When he was 19
years old, Belgian born Olivier Wevers bought an open
airplane ticket from Brussels to the U.S.
“I did a summer program in
for two months. I told my parents that if I found a job over
there I was staying for a whole year.”
did get the job—in South Carolina with Columbia City
Ballet—but he has stayed on for more than just one year.
Seventeen years later, he is now a principal dancer at
Pacific Northwest Ballet.
En route, he
danced for five years with Royal Winnipeg Ballet. It was
there that he met one of his best partners, Kaori Nakamura.
The two dancers’ first application to PNB was rejected,
reportedly because at the time hiring foreign soloists was
deemed too much of a bureaucratic burden. Five years later,
however, someone advised PNB’s artistic directors to see
Wevers and Nakamura in Sleeping Beauty on tour in
Vancouver. “We were very fortunate that they came and saw
us,” Wevers said. “That same night they offered us a job.”
And so, in 1997
Seattle gained two exceptional dancers. The following year, they
were promoted to principal dancers.
Wevers has danced lead roles in more than 70 ballets with
PNB. He is a musical dancer with a very clean line. He can
convey any emotion and—I’d bet—elicit any emotion too.
(There never was such a truly insidious Iago as the one he
dances in José Limon’s Moor’s Pavane.) He has the
ability to make sense of steps that look a little silly on
other dancers. (For example, the strange waddle in Jardí
Tancat.) He can hold the stage on his own, he is
supportive and responsive in partner work, and he is a
generous ensemble member.
Unlike many of
his American colleagues, Wevers' first ballet school was his
only ballet school. He trained at
in Brussels. “I grew up in a small environment, having to
make my own way,” says Wevers, contrasting it with the
wealth of experiences available to students at large
professional schools like PNB’s. “In a way it gave me the
tools to do what I do now. But I feel like I would have been
more ready as a dancer sooner.”
school may have been small—the kind of school where kids go
to learn poise or have fun—but she herself was a former
dancer with Béjart’s Ballet du XXe siècle. I’ve only read
about Béjart, but passages like the one in Men Dancing
that point to the “iconoclasm of his choreography” and his
insistence “on first-rate classical teaching” remind me of
Wevers: these traits are definitely part of his makeup.
surprise any PNB patron to learn that Wevers participated in
theater when he was in school. He is certainly an actor, a
dancer for whom emotion is an important part of the
performance. I asked him about the generalization that
American dancers focus on technique and European dancers are
more emotional, and whether he had had to adjust when he
moved to the
“I see [emotion in performance] as more a European
sensitivity,” he said. “I still have issues with American
ballet; I think that sometimes it’s very clinical.” He
stressed, however, that in any
company you’ll find dancers of emotion and that
generalizations are, just that. He added, “It’s interesting
how over the past 10 to 15 years I’ve kind of seen a change
in that...toward more emotion.”
Belgian dancer, the more important difference upon moving to
the States was the sense of freedom U.S. dancers have.
“There’s always exceptions, but I feel like [in Europe]
things get stuck in one way: tradition. There’s a freedom
here, freedom of doing things…for example, a little more
elongated, or a little bit more épaulement. That’s
really refreshing to
When I see emotions combined with that sense of freedom,
that’s when great art happens. And sometimes it happens:
there are times when I am just so
moved by what happens here.”
It’s hard to
imagine Wevers constrained. He likes adventure. He skydives.
(Yes, he says when I ask, his boss knows.) He seems to have
boundless energy. At the moment, he needs it. Like other
dancers, he takes daily classes, rehearses, and performs (in
Jardí Tancat at Bumbershoot, in David Parsons’
Caught and Jerome Robbins’ Concert at PNB’s gala
this weekend, and in who knows what when the season starts
next week.) He is also choreographing.
In 2006, with
several pieces already on his resume, Wevers participated in
the New York Choreographic Institute, New York City Ballet’s
seven-year-old program that Peter Martins calls a lab, a
“world where choreographers can go and experiment.” One
hundred to 130 classical ballet
choreographers apply every year for this program; only five
were accepted in 2006. “It was an incredible experience,”
said Wevers. “They paid for me to be there for two weeks....
