it utilizing a less-turned-out position than Pantastico was accustomed to. “You lose a bit of all those beautiful turnout muscles that you use in pointe shoes,” she said. “We still had regular ballet class every day. But because the work is different, your body kind of changes shape and you get strong in other ways, in comparison to how they work here.”
And it took years to get herself fully immersed in the Maillot method. “It’s a lot of brainwork,” Pantastico said, explaining that Maillot insists on dancing with intention, encouraging dancers to constantly ask themselves: “Why are you doing this step?”
“It’s as if you’re having a dialogue with someone — one step can mean one word,” Pantastico said. “That is really hard because you’re thinking already about something you’re doing stepwise. And then to have a conversation in your head with your partner, they also have to reciprocate, they have to react to what you’re saying, they have to understand what you’re saying. I think I was starting to get it after my fourth or fifth year. Funny enough, when I decided to leave, it really clicked!”
Now settled back in Seattle, she looks forward to dancing again with her original Roméo: PNB principal James Moore, who Pantastico performed with when PNB premiered the ballet in 2008. (In recent years, Pantastico frequently danced “Roméo et Juliette” with former PNB star Lucien Postlewaite, who joined Les Ballets de Monte Carlo in 2012.)
Though Pantastico said Juliette is now “so comfortable for me,” it took time to learn it to Maillot’s standards. She performed it throughout her time with Les Ballets but said she “had years when I thought I’d be taken out.” Finally, it connected: “I was ‘performing’ all the time because I thought that’s how it should be, when he just wanted me to be myself — Juliette, but myself as Juliette.”
It’s a thought echoed by PNB artistic director Peter Boal, who describes Pantastico’s dancing as “very sincere and honest. You see Noe — she’s not ‘I’m a dancer on stage and everyone’s looking at me.’ I think she’s in her Juliette — some of her reactions are so wonderfully human. Many people don’t have the confidence, the abandon, to do that.”
This Juliette, Pantastico says, will be different from the first one PNB audiences saw. “I’ve changed a lot since I left and came back,” she said. “I went through a lot of stuff in my life. I know myself a lot better than I did back then.” Her dancing now, she says, is a little bit softer; her storytelling clearer: “Not just the story as a whole, but the interactions with each of the characters that I have.”
After “Roméo et Juliette,” Pantastico looks forward to dancing the works of George Balanchine, a PNB cornerstone, again: “I hope my legs and feet can keep up!” And, whether she’ll dance one more year, or five, or 10 (“I have no idea”), she’s ready to embrace her time with PNB.
“It’s the last chapter,” she said. “So I just want to enjoy.”