By Rosie Gaynor
Nobody expected Jonathan Porretta to rest upon his laurels once Pacific Northwest Ballet promoted him to principal. He is, after all, the dancer to whom Seattle Weekly attributed “the stamina of a dozen men and women,” a man “charged with a primordial energy leached from the bowels of the earth.” Of course someone with that kind of get-up-and-go would continue to grow.
He didn’t just continue to grow, however: he reinvented himself as an artist.
In the process, Porretta risked losing one of the attributes that distinguished him as a dancer: his relationship with the audience. PNB had other technically proficient dancers who could—and did—reach across the footlights to the audience, but Porretta practically jumped into your lap. His outrageous charm energized us; we loved his dazzling bravura, his bigger-than-Broadway smile, the contagious joy he evinced. He never held anything back, and we loved the rush.
Porretta’s vibrant personality manifested early. “I just love to be in front of people,” says Porretta, adding that he had always been a ham. Not long after he started dance classes (a present for his seventh birthday), Porretta’s teachers began preparing him for competitions—more than ten a year, all over the state. While some professional ballet folks look down on these “Dolly Dinkle competitions” (an attitude I’ve heard was fostered by Balanchine), Porretta doesn’t regret the experience. He says these competitions gave him his earliest lessons in performing.
He usually did a solo in every category (ballet, tap, jazz, lyrical), plus duets, small ensembles, and large ensembles. The set-up didn’t vary, however. “There were always three judges in the front,” Porretta explains, “and you were performing for them. You had to stare at those judges; you had to smile at those judges; and if you were doing a lyrical piece, you had to be all emotional and convey those emotions to the judges.” These directives came from the teachers. “As much as they would teach you your dancing—‘point your feet here, do another turn there’—they also said, ‘look at the judges here, smile more here.’”
At 14, Porretta joined the American School of Ballet. How did they respond to his outgoing energy at that elite temple of serious study? Porretta’s warm brown eyes start to twinkle: “I think they tried to tone me down.” But that didn’t bother him particularly, since he wanted so much to learn the New York City Ballet style. “You have to be able to focus in the studio. Just tone it down and be calm,” he says. “Not that I’m a calm person by any stretch of the imagination! But I tried to be at SAB. I wanted to fit in as much as possible. I was a total Jersey boy [he admits to a mullet] in the city with all these New Yorkers. It was very exciting. I was quiet, actually. And then when I got to be onstage, I could break out.”
Performance opportunities being (relatively) limited at SAB, Porretta kept up with outside competitions, winning his last one—Teen Mr. Dance—at age 16. By then, he had found another outlet for performance, with Dances Patrelle. He was “just phenomenal” in these performances, says PNB Artistic Director Peter Boal. Boal, one of Porretta’s SAB teachers years ago, added that he appreciates Porretta’s “splashy” side and that he wishes 90% of the dancers he works with were splashier—at times. “More often than not,” Boal says, “dancers are not conscious that they have to engage as in a conversation with an audience.” For Jonathan, he concludes, it comes naturally.
Porretta worked hard to focus during his years at SAB, but that didn’t quash his love of fun. Case in point? Boal tells the story of watching an old SAB class videotape: in the back, while the teacher corrected another student, there was Porretta, dancing Kitri, the ballerina from Don Quixote. “Jonathan had license to get away with things like that, because he was so smart and on top of things. He knew every combination; he knew the musicality you were looking for. He was incredibly receptive to corrections. So I think we gave him a loose leash…as far as doing Kitri in the back corner.”
And not just Kitri. One profile on Porretta (ballet-dance.com, 2005) recounts how he happened to be joking around, doing Odile’s 32 Swan Lake fouettés and ending in a Dying Swan position, on the very day that PNB’s founding co-artistic director, Kent Stowell, happened to be watching class. The punch line? Stowell offered Porretta a job that same day.
Since that day in 1999, Seattle has seen Porretta in more than 50 roles at PNB—not Kitri or Odile, but Mercutio, Puck, Mopey… Stowell even rechoreographed the Jester in his Swan Lake to take advantage of Porretta’s technical brilliance. It seemed as though every season Porretta moved faster, jumped higher, and forged a stronger connection with the audience.
