Andrew Bartee returns to woods to create Face of America installment for Wolf Trap


Choreographer Andrew Bartee camped in the woods of Washington when he was a kid, and returned to film “Dirty Goods,” which will premiere at Wolf Trap on Aug. 27. (Lindsay Thomas)

Growing up in Everett, Wash., Andrew Bartee had a love-hate relationship with the camping trips his family took to Olympic National Park. Oh sure, the forested views at Lake Crescent were lovely, but he was the kid who preferred hot showers over campfire-grilled hot dogs. He was a ballet dancer in the wilderness, and he was not entirely happy about going fishing in the rain.

“I don’t enjoy camping,” Bartee said. “I did a lot of it, but I don’t enjoy it.”

Last April, Bartee returned to Olympic Park not as a camper, or even as a dancer, but as a choreographer with a film crew at his beck and call instead of his father telling him where to pitch a tent. His task was to create a dance for Seattle’s Pacific Northwest Ballet. He would need to spend long days in the park, braving the elements. But in the evenings, he could hang with PNB dancers. At a hotel. When Peter Boal, the company’s artistic director, offered him the commission two years ago, he said immediately that he would do it.

Wednesday night, the results of Bartee’s “really fun,” no-roughing-it camping trip will be unveiled at Wolf Trap. His new work, “Dirty Goods,” is one-third of what will be the eighth installation in Wolf Trap National Park for the Performing Arts Face of America series — commissioned dances that are filmed on-site at national parks, then shown on stage in Northern Virginia as a hybrid live and cinematic performance, with regionally appropriate musical guests. Past projects have sent contemporary choreographer David Parsons to the Florida swamps, modern maverick Trey McIntyre to the mountains of Montana and daredevil Elizabeth Streb to the dunes of the Outer Banks.

This Face of America showing — which will include a performance by Oregon Ballet Theatre and an acoustic set by the Seattle-based rock quintet Band of Horses — promises to be different in many respects. And that may be a very good thing, for PNB, for Wolf Trap and for the audience.

Pacific Northwest Ballet dancer Chelsea Adomaitis at Olympic National Park. (Lindsay Thomas/For Wolf Trap)

“I was surprised when (former Wolf Trap president Terrence Jones) called and said he wanted to work with PNBallet,” Boal said. “We didn’t really fit with the other companies.”

Boal runs a ballet company, not a modern dance troupe. His dancers are members of a union that has rules about things like not running around in toe shoes through a forest. But he’s also not a big-name choreographer, and in the past, some big-name choreographers have found themselves inherently at odds with Wolf Trap’s goals. Parsons and McIntyre wanted their commissions to result in works that their eponymous companies could perform on the road, while Wolf Trap aimed to produce a splashy event celebrating (or advertising?) one or more national parks. McIntyre — who has since folded his company — butted heads with Wolf Trap video editors but did tour with his work, “The Sun Road,” filmed at Glacier National Park despite some complications with projections. When Parsons attempted to perform his Floridian odyssey “Dawn to Dusk” in New York last year, a critic said that the piece “confirms the futility of the ‘Face of America’ series,” and resembled “a dismal, summer-stock production of ‘Pippin’ staged in the middle of a swamp.”

A new strategy

Giving a National Park commission to a regional ballet company was a switch, but one that may have neutralized those tensions by lowering expectations. Boal was willing to commit to the project knowing the new work might not have an afterlife, and passed the commission on to his former dancer Bartee, who is just 23, but full of ideas and devoid of ego.

What Boal did not know when he agreed to delegate the project two years ago, was that his prodigy was soon to leave the company.

“I miss him,” Boal said. “Andrew left on the best of terms. We will have him back, and I will follow his career wherever he goes.”

Bartee became an apprentice at PNB when he was just 17. At 19, he made his first piece for students at the company’s school, and his total repertory — counting Face of America — now numbers 11 works. This summer, he joined Vancouver’s Ballet BC, a smaller troupe dedicated to collaboratively creating new works. He has no premieres on his calendar, other than “Dirty Goods.”

