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Originally published January 29, 2012 at 5:28 AM | Page modified January 31, 2012 at 10:22 PM

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Tom Skerritt: Ballet is a 'wonderful challenge'

An interview with actor Tom Skerritt, who takes to the ballet stage for the first time as Don Quixote in Pacific Northwest Ballet's danced version of the life of the Spanish knight errant.

Seattle Times movie critic

Ballet preview

'Don Quixote'

Pacific Northwest Ballet, 7:30 p.m. Friday-Saturday and Feb. 9-11, 1 p.m. Saturday-Sunday and Feb. 11-12, 7 p.m. Feb. 12, Marion Oliver McCaw Hall, 321 Mercer St., Seattle; $28-$168 (206-441-2424 or www.pnb.org). Tom Skerritt and Allen Galli are scheduled to perform in all performances except the two Saturday matinees; in those, Otto Neubert will play Don Quixote and Jonathan Porretta will play Sancho Panza.
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A few months ago, Pacific Northwest Ballet artistic director Peter Boal asked actor Tom Skerritt a question: Would he like to be in a ballet?

"I said, 'Peter, I don't dance. I'm just a clumsy ox,' " said Skerritt last week, smiling at the memory. "He said, 'All the better!' "

Skerritt, a longtime actor in film ("A River Runs Through It," "Alien," "M*A*S*H") and television ("Picket Fences," "Cheers"), who's lived in Seattle for more than two decades, makes his debut with PNB on Friday in "Don Quixote." This version of the classic ballet, choreographed by Alexei Ratmansky, is making its North American premiere at PNB, with Skerritt in the title role: a book-obsessed knight errant who dreams of a nobler and better world. It's a character role, requiring little dancing — and it takes Skerritt back full circle, to a movie made decades ago.

In 1977, Skerritt was offered a role in the ballet drama "The Turning Point," playing a former dancer who now teaches. He knew nothing of that world — "I grew up on the streets of Detroit; there's not a whole lot of ballet or exposure to the arts there" — but agreed to take some ballet classes to prepare for the role. It was, he said, a revelation. "It's exhilarating!" he said. "I had no idea. It was so exciting to discover that. You're fatigued, but that exhilaration lifts you up to a whole other level."

Now in his 70s, Skerritt's looking for that thrill again, in a role that he accepted for "just the challenge of it." He's scheduled to play Don Quixote, alongside local theater actor Allen Galli as the Don's companion/guide Sancho Panza, at all performances except the Saturday matinees. At those, Otto Neubert and Jonathan Porretta will perform the roles.

Boal, asked about the casting, said that he'd thought of Skerritt some time ago. He knew that Ratmansky preferred to have actors, rather than dancers, play the roles of Don Quixote and Sancho Panza. "He feels like somebody we know," said Boal of the character of the Don, " a grandfather or an uncle or a character in the town. There's something beautiful about his dreams, and sweet about his realities."

Skerritt, who's a friend, came to mind because "first of all, he looks the part. Second of all, there's something about his personality that seemed like it would fit this part. Something otherworldly about him, something very grand. And there's also in him — it could be interpreted two ways — a larger than life quality or an aloofness. Both fit Don Q perfectly."

Arriving at his first "Don Quixote" rehearsal, Skerritt said he first felt a little intimidated by "all those wonderful, brilliant performers dancing around." (Boal, watching rehearsals, said the feeling was mutual: "I think the dancers feel the same way — there was an awe surrounding him and Allen.") But he soon focused on a new challenge: combining acting with the discipline of music.

"As an actor, you need to have some rationale — 'Why am I going over there?' " he said. "That's my job, to justify being over in that place." Now, on top of that, he has to be in a certain place at a certain moment in the music, each time. "That's very difficult; I'm just beginning to find it," he said." Galli, who's worked in musical theater, has been helpful in this regard, as Skerritt works on "listening to the music, watching the dancers, trying to remember where you're supposed to go, and doing it."

Working without dialogue, however, has been "kind of freeing," Skerritt said, noting that it suits the physicality of the character. "It's like a silent movie — a wonderful challenge."

When his ballet adventure is over, Skerritt has more projects coming up, and more dreams. On the performance front, he's considering a one-man show (too soon to discuss the details, he says); and he'll continue his affiliation with TheFilmSchool, where he teaches screenwriting — and hopes to eventually start a production company. But for now, he's focused on creating a character through movement without words, and finding pleasure in the difficulty.

"The dreams never go away," he said, of his unexpected new role. "I'm a clumsy ox who doesn't dance well enough, but I have my ideals and hopes — the way Don Quixote did."

Moira Macdonald: 206-464-2725 or mmacdonald@seattletimes.com

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