Lost in the Methow Valley Fires

Firefighters flee as the Twisp River fire advances unexpectedly near Twisp, Washington, August 20, 2015.  (Reuters/David Ryder)

This piece originally appeared in High Country News, Aug. 21, 2015

This piece also appeared on Verticulture by Outdoor Research, Aug. 28, 2015

I am haunted by a scene from about a week ago of young U.S. Forest Service firefighters taking a break at The Mazama Store, which I consider the best “hang” in the Methow Valley, just across the Cascades in central Washington state. They were such babies, so long and lean and fit, seemingly drowning in their impossibly large firefighting garb. In addition to soot and grime, they wore the look of thorough exhaustion that you see on the faces of new parents. And yet, with doors swung open on their white SUVs, they sat with crusty boots slung atop seats, chatting, eating, drinking and, yes, smiling. They were not broken.

Just days later, last Wednesday afternoon, three of their ranks were killed when their vehicle crashed and was overcome by the fire now raging near Twisp, Washington. One of their colleagues, a 25-year-old man, is in critical condition at Harborview Medical Center in Seattle. Can those young people possibly remain as unbroken as they appeared in Mazama? They’ll have to.

Firefighters flee as the Twisp River fire advances unexpectedly near Twisp, Washington, August 20, 2015. (Reuters/David Ryder)

Firefighters flee as the Twisp River fire advances unexpectedly near Twisp, Washington, August 20, 2015. (Reuters/David Ryder)

Rep. Dave Reichert, R-Washington, a career first responder, fought back emotion as he addressed a press briefing in Chelan on Thursday morning. He represents the 8th congressional district, much of which now is up in smoke, and once he lost his partner and best friend in a gunfight. “It hurts deep,” he said, “but the job goes on.”

The job, as Washington Gov. Jay Inslee just noted, is “unprecedented cataclysm.” Some 390,000 acres are ablaze in the state, according to Inslee, already topping last summer’s total, which then seemed unfathomable. At more than 256,000 acres, the Carlton Complex Fire accounted for more than three-quarters of the acreage that burned in the state last year, making it the largest wildfire in Washington’s recorded state history. More than 300 homes were damaged.

The Okanogan Complex Fire, which was nearly 125,000 acres strong as of Friday morning, endangers much of the same area. The Twisp River Fire in which the firefighters perished has been merged into the Okanogan Complex. The Okanogan is feared capable of eclipsing the Carlton fire because of high winds and dry conditions.

I feel like one of those people who, upon learning of an acquaintance or loved one’s demise, declares, “But I just saw her/him yesterday.” As if the act of recently encountering someone cancels the fact of that person no longer existing. I was just breathing the ashy air of what seemed to be a perpetual campfire at the North Cascades Institute, which now sits vacant after Wednesday’s evacuation. I was just squinting at the normally spectacularly Technicolor peaks along the North Cascades Highway, which now is closed from Rainy Pass to Newhalem. That little company town owned by Seattle City Light is where we observed plumes of smoke on our way home. Rainy Pass is the location of trailheads from which my wife and I took two hikes whose vistas often were obscured by smoke.
The whole region is an inferno? But I was just there. I’m a native Seattleite and North Cascades National Park, just 2 ½ hours away, is one of my favorite places to hike and photograph; this was my sixth visit this year.

Back in June, I also was in Queets Valley, in Olympic National Park, as the Paradise Fire that eventually erupted there was simply smoldering. Many have seized upon that fire as significant because the Queets, being a rainforest, is such a ripe symbol of the consequences of climate change. I see that, but being there amplified to me the area’s remoteness. Nothing burns a hole in your heart, to paraphrase Inslee’s characterization of the firefighters’ deaths, like putting a face on tragedy.

We almost did not visit the Methow Valley Interpretive Center, which is squeezed into a trailer house in Twisp. It was Sunday and the downtown area was deserted, as was TwispWorks, the artist enclave that encircles the center. But it was hot and we already were disappointed that we couldn’t drive down to Wenatchee since the route passed through Chelan, which was ablaze and being evacuated.

The senior woman volunteer on duty that afternoon probably hadn’t been expecting visitors when we sauntered in. She was engrossed in a paperback book, but glanced up and cheerily offered to answer questions. That’s how I came to know what was meant when officials issued a Level 3 evacuation in Twisp and Winthrop on Wednesday.

There was a Level 3 evacuation in Twisp last year, the nice lady said. I was thinking in Defcons, where lower numbers express higher states of readiness. I asked how high the evacuation scale went.

“Oh, three is the highest,” she said. “It means get out now.”

