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Pacific Northwest Ballet's first Black principal dancer will not be its last

Diana Opong

November 09, 2022 / 8:49 pm

Dancer Jonathan Batista made history this fall as the first Black principal dancer in Pacific Northwest Ballet’s 50-year history.

Batista was promoted to principal in September. He says this new title means the world to him and the Black dance community.

"Dance has this power," he says. "I love to connect with the audience.”

Becoming a principal with a ballet company is the highest rank a professional dancer can achieve. It can take a decade to reach and isn’t just based on athleticism or technique. It also requires leadership and a strong work ethic.

Batista’s day starts around 4:30 in the morning with 20 minutes of meditation. At 5 a.m., he eats a breakfast of six eggs with veggies, two slices of seeded bread, and drinks a half cup of coffee. Then there’s another workout and a second breakfast all before he walks into company dance class at 9:15 a.m.

When he arrives at the Pacific Northwest Ballet studios in Seattle, Batista finds a spot in front of the room.

He can see himself and his fellow dancers in the reflection of a giant mirrored wall.

The instructor for the day, former PNB principal dancer Jonathan Porretta, rattles off a long list of moves, that Batista mimics lightly with his hands.

Nearby pianist Annastasia Workman, absorbs the pattern and begins to play, and Batista stretches and lifts his body to the beat.

After about 40 minutes of releves, pliés, and quick-moving tendus, beads of sweat start to appear on his forehead and back. It’s the only visible sign that what he makes looks so effortless actually takes a lot of work.

As with most history makers, Batista’s journey to becoming a principal dancer was not easy. He grew up in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, in a favela called Cidade de Deus, a neighborhood that translates to the "City of God." He says it’s there that he realized the value of seeing someone who looks like him in the world of ballet.

“I didn't see any representation until I watched Carlos Acosta, who was the first black man to become a principal dancer with the Royal Ballet in England,” Batista says. Aside for Acosta, Batista didn’t have a lot of peers or role models to look up to “and I have to say that there were times where I was really discouraged. There were times where, you know, I was fighting silent battles.”

Despite those battles, he got scholarships to train with prestigious programs like The Royal Ballet School in England. He went on to perform professionally around the world, sometimes as the only Black member of the company.

Batista says this is why his promotion is important, and a milestone that he isn’t celebrating alone.

“This is a moment for us. This is a moment for my teachers. This is a moment for young black boys, young black girls that want to dance, that want to see themselves on that stage," Batista says.

He wants for them to experience what ballet has given to him.

“Ballet has been the platform that … that allowed me to really express myself with freedom,” he says.

And that expression and freedom are what comes across when audiences see Batista on stage, says Peter Boal, artistic director of Pacific Northwest Ballet.

“I mean, the word that comes to mind the most when I talk about Jonathan is exuberance. Jonathan explodes onto the stage. He's one of the few dancers that I'm like, you have to do a little bit less here, you know,” Boal says.

"On top of that there's some crystalline technique in there, some of the best pirouettes, which is the number of times that somebody spins on one leg, some of the best pirouettes in the business, and this ardent commitment and passion for the others around him. For his partner, even for his audience, you feel that really clearly with Jonathan."

His dance partner, principal Angelica Generosa, has been with Pacific Northwest Ballet for 11 years. She says Batista’s joy is infectious and he’s been an inspiration for his fellow dancers, including her.

“The time Jonathan has been here has been amazing for me and such an honor as well, with everything that's going on for him and his career,” Generosa says.

Still, this moment is a little bittersweet.

“It is such an honor to be in this position," Batista says. "It also is a moment where I think, wow, it took 50 years for a Black man – for a Black person to become a principal dancer [with the Pacific Northwest Ballet]. "

PNB leadership is thinking about this, too. Fifty percent of PNB’s current company are people of color. In November, more history was made when six dancers were promoted to soloist, five of which identify as BIPOC or AAPI.

“I don't think we ever get to rest or say, 'Yay, we did it,'" Boal says. "There's no box that's checked and work that's done and on we go."

Batista is committed to helping fund and inspire young dancers in his native Brazil and around the world.

He may be the first Black principal dancer in the history of the Pacific Northwest Ballet, but he’s working hard to make sure he isn’t the last.

Diana Opong

November 09, 2022 / 8:49 pm

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