They gave me my rehearsal schedule: three hours a day! ‘Here
is your studio. Here are your dancers. There you go.’ It was
amazing.” When not in the studio, the fellows had access to
Manhattan arts scene, including a private tour of the
Art Museum. “It was so enlightening to have this art all
around you,” said Wevers. “It was overwhelming almost.”
On September 3,
Wevers’ most recent work was performed at Bumbershoot. It’s
a pretty piece that stays with you. Vivid blue-green and
bronze…it begins and ends with two dancers in silhouette. It
takes as its starting point Degas’ statue La petite
Danseuse de quatorze ans and gets going with a
personality-laden call-and-response. This short piece was
choreographed on two PNB students, who danced it
charmingly—with nice form and with personality—in June at
PNB’s Choreographers Showcase. At Bumbershoot it was danced
by Kaori Nakamura and Lucien Postlewaite. The piece took on
a new name with its new dancers: Liora and Andrew
became Kaori and Lucien. Its shape is a little
clearer with these strong, witty professional dancers who
both have excellent phrasing and who know Wevers’ own
dancing so well. What was nice in June, was surprising in
September. The slow, unraveling turns became suspenseful.
The outbreak of jumps suddenly made sense and was thrilling.
And the music was more exciting. Dominic Frasca’s “Forced
Entry” is relentlessly repetitive, a sort of tangled tango.
To keep us from getting lost in it, the dancers needed
exquisite precision—very French—and they delivered. Just
when you think the piece is going to get mired in the music,
it doesn’t. At times, Wevers allows the dancers to transcend
the rush, creating little kensho moments for us all. At
other times, the dancers just power on through the music,
squaring the corners of the stage at their own pace,
momentarily wonderfully out of phase in such a way that the
music needs to catch up with them.
whichever name you give it, is definitely ballet. The Degas
statue Wevers saw at the Met inspired it. “It’s such a
wonderful image,” said Wevers, “and I thought, why not? But
I wanted to twist it... A lot of people get stuck with what
ballet is supposed to be; you get stuck with that rule book
of what you’re supposed to have, even in the structure of
the ballet.” Wevers’ structure for this duet contains a few
fun surprises. My favorite is when one dancer goes off stage
and you expect the other dancer to start the bravura solo
demanded by formula. She leaves too, and for a moment the
stage is empty.
piece has actually had three performances already: Nakamura
and Postlewaite also danced it in Japan earlier this summer,
at the 2007 Lausanne Gala (Nakamura won the Lausanne prize
in 1986 and was invited to Japan for the gala). “I was going
to choreograph a brand new piece for the two of them in
Tokyo,” said Wevers, “but when I finished this, Kaori said, ‘I
love it. I want to do it in
plenty of other new pieces to choreograph. Upcoming
premieres include a piece with Spectrum’s studio series in
November, another with Julie
Tobiason’s Seattle Dance Project in January, and yet another
for PNB’s Laugh Out Loud! series in April.
direction will he take these pieces? “I’m trying to change
what people believe ballet should be,” he says. Wevers loves
what has come before, but he asks, “Why can’t we go and
discover a new way that could be ballet. I could be totally
wrong and create something really horrible that doesn’t
work, but I want to try that. I want to find new ways.” He
brought up the beautiful footwork of classical ballet and
the barefoot, “whole body and emotion” of modern ballet
masters such as Nacho Duato. “How do you mesh those two
different techniques? It’s something to explore.” I can’t
wait to see what it looks like.
have two more fans than usual in the house for his April
premiere. His parents, who live in
are planning to attend. He hasn’t seen them too often since
he left seventeen years ago. “When I go home now, my parents
tell me I’m more of an American than I am Belgian. My mom is
like: Oh my God, you’re losing your French!” He laughs.
“And when I come back my French friends tell me, You’re so
Belgian.” Belgian, American—as long as Olivier Wevers keeps
working in Seattle, that’s all we ask.