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Seattle Royalty: Interviews with Three Princess Grace Award Winners

Written by Steve Ha and Mariko Nagashima

(Photo: Seattle choreographer Olivier Wevers
at the Princess Grace Awards Gala)
For almost thirty years the Princess Grace Foundation-USA has recognized emerging talents in theatre, dance, and film, helping these artists fulfill their goals with scholarship and fellowship awards. This year, Seattle is home to three Princess Grace Award recipients: Olivier Wevers (artistic director of Whim W’Him and former principal with PNB) and Zoe Scofield (artistic director of zoe│juniper), who both received choreography fellowships, and Margaret Mullin (corps dancer with PNB), who received a dance fellowship. These three Seattleites were honored, along with 18 other recipients, at a black tie gala Tuesday, November 1stin New York City. SeattleDances recently had the opportunity to sit down with the three recipients to offer our belated congratulations on their latest honors and to hear about their reactions to the award, what they’re planning next, and their thoughts on dance in Seattle.

The Princess Grace Foundation-USA was founded by Prince Rainier III of Monaco as a tribute to his wife’s legacy after her death in 1982. Since its inception, the Foundation has awarded over $8.5 million to roughly 600 theater, dance, and film artists across the U.S. Mullin, Scofield, and Wevers will join the ranks of dancers Carlos Acosta, Gillian Murphy, and choreographers Victor Quijada and Alex Ketley, with this honor.

Though Seattle has boasted several Princess Grace Award recipients for dance in the past, this is the first time a local choreographer has received this honor. To have two in the same year, only speaks to the thriving nature of Seattle’s dance scene. It seems that Seattle’s reputation as a dance destination is continuing to grow; these awards act as testaments to the amount of innovation present in the city. To the outside world it is becoming more and more apparent that in this rainy corner of the country, great dance and choreography are a priority.

Margaret Mullin
(Pacific Northwest Ballet corps de ballet dancer Margaret Mullin in
A Midsummer Night’s Dream, choreography by George Balanchine
© The George Balanchine Trust. 
Photo © Angela Sterling)

Margaret Mullin is the type of dancer who rises above a love for the art and distinguishes herself as one who is passionate for it. Though she received the Princess Grace Award specific to dancers, it’s clear that the selection committee also saw her ambitious nature and her holistic view of ballet that necessitates more than an illustrious career as a performer. Initially nominated by Peter Boal, Mullin was already amidst rehearsals for PNB’s new production of Giselle, performances of Balanchine’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream, and choreographing a piece for NEXT STEP, PNB’s student showcase, when she also began work on her application for the Princess Grace Award.

Introduced to her by one of her mentors, Amanda McKerrow, Mullin had long dreamed of winning the award and even found the application process itself an illuminating experience. When asked for an essay on one of two prompts, she selected both, and when it came time to submit videos of her dancing, Mullin chose to highlight her versatility and not virtuosity in selections that ranged from Balanchine’s Emeralds to the modern and peculiar work by Marco Goecke. “I am proud to say that I won without doing a single pirouette,” she said, laughing. “I actually would have been pleased if I hadn’t have won because I put a lot of effort into the essay, and the video was a great reflection of who I am as a dancer—it felt really good to put that out into the universe to just say that this is actually who I am, and I didn’t have to change anything to win it.” Mullin also credits McKerrow for more than just introducing the award to her, having also received philosophical guidance on the life of an artist: “I was always inspired by her because she’s so emotionally powerful and I never wanted to be just a body on stage or a technician.”

Invigorated by the sense of security the award provides, Mullin feels more ready than ever to pursue other interests in the field of dance, including choreography and mentorship. During PNB’s student showcase, Mullin was the only female choreographer to have work presented, and, as she continues to develop her voice as a choreographic artist, she also recognizes the need to empower women in ballet. Mullin aims to create outreach programs that work with young girls on breaking past the idea of disposability. Having received the foundation of her training from Mary Beth Cabana at the Ballet Arts School in Tucson, Arizona, Mullin had the great fortune of learning her craft in a matriarchal environment where women held all leadership positions, directing Ballet Tucson, teaching all the classes, and doing all the choreography. Mullin recognizes the enduring influence of Cabana (who continues to direct Ballet Tucson): “For everything I want to accomplish, it’s great that I grew up in an atmosphere of watching this incredible woman build and run a school and a company on her own, in a community that doesn’t even really support [the arts and ballet]. Seeing how hard [the women of Ballet Tucson] work all the time to keep the company afloat gives me so much more motivation to be [in Seattle] where it’s such a well-oiled machine.”

Joining the ranks of world class dancers Seattle is committed to bringing in, dancing for PNB is the realization of a dream and Mullin relishes it: “Seattle has a lot of loyalty and I think that’s why I love performing here so much, because I’m not just a body on stage. People get to know you and your career and it shows how much the support of the community means to us.” Recognizing how important support has been throughout her life is exactly what fuels Mullin’s desire to be “a good role model and encourage young girls to be strong and forceful [as ballerinas].” Though Mullin exudes grace and charm onstage, she has fierce commitment to her goals with copious amounts of perspective. With the Princess Grace Award providing the platform to branch out, Mullin is poised for success in all of her endeavors, despite having only a few years as a professional dancer so far. It is with great excitement that Seattle audiences can look forward to watching these developments unfold in the years to come.

