A year ago, Catherine Lasak was fairly certain of two things: She would be studying ballet under the tutelage of some of the world’s best dance instructors, and she would be in New York.
While the first came to pass, the second did not, as Lasak – by a turn of events she did not foresee in the spring of 2016 – opted to pass up studying dance at New York’s prestigious Juilliard Academy and, instead, chose to study dance on the Pacific coast in the Professional Division program at the Pacific Northwest Ballet in Seattle – or PNB, as Lasak and other dancers know it.
“I thought I just wanted to be in New York, but when the chance came up to study [at PNB], I had to take it,” Lasak says. “PNB is one of the best companies in the world, and definitely one of the best in the U.S It actually means a whole lot more to be [at PNB], from the perspective of the dance world.”
In 2016, Lasak, then a senior at Prairie Ridge High School in Crystal Lake, was among a handful of dancers from across the country selected by Juilliard to be admitted to the arts school’s ballet dance program.
However, in the months that followed, Lasak also was accepted to participate in the summer internship program at PNB, during which students auditioned for the chance to be among 17 female dancers admitted into the company’s first-year Professional Division – a specialized training program created to prepare dancers for the rigor of professional dance.
In August, Lasak, now 19, accepted PNB’s invitation into the two-year program, and – in the fall – she entered the whirlwind of the program.
“I knew this was a competitive field, but I’ve always dreamed of being a professional ballet dancer, and I knew these two years would be my window of opportunity,” Lasak says. “I’ve asked myself, ‘Is this really worth all the work, all the risk? Should I have just gone to school?’
“But now I’m on the brink of my dream.”
The program is rigorous. Lasak says that classes run throughout the morning, with performance rehearsals following in the afternoon and into the evening.
Dancers also perform in PNB productions. Lasak notes that dancers performed in more than 40 stagings of “The Nutcracker” around Thanksgiving and Christmas. And dancers are currently learning parts for the PNB’s annual Professional Division showcase, titled “Next Step.”
During her down time, which is quite rare, Lasak says that she enjoys the sights in and around Seattle and the Puget Sound. But the constant training and performing has fatigued her, at times. She particularly felt it around the holidays, when the dancer’s schedule did not permit her to return home.
“It’s nice living on your own – kind of fun,” she says. “But I do miss home-cooked meals and my family.”
Lasak says the talent level at PNB has challenged her, as all of her fellow students “are pretty incredible.”
“Everyone here is top caliber, even at this young age,” Lasak says. “And all of us here are very competitive.”
All of the dancers are vying for a chance, at the end of their two years of the Professional Division program, to be chosen for perhaps one to three openings in PNB’s company, which tours in the U.S. and internationally.
“Next year, the company is going to Paris,” she says.
“PDs (Professional Division students) don’t get to travel,” Lasak adds, with a sigh and a laugh.
Should “PDs” ultimately not land one of the coveted PNB company posts, Lasak says that the dancers can often find work elsewhere, in other leading U.S. or international ballet companies. Other “PDs” have gone on to dance professionally in Washington, D.C., Miami, Kansas City, Salt Lake City, Austin, and Calgary, Alberta, Canada, among others, she says.
“But we all want to get hired here, at PNB,” Lasak says.
With so little separating the dancers physically, Lasak says that she has to focus on maintaining a productive mindset.
“You have to focus on yourself, and try not to compare yourself to the others,” Lasak says. “You have to keep in mind you only have your own strengths, your own weaknesses. You have to try to stay on your own path.”