Dances Patrelle & Diversity
An Interview with Artistic Director Francis Patrelle & Managing Director Justin Allen
By Jenny Eskin
From its founding in 1988, Dances Patrelle has brought the diversity of all kinds to ballet. Director Francis Patrelle has always seen the diversity of race, age, sexuality, and gender as an organic part of casting his ballets and selecting his repertoire. Dances Patrelle Guild member and Ballet Academy East student Jenny Eskin spoke with Mr. Patrelle and Dances Patrelle Managing Director, Justin Allen, who is a ballet dancer himself and a parent of dancers in this year’s production of the Yorkville Nutcracker.
Jenny Eskin: Francis, from your very first season of Dances Patrelle, you cast a white dancer, Cynthia Gregory of the American Ballet Theatre and an African-American dancer, Donald Williams of the Dance Theatre of Harlem, as husband and wife in your ballet Come Rain/Come Shine. At the time, what considerations were behind your casting decisions?
Francis Patrelle: The only consideration was that they were singularly the two best dancers available. My formative years in dance were spent in Germantown Dance Theatre, in Philadelphia. Director Jean Williams had a completely integrated dance company in the late 1960s and early 1970s. So, naturally, I continued to view the world in the same light. The color of a person’s skin has never been the deciding factor in any artistic decision I have ever made.
JE: And, in your first production of The Yorkville Nutcracker, you cast dancers of various races in the roles of the nuclear family members. What year was that production? At the time, had any other professional companies cast mixed-race productions of the Nutcracker?
FP: When I was asked by the Kaye Playhouse to build a Nutcracker, the board of directors of Dances Patrelle was excited, but also hesitant. We had worries about how the ballet would affect Dances Patrelle financially. Again, we simply cast the dancers of all ages whom we thought would do the best in each role. Honestly, I have no idea if there are, were, or will be other diverse Nutcrackers. Because I am open to all dancers, and cast without an eye to race, it has never occurred to me to look at the history of Nutcracker diversity. Thinking back over the twenty-two years of The Yorkville Nutcracker, and the hundreds and thousands of adults, children and teens that have danced in the ballet, it strikes me as funny that so many companies are just now discovering that they want to highlight diversity as a way of building up their audiences. That was just something we did! We were not making a point. We fostered diversity by being open to every dancer. How wonderful for the art that others are discovering the diversity that has always been all around.
JE: Tell us about your interest in age diversity, Francis. In an art that is, above all, dependent on physical strength and agility, how did you come to value age diversity?
FP: I always have loved watching the Royal Ballet, and their casting of older people in older character roles. In America, it seems that only the very youngest were cast in these roles, simply to give less experienced dancers the opportunity to appear on the stage. I grew up wanting to be a wonderful character dancer like Alexander Grant. So, when I started creating ballets that encompassed the entire range of human experience, I looked to try to find dancers of all ages to fill in the roles with the nuance and dignity of every age, the way they really ought to be seen.
JE: You also produced the ballet Glad to Be Unhappy, which addresses both heterosexual and same-sex love. When you chose the ballet, were you setting out to be more inclusive in the themes of ballet? In other words, was it one of your goals to make a greater range of people feel a connection to ballet?
FP: Actually, I don’t have goals, I have stories to tell, which I hope are seen by many different people. I want all kinds of people to see something new in ballet. Most of the ballet reflected on the personal relationships that I had or that I have observed. I also tried to reflect the brilliant music of Richard Rogers and the incredible, poignant lyrics of Lorenz Hart. Larry Hart had a life filled with unrequited love, and that comes out in almost every lyric he ever wrote.
JE: The first time I saw The Yorkville Nutcracker, I was very moved by your introduction. You told the audience how grateful you were to your parents, who encouraged and supported a young boy’s study of ballet. To this day, you offer tremendous support to boys who love ballet dancing. What was your experience as a ballet dancer when you were a child? Who were your role models and mentors?