Olivier Wevers

(Dancers Andrew Bartee and Vincent Lopez in “Monster”
by Olivier Wevers
Photography by
For Olivier Wevers, the path to Princess Grace Award recipient first began with a nomination by Peter Boal, but due to Wevers’s participation in workshops that were considered performances by the Princess Grace Foundation, his application was disqualified for having exceeded the number of professional works allowed to be made for the company that nominated him. Wevers’s second nomination came from Donald Byrd (Artistic Director of Spectrum Dance Theater). Wevers was surprised when a foundation representative informed him that he had been selected as a winner. As Artistic Director of his own company, the vibrant Whim W’Him, Wevers is resolute in his choreographic process, noting that the prestige of the award hasn’t changed his identity or how he works, but it has certainly increased awareness of his work and accelerated relationships he had with people who can aid him in meeting his artistic goals.

Although Whim W’Him has been performing to sold-out houses, Wevers remains in the process of building the company, aspiring to hire his own full-time dancers and have his own studio where he can create. Though his wishes are simple, it’s a journey weighed down by administrative tasks and fund-raising, an arduous amount of work to be doing while simultaneously creating new works. Still, the desire for success and the insatiable need to create meaningful dances is always apparent in Whim W’Him’s impassioned director, resulting in rave reviews for all performances. The draw to see fresh and colorful contemporary ballet is not only apparent in the audiences, but in the dancers themselves—coincidentally, Whim W’Him’s company members include two other Princess Grace Award winners in Lucien Postlewaite and Andrew Bartee, and Wevers isn’t afraid of recognizing their perspectives in collaborating with them or any of his dancers. In working with such high caliber artists, Wevers says, “It has been very intuitive, and I think what’s important is that everybody respects each other so I don’t feel vulnerable when I say ‘hey—what did you just do?’” adding that “it inspires me to give something and see where someone goes [with it].” Although eager in his mission to find more time and opportunities for his dancers, Wevers is also mindful of the quality of his work. “It’s important for me that nothing that I produce and put on stage is disposable—that at some point, [my pieces] should be performed again.”

Wevers is also happy to call Seattle (and more specifically the Intiman Theater, thanks to a new residency contract) home. By receiving national and international recognition, Wevers is enjoying his role in helping to establish Seattle as a prime locale for dance, grateful for the support of a community that values the arts. “What’s wonderful about Seattle is that [Whim W’Him feels] very comfortable here and the support that we have is enabling us to go further.” What makes a true community is a web of support that goes in many directions, and while he is wary of expectations, Wevers is honored by the prospect of younger artists finding inspiration in his achievements as a choreographer and winner of a Princess Grace Award. Furthermore, in order to engage audiences more closely he is developing a community outreach program and scheduling opportunities to view his creative process, which is “personal and volatile” but necessary, he feels. Wevers wants to show people the distinction between art and business in that things like ideas, feelings, and emotions aren’t secure and being trained to do something isn’t the same as knowing how to do it. Though it scares him more and more to show that type of vulnerability, Seattle is better for it, and with the Princess Grace Award comes a sense of freedom to pursue everything he envisions.

Zoe Scofield

 (Zoe Scofield with dancers Anna Schon and Raja Kelly
in A Crack In Everything.
©2010 Christopher Duggan)

Zoe Scofield made her debut on the Seattle dance scene in 2005 with a piece in the Northwest New Works Festival at On the Boards. Her distinctive work is a cohesive blend of visual art installations (created by partner Juniper Shuey) and her own unique movement style which has become well-known in the region and across the country for being at the forefront of avant-garde dance. Scofield has since been commissioned to create works for Spectrum Dance Theater, the Frye Art Museum, and Ten Tiny Dances, and has performed pieces at Jacob’s Pillow and the Bates Dance Festival. She credits much of this recognition and exposure to On the Boards who have been “unwavering champions and supporters of us, on a regional, national, and international level. The relationship we’ve formed has been a new way of looking at things between presenters and artists.” It is this affiliation with On the Boards that made their latest work, A Crack in Everything possible, by granting the company a week to tech the sound and visual elements crucial to the piece, before taking it on tour. Excerpts of ACIE have been performed throughout its development, it was first seen in its entirety this summer at Jacobs Pillow and will make its Seattle debut at On the Boards the first weekend of December. And though Scofield splits her time between New York and Seattle (as most of her dancers live on the East Coast) she maintains that “[Seattle] is a really exciting place to be because of that relationship.”

Scofield was nominated for the Princess Grace Award by Diverse Works Arts Space in Houston, Texas, who is commissioning her next project. This new work, which Scofield says is “under the same umbrella” as ACIE, will premiere in Houston in January 2012. She describes it as an exploration of memory and how each piece eventually becomes three pieces: one as its happening in time in space, one in the audience’s and performer’s minds as they watch or experience it happening, and one in their memories that they automatically recreate in their minds to contextualize the work. The money received from the award will go towards further research and development of this intriguing concept as well as creating the accompanying installation. And though this plan was already in place when she applied for the award, Scofield says that because the award was so freely given, she feels a great degree of creative freedom to explore this concept as she wishes.

Noting how Seattle can be a rather isolating place for a choreographer, she feels the award lends a sense of credibility to her work, “a sense of value [and that] I am on the right path.” Right path, indeed, as apparently Scofield is a distant relative of Princess Grace herself. “My aunt showed me the family tree after [I received] the award, and it’s a tenuous connection…she was a cousin of my grandfather’s.” While the family history may be tenuous, Scofield’s work and her much deserved recognition is anything but.

Humbled by the prestigious recognition, Scofield acknowledges that “of all the arts, dance is the most community-based. No choreographer is the sole entity of their own work.” From this stems her strong desire to acknowledge the people who’ve supported and continued to support her. As for what this portends for the Seattle dance community, perhaps Scofield says it best: “I can make work; anyone can make work. But if I don’t have money I can’t. I hope that financially [Seattle] rises to the occasion as well.” It seems that institutions across the country are beginning to recognize Seattle’s artistic ingenuity, and now is the time for the community itself to support its own creative minds.