How choreographer Robyn Mineko Williams does collaborative beauty at PNB


In a Pacific Northwest Ballet studio, on a beautiful winter afternoon, an elevator is being born. Choreographer Robyn Mineko Williams watches intently behind her mask as three pairs of PNB dancers work out the details of an elaborate spiraling movement. A man lifts a woman in an arabesque, she straightens in the air in a briefly flat shot, throws herself around his neck with her head dangling to the floor, and somehow effortlessly returns to standing again — a short and miraculous flight. It’s bumpy at first as the couples play with adjustments to the movement. But suddenly, there it is: something beautiful that wasn’t there before.

Williams, a Chicago-based dancer who made her PNB debut with 2019’s “The Trees The Trees,” said in a phone interview that her choreography “comes alive with the dancers” through the collaboration. “They interpret everything, they find the connections in the partnership,” she said. She spends a lot of time watching the dancers, “observing their chemistry and their tendencies, seeing how they work”. Even seeing what they do during a five-minute break, she says, is instructive. In the studio, she doesn’t start leading the rehearsal at the scheduled time; instead, she watches as the dancers practice what they learned the night before, eventually sliding to the center floor to join them, throwing movement ideas like a catching ball.

The dance she is creating is a world premiere, titled “Before I Was” and will debut at PNB on March 18 as part of a program of short contemporary works. He’s inspired by children — more specifically, his own 7-year-old, who has been “my partner in crime” during the pandemic, and the delight she would see him take in the little things. “Watching these little things was such a great reminder for me personally,” she said, “to stay present and to stay imaginative. Such a wonderful part of being human. The ballet will include children in its cast , from the PNB school (not present in the studio during my visit) “The idea was to give the dancers a physical mirror or a reflection of themselves, a reminder of their child selves.”

For a ballet company, a world premiere is a colossal undertaking. A dance must be created from scratch in a studio; costumes, sets and lighting must be planned and constructed; selected or composed music. (“Before I Was” features an original score band Macie Stewart and Sima Cunningham, Chicago-based musicians with whom Williams has previously collaborated, which will be performed by the PNB Orchestra.) But it all comes together remarkably quickly, said artistic director Peter Boal. Williams was first contacted less than a year ago and didn’t begin working with the dancers until late February, although design and composition work had begun earlier.

“Basically, it’s rare for someone to have more than six (studio) weeks to create anything, unless it’s a full ballet,” Boal said.

Although world premieres don’t appear on the PNB season list as often as Boal would like, due to expense and pre-planning, he likes to book as many as his budget allows. His former company, the New York City Ballet, thrived on frequent world premieres by resident choreographers. When he approached Williams to create “Before I Was”, he was aware of budgetary and scheduling constraints, asking him to create a short piece for two dancers to incorporate into a repertoire evening.

“Some choreographers, and Robyn is one of them, are just brilliant, ‘OK, what are the parameters, I’m going to work with that,'” Boal said. “Some people, with the creativity that the budget demands, enjoy it and come up with amazing results. Others it’s just more frustrating because they need and want to spend more money than we do. would have.

Although he hasn’t officially visited Williams’ rehearsals – “Sometimes I’m afraid to change the creative direction while in the studio” – Boal watches from an upstairs window (his office overlooks the studio) while Williams and his cast work. “There’s something about Robyn’s movement that feels experimental even in the moment,” he said. “It almost feels like random exploration, but it’s way too complicated to be random. I find that appealing – it’s like watching someone fold an origami crane and you don’t quite know where those folds are going to take you until suddenly you’re like, OK, this is it I’ve seen, that’s it.

Williams, in her first-step job since the pandemic began, is thrilled to be back at PNB. “This company is so technically competent – ​​it can do anything,” she said. “As an upcoming choreographer, it’s a real gift to be able to work with such malleable dancers, who have no physical boundaries. Yeah, they’re mostly ballet dancers, but they really stretch, and I mean way beyond the physical sense. They are very open and very kind, such good humans to work with.

In the studio, Williams gathers the dancers nearby as she demonstrates, with strokes of her body and graceful arcs of her arms, a possible lift adjustment. “It might be impossible,” she says. Or maybe not.

“Plot Points”

March 18-27 (digital broadcast from March 31 to April 4); Pacific Northwest Ballet at McCaw Hall, 321 Mercer St., Seattle; $37 to $190 (digital access $35); masks and proof of vaccination or negative coronavirus PCR test within the mandatory 72 hours; 206-441-2424,

The program includes the world premiere of “Before I Was” by Robyn Mineko Williams, as well as “Plot Points” by Crystal Pite, “The Times Are Racing” by Justin Peck (PNB premiere) and “Caught” by David Parsons.


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