As Pacific Northwest Ballet wraps up its 2020-21 digital offerings, marking the end of a tumultuous season complete with fits and starts and a shift to a new direction last spring, attention is now turning to what is next for the company.
To that end, PNB recently announced plans to return to live performances for its 49th season, which takes place from September through June 2022 at Marion Oliver McCaw Hall, 321 Mercer St. at the Seattle Center.
The decision is a welcome one for directors and staff at Pacific Northwest Ballet after the COVID-19 pandemic upended the 2020-21 season.
Pacific Northwest Ballet Artistic Director Peter Boal looks forward to emerging from behind the curtain at McCaw Hall and greeting the audience in person, while PNB Executive Director Ellen Walker said she is looking forward to audiences one again enjoying live performances.
While the return to live performances is the first step back to normal for PNB, both Boal and Walker said last year taught some hard, but valuable, lessons in resiliency and adapting to difficult circumstances.
When it became clear 2020 was not going to be a regular year for PNB because of the pandemic, the regulations that shuttered live performances and uncertain timelines regarding reopening, ballet administrators decided that the best way to salvage the season was to pivot to a digital format.
“There was no road map for this, and we just said let’s do it,” Boal said.
Keeping dancers and theatrical support staff and musicians employed was a top priority, he said.
Instead of opting to rely strictly on archived material, Boal said they were able to curate and commission some smaller programs and smaller works. This was another positive, he said, because PNB was able to expand its community of choreographers and include more people of color and women.
They also made the experience more personal for audiences by recording interviews with the dancers and choreographers and including those in the digital package, so people gained a different perspective of what they had watched.
“We really wanted to tell the story of the organization, our artists and our community at PNB, so in digital programs we were able to tell the story of PNB and the art form itself,” Walker said. “You know, I think that people know this organization better than they did a year ago.”
The digital season also allowed PNB to reach a greater audience, with people tuning in from over 30 countries and all 50 states.
“I think we really learned how much our audience supports us,” Boal said, adding he sees opportunities to expand PNB’s regular offerings by keepings some of the digital offerings even when live performances resume.
The unexpected positives that emerged from last year were welcome highlights in an already stressful time.
Walker said, prior to the pandemic, the arts and culture sector as a whole, including performing arts companies, museums, science centers, aquariums and zoos, were all struggling with significant expenses that were not being matched by audience growth, and corporate support was being retracted.
“All of us were struggling with under-investment,” Walker said, adding when the pandemic hit and the world changed so quickly, a serious situation became an existential crisis of who was going to survive.
Walker said the arts and culture community in Seattle is very close knit, and the different organization directors communicate frequently and participate on an arts and culture round table where they discuss how they are faring, how they are responding to the changing situation, what they are planning. Everybody in the sector, Walker said, cares about each other, from the start-up companies and fledgling theaters to the larger establishments.
“The whole ecosystem is interdependent,” Walker said, adding everybody is having a hard time navigating the situation and people are worried. “It’s really, really challenging.
Walker said larger organizations like PNB and Seattle Opera Company don’t necessarily have greater advantages than smaller companies because the larger organizations have different expense variables, such as more artists and staff on payroll and higher overhead expenses.
“We all are working all the time, even though nothing is happening, so much is happening,” Walker said.
Plus, she said, the pandemic has been hard for performers and all theatrical staff and musicians, as well. The dancers can be especially impacted, Walker said, because they have relatively short careers to begin with, and losing a year or more of work is significant. That’s why PNB tried very hard to keep as many people employed, even if it wasn’t for a complete season, Boal said.
“But the dancers were truly grateful that we were able to keep them working,” Boal said. “I think they recognized that this company really made a priority of keeping our people working.”
Boal and Walker were both pleased with how PNB responded to 2020.
“People didn’t really jump ship or run the other way,” Boal said. “I think we felt the trust turn within. The vulnerability was real. The challenges are real. … It was like we all need to lean in. That’s an amazing moment to have.”
Walker said everyone’s willingness to try something new and create community where possible using any means necessary inspired her.
“Our culture was built on proximity, and suddenly we didn’t have it, but you can create it in a different place, and I think that’s really meaningful,” she said.
Both Boal and Walker agree the upcoming 2021 season will require more resiliency as it includes many unknowns.
“These are completely unprecedented market conditions,” Walker said, adding nobody knows how audiences will respond to future public health mandates or even feel sitting shoulder to shoulder with strangers who may or may not be vaccinated.
Beyond the health and safety aspect, the financial worries remain.
“Does this model work if we can only put 750 people in house when the budget depends on 2,000 in the house? And what happens to our operating budget when federal assistance dries up and revenues haven’t recovered?” she said.
Still, Walker and Boal say they are optimistic about the upcoming season, excited to welcome people back and committed to offering the same “wonderful experience” audiences have come to expect.
The digital season wraps up this month with its sixth program, which will stream June 10-June 14 and features two more works from Tony Award-winning choreographer Christopher Wheeldon and Ballet Met Artistic Director Edwaard Liang among other performances.