Snowflakes and snowstorms: Behind the curtain at Pacific Northwest Ballet

When the author of Where Snowflakes Dance and Swear posted his book to me in Australia, he told me to watch out for the brick.

Stephen Manes was exaggerating – a little.

The book is 910 pages, weighs 1.4 kilos, and is set in small type, with the word length at around 400,000.

So it’s a testament to his writing and subject matter that I tackled the brick head on, and kept on reading.

Manes accessed all areas to write the inside story of a year in the life of Pacific Northwest Ballet in Seattle, one of the top dance companies in the United States.

As you will see from the Q & A below, there were no stipulations about what he could or couldn’t write – although, no doubt, he self-censored at times.

I can’t imagine any other dance company allowing a writer the same access as Manes was granted – to rehearsals, class, backstage areas, and staff meetings. For a start, most trustees and board members would not permit it, even if the artistic director and chief executive gave the go-ahead.

Controlling the image through controlling access is endemic in the ballet world.

Perhaps it helped that Manes was new to this world, with no baggage, no buddies and no preconceived ideas.

His career has been in screen writing, books for young adults, IT journalism, and biography. (In 1994 he co-wrote a biography of Bill Gates.)

In 2007/8, he followed the inner workings of Pacific Northwest Ballet, talking to the ballet and production staff, dancers, stagers, and musicians, and sitting in on rehearsals of many ballets, among them The Prodigal Son (Balanchine), Romeo & Juilette, (Jean-Christophe Maillot), Caught (David Parsons), In the Upper Room (Tharp), Nutcracker (a production by Kent Stowell), and The Concert (Robbins).

The hero of the book is Peter Boal, the company’s artistic director since 2005 when he succeeded long-term artistic directors, Stowell and Francia Russell.

Boal appears to juggle the artistic demands with equanimity, and, in his mid-40s, is young enough to clearly remember the pain of a dancer’s life, not just physically of course, but mentally.

That seems clear in the way he handled the upsets that followed casting decisions surrounding Romeo et Juliette when two “stagers”, that is repetiteurs, came to Seattle from Les Ballets de Monte-Carlo to set Roméo et Juliette on the company. (It premiered in January 2008).

Principal artists who expected to be cast as Romeo or Juliet were not wanted by the couple from Monte Carlo, Bernice Coppieters and Gaby Baars, and Boal had to try to calm the storms.

The distress involved in decisions on casting is usually suffered in silence and is not a matter often exposed in print.

Yet Snowflakes reveals all. For example, how Casey Herd, a principal dancer at PNB at the time, was passed over as Romeo. Boal told Herd “I want you to do it” but “they don’t think you’re right”. Instead, Herd danced the role of Tybalt. He is now a principal at Dutch National Ballet.

Other principal women were aghast when they were asked to dance the role of the Nurse.

Manes also goes where many fear to tread when he writes about finances. We learn that PNB trustees are expected to donate a minimum of $US7,500 a year. The company’s director of development says “we might look up the value of your home” when suggesting a suitable amount for a potential donation and the publications manager believes “all marketing is manipulation but manipulating people around the holidays is a slam dunk”. Nutcracker, says executive director, David Brown, “floats the whole boat”.

Or at least it did. As Manes explains in an epilogue, the global financial crisis affected PNB as much as every other American company.

As Boal wrote in PNB’s 2009/10 annual report: “Forty-five performances of Nutcracker may have been too many for the area’s slow economic recovery. Though performances were enchanting, ticket sales were lackluster. For the second year in a row, a Nutcracker revenue shortfall threw a curveball into our fiscal plan”.

And as David Brown wrote in the annual report “It is our long time relationships with individuals that continue as strong as ever and it is individuals who continue to provide more than 70% of PNB’s contributed revenue. In earned revenue, PNB has experienced great variation in ticket sales since December of 2008 when consumer confidence began to erode and job layoffs began in earnest.

“Over the past ten years, we have achieved our Nutcracker sales goal seven out of ten years, with each year’s goal and achievement higher than the previous, but the December 2008 snowstorm significantly hurt our Nutcracker sales largely contributing to a $550,000 shortfall. That trend continued this December when the full force of the recession on consumer confidence resulted in an even larger shortfall of $1.2 million in ticket sales in what has historically been PNB’s most reliable earned revenue vehicle”.