She got out; she was going to visit her daughter anyway. Hopefully, she’s returned. My wife and I feel badly that we didn’t learn her name.

There are more than 100 large, uncontained wildfires raging in 15 western states, according to Tom Tidwell, the U.S. Forest Service chief who Thursday called the spread and intensity of wildfires “the new normal.” More than 7 million acres already have burned in the U.S. this year. Washington, my home state, had 25 active wildfires as of Friday.

A lot of people saw this coming, but that doesn’t make it any easier to stomach.

Snowpack melt was up to a month earlier than 50 months ago, according to the National Wildlife Federation, and combined with warm weather extending further into fall makes for longer fire seasons. Summertime temperatures are projected to increase 3.6 to 9 degrees by midcentury, creating drier, fire-inducing conditions, the NWF said. The climate-induced changes have led to widespread insect infestation, creating wildfire fuel in the form of dead and highly combustible trees, and lightning is becoming more prevalent because of more severe thunderstorms, the NWF reported.

It’s an insidious cycle with no end in sight. Scientists, to wit, point out that carbon dioxide released back into the atmosphere by wildfires worsens global warming.

The fires consume more resources. Firefighting comprised 42 percent of the U.S. Forest Service budget in 2014, for example. It was 16 percent in 1995. Inslee has deployed five 20-person crews from the Washington National Guard with perhaps two more on the way soon. Washington will receive more resources via a federal emergency declaration approved by President Obama on Friday, and likely will receive international assistance from Canada and maybe even Australia.

Wildfires also cause inconvenience that must be kept in context.

The power went out in the region during our last night in the Methow. The Mazama Store remained open and the mood stayed festive. It was Brat Night at the little food booth in back, but lack of electricity meant the bratwurst could not be grilled. They kept the beer flowing, however, and sold the brats raw at a discount; we cooked ours on the gas grill at our cabin. We couldn’t be bummed, especially when fire burned through the Twisp River line last Thursday afternoon and residents were warned by the Okanogan County Electric Co-Op not to expect power for “a few days.”

As we were leaving the next morning, we spied a black bear on the grounds. When I reported the sighting, the front desk attendant said bears were usually not spotted there. We had been wondering, as nothing in the complex or surrounding area was bear-proofed. Later at the Interpretive Center, we viewed the skeleton of a young bear burned to death in the Carlton Fire, which had seared off its two front paws. It occurred to us that the black bear we saw might have been chased away from its natural habitat by wildfire.

I can’t be certain that’s true but, sorting through the haze of both memory and current developments, it seems sadly plausible.

Glenn Nelson is a Seattle-based journalist and founder of trailposse.com. He tweets @trailposse.

Why are Our Parks So White?

New York Times Illustration by Dada Shin

This piece originally appeared in the New York Times July 10, 2015

New York Times Illustration by Dada Shin

New York Times Illustration by Dada Shin

SEATTLE — MOUNT RAINIER stands sentry over Seattle. On clear days, the mountain is the dominant backdrop, particularly in the city’s southeast, where its most racially diverse neighborhoods embrace their majestic setting with names like Rainier Valley and Rainier Beach.

Michelle Perry lives in an adjoining neighborhood and travels to work on Rainier Avenue South. The looming mountain enchants and beguiles nearly the entire way. She knows she can keep driving south and visit Rainier and the national park that surrounds it. Ms. Perry, 58, an African-American, has an idea about what she’d find up there — mosquitoes, which she hates, and bears, cougars and wolves, which she fears.

“The mountains are beautiful to watch,” she said, pausing for effect, “from a distance.”

As it approaches its centennial on Aug. 25, 2016, the National Park Service says it wants to encourage people like Ms. Perry to visit. It has its work cut out for it.

The national parks attracted a record 292.8 million visitors in 2014, but a vast majority were white and aging. The most recent survey commissioned by the park service on visitation, released in 2011, found that 22 percent of visitors were minorities, though they make up some 37 percent of the population.

This suggests an alarming disconnect. The Census Bureau projects that the country will have a majority nonwhite population by 2044. If that new majority has little or no relationship with the outdoors, then the future of the nation’s parks, and the retail and nonprofit ecosystem that surrounds them, will be in trouble.

Jeff Cheatham grew up in southeast Seattle, and still lives in Mount Rainier’s shadow. Yet, he said of Mount Rainier and other national parks, “I’ve never been, and never thought about going.” A 29-year-old African-American writer, Mr. Cheatham said he didn’t even know what a national park was, or what he would be likely to find at one. “As far as I know, it’s a big field of grass,” he said.

