This month’s PNB School Spotlight features PNB School Assistant Principal Meg Potter!
Meg Potter is originally from Metuchen, NJ, and trained on scholarship at the Joffrey Ballet School in NYC. She danced with Joffrey II Dancers, then joined American Ballet Theatre under the direction of Mikhail Baryshnikov. After relocating to the west coast, Ms. Potter danced with Pacific Ballet Theatre where she also served as ballet mistress. She was a faculty member at the School of Oregon Ballet Theatre, and was an adjunct faculty member at Portland State University. Ms. Potter joined the PNBS faculty in 1998.
Read our spotlight to learn about Ms. Potter’s approach to teaching during the pandemic, her favorite memories of dancing with The Joffrey and American Ballet Theatre, her favorite roles, and what her non-ballet life is like.
What do you teach at PNB School?
Currently, I am teaching Levels IV, VI, and VI Variations and Level VIII. I started teaching for PNB School in 1998 and have taught every level in our Student Division, I–VIII, as well teaching in our DanceChance and Professional Division programs. In our Children’s Division program, I taught a Pre-Ballet class for many years. I have also, on rare occasions, filled in for Tots, Creative Movement, and the CD Boys class. So, I have taught just about every level in the School at some point!
You danced at American Ballet Theatre (ABT) while Mikhail Baryshnikov was Artistic Director. Can you share any stories about that experience?
It was an exciting time to be in ABT. My first year in the company was also Misha’s first year as Artistic Director, and he was the one who ultimately hired me.
I went through a grueling audition process, which started with ABT’s first open audition in many years. There were over 400 dancers that showed up, and the panel of adjudicators started out by doing straight-out body cuts. If you passed that, you got to do the first audition class. The next day was another audition class that included current ABT dancers that had to re-audition that year, professional dancers that did not have to do the open call audition, and those of us asked back from the day before. On the third day of call-backs, Misha came to watch the class and made the final decisions. It was probably the most nerve-wracking and exhausting few days of my life!
Photos: Meg Potter in an ABT program book, 1983. Boomfallera by William Whitener at Joffrey II with Eric Dirk (now husband). Photo by Herb Migdoll.
From what I could tell, ABT was changing a lot that first year under Misha’s directorship. There was a lot of pressure for him to be successful as the new Artistic Director of ABT, and he was also still performing quite a lot at that time.
Because we basically had an international superstar as an Artistic Director, ABT had a lot of new opportunities and public interest. The audiences were always so excited when Misha was dancing. It helped the company a lot financially when Misha was still performing with ABT, but it could be difficult in some ways as well.
I remember one time when we were getting ready to perform Afternoon of a Faun in Miami, Misha got injured backstage warming up for Harlequinade. The original version of Faun is done using just the front half of the stage. Misha was behind us warming up and hurt his knee very badly. We all heard his fall and painful reaction while getting ready to dance Faun. The stage manager had to announce that Misha would not be dancing in the performance that day. The audience started booing very loudly and for a long time. Our Faun cast had to go out right after that and ignore the fact that half the audience was walking out of the theater.
There were also the fun times when Misha decided to make a surprise appearance in something like the lead Czardas in Raymonda or Swan Lake. The joy and delight of an audience unexpectedly getting to see Baryshnikov dance, in anything, was an experience to remember.
Can you share any favorite memories from your time at The Joffrey and ABT?
I danced with the Joffrey II, which was the second company, or apprentice company, for The Joffrey at that time. There were only 12 dancers, and we had our own tours, separate from the main company. We traveled all over the country in a rented coach bus for months at a time.
One of my favorite memories is being picked to dance a pas de deux called Images on a Meadow, choreographed by Daryl Gray. My partner was Tom Mossbrucker (who went on to dance for the main company then became Artistic Director of Aspen Santa Fe Ballet.) It was the first pas de deux for both of us, and we worked so hard on it. We did our premiere performance at the Brooklyn Academy of Music and then danced that ballet all over the country on tour. To this day, whenever we get a rare chance to see each other, we have a pose from that ballet that we recreate.
