“All creative people love a good challenge,” said Pacific Northwest Ballet artistic director Peter Boal in a recent interview. His challenge was one that might seem unthinkable even months ago: to create an entirely digital season.
On Tuesday, PNB announced a 2020/21 season that in some ways looked like a typical one: six repertory programs from October through June; two of them full-length story ballets (“Roméo et Juliette” and “Coppélia”), the other four mixed-works programs. The choreographers represented are a blend of long-familiar names (Balanchine, Robbins, Tharp) and contemporary dancemakers presenting new work: Donald Byrd, Alejandro Cerrudo, Jessica Lang, Edwaard Liang, Penny Saunders.
But, like so many other things during this very strange year, this upcoming ballet season is entirely different: Due to restrictions necessitated by the coronavirus pandemic, this season will take place online. Most of the works presented will be newly filmed, under appropriate social-distance guidelines; ballets too large to be newly performed safely, such as the story ballets, will be presented in archival footage of previous performances or dress rehearsals.
Once it became clear that the new season would need to be presented this way, Boal said he “combed through the repertory” looking for works that would be appropriate. His challenges were multiple. First, he needed to choose work that could be rehearsed and performed allowing for distance: solos, pas de deux danced by performers already living together, small-scale works in which dancers are well spread out (such as the four-dancer final movement of Ulysses Dove’s “Red Angels,” included in the season’s Rep I). He needed to be conscious of using as many of the company dancers — newly returned to work after furlough — as possible.
And he needed to get in touch with the choreographers already contracted to create new work for the upcoming season, to “ask them to scrap their current plans and start over,” Boal said. For Lang, who had been working on a larger-scale piece, “I asked her if she could make it work for eight dancers in two separate pods. I kept calling every day: ‘Can you work behind a wall of Plexiglas?’ ‘Can you wear a mask and a face shield?’ Poor Jessica, every day something new. And to everything, she said, ‘I could do that.’”
Boal has given the same challenges to the other choreographers: All new work will be created under guidelines vetted with local public health advisers, and approved by the unions.
Subscriptions, which are $190 for the season, will include access to the programs as well as additional behind-the-scenes material: choreographer interviews, short films, archival footage and a world-premiere, site-specific work by choreographer/PNB corps member Amanda Morgan. “The Nutcracker” is not included with subscriptions; a screening of a previous performance of the George Balanchine holiday classic, with possible additional footage, is being planned, for an as-yet-undetermined separate charge.
As with all arts organizations, the pandemic has brought enormous financial pressure to PNB. The company has laid off or furloughed many staff members, and many remaining have taken pay cuts. PNB School, normally a large contributor to the company’s income, is operating at only about 50% capacity (all classes are being taught remotely). And “The Nutcracker,” normally the financial anchor of the season, will bring in only a small fraction of its usual revenue.
“We’re at essentially half of our budget size,” said PNB executive director Ellen Walker. “It really is remarkably difficult to run a performing arts business without the performance aspect.” The company, she said, previously had an annual operating budget of $26 million; its current approved budget is $14 million.
Subscribers who have already renewed for the 2020/21 season, many of whom will have paid more than $190, will be automatically enrolled in the digital season. Walker said the company is hoping that many will consider the additional amount as a donation — and an investment in PNB’s future. Those wishing for refunds or credit may request it from the box office.
Boal, who with Walker has weekly dialogues with heads of ballet companies around the country, said PNB is at the forefront of this new kind of season. “We are one of the leaders in bringing dancers back into the studio,” he said.
In Seattle, the contemporary dance company Whim W’Him has also announced a digital season; others will likely follow.
Boal’s hope is that the new season will bring unique rewards, allowing subscribers and ticket buyers a close-up view of PNB in action. He said that while his initial instinct was to offer primarily archival content, he’s now convinced that new work, created by safely bringing choreographers into the studio, is the way to go forward.
“There will be something very compelling about the fact that Jessica Lang was present,” he said, speaking on Zoom from PNB’s offices while a rehearsal of Lang’s could be heard in a studio below. He’s hoping audiences will appreciate the extra content — which will also include “interviews with dancers about what it was like to work in these protocols, with masks on, how partnering happened when it happened” — and its intimacy.
“It’s really a moment in time,” Boal said, of the long months of dark stages. “The deprivation of the art form — we’ve really felt it. It feels really special to head down that path again, and to bring all of that to an audience.”
More information: pnb.org, 206-441-2424.