A neighbor, Carla DeRise, has been to Mount Rainier and other parks, and is game to go again. She just can’t get any of her friends to come along. They are worried about unfriendly white people, hungry critters and insects, and unforgiving landscapes, said Ms. DeRise, 51, an African-American. So she mainly hikes alone, albeit with some anxiety. “I don’t have a weapon,” she quipped. “Yet.”

I also live in one of the Rainier neighborhoods, close to where I grew up, the son of a Japanese mother. I met my oldest friend in the Boy Scouts, an African-American from a family that, like mine, frequented the parks. In college, he and I led outings for minority student groups.

There was always nervous banter as we cruised through small rural towns on our way to a park. And there were jokes about finding a “Whites Only” sign at the entrance to our destination or the perils of being lynched or attacked while collecting firewood after the sun went down. Our cultural history taught us what to expect.

This is part of what the park service is up against, which may help explain why so many minorities say they know little about the nation’s parks or what to expect when visiting them. In the 2011 park service survey, nonwhites were more than three times as likely as whites to say that the parks provided poor service and were not safe to visit.

And those responses were from nonvisitors, which means that perceptions had congealed into reality among what should be an important constituency for the parks.

We need to demolish the notion that the national parks and the rest of nature are an exclusive club where minorities are unwelcome.

The place to start is the National Park Service. About 80 percent of park service employees in 2014 were white. The parks’ official charity, the National Park Foundation, has four minority members on its 22-person board.

Minorities did not exceed 16 percent of the boards or staffs of some 300 environmental organizations, foundations and government agencies included in a 2014 study for Green 2.0, an initiative dedicated to increasing racial diversity in such institutions. Minorities hold fewer than 12 percent of environmental leadership positions, and none led an organization with a budget of at least $1 million, the study found.

The National Park Service is the logical leader to blaze a trail to racial diversity in the natural world. It has a high public profile, and its approaching centennial can serve as a platform for redefinition.

But the agency has so far missed the opportunity. It doesn’t even know how many minorities visit the parks these days because it doesn’t routinely track such information. Its initial centennial-related campaign, Find Your Park, includes but doesn’t specifically target minorities and was delivered mainly to the already converted.

Efforts like handing park passes to fourth graders and their families, firing up Wi-Fi in visitor centers, and holding concerts on seashores or valley floors will similarly miss the mark. The park service should use its resources and partnerships to execute an all-out effort to promote diversity within its ranks and its parks. Its outreach should be tailored to minorities and delivered where they log in, follow, Tweet, view or listen. The park service needs to shout to minorities from its iconic mountaintops, “We want you here!”

Such a campaign could include educational programs about the importance of the outdoors to a healthy lifestyle, transportation solutions for carless urban dwellers, and advice on easy and safe ways to enjoy the parks.

The national parks are every American’s vacation home. My wife and I have immigrant mothers who view ownership of the national parks as a grand perk of their naturalized citizenship. Such entitlement must be nurtured in underserved communities. As the world becomes more urbanized, it is increasingly essential to preserve the outdoors as a respite for everyone.

This notion begs for a ubiquitous marketing effort: “I am (hiking/camping/fishing) in my own backyard,” set in various parks and with people of different backgrounds.

We need to inspire people like Jordan Quiller, a 21-year-old African-American who had never seen a mountain until he moved into one of the Rainier-monikered Seattle neighborhoods at the end of last year. He’s never visited a national park, but would like to.

Three national parks lie within a three-hour drive of Seattle. “It takes a little planning,” Mr. Quiller said. “I just haven’t gotten around to it.”

I hope the National Park Service and its partners are listening.

The founder of The Trail Posse, a website that encourages diversity in the outdoors.

Farewell Air Körbes

Carla Körbes

Carla Körbes (photo by Patrick Fraser)

A sportswriter’s appreciation of a Jordan-like ballerina quietly retiring at the top of her game.


The first time I saw Carla Körbes dance reminded me of the first time I saw Michael Jordan play basketball. Jordan was a rookie for the Chicago Bulls and I’d watched him for about 30 seconds. He hadn’t taken a shot, and maybe hadn’t even dribbled the ball, but his looming stardom was abundantly clear. It was the way he moved, gliding over the Kingdome floor like a hovercraft. He had a presence, an “It Factor.”

From then on, grace of movement and the It Factor were the two main criteria that I used, as a sportswriter and later an evaluator, to identify greatness in athletes.

The day Sonic Coach Bernie Bickerstaff excitedly dragged me to view the teenager his team had just drafted, I watched Shawn Kemp for a few minutes and thought, “Yup.” When I was editor-in-chief at Scout.com, I saw Kevin Durant play in an AAU tournament, and immediately asked my basketball editor why we had him ranked second, behind Greg Oden, among prospects for college.

