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Originally published June 10, 2007 at 12:00 AM | Page modified June 10, 2007 at 12:49 PM

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For more than two decades, Pacific Northwest Ballet's Patricia Barker has thrilled audiences with her technical perfection, liquid grace and almost shocking artistry. Night after night, she's delivered world-class performances — the kind that lead to that catch-in-the-throat moment when you experience sheer, staggering beauty. Tonight, Barker retires from PNB. Below — in the words of her colleagues, mentors and fans — is our tribute to her.

Notes on PNB's Patricia Barker, a life in dance

"When you watch Patricia Barker dance, something happens. The various elements of the ballet ...oreography, music, lights, costume...

Seattle Times staff reporter

Patricia Barker


Birthplace: Richland, Wash. Age: 44

Schooling: Took her first ballet class at age 7. Studied on scholarship at Boston Ballet School before moving to Seattle at age 15, where she auditioned and received a scholarship to enter PNB's dance school.

Pacific Northwest Ballet career: Became an apprentice in 1981; promoted to corps de ballet in 1982, landing her first major role as Rose, the lead in the "Waltz of the Flowers" in "Nutcracker." She was promoted to soloist in 1984 and then to principal dancer — the company's highest ranking — in 1986.

Career highlights

1986: Performed the lead role of Clara in the film version of PNB's "Nutcracker," titled "Nutcracker: The Motion Picture."

1994: Appeared as Cinderella, a role created for her by Kent Stowell for his full-length ballet.

1999: Founded BKWear, her own dancewear company.

1999: Performed the role of Titania in the BBC film version of PNB's production of Balanchine's "A Midsummer Night's Dream."

During the past 26 years, she has performed with PNB on tour throughout Europe, Asia, Australia and North America and also appeared as a guest artist with national and international ballet companies. For the past 15 years, she has staged, rehearsed and coached ballets for professional companies, including the Boston Ballet School and the Slovak National Ballet. She has taught at schools across the nation, and is a spokeswoman for the U.S. Bone and Joint Decade, helping raise awareness of bone and joint health.

Trivia

Barker likes water sports, especially "tow-surfing" behind her power boat.

Her famously arched feet have been featured in international advertisements for pointe shoes.

She used to practice picking up pencils with her toes to strengthen her feet.

She has become an expert on toe shoes, producing a video about them, "Patricia Barker on Pointe Shoes." She once told an interviewer her evening ritual for caring for her toe shoes — smashing each box (the hard part that covers the toes), removing a nail, breaking the shank and pouring acrylic into the toes for added strength. "No one knows more about the inner workings of a toe shoe than Patricia," Russell said.

She enjoys beer, but not just any brand. "It has to be good beer," says dance partner Jeffrey Stanton. A favorite: Oranjeboom from Holland.

Barker and her husband, former PNB dancer Michael Auer, entertain frequently and enjoy hosting dinner parties, with Auer doing the cooking. "She eats a lot — I have no idea where it goes," says friend and PNB corps member Lindsi Dec. Her favorite food: barbecue ribs. Favorite pre-show treat: Skittles candies.

Most challenging role: Princess Aurora from Ronald Hynds' "The Sleeping Beauty."

Favorite costume: The one with the largest tiara, Barker says — Balanchine's "Ballet Imperial."

Weakness: Diamonds. Favorite place to shop: Tiffany's.

Tonight

"A Celebration of Patricia Barker," 6:30 tonight, McCaw Hall, 321 Mercer St., Seattle Center; $30-$200 (206-441-2424 or www.pnb.org).

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"When you watch Patricia Barker dance, something happens. The various elements of the ballet — choreography, music, lights, costume, scenery — seem to recede, leaving only an awareness of this dancer's moving body, its fierce perfectionism yielding a sensation of pure improvisatory freedom. How does she do that?"

— Review by Mary Murfin Bayley, The Seattle Times, September 1999

"Patricia has this strength," says longtime dance partner and PNB principal dancer Jeffrey Stanton. "I have my hand on her back, and I can feel [it]. Not in an aggressive, push-you-over kind of way. You can feel it underneath. She looks fluid and graceful and has those long lines, but it's a lot stronger underneath than what it appears to the audience."

Barker was sometimes called "the falling-down ballerina" in the '80s because of frequent tumbles, says Kent Stowell, PNB co-artistic director. At that time, one local critic asked him: "What do you see in that girl? I don't get it." Stowell's reply: "You wait."

"The reason she fell down was she was fearless and willing to take a risk — that's what makes her an exciting dancer."

Tonight

"A Celebration of Patricia Barker," 6:30 tonight, McCaw Hall, 321 Mercer St., Seattle Center; $30-$200 (206-441-2424 or www.pnb.org).

Barker is known for her exacting work ethic, "working through all day, every day, like a student," says Russell. She remembers an early-morning photo shoot with Barker at Myrtle Edwards Park for a poster or program cover.

Barker "had on a skimpy costume, it was freezing out, and she had to jump on concrete" in her toe shoes. "She did it over and over, and she wasn't going to flinch. I tried to end it, but she said, 'I can do it.' "

Barker's performances are riveting, even for those who've seen her perform thousands of times. Russell remembers a moment from William Forsythe's "In the Middle, Somewhat Elevated," when Barker had just finished a solo. Several other dancers took the stage, but Barker still commanded the audience's attention. "All she did ... was walk slowly backward away from the audience. It was so intense, you couldn't take your eyes off her."

