From corps dancer to choreographer
Getting ahead in a top ballet company like PNB is no easy task, but Eastsider Sean Rollofson’s initiative and leadership set him apart.
Story by Gabrielle Nomura and photos by Chad Coleman.
While ballet and ’90s grunge may not normally go together, the melody of Nirvana’s “Smells Like Teen Spirit” can be heard from the lobby of Pacific Northwest Ballet’s Phelps Center.
But there is no greasy hair, Dr. Martens boots or moth-eaten flannels here – only fresh-faced young women and men with perfect posture. In place of baggy shirts and tattered jeans, clothing is tight against the young ballerinas’ slender forms, from the black Lycra of their leotards, to the satin ribbons tied against their ankles, to their high, coiled hair buns.
The sound blasting from the stereo in Studio E. may conjure a dirty mosh pit, but the dancers move with graceful leaps and pirouettes. This is how they do their version of rocking out – not by head-banging, but by throwing themselves into the art of ballet.
Eight of the dancers run out to the center of the space with graceful urgency, their fast footwork keeping time to where the chorus goes: “Here we are now. Entertain us.” The fluidity of their arms, their port de bras, never alludes to the difficulty and effort of their movement or the less-than traditional music they’re dancing too.
It’s a PNB rehearsal. But instead of Stravinsky or Tchaikovsky, it’s a violin cover of Kurt Cobain. Instead of company dancers, it’s the highest-level students in the PNB school. And instead of a seasoned choreographer, it’s Sean Rollofson, a second-year corps de ballet dancer and Bellevue resident.
At 22, Rollofson is hardly older than many of the dancers in the cast of his ballet, “Innertwined,” which includes sections with Nirvana and Muse covers.
“I wanted to use real music that people actually listen to,” he says.
Rollofson picked out the music, the costumes (which include black tights, as well as green, purple and steely blue leotards), and the professional-division students he wanted to work with (his “team,” as he calls them).
Athletic, dynamic and with contemporary flair and attitude – the movement Rollofson creates is similar to how he dances. Throughout the hour and-a-half rehearsal, he drills his team to get each part of the dance, from the ensemble, to the two soloist couples and main pas de deux (dance for two) couple, just as he’d imagined it.
“The higher up on her thigh you grab her, the higher you’ll be able to flip her up,” says Rollofson as he flings 20-year-old Hannah Wilcox upside-down; her partner, Harrison Monaco, 19, watches and listens. “Now you try.”
After setting Wilcox down, Rollofson jumps from the male role to demonstrating the ballerina’s part, going “en pointe” in his Puma sneakers.
After 35 hours of rehearsal time, off and on since December, Rollofson will finally get to present his ballet at PNB’s end-of-year “Next Step” performance June 18. This rare opportunity allows company members to sign up to be the ones behind-the-scenes as opposed to on stage.
Volunteering to choreograph for “Next Step” gave the Eastsider a chance to finally create movement instead of perform it (something he’s always been interested in). But more importantly, it gave him a chance to make his mark outside the corps de ballet – the large ensemble that all dancers must start out in.
“I love to create things,” Rollofson says.
His passion for creating applies to more than just choreography. Last year, Rollofson started his own charity, a local version of the Make-a-Wish Foundation called Jojo’s Friends (jojosfriends.com).
He’d love to continue making dances, and perhaps, even become skilled enough to where he could create new works for the company.
“Choreography can definitely give company dancers a chance to stand out if they go about it in the right way,” says Nicholas Ade, principal of PNB’s Bellevue school and a former company member.
It certainly has worked wonders for retired principal dancers Olivier Wevers, who choreographs work for his own company Whim W’Him, and Paul Gibson, who’s created “The Piano Dance,” among other pieces, for PNB. Corps de ballet member Kiyon Gaines has also gained recognition for his ballets, and has been commissioned by companies such as Evergreen City Ballet and Spectrum Dance Theatre.
Rollofson admires their accomplishments. He’s eager to prove himself, not only as a new dance-maker, but as a skilled technician who excels at the small jumps, petite allegro, and loves to perform.
He’s had featured roles as the Harlequin in “Nutcracker” as well as an Acolyte in Jean-Christophe Maillot’s “Roméo et Juliette.” But some of his dream-come-true roles would be Puck in “Midsummer Night’s Dream” (which he’s understudied before), as well as roles in “In the Middle, Somewhat Elevated” and “Red Angels.”
A challenge to earning these roles, and getting to that level in the company, he says, is proving himself to his coworkers – some of whom have watched him grow up.
“I remember when Ariana Lallone (retiring principal dancer) was my mom and I played Fritz in ‘Nutcracker,’” Rollofson says.
He was 8-years-old at the time and getting paid $300 to be in a professional production was the coolest thing that had ever happened (unfortunately, his mom wouldn’t let him take one of his three $100 bills to school to show off to his friends).
Rollofson danced the role of Fritz for three years, as well as practically every other child part there was for a boy within PNB’s repertory. He went through all eight levels of the school and completed the professional division program. He became an apprentice in 2008 and was promoted to the corps de ballet with his buddies Eric Hipolito Jr. (who’s also his roommate) and Andrew Bartee in 2009.
Rollofson may still be perceived as that mischievous boy Fritz or the bug he played on both the stage and 1999 BBC film version of “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” (“I was just really loud and asked a lot of questions as a kid,” he says.) But he’s come a long way.
Last September, he started his charity, Jojo’s Friends, which will provide memorable experiences to children with disabilities and illnesses.
He wanted to do something positive in his life. And, as starting a program for children had been an idea of his since he worked as a camp counselor for Redmond Elementary, he figured now was a good time to finally make it happen.
Rollofson funded the project with his own money. His two sisters helped create and design the logo and his handsome mutt Jojo provided some inspiration.
He’s been collecting donations through the sale of Jojo’s Friends T-shirts on Facebook, and will throw a fundraiser on the Eastside, either in Bellevue or his hometown of Redmond, this summer.
Within five to eight years, he’d like to have Jojo’s Friends evolve into a summer camp for children as well as progress in the dance world.
“In a way, the charity is sort of like my choreography. It’s about having an idea and taking the initiative to get it done,” he says.
That goes for doing something as avant garde as setting a ballet to a Nirvana cover, taking on the immense task of starting a charity, and having the guts to prove he’s ready to take the stage with other world-class dancers.
Top: Harrison Monaco (left) and Sean Rollofson (right) support Hannah Wilcox (center) at Pacific Northwest Ballet’s Phelps Center in Seattle June 7. Second from top: Rollofson at the barre wearing a Jojos Friends T-shirt. Third from top: Rollofson leads rehearsal with the dancing couples in his ballet (men, L-R) Daniel Ojeda, 20, Eli Barnes, 21, and Harrison Monaco, 19 and (women, L-R) Casey Taylor, 21, Marisa Grywalski, 19 and Hannah Wilcox, 20. Bottom: Rollofson supports Wilcox in rehearsal.