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More than a prince, Gaines takes final bow tonight

Benjamin Griffiths as Oberon and Kiyon Gaines as Puck in Balanchine’s “A Midsummer Night’s Dream.”
Photo by Angela Sterling, provided by PNB
From the start, he was told that he didn’t look like a prince. “Your muscles are not long enough, you’re not tall enough,” Kiyon Gaines can tick off the discouraging phrases by memory. And the one mostly unspoken but obvious to the African-American teenager with the passionate love of classical ballet. “I’d look around the classroom and everyone else was white.”

Still, Gaines, who started ballet classes at age 12, was judged good enough to attend the prestigious School of American Ballet in his teens, and found a professional home at Pacific Northwest Ballet before he turned 20. Since then, he’s originated leading roles in Paul Gibson's “The Piano Dance,” Margaret Mullin’s “Lost in Light,” Susan Stroman’s “TAKE FIVE … More or Less,” and Twyla Tharp’s “Opus 111” and “Waiting at the Station.” On the classical side of the repertoire, he’s danced with acclaim in everything from George Balanchine’s “Agon” to Kent Stowell’s “Swan Lake.”

“I never set out to be a dancer, but dance found me,” he said one afternoon as he reflected on a career that is heading into a new chapter. “Many people said I couldn’t do it. But I only needed a couple of people to say yes. Many times I was the only male dancer in my early ballet classes. At SAB, that was when it got tough. I found out recently that Peter [Boal, PNB’s artistic director] was fighting battles for me. Even when other faculty members thought I couldn’t be a classical ballet dancer, he always believed in my talents and gave me opportunities.”

“When I first met Kiyon, he was an eager teenager bouncing around the studio and nodding in agreement to every word I said. His infectious energy filled the room,” said Boal. “What a pleasure it has been to watch him develop over the years, not only as a dancer, but as a choreographer and a person.”

Kent Stowell and Francia Russell saw that same eager teen in rehearsals at SAB and asked him to come to Seattle and try for a position at PNB. “Kent and Francia,” Gaines paused for a moment to reflect on becoming a member of the corps de ballet in 2001. “So important. That was a huge yes.”
With tonight’s encore performance at McCaw Hall, Gaines officially retires from the stage. But he will continue at PNB as a faculty member and overseeing the company’s Next Step program that encourages dancers to try their hands at choreography. This year’s performance, on June 12, will feature the work of Chelsea Adomaitis, Kyle Davis, Steven Loch, Charles McCall, Ezra Thomson, and Price Suddarth.

Gaines took over as project coordinator of Next Step from Nicholas Ade, who left in 2012 for Pennsylvania Youth Ballet. “I want to give dancers information that I never got as I started choreographing,” he said. “How to talk about your work, how to write about your work…”

As a choreographer, Gaines' own work includes several pieces created for PNB’s annual Choreographers’ Showcase performances (the predecessor to Next Step). For the company, he also choreographed "M-Pulse," set to a commissioned score by Cristina Spinei, in 2008, and "Sum Stravinsky" in 2012. The latter is scheduled to be part of PNB's season next year as well. Gaines also has attended the New York Choreographic Institute.

And, if that wasn't enough extracurricular activity while dancing full-time, he’s graduating this month from Seattle University with the aid of PNB's Second Stage program that allows dancers to work university classes into their schedules, sometimes just one or two per season. “Took me fifteen years to get a four-year degree,” he joked, but he’s also obviously pleased that his mother will be attending both his final performances and his graduation this month. “A college education was very important to me because it was important to my mother.”

Unfortunately, one member of his family won’t see that graduation that she would have cheered. Gaines credits his late grandmother with giving him the biggest encouragement to stick to his dreams, despite all the discouragement from others. “My grandmother told me to never let anyone tell you that you can’t do something. She said you can do whatever you want to do,” he said.

It’s a message that he hopes to pass along to the boys and the girls in his dance classes, and to the dancers in the works that he will choreograph, for years to come. “Dance should be accessible for everyone,” he said as he plans to be the one to say “yes” to the kid who breaks preconceived notions of what a prince or a classical ballet dancer looks like. He expects to be just as good at that as he has been at leaping across PNB’s stage. “I’m a great cheerleader,” Gaines said.