FP: I started as a ballroom dancer because there were shows on television featuring Hollywood Stars that danced. Some were Latin-American Tango dancers who came to Hollywood and became stars. I could watch the television and do exactly what they did, almost immediately. Joyce Jordan, my partner in ballroom dancing, and I started performing locally, while still children. When I started growing and no longer was cute, I convinced my parents that even Fred Astaire had some ballet classes and that I would like to try. From my very first class, I fell in love with the technique. The idea that I could be on stage and actually do the same thing every performance was unique to me and mind-blowing. I waited for weeks to see Rudolph Nureyev in the Bell Telephone Hour, Edward Villela on Ed Sullivan and was fascinated by their prowess and artistry. Even though in that time in our world they were advertised as great athletes, I was mesmerized by their artistry, musicality, and ability to move in different ways according to the music that was being played. Succinctly, I fell in love with ballet.
JE: Justin, in 2009 you wrote a ballet, Murder at the Masque: The Casebook of Edgar Allan Poe, in honor of Dances Patrelle’s twentieth anniversary and the two-hundredth anniversary of Poe’s birth. What motivated you to write a ballet, in particular? Tell us about your love of Poe, and the relationship you see between the art of the short story and ballet.
Justin Allen: Francis had spoken to me many times about wanting to choreograph a mystery ballet. I found the idea odd, but it still itched at the back of my mind. What would a mystery ballet be like? First, I did some thinking about what sort of mystery would make good ballet. I knew that Edgar Allen Poe had invented the detective story, so I did some reading. No sooner did I make the acquaintance of Auguste Dupin in Poe’s story “Murders in the Rue Morgue”, then I knew that here was our detective. Poe has all kinds of things to suggest to him, but what drew me in most was that his stories are almost universally driven by emotion. That’s why I think they appeal so much to adolescents. The motivations of Poe’s characters, while often outlandish, are visceral and clear. It is thrilling to feel with him those sorts of gut-wrenching emotions that lead characters to despair, hate, fall in eternal love, resort to vile revenge. The story I created was meant to hit on themes that I thought would appeal to Francis, especially heartbreak and jealousy. The relationship between ballet - story-ballet in particular - and short stories more generally, is not clear to me. But, the relationship between ballet and the stories of adolescents is palpable. Innumerable ballets come from fairy stories, coming-of-age stories, the stories of first love. And, those are the stories that are formative to all of us… Who wouldn’t want to engage with all of that?
JE: Francis, what gave you the confidence to take a chance on a new writer? Why did you choose Patrick Soluri to compose the music?
FP: Justin had a book published, Slaves of the Shinar, with another to be published later that same year, Year of the Horse. They are two books from totally different genres, understand. Having read them and loved the characters, I had no trepidation in taking a story from Justin at all. It worked, and I think one of the keys to that was that Justin and I have such a great communications process. Many times I said to Justin, “I have to see it on the stage. Nothing can take place off-stage.” He always made it work. We went through the process and got a very good story. As for Patrick, this was not our first collaboration. He was a student at Manhattan School of Music and had composed a piece called Negoni. It was a ballet piece, and he was looking for a choreographer. The Vice President and Dean of Performance of MSM asked if I would listen to it, and give him some idea of where to find a choreographer. I did and called Patrick asking if I could choreograph it myself. He said yes, and we were off. I choreographed it on teenagers: Jonathan Poretta, who is now a principal at Pacific Northwest, and Ilona Wall, who formerly danced for the Suzanne Farrell company, and is now our rehearsal director. Later, Dances Patrelle commissioned Patrick to write the music for Madame X, followed by Murder at the Masque, and then I worked with him again on a ballet for the Cuyahoga Valley Youth Ballets, Fancy Nancy.
JE: Finally, Francis, what do you think characterizes the unity of Classical Ballet?
FP: It all gets back to the technique. The syllabus and technique are there. Whether it is modernized and used for today’s ideas or for the stylistic nineteenth-century fairy tales, the ballet is one technique.
Photo © 2018 Sofia Negron