The most renowned ballerina yet to come out of Pacific Northwest Ballet, Patricia Barker recently commissioned Whim W’Him artistic director Olivier Wevers’s The Sofa for Grand Rapids Ballet Company. It will receive its first Seattle performances in January 2013.* Now in her third season as artistic director of GRBC, Patricia Barker has made some major transitions during the past half-decade. In June of 2007, she retired as a dancer, having received numberless accolades over 20+ years for her strength, fluid grace, purity of line and “fierce perfectionism.”
Discipline, grace, and no excuses might be the bywords of Patricia’s life. Asked about her path from then to now, she notes how she handles transition in life as on stage. “You can say any road will get you there, but you have to know the road, you have to know where you are going. I have a motto: Often wrong never in doubt. The quote reminds me that life is full of decisions to make, and we don’t know the outcome until later – if we knew it would be easy to make the right decision every time – but that is not possible – so with the information you have today, make the best decision you can.” She continues, “As a dancer on stage, you come there prepared by your teachers and coaches. You know the piqué arabesques, the glissades. But you have to consider the architecture of the body”—to feel the music and the audience, to be invested in the arc of the ballet. “And that,” she concludes, “is called life.”
I was much taken by the way Patricia uses dance as a metaphor for life, and life’s metaphors in thinking about and conveying her sense of dance. To a rare degree,
she has integrated mind & body, work & life. Her analogies are lived. She learns the lessons of one stage (in both senses) and uses them in sorting out the challenges of the next.
For all the ethereal quality of her artistic work, her sense of the transcendence dance can achieve, she has both feet on the ground, aware of realities and necessities. “It helps immeasurably,” she affirms, “to have a wonderful husband who lifts you up—and brings you down to earth.” Hers, Michael Auer, another former PNB principal dancer who now teaches and does photography for GRBC, is profoundly supportive. He also is a great cook, keeping P’s seemingly boundless energy properly stoked with fuel and good fellowship. After retirement from dancing, Patricia says, “I wanted to stay in the industry. I’m passionate about every part of the industry. Making a difference to dancers, a company, community, taking responsibility.”
One of the paths she followed was developing a company to produce dance and yoga clothing. “Bk Wear taught me more than I ever could have learned in school. I made patterns, chose fabric, consulted with clients, did sales in the beginning, making cold calls, doing spreadsheets and dealing with personalities, shipping and receivables.” She accomplished what she set out to do at BK and then moved on. Much of what Patricia learned there, she now puts into practice as artistic director of GRBC, where she still deals with spreadsheets and budgets—determining when dancers are at their peak is not unlike finding the right fashion moment. All the courage, the sense of having one’s hands on the range of a whole enterprise, and the pyschological skills honed in the business world stand her in good stead as head of a ballet company. “And now,” she says, “I’ve had everything together in one place for the last three years.”
I doubt if there’s any aspect of the dance industry that Patricia hasn’t tackled in a serious and participatory way. Back when she was still a young dancer at PNB, “Francia [Russell] saw something in me [as a potential stager]. She would say of each thing I was learning, ‘You have to know this and remember it.’” Patricia remarks that she has been very lucky that the Balanchine trust has trusted her to stage Balanchine works, with her own company and in Hungary and Slovakia. It’s hardly just luck…
We talk a little about luck. Patricia is fortunate to possess a subtle and discerning intelligence, energy, confidence. But, “You prepare yourself to grasp luck when it comes along. As in performing, you are ready with the steps, the feet, the hands, where to look. But you then have to bring yourself to the role. The audience has chosen to come watch. It’s more than the money paid out for their tickets, especially today.” As a dancer on the stage, she says, “You have to deliver. You invite them on stage and transport them to another world, where they’re up there in it with you.”
Olivier’s Sofa, says Patricia, “brings in this crucial personal element—the idea of an inanimate object, a device that stands in for that place where all the hard decisions are made, where the confrontations, horrible or wonderful, take place.” She says that “The Sofa in all of its life, humor, shadows and passion is like a small window into Olivier’s life.” And she adds, “He took such care with the Grand Rapids dancers.
I can’t wait for you to see the lead couple’s pas de deux.”
Just before the end of a phone conversation, I complimented Patricia on her eloquence. With her usual matter-of-fact honesty, she said, “It’s easier to talk about something I care about and love,” and went back to finish out a long day of meetings, staging a ballet, and overseeing the company in the theater that night from 6 to 10. It’s what she loves.
*The Seattle premiere of the The Sofa is part of Whim W’Him’s current production, Crave More: January 18-20, 2013 at The Playhouse at the Seattle Center (formerly Intiman Theatre). Tickets now on sale at: Whim W’Him | Crave More