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Originally published Sunday, January 25, 2009 at 12:00 AM

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A conversation with Louise Nadeau, a jewel in PNB's crown

Louise Nadeau, a dancer of remarkable musicality and expressiveness, retires from Pacific Northwest Ballet with a series of spring performances, beginning with Balanchine's "Jewels."

Seattle Times arts critic

Ballet preview

"George Balanchine's Jewels"

Pacific Northwest Ballet, 7:30 p.m. Jan. 29-31 and Feb. 5-6, 2 p.m. Jan. 31, 1 p.m. Feb. 1, McCaw Hall, 321 Mercer St., Seattle; $25-155 (www.pnb.org or 206-441-2424). Louise Nadeau is tentatively scheduled to dance in "Jewels," on Jan. 29, Jan. 31 and Feb. 5, all at 7:30.

PNB is also celebrating Nadeau's career with "A Celebration of Louise Nadeau," the season's final performance, at 6:30 p.m. June 7. Nadeau will perform excerpts from "Swan Lake" and "La Valse," among others. Tickets go on sale Thursday for renewing PNB subscribers, and to the general public in March.

For Louise Nadeau, it all began with "The Turning Point."

The beloved Pacific Northwest Ballet principal dancer, who earlier this month announced her upcoming retirement, saw the 1977 movie when she was a young teenager from Long Island taking ballet classes. "It totally romanticized the profession for me," she said, smilingly remembering the moment. "When that movie came out, I was just mesmerized. I was in love with all of it — the dirty, sweaty studios, the ratty legwarmers, that was so incredibly appealing to me.

"Something clicked, after I saw that movie. I just went into overdrive: I was going to become a professional dancer. There was nothing I found scary about it. I thought, bring on the hard work, the sweat, the bloody toes, the mean choreographers, wow, how exciting! I decided that was really what I wanted to do."

PNB audiences, for whom Nadeau has been a special favorite since her arrival at the company in 1990, have been the beneficiaries of that decision. Over the years, she's given many performances etched forever in memory: the delicate heartache of her Juliet in Kent Stowell's "The Tragedy of Romeo and Juliet"; the haunting, angular fever dream of George Balanchine's "La Valse"; the romantic tempest of Jerome Robbins' "In the Night"; the soaring arabesques of the pas de deux in Balanchine's "A Midsummer Night's Dream"; the mesmerizing dual white/black role of Odette/Odile in Stowell's "Swan Lake." Nadeau is tiny — in "Swan Lake," it was all too easy to characterize her as birdlike — but moves with great strength, and her remarkable gifts of dramatic presence and musicality draw all eyes to her.

But a ballerina's career is, by definition, frustratingly brief. "As much as I would love to dance forever," said Nadeau, who will turn 45 in March, "it's actually really getting to be time. I've always been really particular about never wanting to be on stage and have somebody say, 'Oh, maybe she should have stopped last year.' I don't ever want to reach that point." Nadeau observed that the more contemporary repertory PNB is now dancing is especially hard on older bodies; that, coupled with shorter rehearsal periods, was a factor in her decision.

"I think it was just a good decision to come to. Better that I'm not so frustrated and trying to constantly keep a body in shape that is really kind of fighting against being in shape. It gets harder and harder, and as you get older, recovery takes longer. I really need consistency, and it's not as possible now, with the way we rehearse and the way we schedule and the types of ballets we do."

She's looking forward to her remaining performances this season, with appearances planned in "Jewels" (starting Thursday; see box), the Broadway Festival in March (where she'll sing as well as dance, as Anita in some performances of "West Side Story Suite"), her debut in Robbins' "Dances at a Gathering" in May and, perhaps, a final "Swan Lake" in April, a role she danced to great acclaim two years ago.

"I hope so. I really hope so," Nadeau said of reprising Odette/Odile. "I had such a success with it last time, I was so thrilled with that. I'm a little concerned that anything less than that, I don't want to put that out there. That's probably going to be the greatest physical challenge left in the time I have left here at PNB."

Thinking back on favorite ballets, she singled out "Romeo and Juliet" — and, by extension, "anything in which I get to flex my acting chops." Nadeau also spoke especially fondly of Ronald Hynd's "The Merry Widow" ("it ran the spectrum of emotions, which is a lot of fun to play on stage"), Balanchine's "Stravinsky Violin Concerto" and "La Valse." Nadeau described that ballet, which she will perform in a special tribute performance in June, as "very mysterious, strange, you almost get that feeling of being in an old house of mirrors."

Artistic director Peter Boal, speaking of Nadeau's acting gifts, said, "One of the things I think people don't realize about Louise: She has a wicked, wicked sense of humor. Just a cutting wit." She showed this off to great effect in Robbins' "The Concert" ("the best ballerina I've ever seen in 'The Concert,' " said Boal), Christopher Wheeldon's "Variations Sèrieuses" and "The Merry Widow," among others; a dainty screwball comedian, unafraid of big-gesture silliness.

"I've often thought it's something that should be involved in a [ballet] school," said Nadeau of acting, which she said she's never formally studied. "It's an important part of ballet, and I think a lot of dancers often feel very shy. You have to be willing to be uncomfortable until you find your way. It's very vulnerable, and I think a lot of dancers are just not about being vulnerable."

A ballerina's career can often depend on finding the right partner, and for Nadeau, there were many. She spoke affectionately of all: former partners Ross Yearsley, Benjamin Houk and Paul Gibson; current company members Olivier Wevers (with whom she will dance "Jewels"), Jeffrey Stanton and her newest partner, Karel Cruz. The partnership with Cruz, begun last year, is unexpectedly magical. Nadeau said she was surprised when Boal paired her with Cruz, who is much taller than her usual partners, but the two clearly have created sparks onstage. "He has a sensitivity, she has a strength, it blends beautifully," said Boal.

As the career inspired by a movie winds down, Nadeau says she hasn't made specific plans for her post-ballet life. She looks forward to time with family, which includes her fiancé and her 11-year-old daughter, Emma, and says she won't miss the ritual of daily class. She'd like to continue to coach PNB dancers and otherwise stay affiliated with the company (Boal, laughing, said, "She will continue to contribute in other ways," as if a PNB sans Nadeau would be unthinkable), and hopes to explore new creative ventures such as writing and photography. Nadeau mentions that she's now making photo notecards that are available in the PNB gift shop; what she doesn't say (but Boal does) is that she insisted that all proceeds go to PNB's Second Stage fund, not to her personally.

That's evidence of the generous nature that pours from Nadeau onstage. She's the rare dancer that reaches out to an audience and embraces it, letting us be part of the beauty she's creating. "That's been so important to me, for my entire career: my connection with the audience," she said. "It's my favorite time, out there [on stage]. It makes me happy that whatever it is that I'm trying to express, I can share it with an audience; in some way, change their lives for that couple of hours that they're in a theater."

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

Copyright © 2009 The Seattle Times Company

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