Watching Kiyon Gaines work in Pacific Northwest Ballet’s company class, you wouldn’t guess that he’s also a choreographer. From the careful thought he gives to each step, it’s clear he’s very focused on his technique. And yet in the past four years, this 27-year-old corps member has choreographed 16 works, two of which PNB has taken into its repertoire.
“It just sort of happened,” says Gaines of his sideline. He’d ask his colleagues to try out steps he had dreamed the night before. “They urged me to create something,” he says. “I was sort of against it. But they said, ‘Well, just try it!’ And I did. And I fell in love with it.”
For now, “choreography is just the icing on the cake,” Gaines says. “Dancing is where it’s at.” That has been his attitude since he ditched choir—and flute, drama, tap and jazz—at 13 to study ballet at Baltimore School for the Arts. There he met Roberto Muñoz, who gave him private lessons after school. When Muñoz went to Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre’s school, Gaines, 15, followed him. “PBT kicked my butt,” he admits. “But that intensive work was what I needed. I got to catch up.”
He caught up so well that The School of American Ballet accepted him into its summer program. Gaines had talent and dedication, but his body type didn’t conform to the New York City Ballet long-and-lean aesthetic. Yet his teacher, Peter Boal, noted the young dancer’s habit of taking corrections home for the night and applying them the next morning in class. “Every day he was proving what an amazing person, mind and talent he was,” says Boal. He invited Gaines to SAB’s Winter Term.
Gaines credits SAB with teaching him the finer points like where the head should be and how to partner. “They also helped me develop my skill at petit allegro,” says Gaines. “They move very quickly there.” His strong jump was already evident. “Kiyon can reject the floor faster than other creatures,” says Boal.
After a summer program at PNB, Gaines joined PNB’s Professional Division with no thought of getting hired into the company. Yet it turned out to be a good choice. This “very, very intensive program,” says Gaines, taught him how to be part of a company. And at the end, PNB offered him a surprise: a contract.
Seattle audiences love Gaines. Critics use words like “electric,” “dynamic,” “explosive” and “charged” to describe his dancing. “Kiyon has an ebullience that is infectious,” says Twyla Tharp, who used him in her new Opus 111 last fall. Boal says, “There was not a person in that audience who didn’t love him, and all he was doing was walking! There is such wit, energy and vitality in that guy.”
Gaines’ choreography reflects this vibrant personality. It has energy—combinations sweep and swirl across the stage. For his recent No Holds Barred, he tried what he calls “classical ballet with a twist.” In it, barres serve as occasional partners, and Gaines featured movements dancers often do but audiences rarely see: stretching, marking, playing. When dancers are “off in their own little world,” he says, “they create the most beautiful art.”
After a summer choreographing and teaching, Gaines turns his focus this fall back to dancing. Taking class, performing, choreographing—does Gaines ever rest?
“I really try to,” he says with a laugh, “but no. I’m a doer. As a dancer you need to let your body repair. But for me it’s the hardest thing to do.”
Rosie Gaynor is a Seattle dance writer.
At a Glance
Name: Kiyon Gaines
Company: Pacific Northwest Ballet
Training: Baltimore School for the Arts, Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre, The School of American Ballet, Pacific Northwest Ballet Professional Division
Favorite Role Performed: Male lead in Nacho Duato’s Rassemblement
Dream Role: Ulysses Dove’s Red Angels