Celebrated dance journalist Marcie Sillman has recently completed her book, Out There: Jonathan Porretta’s Life in Dance, which features the life and career of the PNB principal dancer. The book follows Porretta’s Billy Elliot-like journey from misfit to stage star, along with first-hand accounts of his major roles and page after page of stunning photographs. In short, everything ballet fans could want bound into one striking volume.
This kind of in-depth profile is not a common publication. As Sillman puts it, “It’s not like publishing companies are jumping out of their skins to publish dance books,” but Rosie Gaynor (founder of SeattleDances) had just such an idea. She founded the Seattle Scriptorium publishing company and reached out to Sillman, who she originally met at an NEA dance writing residency at American Dance Festival in 2009. Porretta is a dancer they both admired, and due to multiple foot surgeries last year, he had time away from dancing to collaborate on the book.
Sillman describes Out There as a “dance version of a visual art catalogue resume where you’ve got, essentially, a pretty thorough compendium of somebody’s career. It’s got timelines, it’s got all the roles he originated, it’s got my long essay, and then his 10 annotated roles.” But it’s clear when she describes the content that the heart of the book is Porretta’s personal journey. “He had a story he wanted to tell. He wanted to talk about growing up gay in a blue collar town in New Jersey, and, if you know him this is impossible to imagine, having no friends. The only place he was himself was in the dance studio.” It’s also the inspiring story of Porretta’s single mother, Jane D’Annunzio, who dedicated her life to making sure her son was able to become the dancer he was born to be. When Porretta was accepted into the School of American Ballet, D’Annunzio drove him multiple hours each day to get training in the city. “She really did give up everything for him,” Says Sillman.
The book tracks Porretta’s story photographically, with snapshots from those early recitals to full-page spreads of his favorite roles. Featured in particular is the work of Angela Sterling, a photographer who Sillman believes is particularly good at capturing dance because of her time as a PNB soloist. Porretta was a big part of choosing which images to use. “Ballet dancers,” Sillman explains “want to look at what they’re going to look like. They have approval over every photo. It’s in their contract.” Despite that, there were so many great ones that the book ended up expanding to accommodate them all.
It’s a very pretty book that will surely appeal to dance lovers, but it’s also more than a niche publication. “Definitely his fans will buy this book, and maybe just look at the pictures, and that’s enough, but I think he would like young boys to read it.” Sillman tells me. “Boys that might or might not be gay, but boys that are ostracized because they’re dancers, bullied because they’re dancers. I think that his intent is really to say ‘it gets better’…because his life was really sad. It’s hard to imagine. He’s the most gregarious, outgoing person, and he says to me: ‘Nobody talked to me. I ate lunch with the lunch lady,’ and then I started talking to other gay men I knew, not dancers, just men, and they were like, ‘Oh yeah, that was my story.’ I think it’s kind of universal for people who don’t fit the mold.”
Out There becomes available for purchase September 10, 2016, and to kick off the release date, Sillman will be conducting a live conversation with Porretta at Elliott Bay Books on the 10th at 2:00pm. Those intending to buy the book will have an opportunity to get it signed, but Sillman hopes people will come to hear the conversation whether they purchase the book or not. “His story is a good one,” she tells me, and Marcie Sillman has been a journalist long enough to know.
A Conversation with Marcie Sillman and Jonathan Porretta
September 10, 2016 at 2:00pm at Elliot Bay Books, event free to the public.
In addition to Elliot Bay Books, Out There will also be for sale at the gift shop at McCaw Hall, on Amazon, and at JonathanPorretta.com.