Most people see only the sparkly side of ballet: the live performances, with dancers in costume, pointe shoes tied, orchestra in the pit. Whether it’s the annual holiday production of “Nutcracker” or an edgier, contemporary work, many of the dancers at Pacific Northwest Ballet see performances as a reward for their hours of rehearsal.
Pacific Northwest Ballet corps de ballet member Leta Biasucci says, “sharing an experience we hope the audience enjoys is what makes it worthwhile for most dancers.”
Biasucci is referring to the grueling training essential to make it as a professional ballet dancer. Thousands of little girls (and maybe hundreds of little boys) dream of being on stage. The truth is, the sparkly, seemingly effortless performances are a dream that’s hard to achieve.
On a recent Tuesday morning, Biasucci and a roomful of her fellow PNB company members warm up before the daily 90-minute class that marks the start of each workday at the ballet company. You won’t see any tutus or tiaras here. Most of the dancers wear tattered tights, leg warmers, T-shirts that advertise dance clothing companies or past arts festivals.
At 10:15 a.m. sharp, Artistic Director Peter Boal comes to the front of the room to put his dancers through their paces.
“We’ll start with plies,” he says.
Each dancer places a hand on the nearest barre, then slowly bends her knees until her thighs are parallel to the floor, heels lifted. With arms gracefully arched overhead, the dancers rise up from the deep bend, then sweep their torsos forward from the waist, heads stretched toward their toes. This is the first of a series of exercises that become increasingly complex as the class progresses. A pianist in the corner keeps up a steady accompaniment.
Biasucci is positioned near Boal at the front of the studio, her curly dark hair pulled back from her face. At 24, Biassucci is one of the younger company members, but already she’s invested years training for this job. She started ballet classes as a 5-year-old in Pennsylvania.
“I loved it, I loved it, it was what I wanted to do,” she says. “It was what I did when I went home. I tapped around the house. I loved it.”
At 9, Biasucci enrolled in the Central Pennsylvania Youth Ballet, considered a “serious” dance school. The young girl was attracted to the rigor of the daily classes. She spent every afternoon there.
“Maybe I liked it because I was sort of good at it,” she laughs.
By 16, Biasucci and her teachers believed she had what it takes to pursue a professional dance career. She was accepted to San Francisco Ballet’s trainee program, where she attended class and dreamed they might hire her when the program ended.
Most big companies like SF Ballet or Pacific Northwest Ballet hire only a handful of trainees or apprentices every year. Biasucci didn’t make the cut. She consoled herself with a job at the smaller Oregon Ballet Theater. She was happy to have a professional job, but she dreamed of more. After three years in Portland, Biasucci asked to audition for Pacific Northwest Ballet.
“I remember sending an email to Peter (Boal’s) assistant, Doug Fullington, saying if you’ll have me, I would love the opportunity to come up and take class.”
That’s ballet speak for an audition.
The class Biasucci attended was much like the one Boal leads most mornings: a series of technical exercises progressing to step combinations, and finally to ballet’s signature jumps. Biasucci remembers it was fast paced, very challenging.
“And I was, of course, very nervous.”
“Leta came, and I remember looking at her in company class and thinking, ‘That’s not quite right, that’s not quite what I was looking for,’” Boal says.
He wasn’t interested in hiring her. But there was something about Biasucci that intrigued him.
“I asked Doug, can you ask that Leta girl, I can’t remember her last name, can you ask her if she can come back a second time?”
A few weeks later, Biasucci returned to PNB.
“I sort of willed myself to have this confidence,” she says. “I said, ‘OK, I’m here, I’m doing it.’”
She confesses, the second time around, she was better prepared.
As the head of one of the best known ballet companies in the nation, Boal can make or break a young dancer’s career. He likes to remind his students that they shouldn’t take his rejection as a final say on whether or not they’ll make it as professional dancers. But Boal is a tastemaker. And Biasucci had something he liked.
“I haven’t been a speed dater, but I imagine with speed dating you click or you don’t,” he says.
Boal clicked with Biasucci. A month after her second visit to PNB, he offered her a job in the corps de ballet. The corps are the dancers you usually see grouped at the back or sides of the stage, framing the stars of each performance. They’re like supporting actors in a film, or the chorus in a big Broadway show. Each corps member dreams of being singled out from the crowd. Realistically, only a few will realize that dream. Sometimes it takes a lucky break.
For Biasucci, that break came during a run of the classical ballet “Coppelia.” She had studied the title role, but Biasucci wasn’t likely to get a chance to perform it. She was in the fifth cast, back up to the backups.
But then, according to Boal, “The dancer in the fourth cast couldn’t go on. I said, ‘Just step in for today, do what you know,’” he says, laughing. “Well, she knew everything!”
Since that performance, Boal has selected Biasucci for a bevy of featured roles. She’s thrilled with the opportunities, but the spotlight can be scary. She has to deliver the goods in each performance, to prove she earned that spotlight.
Biasucci has studied a new role for PNB’s upcoming production of “Giselle.” It’s a featured duet she’ll dance with company veteran (and audience favorite) Jonathan Porretta. The challenging role is just the latest rung in Biasucci’s career ladder. She has to nail it, and then bring that same energy to the next performance.
“There’s always another rank,” she says. “You always want to be promoted, there’s always another role.”
Boal says those promotions are coming soon. But he defines success as more than a job title. “It’s about watching a fully accomplished artist develop into what they’re capable of.”
And that’s what he sees happening with Biasucci.
Sometimes Biasucci has to remind herself that, whether or not she gets her promotions, this is the life she has worked for since she decided to become a ballerina at the age of 9. When she takes that time to reflect, the look of serious concentration on her face is replaced by a wide smile.
“I feel I’m living the dream,” she says. “This is it. And it’s great.”