Last month, Pacific Northwest Ballet principal Noelani Pantastico concluded her twenty-five year dancing career with a matinee performance as Juliette in Jean-Christophe Maillot’s chic, streamlined, very French translation of that repertory staple Roméo et Juliette.
I had seen her debut in the role in 2008, and deeply regret that I couldn’t be physically in the theater for her last performance with the Seattle ballet company. But even on my computer screen, her extraordinary ability to connect with the audience was palpable. I found myself shouting “bravo” at the end, and starting to cry as confetti rained down on her while she took her bows and bouquets piled up beside her–one handed her by PNB founding artistic directors Kent Stowell and Francia Russell, who hired her in 1995, another by current artistic director Peter Boal.
I have watched Pantastico, who was born in Oahu, Hawaii, 41 years ago, show her technical and expressive range in such disparate works as Balanchine’s Divertimento 15, Agon, and A Midsummer Night’s Dream; Stowell’s traditional story ballets; Christopher Stowell’s Zais; Todd Bolender’s Souvenirs, and, wait for it, David Parsons’ signature piece, Caught. That’s the now-you-see-them, now-you-don’t, illusionist solo, created in part with strobe lights, requiring a great deal of muscular strength for very high jumps. I first saw Parsons dance it himself, the year he made it, at Portland’s Lincoln Hall as part of the Contemporary Dance Season.
Pantastico has danced in three versions of Shakespeare’s tale of family feuds and doomed lovers: Maillot’s; Kent Stowell’s, which is set to Tchaikovsky’s score rather than Prokofiev’s; and Val Caniparoli’s The Bridge, which transports the tale of feuding families and doomed lovers to the 1996 Bosnian War. Pantastico joined PNB in 1997, for the company’s 25th anniversary season, and The Bridge was one of 25 new works commissioned to celebrate it.
Using a score by Shostakovich, Caniparoli tells the real story of Admira Ismic, a Croatian of the Muslim faith, and her lover, Bosko Brckic, a Bosnian Christian, who were shot to death trying to escape. I carry in my mind an image from The Bridge that is quite similar to one from Maillot’s Roméo, of Pantastico and her Romeo (James Yoichi-Moore in the last performances) in a final, despairing embrace.
In 2008, Maillot, struck by Pantastico’s expressiveness as Juliette, invited her to join Les Ballets de Monte-Carlo, an invitation she accepted. For seven years she had the opportunity to dance all over Europe and elsewhere on tour, in a modern/contemporary repertoire that included work by Nicolo Fonte, Marie Chouinard, and Maillot’s own versions of such classics as Cinderella. She leaves Seattle soon to take up a teaching position at the Central Pennsylvania Youth Ballet, one of this country’s most important schools for professional dancers, where she got her own training. But she’ll be back, to tend to the Seattle Dance Collective, which she co-founded with PNB principal dancer and frequent partner James Yoichi Moore in 2019. What follows is a discussion of how Pantastico’s experience as a dancer will inform how she takes, and conveys, her next steps.
Martha Ullman West: As far as I can remember, I have seen you dance in most of your Balanchine rep, in Kent Stowell’s Nutcracker, in Stowell’s Cinderella, in Caught. I have a vivid memory of you in Christopher Stowell’s Zais, which was programmed with Todd Bolender’s Souvenirs. Were you one of the Wallflowers in Souvenirs?
Noelani Pantastico: Yes! What a great ballet, and so much fun. I loved getting to act a bit and hear the audiences’ reactions!
MUW: It’s almost 20 years ago–I came to watch Bolender and ballet master James Jordan stage it in the summer of 2002. Your range is broad and deep, stylistically, dramatically, technically, and my first question is this: You are joining the faculty of one of this country’s most important training grounds for professional ballet dancers, at a time of great change in the field and the United States generally. You have danced professionally with two very different ballet companies, PNB and Les Ballets de Monte-Carlo, and worked with quite different artistic directors, although Kent, Francia and Peter Boal all were schooled at least in part by the School of American Ballet and Balanchine. How will these experiences inform your teaching?
NP: This is the beauty of all those difficult choices I made to move around and change my setting. I was on a personal journey of learning about myself in dance, and at that time I didn’t realize that all my experiences would one day influence me as a teacher and eventually be passed on to my students.
The range with my artistic directors is diverse and each is unique. Marcia [Dale Weary, former director of Central Pennsylvania Youth Ballet], along with my technical foundation, gave me an awareness of myself in the room. She made me see my impact and looked to me as a role model for the others. Looking back, this was a big responsibility for a teenager. What she instilled in me was huge, and I believe I carried it over into each company I danced with. Francia was always a stickler for technique and obliged me to continue to pay close attention to the details. When you’re young it’s easy to focus on the bravura. One wants to stand out and have fun, so the best way to do that is with high legs, fast feet, big jumps and multiple pirouettes. She taught me that although that’s all very exciting and should be kept up, it’s hardly worth it if the position is poor or if the in-between steps are not given the same value. So basically, love every step. Give everything value. It all matters.
