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At Pacific Northwest Ballet, an old 'Apollo' teaches a first-timer

The ballet “Apollo” features four dancers in a story about the Greek god of music and three muses.

It was a signature role for Peter Boal when he was a dancer with New York City Ballet.

Now he's staging the ballet at Pacific Northwest Ballet,the first time since taking over as artistic director in 2005. And Boal is teaching the ballet to four male dancers who'll be dancing the role for the first time.

He says he's been waiting all these years for the right time as well as the right dancers.

The dancers cast as "Apollo" are Karel Cruz, Lucien Postlewaite, Batkhurel Bold and Seth Orza.

"Apollo" is George Balanchine's oldest surviving ballet and it was a star turn for Boal. He guesses he danced the role 100 times in a 22-year dance career.

"It's in me," he says. "When dancers ask me 'What is the count?' sometimes I say, 'Woah! Oh boy, I never counted.'"

In 1996, New York City Ballet posed Boal as 1996 as "Apollo" in a dramatic ad. You can find it here.

Boal's got a copy of the photo hanging in his office at Pacific Northwest Ballet. In the photo he's blond and built, wearing white tights, looking like a Greek god holding up the world. He was posed six feet off the ground at the Unisphere in Flushing Meadows, Queens.

"This is a really weighty part," he says. "I mean I think it’s a big deal for dancers to go into the part because you name it. Nureyev, Baryshnikov, Peter Martins, Edward Villella. You can go down this list I mean all these great men did 'Apollo.'"

When "Apollo" premiered in 1928 in Paris at Les Ballet Russes, it was not universally acclaimed. Balanchine's choreography tweaked traditional norms: a ballet dancer's leg turned in, for example. But it grew into one of the art form's classic works and it became a dream role for men.

"Ballet is really about the woman. That’s what it really it comes down to," Orza, PNB principal dancer, says. "But 'Apollo' is definitey about the man."

Orza was 12 when he left home in San Francisco to study at the School of American Ballet in New York. That summer in New York convinced him he wanted to dance professionally. But he'd have a lot of work to do.

"I was just so teeny and had problems partnering and all that kind of stuff. And when I got to New York City Ballet (where he first danced professionally) I remember I was still kind of small, especially my upper body. I started going to the gym because I had to be able to lift girls."

Orza stands 6 feet tall and is routinely cast in lead roles. He's been with PNB since 2007.

Here's a video of Orza dancing with his wife, PNB dancer Sarah Orza.

But "Apollo" has been one of those parts he's long been waiting for. Boal taught him a variation when he was a dance student. Then, when Boal danced "Apollo" at NYCB, Orza used to stand in the wings and watch.

"He's very calm about the way he'd play 'Apollo.' But still, it was very expressive," he says.

Boal says Apollo has been played myriad ways. But the way he sees the role is one of wonder and innocence, a young god figuring out his own strength; a young god marvelling at what the muses have to teach him.

Boal on Orza: "If he were arrogant and demanding it would kill the role. But there’s something about Seth that’s gracious and humble. And these are all qualities that make you a good Apollo."

Any role on stage, in front of a crowd of 2,500 can feel like pressure. "Apollo" ups the ante with minimal costuming. And the tights are white meaning every step has to be precise.

Boal says there's a moment in "Apollo" that's arguably a moment demanding more confidence than any other role he's ever performed.

"It's towards the end of the ballet. He's (Apollo) exhausted. Then there's a calling in the music (by Igor Stravinsky). It's Zeus. He rises to the calling and he he walks slowly across the stage.

"And it is actually kind of scary. You're way down stage. And each step has to have the most quintessential confidence."

Orza and the other Apollos will strive for perfection when PNB performances begin Friday (April 13) night.  It will be one of the last appearances for Postlewaite who recently announced his departure from PNB. He'll be joining Les Ballets de Monte Carlo.