With ABT, it was a huge change. The company was so big, and we traveled by a special charter plane most of the time during my first years in the company. Tours were fun, but I always loved our Met seasons. The Metropolitan Opera House was my favorite theater to dance in, and New York was home. So, after long tours and being away from home for months, being at the Met for nine weeks in the springtime was always a treat. I was fortunate to work with and watch some of the most incredible dancers and dance moments from backstage and onstage at the Met. We did several Live from Lincoln Center performances during our Met seasons, and you can still watch the famous performance of Misha and Cynthia Harvey in Don Q.
I also have a funny memory of doing Swan Lake one time when Natalia Makarova was dancing the lead. We were running a bit late on timings because Natasha was taking an unusually long time to get ready for the fourth act. I cannot remember why that was, but the stage manager was getting worried about going into overtime for the dancers and the orchestra. That was a huge expense for the company when it happened. It ended up being the fastest fourth act of Swan Lake that I ever danced. The swan corps was running and flapping so fast because the music tempo was much quicker than usual. When we would make our poses in little groups, all the tutus and swan arms were vibrating from silent laughter. We finished that performance within the overtime grace period, though!
Photo: Backstage at the Met during ABT’s Swan Lake. From left to right Meg Potter, Christine Spizzo kneeling, Elaine Austin and Julie Bickerton.
I loved just about everything and every moment at the Met, with the exception of the five flights of stairs to my NYC apartment after a double performance day.
What was your favorite role as a dancer?
I always enjoyed doing parts that had an actual character or personality or an innate emotional intensity. The repertory was so large at ABT, and each year we did so many ballets. I loved the fun of Graduation Ball or being one of Swanilda’s friends in Coppélia or performing parts in Billy the Kid and Les Noces. Dancing one of the four “small girls” in Bourrée Fantasque by Balanchine or in the quartet of flower girls in Les Rendezvous by Frederick Ashton were favorites as well. However, my favorite ballets to dance would have to be anything by Antony Tudor. I danced my first Tudor ballets while in Joffrey II – Continuo and Little Improvisations were two of his ballets that I performed during my time there – so I was a fan of Tudor ballets long before I had any idea that I would dance with ABT.
I was extremely fortunate to have worked with Mr. Tudor during my time at ABT. I danced a part in The Leaves are Fading, one of my all-time favorite ballets, and was an “Innocent” in Pillar of Fire. During the rehearsal period for Pillar of Fire, a lot of the company women were getting bangs. For some reason, Mr. Tudor really liked them and called them our “fringe.” He told us to go ahead and wear them for performances. This really frustrated our rehearsal directors because bangs were not in fashion for the era of this ballet. But since Mr. Tudor decided he liked “fringe,” we wore our bangs.
The last Tudor ballet I worked on was a revival of Dim Lustre at the Met. I was so honored to be chosen for this ballet. Mr. Tudor did all the casting for this production and was present during the rehearsal period. Working with him was always an experience to remember and one that I will always cherish.
I will never forget coming off stage at the end of a performance of Bourrée Fantasque at the Met. It was such a fun, happy, and challenging Balanchine ballet. Bourrée was the closing ballet that night, and as I was walking off stage, Mr. Tudor was coming backstage from being in the audience. That was the first surprise, as he did not even have a ballet going that night. Then he came right up to me and said, “I really enjoyed you in that”—! I think that meant more to me than just about any other moment in my ballet career.
How has ballet instruction or your approach to teaching changed over your career? What has remained the same?
Dancers have a lot more emphasis on cross-training for strength and injury prevention than when I was dancing. I am also happy to see the importance of mental and emotional health support for dancers coming into the spotlight.
Being mindful of how we can adapt or change in our teaching methods to meet the current needs of our students and dancers is important. This year has been a good if somewhat drastic example. It is also important to me to expand my teaching skills whenever I can and to be curious and open to new information.
Photos: Meg Potter teaching Level I at Oregon Ballet Theatre. At PNB’s Francia Russel Center leading a Pre Ballet syllabus meeting.
