The Ballet Workshop’s accomplished dancers include, from left, Ava Johnson, Courtney Smith, Kim Braun and Isabella Knott. (Diane Urbani de la Paz/for Peninsula Daily News)

The Ballet Workshop’s accomplished dancers include, from left, Ava Johnson, Courtney Smith, Kim Braun and Isabella Knott. (Diane Urbani de la Paz/for Peninsula Daily News)

DIANE URBANI DE LA PAZ: Dancing on, together and apart

I’LL TAKE MY cue from these youngsters.

The Ballet Workshop’s 50th anniversary Ballet Gala, a triumphant celebration of live music and dance in Port Angeles, was to happen March 20 at the high school Performing Arts Center.

But four days before, Gov. Jay Inslee closed Washington schools and banned gatherings.

Completely necessary, but this crushed me, a lover of ballet — especially when it’s performed alongside an orchestra, as the gala was to be.

Port Angeles Symphony conductor Jonathan Pasternack had hand-picked an ensemble of musicians who had just had a tantalizing rehearsal with the cast of 31 dancers.

Then I interviewed four Ballet Workshop students. They include three senior-level performers I’d seen rehearsing just three weeks ago in downtown’s Sylvia Studio, named for workshop founder Sylvia Wanner.

With teacher Kate Robbins scrutinizing every move, they floated and flew across the bright room, a recording of Debussy’s Petite Suite lending a kind of magic to the air.

Receiving the news of the gala’s postponement — no date is set yet — “I was definitely bummed,” said Isabella Knott, 15.

But she and her fellow artists didn’t flop down on any sofas. They returned immediately to class, online via Zoom, with Robbins right there on the laptop screen.

They dance together for several hours each week — and are fired up.

Ballet technique, varied choreography, pointe classes, private lessons: all this comes to dancers’ living rooms and spare rooms, every weekday afternoon.

Robbins gave students 6-by-6-foot squares of vinyl flooring to dance on, created a schedule, and away they went.

“It’s going really well,” said Daphne Oakes, 12.

When I asked what it is about ballet that inspires her — she’s been dancing for seven years now — she replied that she thrives on the exercise, and the way “there are so many goals you can strive toward.”

“It’s been really interesting, moving furniture and practicing with the dogs running around,” added Sequim dancer Ryan Andrews, 14.

His family includes two French bulldogs.

Now and again, Robbins admitted, she sees “a big furry thing crossing in front of the camera.”

“I’m really happy I can stay in shape” with online classes, said Andrews, who values the strength and flexibility he’s built as a dancer.

“It’s really great learning how your body works,” how muscles sing in concert, he said.

Ballet mesmerizes me.

The connections between dancers, interwoven with their independent motion; the grace expands my heart as I watch.

To see these young people dance with such discipline is to see resilience in action.

“We’re adaptable creatures,” Robbins said.

Courtney Smith, 15, is an exemplar. In January she had surgery to remove a cyst on her ankle, and “I couldn’t start dancing until February,” she told me.

In March I watched her rehearse en pointe, the picture of focus and poise.

Then Smith, Knott, Oakes and Andrews all alerted me to a silver lining behind Ballet Gala postponement.

“It gives us more time, [to] do a better job,” both dancing and collaborating with the orchestra, Smith said.

These youngsters are also musicians themselves, players of guitar, ukulele and violin.

For Andrews, songs such as Queen’s “We Will Rock You” energize.

There’s no way to know yet when the gala will arrive on that Port Angeles High School Performing Arts Center stage. Yet the dancers don’t allow the uncertainty slow them down.

Knott’s prescription for these times, offered gently, is to “be productive,” at least once a day.

“We really can’t plan anything right now,” Robbins acknowledged.

Out there somewhere on the horizon, though, is a resplendent ballet, with the music of a live orchestra lifting the dancers high.


Diane Urbani de la Paz, a freelance journalist and former PDN features editor, lives in Port Townsend.

Her column appears in the PDN the first and third week every month. Her next column will be April 15.

Reach her at [email protected].

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