The dreamer: opus 1: supreme classicist Peter Boal belies his image with an edgy new chamber group.
Boal as embodiment of all dancerly virtues is a familiar experience for New York City Ballet audiences, who have seen him perform almost every important male role in the repertoire since he joined the company in 1983. "He is a noble character," says Robert Gottlieb, dance critic of the New, York Observer and long-time watcher of NYCB. "He givers that impression on stage, and offstage too. He goes as tar as he can within the dance text, and he doesn't decorate or embellish it. He is always measured, open; nothing is covered up."
There is, however, another side to Boal that belies his steadfast image, and strongly suggests a man who is constantly--if discretely--impelled to keep exploring the limits of his own possibilities. Since early in his career, Boal has kept his artistic destiny in his own hands; an approach that is far from common for ballet dancers, who are usually schooled to see themselves as passive instruments of a company or a choreographer. In addition to his full roster of NYCB roles, he has performed new works outside of the company, and appeared regularly with Suzanne Farrell's troupe since 2000. Since 1997 he has worked at the School of American Ballet with a teaching load--thirteen classes a week--that most would regard as a full time job. (He also has a life: Boal is married to former NYCB soloist Kelly Cass, with whom he has three children: Sebastian, 8, Oliver, 6, and Sarah, 3.)
All of these enterprises have recently come together to take a broader and potentially longer-lasting form. In 2002, Boal staged an evening of commissioned solos at the Joyce Theater in New York This year, he presented the four-member Peter Boal & Company, also commissioning new work, which debuted at the Joyce before the group went on to the Venice Biennale in July; they perform at Jacob's Pillow in August.
"In one sense, I'm lucky," says Boal. "I have the reputation of being a very solid, reliable, trustworthy person in the dance world. Because of that, when I present risks to an organization, people will agree to let me try things."
In fact, Boal has been trying things for a long time. In 1988, a year after he was promoted to soloist, he took a leave of absence and spent three months performing with the Ballet du Nord in Roubaix, France. Then he simply went traveling. "It wasn't the kind of thing you 'should' do, in career terms," he says, "but I wanted to travel, hear new languages, be in a new context. I wanted to think about how much I wanted to dance." The time out confirmed that he did: Boal rejoined NYCB and was promoted to principal in 1989.
Ever since, he has kept himself open to possibilities outside of the company. "I've always been passionately interested in working with choreographers," he says. "I get as much pleasure from the studio process as from performance. I love the potential. I understand that it could be good, it could be bad, but it's a chance I want to take." In 1993, he made his first incursion into contemporary dance with a solo by Wendy Perron (now Editor in Chief of DM). "It was based on everyday movement, and it was unlike any vocabulary I'd used before," says Boal. "It really made me think outside the ballet box, and I loved that challenge."
He was also an avid dance-goer who regularly frequented downtown performances. "Peter has always been interested in stuff none of us understood, like Molissa Fenley," says Kelly Cass, who was Boal's classmate at SAB. (Rather charmingly, in retrospect, they danced together at the 1983 Workshop. "I told him it wasn't polite to get his leg higher than mine," she recalls.) "When we were teenagers and experimenting with dreadful clothes, he was always neat and perfectly dressed, but in truth he had far more adventurous tastes."
At a chance meeting with Fenley, Boal told her how much he admired her work. The encounter led Fenley to invite him to perform her solo Pola'a during her 1997 season at the Joyce; two years later, he took on her powerful 35-minute long State of Darkness, set to Igor Stravinsky's Rite of Spring, for which he received a Bessie Award. "As an artist, Peter is always pushing himself," says Fenley. "He is also able to really see what you are doing and translate it into his own physical terms. He is truly interested in moving his body in a different way."
The Fenley solos offered Boal a chance to master new technical emphases--"the issues ale mostly with the upper body," he says--and address the challenge of maintaining a stage presence alone for an extended period of time. "By doing Molissa's work, you get a strong sense of what a piece needs in terms of performing quality, dynamics, and emphasis. It's really about a level of consistent commitment from a performer."
In 2002, Boal decided to parlay this knowledge into a full evening of solo works. "Within an enormous institution like City Ballet, bringing choreographers and dancers together takes months of planning and a lot of money," he explains. "I thought, one dancer, one choreographer, one studio--no one's going to make any money." As part of The Joyce's "Altogether Different" series, Boal performed new solos by Perron, Fenley, and NYCB principal Albert Evans, to both critical and public acclaim. "He is a dream to work with," says Evans. "This is an instrument that can play any tune that you ask him to play, and make it his own."
By the next year, Boal was ready to involve other dancers. "I wanted to do something alone first so that if it didn't work, it was only me who suffered," he says. "When it did go well, I thought, I can help other people do things they would like to do."
A more concrete idea look form as he watched a work by German choreographer Marco Goecke, made for NYCB's Choreographic Institute. "It ended with Sean Suozzi, who had been my student at SAB, doing a solo, and he was absolutely phenomenal. I thought, I have an opportunity to bring him back together with that choreographer." Boal approached Suozzi ("I was so honored," says Suozzi, "I didn't want to talk about it in case it didn't happen"), then NYCB principal dancer Wendy Whelan.
Boal also asked choreographer John Alleyne to make a work, and brought NYCB corps de ballet member Carla Korbes into the group. He persuaded Twyla Tharp to let him perform Pergolesi, a solo she had created on Mikhail Baryshnikov, and chose William Forsythe's Herman Schmerman pas de deux because he had always wanted to dance it. ("I thought, hey, it's my company--I can decide!") Although Boal performed in three of the four works, it is telling that he is proudest of the Goecke-Suozzi solo, and the way that it pushed the young dancer to pursue new facets of his art. "What I hope," he says, "is that the company part gets bigger, and the Peter Boal part gets smaller. Eventually my role will be more about putting people together."
Boal is low-key about the complexity of his life, or the extent of his ambitions for his new troupe. "I'm lucky to have the stability, of New York City, Ballet and be able to do all of these other things. Peter Martins is the first person I go to with every, outside request. He says, more power to you, which might not be every, director's response." But the self-discipline and work involved in the dancer's many enterprises can hardly be underestimated.
"He is certainly driven, but he is a very calm individual," says Fenley. "He is able to compartmentalize the day and really focus on each thing: When he is in your rehearsal, he's not anywhere else. He seems to have a great ability to bypass the anxiety and just do."
"Peter knows how to look at the long term, how to sacrifice for the end result," says Cass. That end result, however, seems to be less about personal achievement or ambition than an instinct to carve out an artistic life with far greater options, for both himself and others. It's what's most alluring for Boal, whose enthusiasm for his work at SAB, and passion for the exploration of new movement both appear as part of a larger desire to give of himself in every way that he can.
Roslyn Sulcas has written on dance for The New York Times and other publications.
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|Article Type:||Cover Story|
|Date:||Aug 1, 2004|
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