BWW Dance Interview: Paul Boos
Born in Sioux Falls, SD, Mr. Boos relocated himself to NY at 15 to study dance on full scholarship at the Harkness House. Following this, he studied on scholarship at the American Ballet Theater School, and finally the School of American Ballet. It was at SAB, while working extensively with both George Balanchine and Jerome Robbins, that Mr. Boos developed an intimate understanding of the connection between music and movement. After dancing principal roles in Balanchine's Symphony in C and Robbins' Dances At a Gathering as part of the SAB workshops, Mr. Boos was asked to join New York City Ballet at the age of 18.
Mr. Boos went on to dance with NYCB for 13 years before launching into the international scene as a guest teacher, initially with the Royal Danish Ballet where he taught for three years. In 1992, Mr. Boos was entrusted by the George Balanchine Trust to become a sanctioned répétiteur. Since then he has gone on to stage ballets all over the world with such companies as the Paris Opera, Bolshoi, Mariinsky, La Scala, the Joffrey, and others.
In 2016 The George Balanchine Foundation named Mr. Boos as "Project Associate" for its Interpreters Archive (IA). The IA, under the direction of Nancy Reynolds, preserves Balanchine's oeuvre by recording original principal cast members and dancers who worked closely with Balanchine himself in rehearsal, coaching today's dancers and documenting Balanchine's original intention of his ballets.
Known for his exacting eye and devotion to musicality, Mr. Boos teaches a class which emphasizes accepting full responsibility and understanding of the body's movement. Through this common sense approach, dancers develop a disciplined command of their bodies, secure in the ability to apply technique.
It is these tenets for simple, honest teaching that Mr. Boos learned while working alongside Balanchine and Robbins that have allowed him to excel in his capacity as master teacher, role assignation, and stager of ballets to this day.
Broadwayworld Dance recently sat down to talk with Mr. Boos.
Q. Tell me where you were born and earliest influences, training, performances, etc.
A. I'm originally from Sioux Falls, South Dakota, the sixth of seven children. My parents came from two disparate worlds: my father from rural Minnesota and my mother from Brooklyn. They were both into the military and met during World War II. Our household reflected a certain amount of that strict discipline, especially from our mother. She signed up two of my sisters for ballet and was baited by their teacher, Mrs. Petersen, to include me in the package, a sort of Billy Elliot story.
Mrs. Petersen was a benign and sweet first-steps teacher who handed the studio over to a Hungarian refugee couple, Judith and Miklos Szakats. Miklos was once married to one of Vaslav Nijinsky's daughters! We had yearly recitals that still make me cringe when I think of them.
My first viewing of professional ballet was Minnesota Dance Theater, and on that program was Balanchine's Slaughter on Tenth Avenue. Shortly after, Washington DC's National Ballet came to town, and I saw Ben Stevenson's Wild Boy. On television, I remember seeing Rudolf Nureyev in the National Ballet of Canada's Sleeping Beauty.
Q. When you were 15 you received a scholarship to study at Harkness, after which you studied at the ABT school and finally at SAB. Tell me about that trajectory.
A. It was David Howard's invitation that brought me to New York to study at Harkness on a scholarship. I auditioned for him in Chicago at a dance convention; subsequently he remained a silent and positive presence during my entire career. I was very emotional when I was asked to teach his morning classes following his death. He was a true altruist.
I was a 15-year-old boy from South Dakota arriving in NYC in the summer of 1973, stunned by the city's wealth, diversity, summer heat, and urban smells. Getting lost in the sweltering subway between Brooklyn and Manhattan was a regular occurrence. Harkness was a trip, housed in an enormous mansion on the east-side with Dali paintings draping the walls. Encased at the foot of a Hollywood circular staircase was a Dali 18K gold chalice, studded with mechanical butterflies made from emeralds, diamonds and rubies. That was my first NYC dance studio!
At Harkness we were given ballet classes taught by Russian guest teachers, as well as director David Howard and Maria Vegh. Ballet was augmented with flamenco, jazz and modern. I had to go out and buy a pair of castanets!
By then I'd drunk the NYC Kool-Aid and had no intention of returning to Sioux Falls. I auditioned at the ABT School, where Pat Wilde made an offer I couldn't refuse. My mother actually accused me of lying when I told her that Pat had offered me full tuition to both ABT and the Professional Children's Schools, as well as a stipend. When she met Pat and Leon Danielian, the co-head of the ABT school and heard their offer, she said, "You mean he has talent?"
Q. What was it like at ABT?
A. It was the golden era at ABT. Students rubbed elbows in studios bustling with the coddled foreign stars and its disgruntled American stars.
Q. What was the audition like at SAB?
A. SAB's audition was comical. I was asked to show up on a certain Wednesday to be looked over by Mme. Tumkovsky, a famously no nonsense horse trainer of a teacher. She saw your talents and flaws in a flash and remembered everyone and everything. She looked at three or four decisive actions from her applicants and made her decision to admit or reject.