When I started teaching for PNB School, I was already a very experienced teacher and had been teaching at Oregon Ballet Theatre in Portland for a long time. The school director at OBT at that time was trained in Cuba. She had a strong, set curriculum and was very clear about what she wanted. The style was quite different than what we teach at PNB School, but the training was excellent.
At PNB, Francia Russell was Director of the School when I came to Seattle. I learned to implement new timings and some new ways of approaching exercises. When Peter Boal became Artistic Director, he made a few changes to reflect his own sensibilities and vision for the School.
Making sure my students come first and are learning to dance in a knowledgeable, supportive, and respectful environment is the most important aspect of teaching for me. That is something that has stayed the same, and I try hard to live up to that goal each class. I believe that positive encouragement and kindness can go hand in hand with hard work, steady progress, and high expectations.
How has it been teaching in a digital classroom this school year?
Well, it has certainly added some new skills to my teaching, LOL! But honestly, I will be extremely happy when I do not have to teach another Zoom ballet class ever again! However, I am incredibly grateful to PNB School and to everyone in the organization who has made it possible for us to keep working during the pandemic. It was rough in the early days as we all adapted and learned our way around the digital classroom. There are just some things that do not work well virtually, and we have had to let that go and concentrate on what we can do well. I am inspired every day by our students that faithfully show up for their classes, by my talented coworkers finding new ways to engage our students, and by our families that have supported their dancers and our School.
Photo: Meg Potter teaching PNB School students over Zoom at the FRC. Photo by Abbie Siegel.
What is your non-ballet life like?
My non-ballet life is good! I have an amazing husband, and we will celebrate our 38th wedding anniversary this July. We met in ballet class at the Joffrey School when we were 15 years old. Eric grew up in Oregon, which is ultimately how we ended up in the Pacific Northwest. We have two amazing, grown-up children, Jason and Nicole, both happily married to awesome partners. We have three dogs of our own and two granddogs. Right now, they are all in Seattle, so we are lucky to have family close by. Our favorite place to go is a little town on the Oregon Coast called Neskowin. We go every summer and more often if we can. Hopefully, we will get another trip to Europe in at some point, and to the East Coast to visit family.
Photo: Eleanor the Pug, Dash and Penny the Shibas.
Do you have any favorite pandemic-friendly Seattle spots?
I love my neighborhood and walk every day. Luckily, we have been able to be outside all through the pandemic and that has been so helpful for me. I take my dogs out rain or shine and try to walk a minimum of five miles a day. Sometimes I break that up into two walks depending on my schedule. I love Discovery Park and the walk around Lake Union but have not done those as much during the pandemic. I think I know every way you can walk around Queen Anne, though.
What are you currently reading and/or listening to?
I am an avid reader, and mystery novels have always been my favorite. I have lots of different authors I enjoy, and I always have at least one book going. I also read other genres and recently finished Home Fire by Kamila Shamsie, which was a gift from my daughter. Trevor Noah’s Born a Crime is next up on my list for non-fiction.
I have been listening to a lot of NPR lately, especially on my drives to and from the FRC. I love the stories on Hidden Brain and This American Life, and on Saturday mornings I always seem to be driving to Bellevue right when Wait, Wait, Don’t Tell Me is on. The interviews on Fresh Air are great, too.
What advice would you give your 13-year-old self?
Well, I think most people learn so much in life from their experiences, so I am not sure my 13-year-old self would listen to my advice! But I do wish that I had developed more confidence when I was younger and felt empowered to stand up for myself more than I did back then.
Tell us something we don’t know!
I worked at a Dunkin’ Donuts in Greenwich Village. It was during my last scholarship year at the Joffrey School while waiting for my contract for Joffrey II. I hate the smell of donuts to this day!
I once danced in a display window of the Macy’s in NYC when I was in Joffrey II.
Thank you so much, Meg!
Featured photo: Meg Potter teaching PNB School students. Photo ©Angela Sterling.
All other photos courtesy of Meg Potter unless otherwise noted.