Directory Free Newsletter Contact Log in

European-American Topics - Culture - Oliver Wevers

Interview with a Very Busy Belgian Dancer
Rosie Gaynor

Posted September 17, 2007


Pacific Northwest Ballet principal dancer Olivier Wevers in Ulysses Dove’s “Dancing on the Front Porch of Heaven”
Angela Sterling photo


    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 Pittsburgh for two months. I told my parents that if I found a job over there I was staying for a whole year.” He 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.

    Since then, 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 Karys Dance Center 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.”  

    Nicole Karys’ 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.  

    It wouldn’t 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 U.S. “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 U.S. 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.”  

    For this 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 see that. 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 the Manhattan arts scene, including a private tour of the Metropolitan 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.  


    This duet, 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.

This new 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 Japan!’” 

    Wevers has 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. 

    In what 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.  

    Wevers will have two more fans than usual in the house for his April premiere. His parents, who live in Belgium, 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. 



© 2006 All content property of European Weekly unless where otherwise accredited