Pacific Northwest Ballet company dancers Lindsi Dec, Chelsea Adomaitis and Elle Macy perform near the Olympic National Park’s Merymere Falls Trail, as part of Andrew Bartee’s “Dirty Goods.” (Lindsay Thomas)

“I am looking forward to be blissfully not over-committed for a while,” Bartee said, speaking by phone from Vancouver. He had just performed in a flash mob at an art gallery. “All I had to do was show up and dance,” he said. “That was nice.”

Which is not to say that he approached the Wolf Trap commission with a lets-get-this-over-with attitude. But Bartee is a millennial from the Pacific Northwest, not a veteran New York choreographer on a nature expedition to a cave or a coral reef. That’s bound to show. His creative process began with e-mailing Wolf Trap images of places in the park he knew he wanted to explore, especially the inland forests — “The trees are so lush and green and covered with moss” — and the seastacks on the coast at Rialto Beach.

The film crew from Blue Land Media then did some locations scouting in advance. By the time the dancers arrived for a week of shooting in April, everything was all planned out, except for the weather.

“Andrew had story-boarded the whole thing,” said corps member Chelsea Adomaitis, “We talked to him and he said there is going to be snow and some sun and crazy wind and because this is Washington state, there was also rain.”

Boal and Bartee handpicked the dancers for their hotel camping and dancing trip Olympic Park. “I wanted to choose people who I felt would like something a little out of the box, or a lot out of the box. They all had the best attitudes. I was freezing cold everyday. But everyone was up for the challenge.”

Adomaitis was joined on the trip by corps dancers Leta Biasucci and Elle Macy, and principal dancer Lindsi Dec, who has a special connection to Wolf Trap: She grew up in Fairfax County, and saw Karel Cruz, who is now her husband, perform at Wolf Trap when he was a member of a Venezuelan dance company. (Both are now principals at the PNB.)

“It really helped to have Lindsi along,” Boal said. “She’s a veteran, and she’s a leader. When the other dancers saw what she was willing to do, they followed.”

Dedication to the cause

The American Guild of Musical Artists approved a waiver of working conditions for the trip, which allowed the dancers to perform in lower temperatures than normally stipulated. And a camper at the filming sites allowed the dancers to warm up and dry off between takes.

The motivation was personal.

“We would just tell each other, ‘We have to do this. We are doing this for Andrew,’ ” Dec said.

Some choreographers bring out a dancer’s best qualities as a performer. Bartee, a redhead with an uncynical grin, is by all accounts a choreographer who brings out the best in people.

“Andrew Bartee is so wonderfully talented,” said Emil de Cou, the associate conductor of the National Symphony Orchestra who is also PNB’s music director. “And he is just such a great guy to be around.”

The Olympic Park commission could be described at Bartee’s farewell homage to the American Pacific Northwest. Vancouver has a more bustling creative energy, which he is learning to love, while life in Seattle and Portland remains about being young and poor and artistic even if you only have secondhand memories of Birkenstocks and Kurt Cobain. He dressed his grunge-town dancers in pristine white.

“It’s based on irony and hipster culture,” Bartee said. “The dance became about breaking out, doing something new, something counter to what is expected. . . . It makes sense that that would come out of me when I was about to leave the home and company that I love dearly. . . . I know I am really young. I am not pushing for my choreography to be the main thing right now. I love making dances, and I feel I have something to say. I’m excited. But I am also focused on being a dancer right now while I still can. I am not really pushing for my work to have an extended life. If I make something for a festival, or a specific show — like Wolf Trap — that is good enough for me right now.”

This story has been updated.

Ritzel is a freelance writer.

Face of America

Pacific Northwest Ballet, Band of Horses and Oregon Ballet Theatre. Wednesday, 8 p.m. at Wolf Trap National Park for the Performing Arts, 1551 Trap Rd., Vienna. Tickets: $10-$44. 877-965-3872 or www.wolftrap.org.

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