In addition to cancelled shows, the coronavirus pandemic has disrupted final performances for many retiring dancers. Pointe is giving several retiring principals and soloists a chance to reflect on their careers and offer advice to the next generation.
Pacific Northwest Ballet principal Benjamin Griffiths was supposed to celebrate his final Seattle performance on June 7 before the coronavirus pandemic forced the company to cancel its season and summer tours. A native of Boise, Idaho, Griffiths trained with Lisa Moon and later at the School of American Ballet before joining PNB's corps de ballet in 2005. A principal since 2016, Griffiths has performed an impressive range of leading roles. "Technical prowess marked his roles in William Forsythe's Vertiginous Thrill of Exactitude, Ulysses Dove's Red Angels and Oberon in A Midsummer Night's Dream," says PNB artistic director Peter Boal. "His Sarabande in Agon seems cast by Balanchine himself."
Griffiths, who is married to former PNB dancer Jordan Pacitti, also developed the curriculum for PNB School Professional Division's Men's Strength Training Program and graduated summa cum laude from Seattle University with a BA in Interdisciplinary Arts with a focus in Arts Leadership. Below, he talks about missing out on a final performance, his most challenging roles and his next steps.
Why did you decide to retire from PNB this year?
I decided to retire after a series of frustrating injuries, from which I developed some serious anxiety. After coming back from these injuries, I also felt that it was becoming harder and harder to maintain the technical level that I feel is necessary to perform my repertoire to the standards that I expect of myself. I wanted to stop while I still felt on top of my game and before sustaining any further injuries that might compromise my post-dance quality of life.
How has the COVID-19 shutdown affected your farewell plans, and how are you feeling about it?
Originally, I had planned to say goodbye to the Seattle audiences in June and then continue performing through the summer on PNB's planned tours to New York City and Sun Valley, Idaho. As a native Idahoan who received my upper level training at the School of American Ballet, this felt like the perfect way to say goodbye. To have all those plans dissolve is frustrating. While I'm grateful for all of the blessings in my life, I'm sad that the last four months of my career have been stolen from me by COVID-19, that I'm missing all of that time in the studio with my beloved colleagues, and that my parents, most likely, will not get the chance to see me perform again knowing it's the last time.
What is it about PNB that feels like home?
I was in complete awe of PNB as a young dancer, often traveling from Boise, Idaho to see them perform, so it was a dream come true to join its ranks. Having trained at SAB, I feel very at home in its artistic heritage, with Kent Stowell and Francia Russell (PNB's co-founding artistic directors) and Peter all having significant ties to Balanchine and his style of training. I also love my co-workers (some of which I have known since I was 15 years old), the company's repertoire, dancing in the light-filled studios of the Phelps Center, and the close connection that exists between PNB School and the company.
Was there a particular role or experience during your career that served as a major turning point or growth opportunity, and why?
Working on Marco Goecke's wild and contemporary 11-minute solo, Mopey. Before this experience, I was pigeon-holed as a classical dancer, but this opportunity allowed me to prove (to myself more than anyone else) that I could excel in contemporary work.
Working with Peter Boal on Square Dance, which was my first leading role at PNB, was also very special. It was a role that I had watched him perform many times while a student at SAB, and he passed it on with great care, asking me to focus on musicality, movement dynamics and the intentions behind the movements.
In the second half of my career, the moment that stands out most was working with William Forsythe on The Vertiginous Thrill of Exactitude and In the middle, somewhat elevated. He pushed me both physically and mentally, causing me to explore new possibilities while still staying very much within the vocabulary of classical ballet.
With Leta Biasucci in Balanchine's Square Dance
Lindsay Thomas, Courtesy PNB
What will you miss most?
Sharing the unique lifestyle of being a ballet dancer with my colleagues every day—the communal and ritualistic aspects of company class every morning, the conversations had while cross-training and warming up in our PT room, and the collective feeling of pride when watching one another in our final studio runs before moving to theater for tech week.
I recently graduated from Seattle University with a bachelor's degree in Arts Administration, and I love to teach ballet. Eventually I hope to be either working to further the mission of a dance organization in an administrative capacity or teaching ballet—or possibly a little bit of both. My husband also founded a skincare company, Jordan Samuel Skin, after his dance career, and I would also love to work with him to further grow and expand his business.
What advice would you pass on to the next generation of dancers?
Enjoy every moment, and try to live each of those moments in the present because it really does go by so fast!