Once admitted, I was only allowed to take intermediate classes, but after a week or two came the news that I was promoted to the "Advanced Men's" class. This meant I would have two ballet classes a day, as well as pas de deux twice a week. The big news was that I'd be in Stanley Williams' class, which was populated by the likes of Fernando Bujones, Peter Schaufuss, Peter Martins, Rudolf Nureyev and later Baryshnikov.
For my junior and senior year SAB graduation performances, Suki Schorer cast me in her stagings of first, Allegro Brillante and then Symphony in C; Alexandra Danilova cast me as a Tatar warrior in Prince Igor, and Jerome Robbins cast me in Dances at a Gathering.
Q. Describe going into your first company class?
A. It began with Lincoln Kirstein, who was also ever present. His office was at SAB, just outside the studio where Stanley taught. Lincoln caught sight of me in a Tarantella rehearsal for SAB's Education Department's lecture demonstration series and afterwards he instructed me to go to company class. This was without Mr. B's knowing anything about it. Shortly after Mr. B began class the next day he asked me who I was, and when I told him Lincoln sent me, he just smiled and continued teaching. At the end of class he very diplomatically thanked me and told me that I needed one more year in the school. Agreed!
Q. You said that working with Balanchine meant business?
A. My first rehearsal with him was a casting call for a student production of Prince Igor. He lined the boys up in a diagonal and asked for Kevin to step forward. There were two Kevins in our class, and the pushy big-headed of the two stepped forward. We all knew this was a mistake. Balanchine made it clear he wanted the other Kevin to step forward, not him. This Kevin got his nerve up to say, "Well, I AM Kevin," to which Balanchine said, "Well, I'M George, and if anyone in this room is named George, then he's welcome to run the rehearsal!" Kevin's tail went straight between his legs and rehearsal resumed with no question. Mr. B meant business.
Soon after, Mr. B assembled a group of sixteen school dancers for a Juilliard Opera production of Charbrier's Le roi malgré lui. This was my first real taste of Balanchine at work. He set up a group of four quadrilles, very similar to his Tombeau de Couperin, and choreographed most of the ballet on my partner and me, but he seemed most focused on testing my physical strengths at the time. He handled me like a butcher, pulling, pushing, sometimes punching, and always challenging my limitations. I was determined, but I felt like a total disappointment to him. It was humiliating. With the little pride I could muster I decided to ask him to replace me with someone more capable; clearly I couldn't meet his expectations. Later that morning there was a posting on the men's dressing room: "Paul Boos report to company class tomorrow."
Q. Describe company class and working with Balanchine.
A. Mr. B was a constant presence at the school; heartbeats quickly rose and relaxed attitudes ceased.
At that time, the company had more than one hundred dancers and nearly everyone was in class. It was PACKED. It felt like a Rubic's Cube. As friendly as everyone was, there was definitely a competitive air in the room, especially with the women. As soon as Mr. B entered the room from the corner by the service elevator, dancers gravitated to their place at the barre and awaited his commands. Occasionally he'd give a plié combination and often he just let the pianist play. We'd do our own starting pliés while he'd converse, mostly with principal dancers about the previous night's performance. His subsequent exercises were repetitive, specific, scientific in matching our bodies to musical phrases; he sculpted our bodies into pliant steel. The barre could be as short at ten minutes, but we were never unprepared for what followed. For me, it was a brutal assault.
After a year or two, I found my body responded better if I took barre from Maggie Black as my warm up. That required subway rides to Union Square and then uptown to Lincoln Center. There were four or five of us, mostly men, who did this on a regular basis. His class was almost entirely focused on the women. "Ballet is Woman." Right?
There was a period where it seemed all he gave the women were bourrées in every possible direction, circles, triangles, zig-zags, forwards, backwards. It was amazing to watch these women buzzing across the floor like centipedes. People like to say he used class as an experiment in choreography, but he gave straightforward classical steps, just faster, slower, bigger.
Q. What were your first roles in the corps? Could you describe a few of them in detail? The choreography and how it felt to dance them?
A. The first NYCB ballets I remember dancing, aside from Nutcracker parent, mouse and Hot Chocolate, are Diamonds, Stars and Stripes and Midsummer Night's Dream. I blanked after the first entrance in Stars and faked it until the end. When we exited, I was sure I'd be instantly ejected from the theater. It was the last time I blanked, though I still do in my dreams. Diamonds and Midsummer confused me because the boys would appear, move to the sides, reappear and return to the sides. All the music was repetitive and nearly identical, so I couldn't identify which was which, and I often felt lost. Once I started learning the modern composers, that fog lifted. I was riveted with constant change in combinations of rhythmic complexities. Stravinsky Violin Concerto I learned in an hour and performed it a few days later. It seemed to fit like a glove. I was working with original cast members who kept an eye out for me. Not all partners are easy to work with. I was lucky most of the time.