A Sit-Down With Pacific Ballet Dance Theatre’s Artistic Director
As Company Prepares for Theatrical “La Pasión de España”
By Courtney D. Blackburn
Pacific Ballet Dance Theatre? It’s not Pacific Theatre Ballet in Alisa Viejo. It’s not Pacific Dance Centre in Redondo Beach. Previously known as Media City Ballet, Pacific Ballet Dance Theatre is a professional dance company founded in September of 2001 in the San Fernando Valley. Led by Artistic Director Natasha Middleton, this ballet is one of the preeminent dance companies in the Los Angeles area, with many company dancers hailing from international origins. The force driving Natasha, and likewise, the company, is “continuing the innovative heritage of the Ballet Russes de Monte Carlo … to understand our life stories, which elevate our passion and motivate us to express our true selves.”
PBDT can be found in a sun-drenched ally one block above the San Fernando Boulevard in the heart of downtown Burbank. Burbank, the real entertainment capital of the world, boasts luminaries like NBC, ABC Studios, Warner Bros. Entertainment, DreamWorks SKG, and Disney Animation Studios. Perhaps that’s why PBDT was formerly “Media City Ballet.”
The name was changed three years ago, according to Artistic Director Natasha Middleton, to pay tribute to her father’s former company, Pacific Ballet Theatre. Apparently, in California it’s very trendy to have “Pacific” somewhere in your ballet company’s name. But there’s no doubt it sounds good.
Looking good as well as sounding good, last Sunday Beacon Media was invited to peek “behind the curtains” at PBDT’s rehearsals for the upcoming Sept. 12-13 performances of “La Pasión De España.”
A program combining the fiery, seductive short ballet Carmen – based on the infamous opera of the same name – and the romantically comedic Don Quixote, La Pasión de España promises “neoclassical ballet (PBDT’s distinguishing specialty), flamenco, and theatrical drama.”
Though Carmen has been choreographed by many masters – firstly and famously by prima ballerina assoluta Maya Plisetskaya (1925-2015) of the Bolshoi Ballet in Soviet Russia – Natasha is creating a PBDT original. “Carmen is a hot and fiery ballet, the ultimate tale of love and obsession, then betrayal. I once danced the role of Carmen, and knowing her personality made it easy when recreating the ballet from scratch. She is sensual and passionate.” She cited the influence of her mother, former San Francisco Opera Soprano Natalie Garrotto, on this decision. PBDT’s version will include elements and characters found traditionally in the opera—for example, flamenco dancing. Natasha feels very passionately about this ballet—”Carmen” was the last professional role she performed before an untimely car accident directed her behind the curtains.
Natasha laughed when asked if Carmen would be first or second in the lineup of La Pasión de España. “Definitely first. I need the dancers fresh to give their all for Carmen. I need them to give 110 percent. Besides, I like to end the evening on a lighter note—and Don Quixote, the original ballet ‘rom-com,’ is such a sweet, fun story.”
Set in Barcelona, Don Quixote is a ballet of chivalry and delight. Kitri loves Basilio, but her father, Lorenzo, plans for her to marry the affected nobleman Gamache. The elderly knight Don Quixote and his sidekick Sancho Panza arrive, and in the commotion, Don Quixote and Sancho Panza help the two young lovers escape.
In the back studio, those two young lovers were rehearsing. Stretching, spinning, and stopping on a dime, Irina Gharibyan, an exquisite 19-year-old ingénue born in Armenia, flirted her way through a practice run being “Kitri.” Though she confessed that she’s “used to serious roles” – for example, classical favorite Giselle – Irina is working to connect with her character.
Her “Basilio,” Edgar Nikolyan, completely feels his character. “It’s normal. I relate to the guy chasing the girl,” he grinned. With 23 years’ dance experience and that rakish grin, I’m not surprised.
Meanwhile, in the main studio, a group of toreadors and gypsies ran through their choreography, complete with drinking cups, flaring red capes, and Spanish fans. Lead Toreador Alexander Fost, Mr. Dance USA, cut an impressive figure: leaping higher than most humans can with a swirling, Phantom-of-the-Opera-esque cape.
