In Step With a PNB Ballet Master: Paul Gibson
A performance at Pacific Northwest Ballet lists the composer, the choreographer, the stager, the lighting, scenic and costume designers, and, of course, the dancers. But there is a notable omission: the ballet master.
Without the ballet master, a work is not going to arrive on stage at the level of performance we expect from this company, or any other professional company for that matter. The ballet master is the linchpin around which the high caliber of a ballet company revolves, and he or she works very hard.
PNB has three: Otto Neubert has been a ballet master there for 21 years and counting; Anne Dabrowski has been a PNB ballet mistress since 1997; Paul Gibson danced with the company for ten years, was a principal dancer for eight of them, and was then invited in 2004 by then PNB’s directors, Kent Stowell and Francia Russell, to become a company ballet master, a rare honor. These jobs don’t come up often anywhere in the country.
I asked Gibson recently to describe a typical Monday in his ballet master’s life.
Rising about 8.15 a.m., he arrives at the Phelps Center (PNB’s home next to McCaw Hall) an hour later and works on completing and posting the following day’s schedule before teaching company class from 10:15 to 11:45. After a 15-minute break, he takes a rehearsal from noon to 3 p.m., when he has an hour for lunch. However, there isn’t usually much time for lunch as Gibson is in charge of working out the daily schedule for everyone in the company and this is when he has time to work on it. Often skipping the meal, he then takes another rehearsal from 4 to 7 p.m.
“Usually, I can get out of here by 7:30, 8,” he says, “depending whether I’ve got the schedule done. I usually work a 9-to-11-hour day without a break. That’s in rehearsal weeks. Performance weeks are a bit lighter. It’s because of the scheduling that things get a little overloaded.” That job was given him his first season as assistant ballet master as his workload was lighter that season, and he understood computers. Since then, he’s been stuck with it. Not that Gibson is complaining. He speaks with knowledge and the understanding that the job needs doing and he can do it.
Asked what are the qualities needed by a ballet master, he cites patience as the first. “You have to be able to deal with everybody’s completely different personalities, and know them as individuals. They learn at different speeds. Some can be pushed, others can’t, they’ll back off. You have to teach every dancer individually, so each rehearsal is different, the vibe is different. One dancer may not get along with another dancer and you have to get them to work together. You have to be a psychiatrist.” Some dancers get the music into their bones and then don’t have to count, others need counts for every ballet to get the timing right.
The company has two rehearsal pianists and an assistant pianist, and all three, Gibson says, are fantastic. For the pianists, the hardest situation is when there are multiple casts for a role. Some dancers need the music faster, some slower. “The dancers have to realize the pianists aren’t machines. They aren’t robots, the dancers aren’t robots either.”
A ballet master has to lead, he says. “You go into a studio even if you’re exhausted or sick, and you energize those dancers to be excited about what they’re doing.” One of the tricky lines Gibson has to walk is that many of the dancers are his friends — they used to be his colleagues, and outside work they still are his friends, but “you have to be able to go into the studio and cut it off. If you don’t keep that line, they’ll push, like kids.”
Lastly, he says of the necessary qualities, is that the ballet master has to enjoy it. If he doesn’t, he’s in the wrong business. Good days, not so good days, every one is different, and one he may dread may turn out to be fine when he gets there.
Quite often, a choreographer or stager comes in to set a work new to the dancers and the ballet masters. Because of their commitments, this person may come to teach it in the fall, but the work isn‘t going to be performed until late spring. The ballet masters are there to assist, and they need to know every movement by every dancer before the visitor leaves, as they will have to rehearse the work until the visitor returns just before the performances.
“It’s kind of hard to write it down at first rehearsal, so I get up and dance it. If I know the timing and what they’re doing, I can write it down.” Gibson uses a DVD for memory retrieval, the downside of which is that sometimes there are mistakes on a performance video and they get repeated. “When he’s gone, I’m in charge. We’ll tape the final two rehearsals in the studio. That really helps as they’ll watch it and it’ll come back to them, but I have to get it together before the stager comes back. That’s the hardest. I always like it when they stage it and perform it at the same time.”
It would seem likely that many of the ballets the company performs Gibson danced during his career and that he is therefore deeply familiar with the steps. However, it doesn’t work out like that; he rarely teaches something he danced himself. In Swan Lake, all the parts he is teaching he never danced. In Balanchine’s Rubies (coming up in June), he danced a principal role, but he’s teaching the corps.
The scheduling that Gibson does is a mind-boggling puzzle of different parts of works being rehearsed in different studios, with dancers often in more than one work, all requiring pianists or taped music and teachers. At one noon-to-3 slot for March’s Modern Masterpieces program, he says, he had 22 rehearsals going on at once using the PNB school studios as well as the company ones, some divided to make more room. Add to this scheduling dancers for costume fittings.
Asked what he does after work, Gibson smiles and says he heads home to a glass of wine, and cooks dinner, cooking being a favorite hobby and something he often shares with friends.
Gibson is also a choreographer who had a well-received premiere, Mozart Pieces, in the Modern Masterpieces program. During those frenetic rehearsal weeks, he says, he went home one night, put his dinner on a plate and sat it on his lap to eat while unwinding with TV. He woke, the plate still on his lap, an hour and a half later.
Hear from the choreographer himself in the following video: