To become a principal dancer is to reach ballet’s highest rank — and it’s something the majority of dancers don’t achieve. Traditional ballet companies, like Pacific Northwest Ballet, have tiered rankings for dancers: apprentices, the newest to the company, occupy the lowest rung of the ladder, followed by corps de ballet, then soloist, and finally, principal. Reaching the highest rank isn’t a given, no matter how many years a company member puts in; many dancers spend their entire careers in the middle tiers.
“I would say that maybe one in five dancers become principals,” said Peter Boal, PNB artistic director. (His estimate was mathematically right on the money: PNB’s archivist, looking over the company’s rosters since its first seasons in the 1970s, reports that 22% of company dancers reached the principal ranks.)
Three dancers — Jonathan Batista, Cecilia Iliesiu and James Kirby Rogers — joined the company’s principal ranks this season, announced from the stage by Boal before PNB’s season-opening performance in September. Their journeys to that milestone were varied. Batista’s dance career began as a child doing ballroom dance in his native Brazil; taking up ballet at 11, he later studied at the English National Ballet and The Royal Ballet School, and danced with The National Ballet of Canada, Cincinnati Ballet and Oklahoma City Ballet before joining PNB last year. Iliesiu, from New York City, began dancing at 3 and studied at the famed School of American Ballet for a decade, and was a member of Carolina Ballet for six years before coming to PNB as a corps member in 2015. Rogers, originally from San Francisco, began dancing at age 9, and joined PNB last year after stints in Houston Ballet II and Kansas City Ballet.
Asked what he looks for in promoting a dancer to the top level, Boal said it’s multifaceted. Soloists will be tried out in principal roles over a year, “to see how they do under the most powerful spotlight, the most challenging partnerships.” He looks for how an audience responds to a dancer — do they have charisma, a unique presence? — and for versatility and skill in both classical and contemporary work. And he considers nondancing factors as well: “What are they like as a citizen within the PNB community? Do they go out of their way to help others? Do they work on the side with a partner to bring them up to speed? Are they willing to pitch in wherever possible?”
With the addition of Batista, Iliesiu and Rogers, there are now a dozen principals in the company (out of a total of 46 dancers). I spoke to the three newest principals this month, asking about what the milestone means to them, what they hope to dance in the future, and what advice they’d give to young students hoping to shine in the spotlight some day.
For Batista, the first Black principal in PNB’s history, the promotion is larger than just himself. “I grew up in Brazil, I’m a Black man in dance and I think the most important thing about becoming a principal is just showing to my community that it is possible,” he said, noting that ballet is now experiencing “a celebration of cultures, so for me to be in this position and able to celebrate it with those around me and in the community, it’s just really quite special.”
Rogers said the promotion had been a dream of his for some time — “the opportunity to delve even deeper into the art form, and to do a lot of challenging and complex roles in the company.” Iliesiu said she’d never let herself think about the possibility. “Careers can be shortened by so many things, and I never wanted to have these big lofty goals that I may not hit,” she said. “Now that it’s happened, it doesn’t seem real, still. I feel so honored.”
Both Rogers and Batista spoke of rewarding partnerships with fellow PNB principals: Rogers with Lesley Rausch in George Balanchine’s “Diamonds”; Batista with Angelica Generosa in multiple ballets including “Swan Lake.” “She’s taught me so much about what it means to be in partnership as a dancer. It was really special,” Rogers said of Rausch. Of Generosa, Batista said, “I’m just quite amazed by her technique, by her brilliance, and I hope that our partnership continues to be celebrated for many years to come.”
Iliesiu — who said naming a favorite role “is like picking your favorite child” — spoke of dancing Lady Capulet in Jean-Christophe Maillot’s “Romeo et Juliette,” alongside Noelani Pantastico as Juliette in the latter’s final PNB performance. “It was one of the most meaningful experiences in my career … such an incredible honor to be in this role and do it with this legend and be her counterpart.” Other special moments: “The Moor’s Pavane,” with retiring dancers Jonathan Porretta and Rachel Foster, the solo in “Rubies” (“such an iconic, fierce, tall woman role that I’ve always dreamed of doing”) and Sugar Plum Fairy in “Nutcracker.”
Iliesiu said she’d love to dance Odette/Odile in “Swan Lake” some day; she learned it last season but didn’t get to perform. (It’s standard that multiple casts rehearse for each ballet, and not all will get a turn on stage; extras are needed in case of injury or last-minute substitution.) And while she loves playing Lady Capulet, “I’ve had the dream of playing Juliette.” But she’s keeping her mind open for a favorite role that she might not know about yet: “At PNB we have so many new works, we never know what’s coming.”
Batista and Rogers both named Kenneth MacMillan’s “Manon” as a ballet they’d love to dance (here’s hoping Boal is listening). Also on Batista’s dream list: Balanchine’s “Theme and Variations” and “Apollo,” and MacMillan’s “Mayerling.” Rogers also named Jiří Kylián’s “Gods and Dogs” and “Tar and Feathers,” and John Cranko’s “Onegin” — and is eager for his debut in “Giselle” later this season.
Rogers: “Somebody told me once, it only takes one yes. Every milestone is somebody saying yes to you, and it only takes the one. I think that made everything feel a little more attainable, especially as a student.”
Iliesiu: “When you’re training, it’s likely that your teachers will expect everyone to kind of look the same or do the step the same way, and there is definitely value in that, especially when you’re learning something for the first time. As you become more advanced in your technique, the best advice I had was, try not to look like anyone else. That doesn’t mean be messy or do things incorrectly, but find your own voice as a dancer and don’t spend your time trying to look like everyone else. Everyone has something different to say.”
Batista: “Be open, be open hearted, open your soul, your mind, communicate, explore, take risks. Allow yourself to make mistakes and you will understand your journey better. Remember that even though this is an individual journey, you’re always in service of the art.”
Batista, Rogers and Iliesiu will all perform in Pacific Northwest Ballet’s upcoming repertory, which includes Crystal Pite’s “The Seasons’ Canon,” George Balanchine’s “Duo Concertante” and a world premiere from Dwight Rhoden. Nov. 4-13; McCaw Hall, 321 Mercer St., Seattle; $30-$195; pnb.org
This story has been updated with the correct number of years that Cecilia Iliesiu danced at Carolina Ballet.
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