An interview with Assistant Professor Pablo Piantino

05 December 2017 Published in News and Announcements
Penny Saunders and Pablo Piantino dancing "Jardi Tancat" Photo courtesy of Hubbard Street Dance Chicago by Todd Rosenberg. Penny Saunders and Pablo Piantino dancing "Jardi Tancat" Photo courtesy of Hubbard Street Dance Chicago by Todd Rosenberg.

When our fall semester ends on December 15, and students and faculty visit family and friends, Assistant Professor Pablo Piantino will be embarking on trips that are a mixture of work and fun. I sat down with him to learn more about his plans and the conversation that unfolded reveals how lucky we are at the School of Dance to have a teacher who is literally in demand around the world. On December 6th and 7th at 7pm in Studio 240, you can watch students in his repertory class who will perform excerpts of work by choreographer Alejandro Cerrudo.

Kate: What are your plans during the December and January holidays?

Pablo: I will take a trip to Argentina where I’m from with my wife and son, and do nothing except eat a lot and work on recollecting a little bit of choreography because I come back to the United States on January 1 and fly to Germany on January 2nd from Orlando. In Germany I will rehearse the dancers of Hagen Ballet [Ballett Hagen] which is a company near Wuppertal, the city where Pina Bausch directed her company. I am looking forward to visiting a friend in the Bausch company, Jonathan Frederickson, who danced with me in Hubbard Street years ago. I will be rehearsing the dancers and putting the piece Extremely Close, by Alejandro Cerrudo, on stage. I was in Hubbard Street when Alejandro created the piece. It was his second for the company, circa 2006 or 2007, and I had joined Hubbard Street in 2005.

I’m also setting excerpts of this piece on students in the School of Dance who are in the repertory class I’m teaching, and there will be a showing on December 6th and 7th. The students are going to do two sections of the piece, and I’m taking some liberties with the choreography so that they can dance more. The movement, concept, and essence of the piece are as close as possible to Cerrudo’s version.

The piece has feathers so, as an audience enters the theater before the show of after an intermission, feathers are falling for 10 minutes. When the lights go dark and the music begins, there are three white panels pushed onstage and they fluff the feathers. Throughout this piece, performers are dancing on feathers, which makes the stage slippery and the piece challenging. But it’s quite beautiful and magical. The lighting designer for the piece is from the [William] Forsythe company, Tanja Ruehl, and I will get to see her in Germany when I rehearse Extremely Close, which she designed the lighting for.  While in Germany I may try to go to teach a class at a school and possibly recruit students for the Summer Intensive here at the U.

I return to Utah on January 13 and then do some recruiting trips for the U––San Francisco, Los Angeles, Chicago, Nashville––and I am looking forward to seeing a friend from Julliard in Nashville, Banning Bouldin. Banning created the company New Dialect, and was recently diagnosed with MS. She has been experiencing loss of movement abilities and has been channeling that into her choreography. It’s a very cool company. Everyone should check it out!

At the end of March I go to Ballet Arizona to look at a duet by Alejandro called Never Was. I have rehearsed that duet for SFDanceworks, which is company run by a friend of mine, James Sofranko, but I can’t take the time away from the U to set it so I will go for a weekend to check on the staging. This duet was choreographed originally for the second company of Hubbard Street and it’s about 7 or 8 minutes. It’s the third or fourth piece by Alejandro that Ballet Arizona has performed. The company’s director is Ib Anderson and the Ballet Master is Maria Simonetti, who is also from Argentina and worked at Hubbard Street as well. Alejandro won’t be able to see this performance because he will be in Europe, so he has trusted me and my judgment. It’s fun to have this connection because I have never danced this piece, but I know Alejandro’s movement language.


Kate: What are your plans over spring break? Will you get a break then?

Pablo: I will go with my wife Penny [Saunders] to Tulsa Ballet 2 where Penny will be creating a ballet and I will be a dad and care for our son Elias. We try to do this when we can. Both she and I travel a lot, so we try to travel with the whole family when it’s possible. After spring break, during the first week in April, I will go to Seattle to work with Pacific Northwest Ballet [PNB] on a piece called Little Mortal Jump. I was part of its creation in 2010. In fact it was the first piece of Alejandro’s that I was asked to set, and I set it a few months after getting my MFA from the University of Washington in 2015. Setting that work in Seattle on PNB was great because I know the company director, Peter Boal, from New York City Ballet. In fact he helped me get an audition with NYCB: I took class with the company, in what was then the State Theatre, and Peter Martins [NYCB’s director] told me I was too short. Actually Peter Martins said, “You have great technique but you are too short.” [laughs] Then Helgi [Tomasson] offered me the job at San Francisco Ballet.

Now, in April, PNB will be doing this piece I set by Alejandro again and I will go to make sure they look okay. Even though PNB is a major ballet company, Alejandro’s work takes a while. Dancers of their caliber are so excited about it, and also humbled by the experience. They ate the piece up when I was there setting it, and both they and I had a wonderful experience.

Once our semester ends, Penny will be finishing her full-length ballet based loosely on Oscar Wilde’s life and three of his fairy tales. It’s called The Happy Prince and Other Wilde Tales, and it’s based on his stories: The Happy Prince, The Selfish Giant, and The Nightingale and the Rose. She’s currently working with Michael Wall who is helping her figure out the music for the piece. This is her fourth work for Grand Rapids Ballet, as well as her first full-length. Once classes end, I hope to go there to help her as much as I can before it premieres.

