Catch up with Kiyon Gaines, a popular Pacific Northwest Ballet company member whose career was ended by injuries. He’s now a teacher and choreographer who is a primary stager for PNB’s performance of Twyla Tharp’s “Waiting at the Station.”
A dancer’s career, like the choreography he performs, can have many twists and turns. Kiyon Gaines spent 14 years as a Pacific Northwest Ballet company member, dazzling audiences with his powerful jumps and playful charisma. Injuries and multiple surgeries, however, took their toll, and Gaines retired as a dancer at the end of the company’s 2014-15 season.
“It was very difficult,” he said, of the decision to end his performing career at the age of 33. “It was like a small death — there was mourning and sadness and anger.”
Fast-forward a year, however, and despite some thoughts of working in arts marketing (Gaines graduated from Seattle University last year with a degree in arts administration), his career in ballet is still in full swing. An active, up-and-coming choreographer, he’s recently completed works for Ballet Arkansas (where he is resident choreographer) and Cornish Dance Theater. He teaches men’s technique at PNB School, where his students range from third-graders to the school’s professional division. And, for the past few months, he’s been immersed in a project that’s brought him alongside one of the great contemporary dance legends: as primary stager for Twyla Tharp’s jazzy, joyous ballet “Waiting at the Station,” which returns to McCaw Hall June 3.
June 3-12, Pacific Northwest Ballet, Marion Oliver McCaw Hall, 321 Mercer St., Seattle; $30-$187 (206-441-2424 or pnb.org). The program includes George Balanchine’s “Square Dance,” Jerome Robbins’ “Fancy Free,” and Twyla Tharp’s “Waiting at the Station.”
Tharp created the work for PNB in 2013, and selected Gaines as one of her rehearsal assistants. That meant time in the studio with Tharp, one-on-one. “She just puts the music on and moves, and she expects you to follow,” Gaines remembered, noting that Tharp didn’t seem to come to the studio with a set plan. “It’s so fast — the ideas just come to her mind and she’s off and running, and here I am following behind and trying to catch the steps that she’s doing, and she says, ‘Now show me what I just did.’”
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Phrase by phrase, the work came together like a jigsaw puzzle. “From my choreographer standpoint, I’d be thinking, how is this going to work out?” Gaines said. “But it all worked together perfectly. She’s just a genius, the way she crafts. It was both inspiring and amazing to be in the studio working with her, so intimately. “
Now he’s reconstructing that experience for the PNB dancers, as he teaches and rehearses the ballet. It’s a job that required meticulous preparation, in addition to his memories of time with Tharp: five months of studying videos of the 32-minute ballet and making careful notes of every count, now filed in a thick binder that he carries to every rehearsal. “This doesn’t entirely get us away from watching video in the studio, but it does get us away from a lot of it. I can say, oh, on the fourth eight you do the samba step.”
Thanks to all that prep work, Gaines has been able to stage the entire ballet in a little over two weeks of rehearsal, which will leave the dancers some time to shape their own performances, rather than just retracing the steps.
“Twyla was really big on having people find their own individual character, their own style within the confines of what she’s created,” he said. (The ballet, set in 1940s New Orleans, has a narrative arc: an older man, before surrendering to the Fates, must pass along to his son what he knows.) “She didn’t want it to be cookie-cutter, she wanted it to be real people, having these interactions and experiences.”
In the studio on a cloudy day last week, Gaines watched closely as four PNB couples rehearsed their variations. Perpetually smiling, he was generous with encouragement (“Nice!”) while strict about details: the eye goes here, the hand tilts this way. And while his focus was entirely on the dancers, Tharp’s work clearly lived within him — while watching, he moved with the cast and the taped music’s jazz rhythms, wriggling, jumping, swaying.
He may no longer be on stage, but Kiyon Gaines is still dancing.