Less than one year since he became the director of Washington Contemporary Ballet, Nathan Cook is making his mark on the school in which he grew up dancing. For the company’s annual spring repertory show Saturday at Mount Tahoma High School, Cook has choreographed two new works: a neo-classical piece to George Gershwin’s “Rhapsody in Blue” and a brand-new story ballet reworking the tale of Pocahontas. It’s the first new story ballet for the company in 10 years.
“I wanted to do something I hadn’t already seen, like ‘Peter Pan’ or ‘Sleeping Beauty,’ ” explained Cook before a rehearsal at the company’s Lakewood studio. “Then it hit me — ‘Pocahontas.’ ”
The 21-year-old Cook, who took over from former director Ken Kaiser last August after a board decision, is also dancing in the ballet. He plays John Smith, the Englishman whom Pocahontas saved from death at the hands of her father the chief — who’s being played in a non-dancing role by Cook’s own father, Randy. A few other company parents play the other English settlers, including the villainous governor, but most of the dancing is done by the ballet’s company and school, from tiny 4-year-olds to teens.
While Cook took a few liberties with the historical storyline, such as bringing Smith’s and Pocahontas’ ages closer to make a love interest and pas de deux possible, he wanted to stick closer to history and less to the Disnified version of the tale.
“The overall message is that violence isn’t OK,” Cook says, “that you should use words and feelings, express things through dance and love.”
With a new custom-made backdrop, an 8-foot-high longhouse, rock and tree set pieces, and buckskin-style costumes, Cook’s “Pocahontas” also celebrates nature and the human connection to it. From the cute-as-a-button dancers playing Pocahontas’ mischievous bunny friends to the more esoteric “spirits of nature” who sweep around the stage with long ribbons, influencing the tide of events, the ballet is highly picturesque. Soroa Lear, 16, plays the title role with a lyrical grace. And Cook has mixed traditional ballet vocabulary with folk-like gestures (a flat-footed circle or face-out palms) and lyrical sections with tableau scenes to tell a clear story.
“My favorite section is the finale, when Pocahontas makes the decision to stay with her people,” says Cook. “It’s been in my head from the beginning. It fits together like clockwork.”
The first half of the program will be mixed repertory: an excerpt from “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” by the late Washington Contemporary Ballet founder Kay Englert, and a new neo-classical, Balanchine-esque work by Cook set to Gershwin’s “Rhapsody in Blue.”
Cook says that, as director, he’s refocusing the school on basic ballet technique, “getting back to our roots.” But he’s also the first director to choreograph a story-ballet since Englert, who also created their current “Nutcracker,” died in 2005.
“Miss Kay instilled a love for dance and choreographing in me from a young age when I was growing up at the school, and it is a privilege to get the opportunity to follow in her footsteps with my own show,” says Cook.
The Legend of Pocahontas
When: 2:30 p.m. and 7:30 p.m. Saturday.
Where: Mount Tahoma High School Auditorium, 4634 S. 74th St., Tacoma.
Tickets: $15 advance, $20 at door.
Information: 253-302-4172, wcbdance.org.