And then, during the 2004/05 season, Porretta hit new high. “That was my year of soloist getting promoted to principal—probably the greatest season I will ever have in my career,” said Porretta. In addition to dancing the thrilling Bach-meets-Africa Lambarena and a made-to-fit jazzy romp, Dual Lish, he interpreted with succès fou the punishing lead roles in Balanchine’s heart-wrenching Prodigal Son and Tetley’s soul-gripping Rite of Spring. The latter presented dancer and audience alike one of those rare, total mind-body-spirit experiences. Francia Russell, founding co-artistic director of PNB, said in a Dance Magazine article at the time: “The audience knows there is nothing he won’t give onstage.” And we loved him for it.
Enter choreographer Victor Quijada, of Rubberbandance Group in Montreal, with a commission from Boal to create a new work for PNB. The dancers were open, eager, and game for anything, said Quijada, when I spoke with him over the phone. With Jonathan, he remarked, “it became a joke almost. Anything I would throw at him: ‘Let’s try…’ I’d say, and he’d say, ‘Okay. Like this?’”
“It was like a completely foreign country,” said Porretta. “Craziness. It was very weird.” Porretta wasn’t commenting on Quijada’s remarkable movement, but rather about how Quijada performs his pieces. “It was not to the audience; it was never about performing to the audience.”
“What I was proposing to the dancers at PNB,” said Quijada, “was: Let’s be present. Whatever is happening in that presence, we’ll amplify and allow the audience to be part of it.” He explained it to me thus: “Sometimes it’s easy to begin to hide behind your dancing. It can easily happen that your technique turns into a safety shield that you can put before you.” His motto for this work was “Let’s have some fun and get more honest as to who we are as human beings.”
Since Quijada has ties to hip hop, Porretta visited Seattle’s War Room to get a feel for the art form. “The street dancers here in Seattle are brilliant,” Porretta says. “In a hip hop circle, the dancers may be showing off, but they’re also working from within themselves. They’re not looking out. It’s inside. It’s your own thing, and you’re sharing it with other people, but it’s really just about your experience with the movement.” He laughs. “We had to learn how to perform like that.”
Quijada’s Suspension of Disbelief scored a major success in Seattle. But while the inward-focus approach might work for certain mood pieces—and in mod pieces, and in theater, yoga, religion, etc.—it can get stale on the ballet stage. Ditto goes for Boal’s interesting observation that some pieces require a dancer to let him/herself just be observed. Picture the languid ballerina who keeps her vacant eyes forever downcast. Or, worse: the artist who is so into his own self that the audience has no point of access. Plus, “inward” seemed antithetical to who Porretta was as a dancer.
Working with Quijada set a major change in motion. Porretta made a conscious decision to interact differently with the audience. He experimented with inward focus in class, and kept learning—from his colleagues, from visiting choreographers (among them, Jean-Christophe Maillot and Twyla Tharp), and from works such as Molissa Fenley’s marathon State of Darkness, where the dancer communicates through movements as small as a slight twitter of the hand. “That,” says Porretta, “taught me a lot about performing.”
Porretta didn’t view this sea change as a risk. There was, however, a risk. What if the audience didn’t like his new presence? Would that matter? I think so. “The greatest thing about performing is when you feel the energy from the audience,” Porretta says, passionately. “That’s what feeds you as you’re performing.” That, I think, was at risk.
“This, for me, is the epitome of what art can do,” said Quijada, when I told him about the changes Seattle audiences are seeing in Porretta. “When someone is comfortable, and they know who they are and what they want, and they already have their eyes open—and then they discover this new dimension of who they can be. There are no guarantees, but they trust, they leap without a net, and the universe takes care of them. That is so inspirational to me.”
It is naïve—though tempting—to believe that every artist who works hard to keep learning about his art and himself, will prevail. It worked for Porretta, though. In the past few years, he has discovered multiple ways of connecting with the audience. He did not lose his individuality in the process, nor his personality, nor his lively spark. And whereas before we knew exactly what kind of fireworks to expect from him, now we have the fun of surprise.
Who, besides Stowell and Russell, would have guessed in 1999 that Porretta could reveal, as Boal describes it, “a side that is so refined and so subtle”? Boal points to Porretta’s solo in Square Dance, one year after Quijada’s fateful visit: “It was so quiet; and you felt the power of his dancing, but he didn’t wear it on his sleeve. He just let you get inside.”
A few days before sending this article in for layout, I saw Porretta do the quintet from Rubies. High and clean? Yes. Snappy? Yes. Powerful? At one point, as the others were working hard, Porretta jogged casually across the front of the stage, glancing subtly at the audience to let us in on a joke: Actually, I’m just having fun. Wait ‘til you see what I’m gonna do next!