Dammiel Cruz, Miles Pertl and Kiyon C. Ross aren’t yet household names, but they will be. Cruz joined the Pacific Northwest Ballet as an apprentice in 2016 and was promoted to the corps de ballet later that same year. Pertl joined PNB as a corps de ballet dancer in 2015 after being a corps de ballet member at both Stuttgart Ballet in Germany and Het Nationale Ballet in the Netherlands. And Ross joined PNB in 2001, the very same year he created his first piece of choreography. He’s been the NEXT STEP program manager at PNB since 2012, a position he held simultaneously with his career as a soloist at PNB before retiring from dance in 2015.
Together, these three represent the past, present and future of choreography at the Pacific Northwest Ballet and beyond. And because we have sunshine on the brain, we wanted to talk to them about their experience choreographing for the outdoors and how performances like Sculptured Dance (2016–2017) and NEXT STEP: OUTSIDE/IN (2018–present) affect the way they choreograph.
Danielle Mohlman: How does choreographing for an outdoor performance compare to choreographing for a more traditional theatre space?
Dammiel Cruz, choreographer for the 2019 NEXT STEP: OUTSIDE/IN: Choreographing for an outdoor setting can be very different. Luckily a lot of the movement involved in my piece can be easily performed outside. Sometimes dancing on concrete or grass can limit one’s ability to turn well. Either way, I believe dancing outside is a great way to get more of the community involved in the arts!
Miles Pertl, choreographer of Riding the Wave for the 2018 NEXT STEP: OUTSIDE/IN: Dancing outside offers the dancers and the choreographers a completely different experience. The audience is so close that you can hear every “Oooh,” every sigh, every chuckle. This is a stark contrast to dancing on the stage at McCaw Hall where the audience appears as a black void, only making themselves known by their applause at the end of the performance. Before OUTSIDE/IN, I had danced in both of the first two years’ iterations of Sculptured Dance and fell in love with it. I was exposed to choreographers I had never worked with, met amazing dancers from our city and got to dance outside and mingle with those watching. It was so cool!
Kiyon C. Ross, choreographer of Do. Not. Obstruct. for the 2016 Sculptured Dance: When choreographing for traditional spaces, I know generally what I have to work with. There’s usually a square space with a number of wings for entrances and exits. Sometimes there’s a space for dancers to cross over behind the cyclorama. And usually there’s a curtain—and at the very least top lighting and side lighting. Creating a site-specific work requires the same level of planning, preparation and creative process as choreographing for the stage. But being in a space already occupied by art (like the Olympic Sculpture Park) and using that art as an inspiration, is unforgettable. I certainly had to approach the site-specific commission with flexibility. But that flexibility allowed me to find new ways of expressing movement. It forced me to consider bodies in space in ways that were completely unorthodox to me.
What was your most joyful experience choreographing for Sculptured Dance?
Ross: The most joyful experience for me was being able to share my art with so many people. Making art accessible and approachable is extremely important—especially for an art form like dance. Sometimes going to the theatre can create barriers for people, both economically and socially. Having art in your community where you live and being able to access it with your friends and neighbors is a meaningful experience. Seeing the faces in the crowds—and seeing people take a moment from riding their bikes, walking their dogs or their evening strolls to appreciate dance in a space that is meant to be shared by everyone—is certainly a cherished memory from this experience.
PNB’s outdoor performances are free to the community. Talk to me about the importance of accessible art in our community.
Cruz: I absolutely love that PNB’s outdoor performances are free of charge. I believe it’s incredibly important to have accessible art not only in our community, but communities everywhere because it gives the opportunity for all minds to be inspired. Art provides an outlet for people to express themselves.
Pertl: Art doesn’t need to feel high-minded or elite. By providing accessible art, we provide a place where our entire community can gather. Each one of us gets bogged down with work, school and personal drama. But when you come to an event like OUTSIDE/IN or any of the other events around our city, you are entering a place of community and shared experience. You get a glimpse into the artists’ lives and their experience might mirror your own. Many of the artists I know are creating art not for the money, but for the opportunity to share it with everyone.
This Dialogue has been excerpted and lightly edited from three separate interviews, all conducted in April 2019.
Danielle Mohlman is a nationally produced feminist playwright and arts journalist based in Seattle. Her play Nexus is among the 2015 Honorable Mentions on The Kilroys list. She is an alumnus of the inaugural class of Playwrights’ Arena at Arena Stage and the 2018 Umbrella Project Writers Group.