On to the ‘Next’ One: PNB Dancers Choreograph, and Students Take the Big Stage

Pacific Northwest Ballet’s Next Step showcase premieres works by seven company dancers, performed by top PNB School dancers. The one-time show is this Friday only; a pair of PNB School performances follows on Saturday


The middle to late teenage years are crucial to a young ballet dancer in training. Pre-professional students spend hours a day in dance classes, often foregoing their high school years in favor of residential training programs that prepare them for the big leagues of professional dance.

But in spring of 2020, Pacific Northwest Ballet’s pre-professional division students were locked out of the studio as the pandemic shuttered public life across the country. Instead, months of living-room workouts, Zoom ballet classes, and raw determination brought this group of dancers to a pivotal moment in their careers: some of them will be hired by PNB, some by other dance companies, and some will take independent or academic paths.

Before that next step is this Next Step, as Professional Division students take the big stage at McCaw Hall to perform brand new works choreographed by PNB company members.

It’s a showcase designed to give its dancer-choreographers opportunities to explore artistic processes in ways not generally available at this stage in their careers.


“Just because you’re a great dancer doesn’t mean you’re a great choreographer,” reminds PNB faculty member and Next Step director Eva Stone, at a studio rehearsal on a sunny Monday afternoon. (Stone, who produced the festival Chop Shop: Bodies of Work and began the program New Voices: Choreography and Process for Young Women in Dance, is an established choreographer in her own right. See NWTheatre’s review of the 2019 PNB triple-bill Locally Sourced, featuring a Stone work, here.

It’s a logical but oft-overlooked truth. Professional dancers are usually performing, not choreographing. And choreographing requires a skill set that’s distinct from a dancer’s requisite strengths, even at the highest levels.

Choreographers, just like any good editors, have to learn to create dances that utilize their best ideas, yet refrain from packing too much into a single work. The choreography also has to fit the particular cast, with movement that’s challenging but accessible. It takes a unique combination of curiosity, drive, and patience to absorb the input of their dancers, director, and muse.  

Corps de ballet member Zsilas Michael Hughes’ new work, Piano Concerto Appasionata in B Minor, is a prime display of this process in action. Hughes, themself a former PNB School Professional Division student turned company apprentice in 2021, combines classical ballet, contemporary technique, jazz, and voguing into a work set on 13 dancers. The piece is set to big, flowing music that Hughes also composed and performed. (Unlike with many PNB performances, the music for Next Step is recorded, not performed live.)  

Piano Concerto Appasionata in B Minor creates a swirling energy onstage that breathes outward toward the audience, as if the whole theatre is being carried up and down the piano keys. They move dancers around to the big phrases of the music and then pause for short solos, each one just long enough to put a dancer’s individual talents on display before moving on to the next sequence. And even in classical dance where smiling is not always encouraged, Hughes’ dancers are obviously enjoying themselves: their hands and heads linger into the ends of each movement as if they don’t want to let go, facial expressions peaceful and rapt if not outright smiley. Hughes’ work is complex but not confusing, intricate but not busy.

In contrast, (a)part, choreographed by PNB principal dancer James Kirby Rogers, is set to a haunting score from the Bulgarian State Television Female Choir. (a)part sends its dancers moving about the stage in crouched huddles, alternately drawing in and thrusting out two dancers who are then left standing alone, writhing with emotion. The vulnerability in these movements are simultaneously riveting and painful to watch; and the maturity displayed by those two performers, Professional Division students Sadie Halpin and Maya Ruheza, is inspiring.

To Stone, this development is all part of the “lab” experience that’s unique to the Next Step program. “This is different from working with a choreographer who has a commission to make a piece,” she says. “It’s an education in the craft of dance making.” 

That process of developing the craft is often done behind closed doors, out of public view. As Stone points out, the great George Balanchine spent untold hours in his own dance studio laboratory, creating works that were never seen by the public. Next Step provides both a collaborative laboratory and a public glimpse, in a weekend devoted to showcasing rising-star talent.


This year’s Next Step premieres works by principal dancers Kyle Davis (What Is Here Today) and James Kirby Rogers ((a)part); soloist Miles Pertl (Ricochet) (see NWT’s review of a previous Pertl work, on the same triple-bill as Stone, here); and corps members Mark Cuddihee (Traverse), Zsilas Michael Hughes (Piano Concerto Appasionata in B Minor); Noah Martzall (In Absence Of), and Joh Morrill (Downtime). All are performed by PNB School Professional Division dancers.

Also at PNB this weekend: on Saturday, two different PNB School showcases feature work by PNB faculty members (including two by Stone in the second show), alongside new work from soloist Amanda Morgan, and Serenade by George Balanchine (accompanied by the Seattle Youth Symphony Orchestra). (Show info and tickets here.)  

Next Step performs 6/16 only, at Pacific Northwest Ballet (in McCaw Hall, Seattle Center/Mercer side). Tickets ($34) here. Accessibility notes: main restrooms are gendered and multi-stall, with gender-neutral, single-stall restrooms available by most of them. Theatre and common areas are wheelchair accessible.

Melody Datz Hansen is a freelance dance writer in Seattle. Her work is published in The Seattle TimesThe StrangerCity Arts, and on her blog at