Noelani Pantastico: Dancer in Flight

When asked what her spirit animal is, Noelani Pantastico reluctantly narrows it down to the butterfly. “I feel funny picking something that’s so feminine, light, and airy,” says the 35-year-old ballerina who also cites Bruce Lee as one of her inspirations. Like a butterfly’s journey from cozy cocoon to colorful winged flight, Pantastico, too, has undergone some transformative life experiences. A noteworthy one happened eight years ago when she left Pacific Northwest Ballet for Jean-Christophe Maillot’s Les Ballets de Monte Carlo in Monaco. Now, a big life change has happened again: Pantastico has returned to Seattle and PNB, the place where her career began.

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Pacific Northwest Ballet principal dancer Noelani Pantastico
in Jean-Christophe Maillot’s Roméo et Juliette.
Photo © Angela Sterling.

When the principal dancer left in 2008, she had just danced the role of Juliette in Maillot’s Roméo et Juliette for the first time. With her ability to adeptly go from pointe-shoe clad Princess Aurora in Sleeping Beauty to grounded, undulating modern dancer in Jardi Tancat, the versatile Pantastico has always been an audience favorite. But her radiance comes out in all its colors as Juliette; it’s as if her spirit itself, rather than her physical form, is dancing, as if the concept of ballerina is gone. All that remains is a school-age girl, tipsy from the effects of first love as her fingertips reach toward the heavens. Juliette’s joy, passion, and ultimate anguish happen in real-time because Pantastico is so in the moment—anything could happen. After first dancing in Maillot’s version of Shakespeare’s tragedy, she quickly became known for her performance as Juliette. On top of her dancing being well received by both audiences and critics, Maillot extended a contract to her to dance in his company.

 

Ironically, the role of star-crossed lover that once took her away from PNB is what she is preparing to dance now, as she commits to remaining in Seattle. Pantastico will perform the leading lady role during PNB’s run of Roméo et Juliette February 4–14 at McCaw Hall. Although this particular ballet may be in her comfort zone given her seven years in Monaco, she’s been working hard to fine-tune the beats and multiple pirouettes required for classical ballet roles that have lain dormant while dancing for a more contemporary company. “Noe” (which rhymes with Zoe) aims to begin this “third chapter” mindful of all she’s learned in her two decades of professional dancing, in addition to all that she has yet to accomplish. “Just because you get to the principal level doesn’t mean you should stop trying to be better,” she says. “If anything, you should be evaluating yourself even more.”

 

Why did you decide to leave PNB in 2008?

I felt like I really needed something else. I was 28 when I first encountered (Jean-Christophe Maillot’s) version of Romeo and Juliet, and that year I had also worked with Victor Quijada (Artistic Director, RUBBERBANDance), who does a fusion of  breakdancing and contemporary dance. Those experiences opened my eyes. I remember thinking, “I’m not going to just sit here until I’m 45. I need more tools to keep getting better.”

 

What was the most humbling moment of your career?

My move to Monaco. In the dance world, you have to have an ego—I don’t like that part of myself. And looking back on my ego then, it was really stupid. I thought at the time that I was good at my job: very capable, professional, and kind of a know-it-all. In my first year dancing in Monte Carlo, it went very well. Then over time, they got to see the real person. It became clear that I wasn’t this idea that Maillot had of me. I wasn’t aware of these flaws, but I quickly learned that I had a lot to work on. They broke me down in the best way possible, and that led to tremendous growth.

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Pacific Northwest Ballet principal dancers Noelani Pantastico and James Moore
in a rehearsal for Jean-Christophe Maillot’s Roméo et Juliette.
Photo © Angela Sterling.

What is so special about Maillot’s coaching style?

Often in a traditional story ballet, you’re playing a character, but that’s just it—a character. In his works, I’m a person—I don’t feel like I’m playing a part. I’m Juliette, but Noe is Juliette. There’s a reason for all your actions, and you’re just reacting to what happens. With Maillot’s work, you have to push your adrenaline down and tap into what you’re like on a normal day. If you came up to me and we had a conversation, we’d be relaxed and there’s a certain natural body language. Rather than presenting to the audience, we’re simply having a relationship with the other dancers. If I do Romeo et Juliette with James (Moore, principal dancer) for example, and one of us has been feeling ill, I might be more vulnerable, which will change the dance into something totally different than it was last time. If you’re really listening, your interactions will always be a little different with each performance.

 

What was it like stepping back into PNB with the new Balanchine Nutcracker?

Oh, God! Well, I think I make things a lot harder on myself than they actually are. There’s a lot I lost technique-wise in my seven years with Maillot. Months before I moved back to Seattle, I was making changes to become stronger, and I still have a lot of work to do. Ballet is such a blessing and a curse, and there’s so much pressure to perform at a high level. Nutcracker was this thing that I needed, but it wasn’t easy. I remember wondering if I had made the right choice in coming back, if I was capable of dancing like this again.

(Watch video of Pantastico dancing with the role of Dewdrop in George Balanchine’s The Nutcracker™.)

 

The hardest thing about being a ballet dancer is…

The commitment. My life revolves revolves around this. Many people my age have families, and even many of my colleagues at PNB are having babies. Maybe I’ll get to that point, but for the moment, I’m still obsessed with this life. I come home and I sew pointe shoes in bed. I’m constantly researching and thinking how I can make things better. We have a New York tour coming up and I’m doing a bit of Balanchine, so I’m searching on YouTube for different versions. The older I get, the more I see the value of this career. I don’t care about casting or what ballets I dance. I just want to enjoy it.

 

What does it mean that your return to PNB is your “third chapter”?

I hate to use the word “career,” but I’ve had three different careers—growing up at PNB (dancing for Kent Stowell and Francia Russell), dancing in Monte Carlo (and all over the world on tour with the company), and now, even though I’m returning, PNB is different from when I left. This return here feels like another layer and another part of my evolution. I don’t know what’s next for me, but I will definitely stay in the dance world; I love it so much. I don’t know if I can choreograph, but I’m interested in helping bring dance to the stage in some way, whether it’s helping with my husband’s choreography or maybe working with museums to curate dance installations.

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Pacific Northwest Ballet principal dancer Noelani Pantastico
in Jean-Christophe Maillot’s Roméo et Juliette.
Photo © Angela Sterling.

Your return to the stage has been cause for celebration among many PNB fans. When your return was announced on Facebook, the comments included: “Hallelujah!” “She’s breathtaking,” and “Thrilling news! I gasped so loud at reading my email this morning that I scared my husband.” Do you have anything to say to your fans?

First of all, this is so weird to me. It’s shocking that people feel that way, and also amazing. I’m very, very touched—I just hope I can live up to their expectations and the dancer I was before. I adore you all for your support and I’m so very blessed.

 

For more information about PNB’s Roméo et Juliette, see pnb.org. Noelani Pantastico is scheduled to dance the role of Juliette at the 7:30 PM performances on February 5, 6, 11, 12, and 13.