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The Tiny Dancer Who Became A Big Star In Seattle

A dancer stands alone on the stage. He is dressed in black tights only; his bare chest is broad and muscular.

As the bassoonist plays the first plaintive notes of Igor Stravinsky’s “Rite of Spring,” the lights come up and the dancer’s body undulates like a stalk of wheat in the wind. Slowly, he lifts his shoulders, and his extended arms drift up like wings of a bird.

The short, dark-haired dancer is Jonathan Porretta of Pacific Northwest Ballet.

For more than 30 minutes, Porretta attacks this demanding solo. He whirls, leaps and holds his audience in his clenched fists. When Stravinsky’s final notes fade, Porretta stands still, sweat dripping down his heaving chest. The audience explodes in applause. Porretta acknowledges them with a dignified bow, then walks offstage where he gives in to his exhaustion. He folds over at the waist, hands on his knees, gasping for breath.

His body screams in pain, but he is exhilarated. Porretta lives to perform.

“It’s better than sex, better than anything," he says. "It’s the best feeling, like 3,000 people’s energy all coming into one.”

Since he can remember, Porretta has wanted to perform. When he was 3, his mother, Jane D’Annunzio, took him and his two older siblings to see "The Nutcracker" at New York City Ballet.

By the end of the performance, the boy had fallen asleep with his head on his mother’s shoulder.

But he had a smile on his face, she remembers.

From that day, D’Annunzio’s youngest son told everyone he was going to be a dancer.

That was unusual in Totowa, New Jersey, the town where they lived. D’Annunzio didn’t know any dancers. Her father was a construction worker, and she also liked to work with her hands.

“I drove a truck,” she says.

But D’Annunzio always knew her youngest son was special – different from her two older children and different from other Totowa kids his age.

“He was very animated, very precocious,” she says. He would turn his old pajamas into a costume and pirouette around the living room of their modest Cape Cod-style home.

“I remember saying to my friend one day, 'Oh my god, I think this kid is gay.'”

Jonathan wasn’t even 2 years old at the time.

D’Annunzio doesn’t know why she thought her toddler was gay. She didn’t know any openly gay people in Totowa. There was just something about her sweet, gentle boy. She loved him to bits.

Jonathan kept pestering his mom about dancing. Money was tight, but for his seventh birthday, D’Annunzio enrolled her son at the Totowa Dance Center in a nearby strip mall.

He was the only boy, tiny for his age, with huge brown eyes.

His teacher Miss Barbara treated him like one of the girls. Jonathan loved it, even if – maybe especially because – that meant he wore the same sequined costumes they wore. He could be himself in this place.

“I didn’t like school growing up,” says Porretta, who is now 34. “I couldn’t talk to kids. But at ballet, I could talk to the girls.”

But those ballet girls didn’t talk to Jonathan at school. Nor did anyone else, at least not to say anything friendly.

One day, D’Annunzio was standing at the stove when her boy came into the kitchen with a question.

“Mom, what’s a fag?” he asked her. Some kids at school had taunted him with the word.

D’Annunzio took a moment to pull herself together.

She told her young son not to listen to things like that.

Jonathan Porretta on those mean kids (35 seconds):

“Jonathan, someday you’re going to be famous, and they’re not,” she recalls telling him.

Jonathan took her words to heart. But every day he ate his lunch alone at what the other kids called the losers’ table. He did his homework and counted down the minutes to dance class.

Around when Jonathan started classes at the Totowa Dance Center, D’Annunzio divorced his father. To make ends meet, she ran a landscaping business and worked weekends as a nurse in a doctor’s office to get free health care. Her schedule was flexible, which allowed her to chauffeur Jonathan to dance classes and weekend competitions.

“Because I was a single mom, I could spend all my time devoted to him,” she says. “I could spend whatever money I had on him. I didn’t have to ask anybody, didn’t have to get anybody’s approval.”

She didn’t just drop him off – she would stay for his classes, even when she was wearing jeans and muddy work boots.

Some of the other mothers resented her son, D’Annunzio says. They thought he got preferential treatment from teachers and judges because he was a boy.

After one competition, D’Annunzio lost her cool with another mom.

“She came up to me and said to my face, ‘Well, you know the only reason why Jonathan won is because he’s a boy.’”

D’Annunzio was furious. “I was like, ‘What are you telling me? Because my son has a penis he won?’”

Twenty years later, D’Annunzio is still a little embarrassed about that outburst.

But she’s not ashamed of the time and energy she devoted to her boy.

D’Annunzio’s parents lived a couple of blocks away. They fed and watched over her older son and daughter when D’Annunzio was off with Jonathan. She says the older kids didn’t mind her absences.

She never doubted Jonathan would become a dancer. Neither did he. He idolized ballet superstar Mikhail Baryshnikov and Patrick Swayze, star of the film “Dirty Dancing.”