Kent brought out my creativity. Because he choreographed so much on the company at that time and we were dancing a lot of his ballets, this was a great outlet for me to play with my technique in his rep and also a chance to try out emoting or acting. What was nice about working with Kent was that I really felt he believed in me and showed that by entrusting me to carry big roles. When things didn’t work, I could always count on him (and Francia) to tell me. Their honesty drove me to always be evaluating myself and work so I could be better with each opportunity.
Jean-Christophe and Bernice Coppieters at Les Ballets de Monte Carlo taught me artistry. Or, they gave me the tools to find intention within myself for each role I inhabited. They helped me understand my powers so I could touch an audience member. Finally, Peter Boal gave me a chance to diversify my portfolio. Since my return in 2015 he’s given me copious opportunities to utilize my “tools” and hone my artistic chops with a diverse repertoire. These last years (apart from the pandemic) were arguably the best for me. I got be a scientist on stage, testing out things and seeing what worked and what didn’t. It was so much fun, and I felt the audience on the journey with me more than ever – what a gift! It’s funny, I’ve called myself an artist for years, but actually I’ve been a student all this time. Now that I am a teacher I’ll use my knowledge to tailor and meet the unique needs of each individual.
MUW: What will you teach your students about flexibility of mind?
NP: Flexibility of mind is crucial to surviving in the landscape of dance, or at the least it’s crucial for one’s happiness. Change and adapting is hard unless it’s what you are used to. And change can get harder as one gets older. Staying open and vulnerable is a super power, and we should all try and harness that. It’s easy to get comfortable, feel stuck and become complacent, which in turn can create a festering monster of fear, anxiety and unhappiness. I’ll do all that I can (inside the studio and out) to empower each individual so they go on to make choices for a healthy, happy, diverse, and blooming life and dance career.
MUW: Your staggering versatility as a dancer? (Seems to me today’s dancers have to be just as stylistically and technically versatile.)
NP: I believe versatility should be the norm for today’s professional dancer, unless they know they are going to join a very specific sort of company for the entirety of their career. That said, a strong base in classical ballet will get you far and give you opportunities down several avenues if you’re curious to take different paths. For myself, I went to BMC to learn Maillot and focus on contemporary dance. Before Peter and BMC I had opportunities and was always curious and open, but felt inadequate in works other than the ballet and Balanchine rep. I knew going elsewhere would open me up to seeing other dance and dancers, so that was why I made my decision to go.
MUW: Please, can you tell me more about the Seattle Dance Collective, and whether this might provide performing opportunities for your students?
NP: Seattle Dance Collective is a creative hub for artists to collaborate. What’s nice about our structure is that we can really do anything we want creatively. Because of the pandemic we’ve had to pivot from the norm, so that’s what we’ve continued to do. We’ve only been able to do one set of live performances in 2019. Ever since we’ve been just trying out stuff, which has been lots of dance films with a plethora of artists. It’s a whole different arena. Some choreographers have really grown into and embraced dance on film, or done the opposite and completely stayed away from it. We’d like to get into live performances again, so hopefully that’ll happen this August. James and I both are juggling a lot (especially me with this big life change and move), so we are trying to take care of it as best we can and innovate around challenges. As far as SDC giving opportunities to my students? Never say never. I’m absolutely open to anything, and that’s also exactly what SDC is about.
MUW: The emphasis in such dance publications as Dance Magazine, Pointe, and Dance Teacher is increasingly on health, physical and mental, conditioning, training for auditions and the like. Do you think artistry and history are getting lost?
NP: Well, I do think dance is far behind in regards to physical and mental health, conditioning and training, so I don’t mind seeing helpful resources in these magazines. I like to compare dancers with athletes like soccer or football players. While it is very different, we still are asked to put our bodies through strenuous activity every day. Even the top ballet companies aren’t helping dancers prepare and stay at their best, so dancers are having to do it themselves. Sports teams support their players way more to ensure they perform at their best, while some ballet companies offer near nothing or random therapy treatments. I’m well aware dance companies aren’t supported financially like sports teams are, but can you imagine how amazing dancers could be and how much further we could push ourselves if we had the same treatment as pro sports athletes? Overall I think it’s great that those magazines are providing that information, because dancers need that information to survive. And it’s especially good to have a resource that supports us, especially if we are footing the bill.
As far as artistry and dance history, yes, they are getting pushed aside. Even in my youth I didn’t get enough of dance history unless a teacher gave me information directly or I looked up something myself.
As for artistry, I believe that is something that comes from within, but can be brought out with time and good coaching. Apart from BMC I’ve personally had to seek that out for myself or just be lucky that whoever was in the front of the room would give me something to grasp and reflect on. I also think since the pandemic we’ve lost touch with coaching in order to survive and stay afloat. Companies seem to just want to get back and get content out. Time at work right now is devoted to rehearsing several ballets at once, so artistry inevitably has taken a back seat. That being said, I have only my point of view of my personal experience. I honestly can’t tell you if this is happening elsewhere in the states, but I imagine it is. In Europe and abroad it seems as though artistry is still very important. Dancers are given ample coaching in preparation for works, and choreographers have more time to develop with artists.