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Pacific Northwest Ballet’s 3 newest principal dancers on reaching the highest rank

Updated: Aug 9, 2023

By Moira Macdonald Seattle Times arts critic

To become a principal dancer is to reach ballet’s highest rank — and it’s something the majority of dancers don’t achieve. Traditional ballet companies, like Pacific Northwest Ballet, have tiered rankings for dancers: apprentices, the newest to the company, occupy the lowest rung of the ladder, followed by corps de ballet, then soloist, and finally, principal. Reaching the highest rank isn’t a given, no matter how many years a company member puts in; many dancers spend their entire careers in the middle tiers.

“I would say that maybe one in five dancers become principals,” said Peter Boal, PNB artistic director. (His estimate was mathematically right on the money: PNB’s archivist, looking over the company’s rosters since its first seasons in the 1970s, reports that 22% of company dancers reached the principal ranks.)

Three dancers — Jonathan Batista, Cecilia Iliesiu and James Kirby Rogers — joined the company’s principal ranks this season, announced from the stage by Boal before PNB’s season-opening performance in September.

Their journeys to that milestone were varied. Batista’s dance career began as a child doing ballroom dance in his native Brazil; taking up ballet at 11, he later studied at the English National Ballet and The Royal Ballet School, and danced with The National Ballet of Canada, Cincinnati Ballet and Oklahoma City Ballet before joining PNB last year.

Asked what he looks for in promoting a dancer to the top level, Boal said it’s multifaceted. Soloists will be tried out in principal roles over a year, “to see how they do under the most powerful spotlight, the most challenging partnerships.” He looks for how an audience responds to a dancer — do they have charisma, a unique presence? — and for versatility and skill in both classical and contemporary work. And he considers nondancing factors as well: “What are they like as a citizen within the PNB community? Do they go out of their way to help others? Do they work on the side with a partner to bring them up to speed? Are they willing to pitch in wherever possible?” With the addition of Batista, Iliesiu and Rogers, there are now a dozen principals in the company (out of a total of 46 dancers). I spoke to the three newest principals this month, asking about what the milestone means to them, what they hope to dance in the future, and what advice they’d give to young students hoping to shine in the spotlight some day.

On becoming a principal

For Batista, PNB’s first principal to identify as Black while dancing with the company, the promotion is larger than just himself. “I grew up in Brazil, I’m a Black man in dance and I think the most important thing about becoming a principal is just showing to my community that it is possible,” he said, noting that ballet is now experiencing “a celebration of cultures, so for me to be in this position and able to celebrate it with those around me and in the community, it’s just really quite special.”

Favorite PNB performances so far

Batista spoke of rewarding partnerships; Batista with Angelica Generosa in multiple ballets including “Swan Lake.” “She’s taught me so much about what it means to be in partnership as a dancer. It was really special. Of Generosa, Batista said, “I’m just quite amazed by her technique, by her brilliance, and I hope that our partnership continues to be celebrated for many years to come.”

Dream roles for the future

Batista named Kenneth MacMillan’s “Manon” as a ballet he’d love to dance (here’s hoping Boal is listening). Also on Batista’s dream list: Balanchine’s “Theme and Variations” and “Apollo,” and MacMillan’s “Mayerling.”

Best advice received as a student

Batista: “Be open, be open hearted, open your soul, your mind, communicate, explore, take risks. Allow yourself to make mistakes and you will understand your journey better. Remember that even though this is an individual journey, you’re always in service of the art.”

Oct. 25, 2022 at 6:00 am Updated Jan. 27, 2023 at 3:21 pm

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