Jonathan studied ballet and jazz, tap and lyrical dance. The studio was his refuge from the bullies who taunted him, calling him “girl” and “faggot.”

It was also where he could shine. He threw himself into classes and national competitions. In 1994, when he was 12, the Dance Educators of America crowned him Junior Mr. Dance. He won their Teen Mr. Dance title three years later.

Jonathan Porretta loves you (35 seconds):

Of the dance forms, Jonathan loved ballet best. A teacher taught him to dance on his toes like the girls so he would know what it felt like. When he was eight or nine years old, Jonathan asked Santa for a pair of girl’s pointe shoes. Santa brought those shoes along with a note advising the little boy not to take those shoes to class, to keep them private.

And so, alone in his grandparents’ basement, Jonathan would slip on his pointe shoes, tie up the ribbons and dance like a ballerina.

Most of his schoolmates didn't know about Jonathan’s dance life. He was just the weird kid, the seemingly gay boy. Then, in eighth grade, Jonathan helped organize a talent show. For the first time he performed in front of his classmates.

“It was the one time I was cool,” Porretta says laughing. “I did a jazz dance, a solo. I went into a split. It was amazing and I was cool for about an hour.”

D’Annunzio remembers it differently. “He asked me, ‘Mom, why do the kids like me now when they never did before?’”

If you want to be a professional ballet dancer, you need to find the right school. And if you live in Totowa, New Jersey, or any place else for that matter, the right school is the School of American Ballet. It’s the training ground for one of the country’s leading dance companies, New York City Ballet.

Every year hundreds of aspiring dancers audition for a few dozen spots at the school.

Jonathan auditioned on a lark. A girl at his dance school had asked him to come along with her.

“I didn’t know about ballet tights, so I got girl tights, two pairs, with stirrups that I wore over white socks and white shoes,” he says.

Jonathan was accepted to SAB; his friend was not. And the lively, lonely little boy’s world was turned right side up. He was 14.

“It was the first time I was in a class with all boys, and it was like, I’m not weird! There were lots of boys who were ballet dancers, and not everybody was gay!”

They dreamed of being professional dancers, pushing their young bodies to the limit.

“SAB had these beautiful, red leather sofas,” Porretta recalls. “We’d shove our feet under the sofa and stretch.”

One boy did splits on the stairwell to lengthen his calf muscles.

“I was more flexible then,” Porretta says.

While many SAB students lived in dorms in Manhattan, Jonathan stayed in Totowa.

Every day on her lunch hour, D’Annunzio left work, picked up her son at Passaic Valley High School and drove 20 miles to Manhattan to drop him off. She would return to work, and then, at the end of the day, go back to New York to pick up Jonathan. She made those two round trips every day for two years.

Mother and son had a lot of time to talk on those long car rides. Even though he was happy at dance school, Jonathan wasn’t completely happy with himself.

“I remember him saying to me one day, ‘You know what mom, if there was a pill I could take to make me normal, I would take that pill.’”

She was shocked.

“I remember whipping my head around and saying, ‘What? Absolutely not!’”

She never betrayed her own emotions during these conversations.

“I tried to empower him – that’s what I tried to do,” she says. “I didn’t want him to see me being sad. I wanted him to see me being fierce.”

When things got her down, she’d go groom her horse, Bucky, saddle him up and go for a ride.

D’Annunzio prefers not to dwell on the negative.

At School of American Ballet, Jonathan stood out as a performer.

“Jonathan was a class leader,” says Peter Boal, his teacher at the time. “It was funny, even at that age, it was like, 'Oh, I think we need to rein him in!'”

Boal, now artistic director at Pacific Northwest Ballet, recently showed a videotape of an SAB class from that era to some of his staff.

“Jonathan was a student in the tape,” Boal says. “He was impeccable.”

He was also playful.

After Jonathan did what his teacher asked of him, he would glide to the back of the room and work through steps for some of the women’s roles. It was a lark for the student, and it made the other kids laugh. But Jonathan worked so hard and was so diligent in his technical training that his teachers let him get away with a little tomfoolery.

Porretta still jokes that he’s always the jester, never the prince.

“There’s not that many princes that I want to dance,” he says. “The princes are boring and annoying and so dumb! 'Swan Lake's' Prince Siegfried can't even tell the Black Swan is not the White Swan he fell in love with,” Porretta says. “I’ll let the tall beautiful boys do it!”

Ballet is full of tall, beautiful boys and girls. Their glamor is part of the mystique of an art form that aspires to mask its demanding athleticism with an ethereal other-worldliness. For a short, sturdy dancer like Porretta – who says with a wink that he's 5-foot-9 – that means working harder to prove himself.

But in New York, his height was a problem.

One day, Peter Martins, the head of the New York City Ballet, pulled 18-year-old Porretta aside.

“Do you know why I want to talk with you?” Martins asked, according to Porretta.

