Ballet's Next Generation of Dancemaker

Choreographer Daniel Pelzig brings strong musicality and trust of dancers' abilities to his work

He may have a degree in cellular biology, but these days, choreographer Daniel Pelzig is more interested in life forms of a dancerly nature.

The resident choreographer of Boston Ballet is one of the most active and versatile working today. He is also one of the most talented, with a host of impressive accomplishments to his credit, not the least of which is a choreographic repertory of great artistic depth and integrity.

His primary role is with Boston Ballet, where he spends 30 weeks out of the year, sharing an apartment near the studios with his dog Bette and tailoring first-rate choreography for the 45-member company. His latest opus, "Nine Lives: Songs of Lyle Lovett" premiered as part of Boston Ballet's most recent program of contemporary dance pairing three choreographers - Pelzig, Lila York, and Danny Buraczeski - with local fashion designers (Nong Tumsutipong, Tunji Dada, and Pam Graham, respectively). The program, which opened March 21 and runs through April 7, also uses popular music in an attempt to reach a wider audience and is entitled "Hot & Cool."

Pelzig's "Nine Lives" definitely falls on the "hot" side.

"Nine Lives" is ballet with a shimmy, a shrug, and a swagger, from the down-home country line dance to the sensual, lyric duets that play off Lovett's soulful blues. The work's imaginative and dynamic marriage of ballet and jazz vocabularies is immediately appealing and accessible, yet there are no cheap tricks, no slick MTV moves.

Balletic pyrotechnics sidle naturally yet provocatively next to colorful, sophisticated jazz moves. It's solidly structured as well as emotionally compelling. It's also a superb vehicle for showcasing Boston Ballet's myriad personalities and stylistic range. Pelzig clearly created the work for these particular dancers, both playing to their strengths and stretching their capabilities.

Pelzig has made works for a number of other dance companies as well, including Joffrey II and the Juilliard Dance Ensemble, and is much in demand as a choreographer for theater and opera. He currently is the resident choreographer for the Santa Fe Opera and has ties to a number of theater companies, including Boston's Huntington Theatre, where he choreographed the premiere production of Maxine Hong Kingston's "The Woman Warrior" as well as this season's "Iolanthe." He also choreographed the 50th anniversary tour of "Oklahoma."

Pelzig describes the three choreographic worlds he inhabits - ballet, theater, and opera - as being extremely different from one another. "Nobody seeing a musical I choreographed would think to ask me to do a ballet," he says.

Yet there is a cross-fertilization between the three styles that Pelzig considers very important. "When I first started choreographing, I worked very hard at keeping all three careers growing in parallel. I enjoyed them all and each fit different parts of me. But now they really feed each other quite confidently."

His first piece for Boston Ballet, last fall's charming hit "The Princess and the Pea," exhibited a deft command of a variety of dance and theatrical styles, all put to the service of the familiar story without sacrificing balletic flair.

In rehearsal, Pelzig's choreographic priorities are clear. "OK, now, tell the story - play the scene. 'The play's the thing,' " he quips.

Affable yet intense, he cajoles and urges, laughingly taunting ballerina Polyanna Ribeiro to put more pizazz in her long, slinky walk across stage.

As with all Pelzig's works, there is an underlying narrative thread that reveals an innate storyteller, a need for context and meaning. "Even in abstract ballets, that's where my interest lies," Pelzig says. "I want to know who these people are and why they are dancing."

Pelzig didn't begin his dance training until his last year of college, while he was finishing up a degree in cellular biology at Columbia University in New York. "I always wanted to dance and would go to classes with my sisters, but my parents wouldn't let me take ballet. 'It's not a proper environment for a young boy to grow up in,' I believe is the exact quote from my mother."

But in college, Pelzig gave in to his leanings and began serious ballet training. "I had to dance," he remembers. "It just made me incredibly happy." He ended up in American Ballet Theatre II, being groomed for the main company, when Broadway called.

"A friend told me about an audition for a revival of 'West Side Story' in 1981," he remembers. "I was hired, which meant the difference between $125 as a ballet dancer and $525 a week on Broadway and touring Europe. And it was so much fun. It was like a whole new world for me. It was a revelation that ballet technique could be used for more than ballet, which was very inspiring. And there's almost no better choreographer than Jerome Robbins to show how classical ballet technique can be incorporated into a storytelling format. It wasn't about straight legs and pointed feet. It could be about who you are. Dancers could have a voice. That was big news to me."

From there, Pelzig branched into choreographing for musicals and opera. "I've always been a big opera fan," he says. "In my student days, I would always do standing room at the Met to see anything.... And I love working with singers. It's hard to get dancers to speak up. For singers, the primary focus is voice and they don't edit their movements. How they move is how they are. I use that and create character-specific movement for them."

Pelzig was offered a three-year contract as resident choreographer for Boston Ballet after winning the gold medal at the company's 1994 International Choreography Competition for his sumptuous ballet "Cantabile." The company is one of the few in the country to have a resident choreographer who is not the artistic director, and Pelzig calls the position "a choreographer's dream."

"In every way, he seemed the right person to inaugurate this program," says Bruce Marks, Boston Ballet's artistic director. "I was impressed that Daniel had an aesthetic or sensibility so different from what else is going on out there, that he dared to create a ballet that was gentle, not an entertainment piece. He also is tremendously sensitive and musical, and he got something from the dancers that showed a real spirit of collaboration."

Pelzig is committed to fighting for a cultural environment in which contemporary works can flourish. Though he maintains "I am first and foremost a classicist in the true Balanchinian sense," he adds, "Classical ballet can't be used to create a museum - it has to be constantly evolving. You can't live in a shell of 'Swan Lake' and 'Giselle' and 'Coppelia.' Dancers should be able to do the traditional and the new - it's a brave new world out there."

Plans for future Boston Ballet works are in a holding pattern until programming and fiscal concerns are addressed by the management. But Pelzig will go back to Santa Fe in the summer and has projects lined up with the Goodspeed Opera House in East Haddam, Conn., and the Canadian and Los Angeles Operas. And he will be back at the Huntington for another musical, as yet undecided.

"I take it one step at a time," he says. "I'm really interested in doing the work, doing it as best I can, enjoying it, and keeping a good sense of humor, which is very hard in this world." With a wry smile and a gleam in his eye, Pelzig gives the impression that that really won't be a problem.

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