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Originally published December 31, 2011 at 5:01 PM | Page modified December 31, 2011 at 7:18 PM

Danny Westneat

A dance to ludicrous optimism

We saw your article last year about being in the "Nutcracker" for Pacific Northwest Ballet, said Ballet Bellevue. Do you want to help out a company that really needs it?

Seattle Times staff columnist

quotes A very nice article and an inspiration for the new year. Thank you! Read more
quotes Danny, you've spoken for all of us in the arts. Ludicrous optimism is what keeps us... Read more
quotes Cool. I love the orchestra. Sounds like a lot of fun. HNYDW! Read more

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A year ago, after I had appeared woodenly in the background of Pacific Northwest Ballet's "Nutcracker," I wrote that ballet insiders had warned me it was a "gateway drug."

You go on stage, you're hooked. For life.

I promptly forgot about that. Until about two months ago, when an outfit called Ballet Bellevue called me.

We saw your article last year about PNB, they said. Do you want to help out a company that really needs it?

My first thought was: There's a ballet in Bellevue?

It turns out of course there is — just as there are ballets in even smaller places like Edmonds and Renton. The one in Bellevue is probably typical of these quasi-professional outfits. In that it's underfunded, chaotic and disorganized.

But for 16 years they've nevertheless put on classical ballets using a small core of part-time paid dancers.

Last week, they did "The Sleeping Beauty." Only instead of showing excerpts from this nearly three-hour dance epic, as some small outfits do, Ballet Bellevue chose to bite off the whole thing.

And instead of using recorded music — as many companies do because the Tchaikovsky score is so hard to play — Bellevue went with a live pit orchestra.

All told, the production for this company I'd never heard of featured 50 dancers, 15 children, two dozen adult extras and a crew of stagehands, lighting technicians and costumers. Counting the orchestra and the directors, that's 125 performers.

Oh, and me. I played the illustrious King Florestan.

I figured it would be another role where I could do no harm. Instead the King had a frighteningly big part, including miming, catching a fainting ballerina and presiding over a grand wedding.

It's no exaggeration to say I botched one or more of these assignments at every single rehearsal. But Ballet Bellevue stuck with me. In the end, I did OK. In about five hours in front of live audiences, I blundered into a line of speeding ballerinas only once.

But what will stick with me — and I think may have changed me in some way — is how it happens that a community-level arts group comes to even try putting on a show as big as this.

It takes a ludicrous act of optimism. They have to ignore economics — because it's not going to pencil. The dancers have to ignore any moneymaking career. Everyone has to ignore common sense.

Example: We didn't have our full cast together for a single rehearsal until a few hours before opening curtain. That session was an emergency called because the rehearsal the night before had been a disaster of missed cues, absent costumes and production flubs.

You can probably guess how this story is going to end. The show rocked. There was some standing ovation going on. The orchestra may have been a little raw, the dancing not as technically true as you'll see at PNB. But it was all delivered with such high-wire charge that the stage crackled.

To me it felt like a miracle. It wasn't. The dancers — particularly lead ballerinas Courtney Dressner and Christina Stockdale — made it come together, I think, the old-fashioned way.

"When I heard that they still need to work for eight hours a day at a restaurant and gym for their regular jobs, after rehearsal, my heart is silently weeping," said Li Hengda, a former PNB dancer who directed us. "Their passionate devotion to art and their positive attitude toward life has profoundly moved me."

Me, too.

It takes almost a willful denial of the societal dour mood to try a flying leap these days. It's all about cutting back — about what we can't do.

But no arts group would ever do anything if they thought this way. They run on ludicrous optimism. To see it then succeed, up close in the backstage madhouse, is a revelation.

So now it's a New Year's resolution for me. More ludicrous optimism in 2012!

Hengda told me after it was over that he regrets the ballet wasn't bigger and grander still.

More than a hundred-plus performers? I reminded him the tiny rehearsal studio became jammed at about 20.

"We in the arts are so poor," he said, shaking his head.

Maybe so. But you sure live rich.

Danny Westneat's column appears Wednesday and Sunday. Reach him at 206-464-2086 or dwestneat@seattletimes.com.

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