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Pacific Northwest Ballet's Ariana Lallone: the triumph of a patient mind.

Santa Monica, California, 1984: Sixteen-year-old Ariana Lallone is auditioning for the American Ballet Theatre summer school. "Way too tall!!!" an auditioner writes in her notes. Cut to Seattle, 1997: "She's a star in Seattle," says Pacific Northwest Ballet coartistic director Francia Russell, describing her five-foot-eleven-inch principal, Ariana Lallone. "Everyone knows who she is, and the 60 length and power in her limbs is a huge advantage. Ariana wouldn't be Ariana if she were half an inch shorter -- I'm glad for every centimeter of her."

Between those two assessments, Ariana Lallone has traveled a distance in which only her will to dance -- supported by her mother and rewarded later by Russell and coartistic director Kent Stowell -- propelled her past the various roadblocks along the route to reach her dream.

To her longtime teacher, Marilee Stiles-Stern, Lallone's eagerness and desire to dance have been evident since she was ten years old. "At the studio there was this window that went to where the waiting room was," recalls Stiles-Stern, who taught Lallone at Rozann-Zimmermann Ballet Center in Chatsworth, California, and later at the PNB school. "I also taught the class before the one she took, and her face would always appear at that window as soon as she arrived and make a connection with me across the studio floor. She was the only student who ever did that. As soon as she arrived for class, there she was at the window."

Lallone's eagerness would be tested. As she hit her teenage years and her height soared, the dancer who today conveys sensuality with the slowly ascending retires of her long legs in Ton Simons's The Tenderness of Patient Minds, or displays her mastery of the complex African-classical choreography of Val Caniparoli's Lambarena, lost control of her body. Studying at the School of American Ballet and at San Francisco Ballet, the ballerina who is now prized by PNB's audiences and its choreographers was told she would never make it in ballet. As Russell and Stowell used her sparingly in corps roles because of her height, yet knew she was not quite ready for solo turns, Lallone rehearsed solo roles in solitude, awaiting her opportunity to dance them.

Lallone grew four inches between ages twelve and thirteen, and another four the next year. "I was five feet ten when I was fourteen," she says. "I remember my ballet teacher going, `Oh, your arms! Straighten your knees!' And I was working so hard. I just didn't get it. I would get the correction and try to apply it, and I couldn't understand why I couldn't. Then one day I looked at my best friend, and she was practically staring at my stomach -- I was almost twice her size. And I was, like, `I grew!' I distinctly remember it, because we have all our pictures together where we're exactly the same size and all of a sudden I was taller. It was all in my limbs, and I had absolutely no control over my body because it happened so fast. I couldn't do a pirouette after I grew, or a fouette turn -- they were just not part of my vocabulary. I'd put my leg out there and go flying."

To surmount the physical challenge, Lallone took jazz classes: "It was one of the things that helped me contain my limbs, because there are a lot of sharp movements that are done in jazz. It helped me control my body and get control over the way I was working."

Getting past the aesthetic challenge that her height represented to some was another matter. "My summer course at SAB was hard -- I was the tallest person in the whole school. I felt very awkward; the same thing in San Francisco. I felt very discouraged; there was no encouragement that I could actually continue. It was clear in their eyes that it was a difficult profession for me to pursue." She recalls that some teachers said "that I would never dance; that I wouldn't be a professional; that it was too hard; that I was too tall." The nadir was reached when Lallone auditioned for the ABT school. All of the auditioners carried clipboards on which they wrote their comments, and Lallone happened to see the comment opposite her name: "It said, `Way too tall' with three exclamation points. I'll never forget that. I remember thinking it was funny."

Lallone's determination, leavened by her mother's support and her own healthy sense of humor, didn't flag. She persisted until the summer of her eighteenth year, when she was accepted into the PNB school. If her height had inhibited others from appreciating her talent, Russell and Stowell didn't see it as an insurmountable obstacle.

"She worked incredibly hard," recalls Russell. "That's the first thing I was aware of with Ariana. She dances with her heart and soul as well as her mind and body, so that was very striking from the first day. There were obvious things with her height, and I worried about that. She was such a hard worker, I felt it was important to keep her here for a full year with the school." Lallone thought it was important for her to stay at the school as well; offered admission to Juilliard, she deferred.

The next spring, Russell and Stowell sat down to decide whom to invite into the company. "Kent and I didn't know what to do about Ariana," says Russell, "because it was going to be so difficult to have her in the corps because of her height. But she worked so hard and danced so well in the school performance. We felt it would be very difficult for her to get a job; no matter how good she was, we were afraid artistic directors would automatically say, `We can't hire [her],' because they wouldn't have known her as we did. So we had no choice -- we had to take her into the company. We knew it would be complicated because she didn't fit into the corps and was not ready to dance solo roles; so there was going to be a difficult period in there where we were pushing and pushing and pushing her to be the star we knew she would become. But it's like it is with a child: if you skip from rolling around on the tummy to skipping and don't crawl, that's dangerous to skip that intermediary step, and we knew Ariana had to be in the corps. It was important for her to work in a group and proceed from there to be a soloist."

It was sometimes a challenge fitting Lallone into roles, Russell remembers. "Staging Swan Lake, no matter what I did changed the pattern; inevitably Ariana ended up next to Marisa Albee, the smallest woman in the corps. Then we did give her solos much sooner than we would have otherwise -- because it was necessary to promote her into roles where she looked good -- and that was hard for her. She didn't get the kind of marinating most dancers do, and it was very difficult for her to dance roles we and she knew she was not ready for. But there again, her determination paid off. Whatever she learned, she would go into the studio and practice by herself. Ariana's never waited for anybody else to do the work for her -- she's very self-motivated."

While some might have been frustrated at learning parts and then not being able to perform them, Lallone adjusted through "a private mental process. I became very quiet, and I did a lot of work by myself. I rehearsed by myself. They told me that if I didn't get to do these variations, I'd still have to practice them myself to make up for this time when I was not going to be on the stage."

Lallone also worked on her approach: "I was very aggressive, very strong, and when you're young that's hard to look at, because it's almost too much. They just had this person that would fly across the room very athletically. What I needed to do was refine myself and be able to present somebody that had that strength ... but subtlety also. Sometimes subtlety in movement is as beautiful as being aggressive, and it's learning where it's appropriate for both things. It's more sensitive for me because of my size; where the audience sees somebody they expect to be aggressive and bold and athletic, and you don't always want to look like that."

Eventually, the work paid off. Lallone was still in the corps in 1991 when Caniparoli, casting his Gran Partita, first noticed her. "I went, `I want her,'" he recalls. "She just struck me -- the way she moved, already, and the way she handled herself in class. I liked her immediately."

Mark Dendy recounts a similar reaction when he set Ballet 1, his first work on PNB. "That was a PNB Off-stage work, where you don't get your first pick, because you're working with the dancers on their off time." After he saw Lallone, he says, "I was like, 'I want her -- no, you don't understand, I want her.' Right away I knew I wanted to work with her, because her spirit is there."

When Dendy returned to Seattle in 1994 to set his wild and rollicking ballet, Symmetries, on PNB, he cast Lallone as "this goddess figure not partnered by a man, but in control of her own destiny. I was struck by her face and her eyes. She's got that marvelous bone structure, that beauty that comes from many incarnations -- you've worked to acquire that beauty. There's an old spirit there with some deep knowledge. She's a very mature performer, very much at home onstage. In the Nacho Duato piece [PNB's Jardi Tancat] she's an individual, yet becomes one of the ensemble. That's not anything I had thought of using her for -- as a member of the group -- and yet she does that equally well, and that's stunning for me."

For his new ballet, premiering in February, Dendy didn't even ask for Lallone. "I knew everybody was going to want to use her, and I was going to have to fight for time." (Of the ten premieres PNB is presenting for its twenty-fifth anniversary season, Lallone is dancing in works by Caniparoli, Diane Coburn Bruning, Lynn Dally, and Donald Byrd. Dally's piece premieres this month at the Seattle Opera House.)

It isn't only Lallone's presence that makes her an asset. She is also very trusting, Dendy says. Last season, for Les Biches, he cast the ballerina as a whip-wielding dominatrix (the program lists her as The Librarian) who emerges from behind a revolving bookcase. "There's Ariana dressed in leather with a whip, and going to seduce a small man, Seth Belliston. To partner her with the smallest man in the company, that took trust on her part." Lallone, Dendy recalls, was concerned "because she's so tall and he's so small, and that could be awkward partnering. I could tell how frustrated she was, but she never fought me on it, and she did it -- and she stopped the show. The audience was gasping when she made her appearance, and it was the only duet that elicited immediate applause. The orchestra had to wait to start the next section.

"It's that kind of trust you live for in a company, because a dancer of her stature could stop and say, 'I'm not going to do this with him -- you're going to have to find someone else.' We all have our doubts, and a lot of people won't work through that fear of something that is difficult. They won't meet the moment and won't say, `This is what he wants and I am going to try it and have faith in him and trust him.' Not every principal dancer will do that. I know that she is there for me when I want to do something crazy, that she'll go with me, because I have worked with ones who won't, and you have to scrap the idea. But she works through that fear. It's not always easy, but she'll work through it."

Lallone also works "really hard," says Dendy. "She brings the level of intensity in the rehearsal up. It's a hot temperament, and it is the kind of temperament I like to have in rehearsal. Even though sometimes it gets intense, I like to have that energy there. Coming from the Graham tradition, I like it when the hair is standing on the back of everyone's neck. She brings that spirit of intensity of working to a room."

Then, echoing Marilee Stiles-Stern's observation of that long-ago ten-year-old, Dendy adds, "You know when Ariana is in a room."
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Author:Ben-Itzak, Paul
Publication:Dance Magazine
Article Type:Cover Story
Date:Jan 1, 1998
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