When Pacific Northwest Ballet artistic director Peter Boal arrived in Seattle in 2005, he was ready to lead Seattle's premier dance company into the 21st century. It was a challenge that excited him, but becoming the head of his own company meant that Boal had to leave behind his own long and celebrated career with New York City Ballet.
Boal grew up in the New York suburbs. His parents were arts patrons, and he remembers they took him to see the New York City Ballet perform. By age 9, Boal had begun his studies at NYCB’s School of American Ballet; by the time he was 12, Boal says he knew he wanted to pursue ballet seriously.
"It was an age when my attention would have wandered," he recalls. "But we were taken out of the girls' class and given a boys’ class." And his teacher, the acclaimed French dancer Jean-Pierre Bonnefous, singled Boal out for attention.
"He choreographed a dance for four boys and four girls. And he gave me all these a la seconde turns," says Boal.
Typically, accomplishing these turns are important measures for professional dancers, but 12-year-old Boal thought they were easy. "I didn't know they were a big deal."
On performance day, the young man executed the turns perfectly, and the audience roared its approval. "I thought, ‘I must be good at this, I think I'll stick with it,’” Boal says.
Five years later, NYBC founder George Balanchine hired the 17-year-old to join a company that was stratified by seniority. That meant newcomers had to wait their turn to take on featured roles.
During his first season, Boal was singled out by the company's co-artistic director and choreographer Jerome Robbins for a solo in "Goldberg Variations."
“[Robbins] would find the new talent, particularly males, and he would bring it out," Boal says. The young man quickly moved up through the ranks.
By age 23, he'd been promoted to the position of principal dancer, but Boal says his goal wasn't simply to be promoted. "It was just to dance well. I loved being in new creations." Boal says during his career he performed in more than 30 new works; more than 20 roles were created specifically for him.
Despite the critical and audience acclaim, like every professional dancer, Boal knew that his career was finite. He was on the cusp of 40 when PNB sought him out to replace outgoing co-artistic directors Kent Stowell and Francia Russell. He hadn't pursued the job, but the opportunity came at the right time.
"There's an interview with CBS News when I was 12," Boal remembers. "I said I was going to retire when I was 40. I had it all planned."
To that end, the husband and father of three young children had taken on a full teaching load at the School of American Ballet and also started his own small dance company in New York.
He wasn't quite ready to step out of the spotlight, but he recognized the far-off future he'd spoken of to the television interviewer was staring him in the face.
"I think I could have had another two years at a level I would have been very proud of," he says, "but it does get harder." Boal danced his final NYCB performance in 2005.
Seattle audiences occasionally get a glimpse of Boal onstage in character roles in such large classical ballets as "Coppelia" or "Nutcracker." But he says these appearances are always bittersweet. "It's like a real ache inside of dancers," he explains. "You want to nail pirouettes, be at the peak of artistic and physical excellence. But it's gone."
Boal finds his creative fulfillment these days helping his company members develop their own technical and artistic skills.
"Watching a young dancer discover the scherzo in "Midsummer" for the first time, and you helped him get there," he says, is great for the artistic director. But it's also a cruel reminder that the life of a dancer is fleeting. “No matter how much you bang [on the glass window,] you can't get back into the room where you're the dancer.”
Pacific Northwest Ballet's production of "A Midsummer Night's Dream" runs April 11-20 at McCaw Hall.