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A Thousand Pointes of Light

Patricia Barker returns to Gala des √Čtoiles

One of the yearly highlights of the Montreal dance scene is surely the Gala des Étoiles. Every year since 1986, ballet stars from around the world converge on Place des Arts for one unforgettable evening, and this year is no exception. Victor Melnikoff, the gala's president and producer, has once again promised a stellar show with classics performed alongside world premieres, danced by both established professionals and up-and-comers. As much as I am interested in what's new, I look forward to seeing such gala regulars as Patricia Barker, one of America's best, who has performed at the Montreal all-star event every year since 1999.

Barker was born in Richland, Washington, and later trained at Seattle's Pacific Northwest Ballet (PNB) School. In 1981 she joined the PNB company, was made a principal dancer in 1986, and starred in the film Nutcracker: the Motion Picture. Since then she has, with finesse, danced everything from the classical (Marius Petipa) to the contemporary (Nacho Duato).

Her regal, blonde good looks, and luscious (yet strong) legs and feet, certainly account for some of her appeal, but there is more to Barker than her appearance or perfection of form and technique. Melnikoff, who has engaged many of the stars of the last twenty years for his show, says: "Patricia has a rapport with the audience that crosses the footlights and goes out and touches you. That's very rare. It shows you that she is a generous dancer. She dances to you rather than at you, and that's the nuance which separates the great from the good."

That generosity, together with her intelligence, down-to-earthness and sense of humour, are qualities that I found in Barker when I met her offstage and in person last year. And she's ambitious too: Barker is an artistic director in the making-besides maintaining her world-class status as a dancer, she is also a costume designer, fundraiser and entrepreneur, having founded her own dance apparel company, BKWear, in 1999. In anticipation of the 2005 edition of Gala des Étoiles, I spoke with her by phone about the gala and the long arc of her career.


What is it about Gala des Étoiles that keeps you coming back?

It's seeing my friends every year and being a part of the family Victor has created. It's a great gala to see dancers who have had a longevity with this organization perform, and to see each artist grow as an individual.

You know, our careers don't touch each other very often because we are dancing in our own companies and most of us are at the top of our game, so to be able to get together and have a great weekend for ourselves is inspiring. Sometimes you find new works you want to do, you make great contacts, and there's nothing like being with Victor for a weekend! It's wonderful that he brings us all together. He keeps the gala running smoothly-there's very little "diva" backstage. It's an "all for one, one for all" kind of performance.

Is there anything different about this gala from others that you have done?

It's a fabulous show. You don't know what's coming out next. Victor doesn't just have the classics-he also has world premieres, introducing new choreographers and new pieces. I would say if you are going to see just one ballet performance, Gala des Étoiles has to be first on your list. And it's not just strictly ballet-for instance, he had two amazing flamenco dancers for two years ... [Ed. note: this year, the gala will feature tango dancers.]


Let's talk about your career now. Did you always know you wanted to be a dancer?

Any seven-year-old wants to be a ballerina and that's how old I was when I started dancing-everything else I did kind of fell by the wayside. I found a place that I fit into and that I excelled at. It was love at first plie.

Why have you stayed all these years with the Pacific Northwest Ballet, as wonderful a company as it is, when you could have danced pretty much anywhere you wanted?

PNB was growing at the same time I was growing as a dancer. [When I joined] it was a young company taking big strides, and I feel that we grew together. I also had opportunities to dance incredible ballets there, and not being pegged as one kind of dancer was good for me. Then, I met a man in the company, Michael Aure. AURe A We married and have had a great life, and PNB provided that. Also, I had opportunities to dance elsewhere like Gala des Étoiles, New York City Ballet and other companies, so I've always been able to have a taste of what is on the other side of the fence, but still have the security of having a home company and I've enjoyed it all.


Do you have a favourite genre or choreographer?

Of course I love Balanchine. I feel like my body knows his work, and it feels good mentally and physically when I dance it. I've also been fortunate to work with Glen Tetley. What a great, great man; not only in his philosophy and how he approaches dance, but just him and his work.

[Still] I've never gotten too saturated with one person's work, which constantly gives me the hunger to do more of it. I haven't done so many Swan Lakes that "Ugh, I don't want to do Swan Lake anymore!" I've only had a certain amount and that keeps me hungry, so when the ballet comes back around, I truly want to do it again.

I read an interview with you a few years back, and at that point, you had only done one of the two great Petipa/Tschiakovsky ballerina roles, Odette/Odile in Swan Lake, but not yet Aurora in Sleeping Beauty. Now that you have, which is harder?

Sleeping Beauty has to be the hardest classical ballet I've ever done. In the first act, it's everything that's difficult for me on my bad side, so I had to work extra hard for it. Swan Lake is a little more what I do well though it's still a difficult ballet ...

Another dancer once said to me though, "No, no, Swan Lake is much harder." And I said, "Oh no, there's all those adagios when you can rest."

"Well, yeah, with feet and legs like yours, you can rest."

"But, all those hops on point in Sleeping Beauty!"

"No, no, see that's easy for me," she replied. So, it all depends on your body and what your strengths are.

Which ballets have made the most impressions on you as an artist?

Balanchine's Ballet Imperial and Agon and Glen Tetley's Voluntaries and Rite of Spring.

Can you say more about one of these choreographers? What is so exciting about dancing their works?

What excited me about the difference in dancing Ballet Imperial and Agon in the same season under such an interesting choreographer as Balanchine is that it's from the same person, the same mind....Ballet Imperial is so classical, a small version of Sleeping Beauty [whereas] Agon is [still] so shocking today, so modern and fresh even though it was done in the Fifties. Each of them draw on a different side of a dancer and you dance differently in them, but they are done by the same choreographer It still amazes me to this day!

And I like Balanchine's work because you can put your heart and soul into it. They aren't stories, they're you-who you are that day. You can bring yourself into them. I've done these ballets throughout my career and each time I perform them, I am more of a whole person and more of an artist. I continue to find nuances in Balanchine's works, in their steps and musicality, that I can bring out. So there's nothing boring about doing Balanchine again and again.


You know, my daughter has become enamoured with ballet, but the picture Toys "R" Us presents to her and others her age is not much more than tiaras and tutus. Surely there's a downside to being a ballerina.

[Laughs] Injuries are the biggest disappointments because you can't dance and rehabilitation is difficult. But is anything else hard? Anything you want to do well is going to be difficult, and there's always disappointments and highs and lows, but I don't find any of them too difficult to adapt to [and I still] want to be there everyday challenging myself.

So what's magical about being a ballerina?

Oh, the tiaras and the tutus! You know it's funny. I have friends who throw parties for their kids-Halloween and such-and say, "Dress up and come." And I'm like, "I dress up everyday." It's wonderful to feel like a princess and there's something about those pointe shoes, and the music and the movement. The tiaras and tutus are the icing-all sugar icing and no fat-free stuff!

Looking back over your career, is there a moment or a performance that really stands out?

It's all things, actually. Finishing a performance, being cast for a ballet that you've always dreamt of doing. It's always the small things that thrilled me the most-getting my first contract, actually working in this career. [I can't] say it's one single performance-it's all of them!

Gala des Étoiles is one night only, September 8, 6:30 PM at Salle Wilfrid-Pelletier, Place des Arts. For the full roster of this year's performance, click here.

Kena Herod is Maisonneuve's dance critic. Read other columns by Kena Herod.