Natasha took charge, with style more similar to that of a high school football coach than a mild-mannered dance teacher. “When you get loud, they start paying attention,” she grinned conspiratorially. She jumped in and out of the lines of dancers, physically correcting certain poses before miming the expressive choreography for Kitri’s father’s discovery of his daughter’s unsuitable suitor: “Stay away from my daughter!” Though silent, the balletic language of the exchange was hilarious, and reinforces the idea that dance is truly a universal language.
With dancers on the floor hailing from the Armenian National Ballet, the Bolshoi Theatre and Kirov Ballet Company of Russia, Dresden Ballet of Germany, the Korean National Ballet, Nevada Ballet, Denver Ballet and Cirque du Soleil, PBDT’s company truly is an international showcase.
And the dancers of PBDT aren’t just up and coming—they’re going places. According to Board President Jane Gagle, students at PBDT’s for-profit ballet school attached to the company have been accepted to prestigious companies all over, such as American Ballet Theatre, the New York City Ballet, the Joffrey Ballet, the Pennsylvania Ballet and Ballet Austin. A good 40% of PBDT itself is stocked by former students. “The hope is always that they pursue careers in professional ballet.” Jane praised Natasha for using the school to get students ready to audition with a professional company, to get “as high as they can go.”
Working with creative professionals, “You expect big egos [referring to Alexander Fost, who garnered national fame on season eight of So You Think You Can Dance]; we don’t have that. We have outstanding human beings. It’s very gratifying.”
Natasha agreed with that assessment when she finally broke away from conducting rehearsal to plop on a couch and answer some questions. As she told me in fascinating detail, Natasha was born into a ballet legacy. Her grandmother danced with the Ballet Russes, and her father, Andrei Tremaine, with the Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo. “I was a ‘Ballet Russes Baby’.” The only one of this elite group to be currently running a company, she keeps in touch with former members.
She was then a ballerina with the original Pacific Ballet Theatre under the direction of her father, and danced in Los Angeles and in New York with Joffrey II, as well as in Europe and Asia, performing ballets like The Nutcracker, Raymonda, Spartacus and Carmen. Though classical ballet is her upbringing, many dance styles are in her blood. To that end, she has choreographed the “very contemporary” Axis Mundi, Dance in the USA, and The British Beat—an original dance show set to the music of British rock, including (of course) the Beatles.
“I love being able to carry on a Ballet Russes tradition. Different styles, from classical to modern.”
On that sunny couch, Natasha told me this show, La Pasión de España, is really about Carmen. “I just came back from playing her in Thailand … my accident occurred. Now, I’m passing the torch to Taylor Swantek [Carmen]. This role is demanding. Takes all your guts.”
Natasha’s final word on ballet was this: “Ballet is about storytelling; it’s athletic, exhilarating—live theatre is high-quality entertainment. You can watch something on TV or your computer screen, but there’s nothing like live theatre—nothing artificial; organic in its own way—especially for children.
“I love to choreograph, but I love most when I can sit back with popcorn and enjoy.”
I think we’ll enjoy it, too.
PBDT is crowdfunding this performance at www.dancechanneltv.com/dancefund/campaigns/we-need-your-help-in-pacific-ballet-dance-theatres-goal-to-produce-la-pasion-de-espana.
Follow PBDT at www.pacificballetdancetheatre.com or www.facebook.com/pages/Pacific-Ballet-Dance-Theatre/86766326286.
Pacific Ballet Dance Theatre’s “La Pasión de España” will present Carmen and Don Quixote (Act I) in a fiery, progressive production. Performances are at the El Portal Theatre in North Hollywood Saturday, Sept. 12 at 8 p.m. and Sunday, Sept. 13 at 3 p.m.
Tickets, priced at $49 for center seats and $41 for side seats, are available at www.elportaltheatre.com or (818) 508-4200. Very limited $100 VIP packages for the Sept. 12 show only include best seat ticket, a wine and cheese pre-show reception, show poster, Playbill credit, and photo opportunity with a principal dancer. VIP and group tickets can be purchased by calling (818) 842-0647.