(First published on Crosscut.)
In ballet’s caste system, the corps de ballet is the lowest rank and the largest body — at Pacific Northwest Ballet right now there are 25 corps dancers, which is more than the number of principals (13) and soloists (7) combined.
Everyone knows it’s a grueling job. Corps dancers have to perform more frequently than other company members, often in every program during a run, and they must be adept at two of ballet’s most thankless challenges: blending the duller kinds of pantomime with technique (playing all those villagers, court members, guests), and moving in perfect, tireless unison (think snowflakes, flowers or swans).
Luckily, a lifetime of daily ballet class prepares dancers well for these classical-ballet demands. Day after day, they practice iconic phrases from ballet history over and over again, side by side, comparing and synchronizing themselves in front of mirrors.
But stepping into contemporary roles is a different story, particularly for the corps, who not only need to adapt their bodies to a whole new movement idiom and/or counting structure as the soloists do, they often must learn to perform these new steps in perfect tandem.
At Pacific Northwest Ballet, the corps work has always been noteworthy. PNB co-founder Francia Russell, considered one of the nation’s finest re-constructors of Balanchine works, has trained PNB students and company members in the subtleties of Balanchine vernacular from the beginning. Audiences have always been witness to a smooth, calibrated ensemble when Russell rehearses a piece. And lucky for us, she continues to stage works for the current company after her retirement. On this past “All Balanchine” program, her work setting “Serenade” and “The Four Temperaments” was precise and beautiful. The ballets gleamed and sparkled like the best kind of new creations.
Under Peter Boal’s leadership, things aren’t always as neat. Yet while certain ballets may not arrive onstage with the impeccable polish that Russell delivers, there has been another kind of excitement in the corps performances that fulfills a second aspect of the Balanchine heritage — the excitement of a sudden, newly gilded star.
During the Kent Stowell/Francia Russell administration, dancers generally performed according to their rank. This past year, Boal has repeatedly plucked dancers from the corps and featured them in pivotal roles. During the Ulysses Dove program, it was corps member Sarah Ricard Orzo — subbing in for principal Carla Korbes the night I went — who earned herself a glut of new fans with her fiery, electric performance in “Serious Pleasures.”
During the recent Balanchine program, there was a second revelation in the performance by corps member Laura Gilbreath in “The Four Temperaments.” When I saw her perform the Choleric variation, it was a true top-of-the-pyramid moment: She carried the lead role in the final variation of the final Balanchine piece on the closing performance in the run. Watching her magnificent combination of knowingness and innocence as she tossed off curvy battement kicks was like witnessing the full potential and definition of the Balanchine aesthetic.
Sadly, that same final program of the Balanchine repertory exposed the underbelly of the corps experience. One of corps women, Brittany Reid, who was dancing in every ballet on the program throughout the repertory, was visibly afflicted throughout the performance and couldn’t hold her balance or dance full out. “Square Dance,” staged by Boal, was the worst of it; her discomfort and weakness was beyond distracting, it was worrying. (PNB media relations manager Gary Tucker assured me she was just exhausted.)
Indeed company injuries definitely start to emerge this time of year, as the season comes to an end. Audiences may likely see continued rule-breaking casting choices — both intentional and as last-minute injury substitutes.
It should also come as no surprise to hear that both corps standouts of the year — Ricard Orzo and Gilbreath — are now rehearsing for featured roles in “Coppélia.” That production opens June 3.
Update, July 2010:
In July, when Peter Boal announced six dancer promotions for the 2010-2011 season, he named both the above-mentioned Laura Gilbreath and Sarah Ricard Orza as new company soloists. (He also promoted Seth Orza, Sarah’s husband, to the level of principal dancer and named the three company apprentices — Chelsea
Adomaitis, Ryan Cardea, and Ezra Thomson – as official corps de ballet dancers.)