It’s no wonder that benefactors are wooed and nurtured by US dance companies who rely much less on government funds than companies in Europe. The more money from the donor, the more benefits to the donor. The company performs in the Marion Oliver McCaw Hall, an opera house named in honour of the mother of four McCaw brothers who donated $US20 million to PNB. They made their money in the cellular phone business.

The financial worries were distant grey clouds on the horizon when Manes researched his book (2007/8) although there were hints, such as Boal’s concern that the repetiteur setting The Concert on PNB, might have to return to work more extensively on the ballet. It seems that the Robbins’ people “want business class fares”, Boal confides.

For me, the most intriguing parts of Snowflakes are the descriptions of rehearsals and in particular, how each repetiteur or choreographer communicates with the dancers.

Having only read half the book so far, I can’t say how each encounter works out, but by about page 350, the most engaging and simpatico of the visitors is the Broadway choreographer, Susan Stroman, who choreographs her work, Take Five, on the company.

Apart from Dance is a Contact Sport, written by Joseph H. Mazo about the 1973 season of the New York City Ballet under the direction of Balanchine and Robbins, there is no other book that covers the same territory as Snowflakes.

But the former is around one third of the size of Snowflakes and my only quibble about the new book is the size. It was self-published, (see Q&A below) and no commercial publisher would allow an author to write so many words. A writer cannot always see the big picture when they get lost the the detail. An edit would have improved the text.

Yet, I do recommend it for anyone with a passion about dance, the way it really is on the other side of the curtain.

Q&A with Stephen Manes

What made you decide to do the book – something so different to your previous works?

My wife and I have been subscribers to and fans of the ballet here for at least 20 years. Before we met, she, a native New Yorker, saw many of the greats in their heyday.

As I explain in the book, a “donor tour” backstage whetted my curiosity about what seemed a fascinating unknown domain. But when I went looking for a book to explain how ballet happens, I discovered that no such thing existed. So I realised that the only way I’d likely find out what I wanted to know, I’d have to write that book.

As for the switch, I’ve had a pretty eclectic career. I started in movies, continued on to books for children and young adults, and added technology journalism and books to my quiver. From long experience, I know that if you’re going to write a book, you had better be fascinated by your subject. That was no problem here.

2. What was the process of writing it – did you go to the company every day and write the day’s events each evening?

I went to the company virtually every day and attended most performances either in the seats or backstage. At the company, I sat in the studios with my little notebook computer and typed notes in as things were happening in front of me; backstage, I jotted down notes on a pad and transcribed them when I got home.

I recorded private interviews on my digital recorder, which was never on except for that purpose and a couple of times when it was so dark in the wings I couldn’t see my notepad and had to dictate notes. I didn’t do any actual writing until I finished my year of research.

3. How long did it take you to research and write?

I was at PNB for a bit over a year. It took me another 2 1/2 years to write the book and three or four months to finish editing.

4. What stipulations were made – did the board have to agree to the book – was the manuscript read for errors/things that might upset anyone?

I gave PNB the same deal I (and my collaborator) gave Bill Gates: It was my book, not theirs. They would get zero editorial input into the final product, but their cooperation would make for a better book (and in this case, without it, I’d have no book at all).

5. Was it a condition that the manuscript must be read before publication and if so, by who?

There was no such condition of any kind, and I wouldn’t have done the book if there had been one. As I mention in the acknowledgments, the access was a tribute to the guts, confidence, and self-assurance of Peter Boal and David Brown.

When I did a final wrap-up interview with Peter Boal this year, he asked politely if he could see the near-final manuscript, and I agreed. He found several errors (largely things like erroneous ranks of dancers elsewhere, thanks to some clever biographical manoeuvring on their part) that I fixed.

6. Is the book self published – as I can’t see Cadwallader & Stern as the publisher of any other books?

This is the first of Cadwallader & Stern’s titles. I am the owner of Cadwallader & Stern, so we have a remarkably amicable relationship.

The main reason for my going this route after having published more than 30 titles with mainstream publishers was their adamant and universal (antitrust, in my view) insistence on taking 75% of the net income from electronic titles, which leaves the author just over 20% after an agent’s commission.

Snowflakes is available from Amazon or Barnes & Noble and the book is available in three electronic formats: Kindle, Nook, and Adobe Digital.

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