By Kai Curry
NORTHWEST ASIAN WEEKLY
Ballet is a rigorous discipline, and also very rewarding. It’s good to have a friend with you during those inevitable highs and lows that occur as you hone your craft. Celena Fornell and Emerson Boll have known each other since their early days as students at Pacific Northwest Ballet (PNB) School. Now, both celebrate a chance to play the lead in “Snow White.”
“I’m really nervous, but I’m super excited,” Boll told the Weekly. She has been in a prior production of “Snow White” as one of the dwarves, but this is the first time for both dancers to dance a lead at PNB. “Getting to do it with Celena is super fun.” Fornell, in whole-hearted agreement, has also been in “Snow White,” previously as part of the court. “It’s fun to revisit it,” she said, and also a welcome change to dance by oneself instead of part of a group.
Dancing as lead allows a dancer to infuse some personality into a role, to “play with the music,” Fornell explained. As the lead, it’s important to “command the stage,” Boll went on, versus “looking the same as everyone.” All eyes are on you, which is stressful, and yet, “you dance as yourself and how you feel in that moment,” she said. The Weekly learned how each of them interpreted the role of the heroine. Boll was drawn to how “people are unfairly judging Snow White” and a message that “we can all find our own uniqueness.” Fornell, who grew up watching the Disney version, liked “taking the stereotype that is Snow White and making it my own.”
Though the costuming looks “like Disney’s,” the two dancers explained that “Snow White’s” narration has been altered, starting the last time PNB School performed it, to be more inclusive. People of color have long been left out by the description of Snow White as having “skin as white as snow” and “lips as red as blood.” “Obviously, we don’t fit that,” Emerson and Boll said together. In PNB School’s version, the heroine is identified as dancing as “graceful as the falling snow” instead, giving the entire ballet a more universal appeal. “I do feel like changing the words has a pretty significant effect, even for audience members,” Boll stated. “It’s the first thing they hear when we make our first entrance [and] changes the image of who’s coming on stage.” Thus, the dancers can “show the characterization through our dancing and movement,” Boll went on, in a way that demonstrates that Snow White “could be anyone.”
Both women loved dance from an early age. “We both grew up in the School together,” said Fornell, whose parents told her she “begged for classes” as early as 3 years old. She trained at a small studio, then auditioned for PNB School at around 7 or 8 years old. She attended Boston Ballet for their summer and pre-professional programs, where “the style is really different” from PNB, which is more based on a George Balanchine aesthetic. “It was fun to experiment.” Boll had two older sisters that danced and knew she “wanted to dance, too.” She came to ballet a little bit later, after already cultivating an interest in other forms of dance, such as hip hop and jazz. She received a scholarship to PNB’s summer intensive program. At first, she thought learning ballet technique was “a little boring.” She quickly changed her mind, though, and now she appreciates how all of her classes come together. Both love the challenge of ballet.
The girls are ladies now, and part of PNB School’s two-year long Professional Division (PD), which provides enrollees with advanced training and experience dancing with the School and on stage as part of the corps de ballet of PNB Company. Once they made it to the “highest level of the school,” they were the only two to be selected out of their class for PD. “It was special to get to do that together,” said Boll. There are also chances for larger parts, which happened to both for the same ballet—“Swan Lake.” Boll played the “double,” or white swan to the black swan, who was danced by a PNB principal she has “always looked up to”—Angelica Generosa. “She’s an amazing dancer,” Boll said. Fornell, who explained that she’s “watched the Company” throughout her growing up years, was given the chance to play one of the swans last year. The memory makes “Swan Lake” one of Fornell’s favorite ballets, while Boll can’t wait to dance as “Juliet” in “Romeo and Juliet.”—“That’s a dream role.”
Fornell and Boll are drawn to the passion ballet holds, and are excited to be working with their idols, Kaori Nakamura and Jonathan Porretta, faculty at the School and retired PNB Company dancers. Porretta is also part of the staging team for “Snow White.” “It’s so incredible to…have them both as teachers,” Fornell said. Boll and Fornell are in their second year of PD and are now auditioning for full-time positions as professional dancers. They are big fans of Balanchine’s work, and will perform in Balanchine’s “Serenade” at the end of this year.
The families of both dancers have been supportive. Both ladies are from here and have family from or in Japan. Boll’s family moved from Bellevue to Seattle so that she could be closer to the School. Neither family blocked their offspring’s desire to pursue their dreams, and this has given Fornell and Boll the chance to grow, as dancers and people. “It definitely teaches you how to be disciplined and push yourself…it helps with your confidence in yourself and helps you to believe in yourself,” Boll said. Fornell remembers growing up in a half-Japanese, half-American family, spending vacations in Japan, and speaking only Japanese at home. “Ballet…has given me a sense of freedom,” she explained. “The way I grew up…was a little hard.” She felt like two people, a “Japanese me and American me. When I’m on stage, I could be anything…that was my true form…It helped me become more comfortable in my own skin.”
“Snow White” is a good introduction to ballet for kids, Boll and Fornell insisted, because it only runs about an hour, and it can hold their attention. Narration and some pantomiming on stage also help a younger audience understand the story. “It’ll give younger kids a chance to fall in love with ballet the way that we did,” Fornell assured. All told, there will be more than 70 PNB School students on stage, dancing to choreography by Bruce Wells and music by Jules Massenet. “Definitely take your kids to see the show,” added Boll. “With the changing of the narration and who we are as people, we can help young children know that anyone can be a princess, or Snow White.”
PNB School presents “Snow White” March 19 to 25. For information, visit www.PNB.org.
Kai can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.