Patricia Barker


Birthplace: Richland, Wash. Age: 44

Schooling: Took her first ballet class at age 7. Studied on scholarship at Boston Ballet School before moving to Seattle at age 15, where she auditioned and received a scholarship to enter PNB's dance school.

Pacific Northwest Ballet career: Became an apprentice in 1981; promoted to corps de ballet in 1982, landing her first major role as Rose, the lead in the "Waltz of the Flowers" in "Nutcracker." She was promoted to soloist in 1984 and then to principal dancer — the company's highest ranking — in 1986.

Career highlights

1986: Performed the lead role of Clara in the film version of PNB's "Nutcracker," titled "Nutcracker: The Motion Picture."

1994: Appeared as Cinderella, a role created for her by Kent Stowell for his full-length ballet.

1999: Founded BKWear, her own dancewear company.

1999: Performed the role of Titania in the BBC film version of PNB's production of Balanchine's "A Midsummer Night's Dream."

During the past 26 years, she has performed with PNB on tour throughout Europe, Asia, Australia and North America and also appeared as a guest artist with national and international ballet companies. For the past 15 years, she has staged, rehearsed and coached ballets for professional companies, including the Boston Ballet School and the Slovak National Ballet. She has taught at schools across the nation, and is a spokeswoman for the U.S. Bone and Joint Decade, helping raise awareness of bone and joint health.

Trivia

Barker likes water sports, especially "tow-surfing" behind her power boat.

Her famously arched feet have been featured in international advertisements for pointe shoes.

She used to practice picking up pencils with her toes to strengthen her feet.

She has become an expert on toe shoes, producing a video about them, "Patricia Barker on Pointe Shoes." She once told an interviewer her evening ritual for caring for her toe shoes — smashing each box (the hard part that covers the toes), removing a nail, breaking the shank and pouring acrylic into the toes for added strength. "No one knows more about the inner workings of a toe shoe than Patricia," Russell said.

She enjoys beer, but not just any brand. "It has to be good beer," says dance partner Jeffrey Stanton. A favorite: Oranjeboom from Holland.

Barker and her husband, former PNB dancer Michael Auer, entertain frequently and enjoy hosting dinner parties, with Auer doing the cooking. "She eats a lot — I have no idea where it goes," says friend and PNB corps member Lindsi Dec. Her favorite food: barbecue ribs. Favorite pre-show treat: Skittles candies.

Most challenging role: Princess Aurora from Ronald Hynds' "The Sleeping Beauty."

Favorite costume: The one with the largest tiara, Barker says — Balanchine's "Ballet Imperial."

Weakness: Diamonds. Favorite place to shop: Tiffany's.

In 1983, Barker was in the ballet corps as one of many Snowflakes performing in PNB's "Nutcracker" (Maurice Sendak designed the sets and costumes). "She danced alone on stage for maybe 10 to 20 seconds — and she got applause every time. No one who's done it since has managed that," says Russell.

"Her body was God-given. She's really a gazelle. She was born with the height and the legs and the arms — the archetypal ballerina," says Stewart Kershaw, longtime PNB music director and conductor. "In the wings before a performance, I look at her, and sometimes I can see a certain sort of fatigue. Once the curtain goes up, there's absolutely no sense of it, that she might be tired. She pushes herself to the utmost limit all the time. Looking at her now, you'd think, my God, she could dance another 10 years."

"Barker — flawless, imperious, majestically proportioned — ranks as one of the world's half-dozen true ballerinas. In the 'Agon' pas de deux ... she sustained an extreme physical tension that brought out the full sexual authority of the muse-lover role. As her partner, only a classicist of [dance partner Jeffrey] Stanton's magnitude could have survived without melting."

— Review by William Deresiewicz in The Financial Times of London, November 1996

"Her signature roles don't require much costuming at all — a leotard and tights," said Larae Hascall, costume shop manager who has worked for PNB since 1983. "I like her in angular, Balanchine roles. Clear, clean, no story — just her and the dance."

Patricia Barker was clearly talented as a child , but "unfocused, undisciplined" as a young dancer, says former PNB co-artistic director Francia Russell, who famously fired Barker as an apprentice, then rehired her three weeks later. When Barker returned, "she understood what it was going to take to get her where she wanted to go, and she was willing and eager to pay the price."

In February, Barker danced in her final performance of "Swan Lake." A group of ballerinas stood in the wings watching, among them Kari Brunson, corps member and a friend of Barker's.

"You're so, so, so tired by that point. You've already done one act, and you have to do 32 fouettés," among the most difficult turns in ballet, Brunson says. "At the end of the fouettés, you usually pull into a double to end it. But Patricia pulls into a triple and stays on pointe. You heard screaming from the wings — all the dancers were amazed! She still leaves you guessing."

In scores of reviews in magazines and newspapers around the world, writers use the language of royalty to describe Barker's style: willowy, patrician, regal, poised, long-legged, majestic, "glacially glamorous" with legs "like long exclamation points."

"The ballerina appears to have mastered muscle groups the rest of us don't even possess. Who knew a neck could stretch so elegantly, a torso flex so fluidly, a toe point so precisely? Even her bow ... seemed choreographed down to the last ligament."

— Review by Susan Morgan, Anchorage Daily News, October 2005

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