“Well, I hope it’s because you’re going to give me a job,” Porretta said.

Instead, Martins told Porretta that he was too short for New York City Ballet; he would stick out from the taller members of the company’s corps de ballet.

Porretta was devastated.

Get experience at another ballet company, Martins advised him. Perhaps he could return to New York City Ballet in a few years as a soloist.

Porretta went back to class determined to follow that advice.

Then one day a well-dressed man came into the dance studio and took a seat at the front of the room.

Porretta was goofing around with his friends, pretending to be the ballerina Darcy Kistler, one of the stars at New York City Ballet in the 1990s.

“I was wearing an oversized Gap T-shirt with leg warmers,” he says.

Porretta executed 32 fouettes – women’s turns – from the ballet "Swan Lake," then ended on the floor in the dying swan position. It was a difficult feat, but Porretta was playing around.

After he finished the solo, a friend pulled him aside.

Did Porretta know that well-dressed gentleman?

“Why should I?” Porretta said.

The gentleman was Kent Stowell, then co-artistic director of Seattle’s Pacific Northwest Ballet. He was there looking for dancers for his company.

Porretta was mortified. With five minutes left in the class, he tore off his leg warmers and ratty T-shirt and returned to the floor, intent on showing Stowell what he could do.

“I remember Kent smiled at me, got up and walked out,” Porretta says. “I was like, goodbye Seattle.”

But Stowell was waiting for Porretta in the hallway.

“Here’s my card,” he told Porretta. “I’d like to offer you a contract.”

Stowell recently reminisced about that moment. He says he found Porretta’s antics endearing.

“The great thing about Jonathan is his exuberance,” Stowell says. “He loves to dance.”

Height, or lack of it, wasn’t an issue for Stowell.

“We didn’t want a ballet company that was cookie cutter,” he says. “We’d prefer to have a talented dancer than the right size, and Jonathan fit that perfectly.”

So, at age 18, for the first time in his life, Porretta moved thousands of miles away from his mother. He would be an apprentice at Pacific Northwest Ballet, earning $450 a week.

In Seattle, Porretta danced roles he never dreamed of, roles that challenged him technically and artistically. And he made friends. Within a year, the young dancer abandoned any notion of returning to New York.

Normally, apprentices perform in group dances. But Stowell and PNB co-artistic director Francia Russell loved Porretta. They found him fearless on stage and they cast him in solo roles.

Stowell says Porretta has that indefinable "it factor" that lifts him above most other dancers. It’s part talent, part stage charisma and part technical mastery. But Stowell says that when it comes to Porretta, it’s also about his love of being on the stage.

“That conquers all kinds of things,” Stowell says. “You don’t fear if you’re doing the right thing musically, or the steps. All those things kind of disappear if you love being out there.”

And Porretta loves being out in front of the audience. He spends hours every day perfecting his technique, rehearsing the steps of each ballet he’ll perform.

“I’ve always worked on it, and I still work on it every day,” he says.

But Porretta never thinks about technique when he’s onstage. “When I’m dancing I’m never thinking, ‘Point your foot here, put your shoulder down.’ I’m enjoying the moment and being free.”

D’Annunzio loves to watch her son dance. When he first moved to Seattle, she flew out for every production.

“Believe me, I cry whenever he performs!” she says laughing. “No matter what role he had, I would say afterward, you had the best part in the ballet!”

There have been no roles for Porretta this season. For the first time in his career, the dancer had a serious injury: a chipped bone in his foot that developed into bone spurs and arthritis. Major surgery has kept him off stage for months.

It’s given him a glimpse of the inevitable: his life after ballet. It’s the one thing his mother can’t make easier.

On a recent afternoon, Porretta sipped from a glass of white wine in his small basement apartment on lower Queen Anne. The surgery scar was still angry red on his bare foot.

Jonathan Porretta on retirement (41 seconds):

“Retiring, I can’t even talk about it. I can’t.” he says. “When you start this career, the horizon is so far away, you never see the end. But I’m 34 now, and I’m at a certain age. I can see it now, and it’s heartbreaking.”

Boal, a former principal dancer at New York City Ballet, knows that anguish first hand. Boal left his performance career behind when he moved to Seattle to take over artistic leadership at PNB.

To him, Porretta is one of those dancers who lives life at its fullest on stage.

“He lives to get out there and do what he loves,” Boal says. “It’s awful to be deprived of that.”

Porretta’s performance hiatus is most likely temporary. His recovery, while frustratingly slow, has been steady. He’s back in company class, working on his jumps and pirouettes. Porretta hopes to return to the stage in February.

He’ll be even more thrilled than his legions of adoring fans.

“The happiest I am is when I’m onstage in front of an audience. I love them more than they can ever love me!”

But at some point that love affair will be a fond memory. The clock is always ticking on a dancer’s career.

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