During summer break, I will be in San Francisco to set Nacho Duato’s Jardi Tancat, which translates as “enclosed garden,” for SFDanceworks. I have danced this piece many times with Penny. It was taught to me by Jim Vincent, and his wife was in the first cast when the piece was created in 1989. Penny and I set the piece at the University of Washington and also danced it there while I was a grad student and it was hard! I was a student and writing all the time and it’s one of those ballets where you never leave the stage. It’s  music is by Maria del Mar Bonet, a beautiful Catalan singer. Nacho grew up in Valencia [Spain] and remembers the workers in the field with their sickles and how tiring the work was and how much they depended on water and the earth for survival. Now this has changed a lot, so the piece is an ode to these workers.

Over the summer Penny will create a work for Ballet X and I will go with her to Philadelphia. The piece is 40 minutes and is being made in collaboration with a composer from New Zealand. Then we go to Royal New Zealand Ballet since the company’s director, Patricia Barker, has commissioned Penny to create a new piece and I will go with her to teach. We always stay with Patricia since she loves Elias and buys him gifts [laughs]. While I am there I will teach the school’s students some repertory by Alejandro, but Penny is the reason we get to go. I also want to touch base with universities there and see if there’s a possibility for an exchange program with the U.

Kate: What is it about your performance career or teaching that makes you so in demand to stage and rehearse these pieces?

Pablo: While I was a dancer I worked with Alejandro a lot. We created eight to 10 pieces by him at Hubbard Street and he and I work well together. I am passionate about his work: he’s extremely talented. And he trusts me as a dancer, as an artist, and a person. It takes me a while to learn the choreography but I love working with ballet companies and opening their minds. I come from that background too and I know what it’s like to go through a career with blinders on and then suddenly you see someone do something and you go, “Wow!” It may not be turned-out or pretty as far as ballet goes, but it makes you think, “That’s cool. Can I do that?” To add this kind of versatility to their dancing as well as to their concept of beauty is something that sparks the question, “What is beautiful and what is not?”

That happened to me when I started at Juilliard and fell in love with choreography by Jiri Kylian, Mats Ek, Ohad Naharin, and Nacho Duato. Also choreographers like Doug Varone were inspiring to me; in fact I got to dance with Natalie Desch, who was a senior while I was a freshman and then she ended up dancing in Doug's company for many years. 

Before I went to Julliard, I was with Teatro Colón in Buenos Aires, Argentina. I only went to school for a couple years, from age 14 to 16, and then I got a contract. I danced with the company for 3 years, and then auditioned for Juilliard. I got a scholarship and the summer before I left Argentina, Nederlands Dans Theater came to town. I remember taking class with them and thinking, “Oh they are not very good.” To my ballet mind, I only cared about turned-out feet. I was a bunhead! But then I saw their show and [big gasp]. They did Petite Mort and Symphony of Psalms and I was in heaven! Wow! That was the first time my mind opened up. I thought I still wanted to be a prince, but then I want to do work like that. It was a turning point in my life. The director of NDT at the time, Glenn Edgerton, came and saw a rehearsal of a trio I was dancing and introduced himself. I barely spoke English at this time. I said, “Hello.” And he said “We are holding an audition in March for NDT 2. How would you like to come? I will find you a place to stay.” And I didn’t go. I went to Juilliard but I often wonder what would have happened if I had gone.

Time passed and Glenn left NDT and then came to Hubbard Street while I was a company member. After he taught class I said, “Do you remember me?” And he said, “Yes. You are from Argentina.” He remembered! Then he said, “Why didn't you come to audition?” [laughter] Eventually he became Artistic Director of Hubbard Street and we ended up working together.

Kate: What ideas do you have about training dancers at the U so they can enjoy some of these kinds of opportunities that have brought you so much fulfillment?

Pablo: I would like ballet dancers and modern dancers to be more versatile. I think the job market opens up for dancers who have a broad range.  To give you a specific example, Tina LeBlanc is a good friend and I read an interview where she said, “As ballet dancers we can do pretty much anything!” And I thought, “Not really… So many ballet-trained dancers are missing release and breathing and understanding circles and patterns in space.” Ballet dancers in major companies have a really hard time reproducing what I ask them to do in a work by Alejandro. They love it, but most of the time can't do it as well as it needs to be done. Some dancers are more versatile than others, and those dancers are usually the ones that open up to the experience. I think the main problem is in the training they receive while in school, that not only will affect them physically in the future, but will also affect their sense of esthetic; opening their minds, sort to speak, for any kind of dance.

But I have this perspective because I have had all these experiences. If dancers could appreciate different aesthetics and let themselves explore different movement vocabularies, they would be able to move in so many more interesting ways. Now when I go to see performances I find my taste has changed and I would rather go see Batsheva or Kidd Pivot than a traditional ballet. I find I’m more interested in a humanistic approach to movement. Not to say one is better than the other.

The students the other day came to tell me that they were tired, if I could take it easy on them. And I responded by asking, “How about we do some contemporary partnering?” The majority said yes, and then we did. I had them take off their pointe shoes and put their socks on. We did a little bit of a piece by Alejandro that has swirls and swoops, that’s not at all classical, and we had so much fun. Moving in other ways does not take away from your ballet technique. You can still go and audition for a ballet company, yet if you open yourself to these possibilities, you will actually have more choices.

Like anything in life, the more we learn and the more we read, the better informed we are and the better human beings we can be. Maybe some day we can offer a BFA degree in dance that lets a student come in and then specialize later on if they want to go on a ballet track or modern dance track or a dance scholar track or a kinesiology track. By offering a broader spectrum of training we can create students who are more accomplished and have a deeper sense of the relevance of dance. It would be great to hear from alumni of the U what they have found useful or what they wished they had more of while they were students here.

By School of Dance Assistant Professor Kate Mattingly