Later, my staff and I danced the movement-It, two-step while identifying for my website, HoopGurlz, that prep ballers Maya Moore, Elena Delle Donne and Brittney Griner were in that special class of athletes. All now are stars in the WNBA.

When I first laid eyes on Körbes, she was a soloist with Pacific Northwest Ballet, and my romance with dance was just beginning to bud. Ballet seemed to have so much in common with my first love, basketball, which I played, coached, wrote about and scouted for decades. I saw the dancers as the same, finely tuned athletes who publicly performed choreographed movements, solo and in teams. Even the music resembled, in a way, the cacophonous atmosphere that had accompanied games, no matter the sport.

What’s more, the ruler for athletes also could be used to measure greatness among the dancers. I couldn’t at first label what I was watching, but I noted how easily Körbes moved and how, every time she was on stage, it was as if you could not focus on anyone else. I noticed how she moved so deftly, you could not hear the hardened end of her pointe shoes knocking against the wooden floor, the way you could with other dancers. While other dancers performed somewhat impassively, Körbes always looked like whatever piece she was dancing was so painful or so joyful, she could barely stand it.

I thought about that on Sunday, as Körbes performed for the last time with PNB. It’s been a different kind of pas de deux that she’s danced with this city. Fame never seemed to be part of the agenda, and I doubt much of Seattle knows the kind of gem it had in its midst for 10 years.

But I sure do.

When my wife did a story about an educational program at Seattle University that included Körbes, I morphed into fanboy mode, offering to photograph the Brazilian ballerina, ostensibly so I could meet her. The next time I saw Körbes, she was injured and milling around during intermission at McCaw Hall. That would be like Russell Wilson buying a hotdog during halftime at CenturyLink Field. Yet, during a 10–15-minute conversation, no one barged in to seek a signature on a program. No one stopped to request a celebrity-infused selfie. No one even said, “Hi.”

It was astounding to witness. I’ve spoken to plenty of professional athletes in public, though uninterrupted only when their entourages fended off the packs of autograph hounds. Körbes arguably was the queen in her castle that day, and she didn’t even need a royal guard to protect her personal space.

In an attempt to reconcile such disconnect, I arranged a series of interviews with Körbes. We met each time in a public place, the exceptions being rehearsals and personal workouts. And the same scene kept playing out. And I kept pressing the sports comparison on her.

A few months later, after a couple dancers left PNB for another company, I asked Körbes when the bidding would begin for her services, as it does in sports when players reach free agency.

“It’s not like we’re professional athletes,” she chided.

Körbes then told a story about shopping at University Village, an upscale mall in Seattle. A prominent local dance critic approached her, extended a hand, and asked, “What’s your name again?”

The first time I met Körbes for an interview, I also nearly shuffled right past her. She was seated in a coffee shop, her nose in Jennifer Egan’s creepy bestseller, The Keep. “I can’t wait to find out what happens,” Körbes said, setting the book down. She pushed aside a buzzing smart phone. She doesn’t like to text. “Autocorrect in Portuguese is the worst,” she said in her wry, delicately accented way.

By then, I was accustomed to seeing celebrities in unexpected circumstances. The late Maurice Lucas, reading the Wall Street Journal on a bus. Shaquille O’Neal canon-balling into a public swimming pool. Ted Turner cooking breakfast with a herd of bison milling around his front yard. What I wasn’t used to was the feeling that, if I had asked the barista in that coffee shop if he knew where Carla Körbes was sitting, he’d have responded with a puzzled shrug.

After all, Körbes back then was ascending big time. I traveled extensively, and often scheduled my travels around ballet. A Columbia grad, I went to New York several times a year, meaning many performances by New York City Ballet and American Ballet Theatre. Chicago — check. Miami — si! Washington, D.C. — check. Boston, Los Angeles, San Francisco and Toronto — check, check, check and check, eh. I’ve seen every major company on this and a couple other continents.

As a sportswriter and lifetime sports fan, it drove me crazy that dancers weren’t announced in their roles before each piece. You know: “Starring as Odette … Carla Körbes … “ I know it’s impractical to have last names on tutus, but how about at least names on a reader board at the bottom of the stage? No matter. I took each casting sheet, found the company mug shots and learned which dancers were which. On more than one occasion, I’ve had someone at the Koch Theater in Lincoln Center whisper, “Do you know who just danced that solo?” Why, yes, I certainly did.

So I started developing favorites: Wendy Whelan and Sara Mearns at NYCB, Paloma Hererra at ABT, Jeanette and Patricia Delgado in Miami, Sarah Van Patten in San Francisco. As much as I angled for the thrill of watching each perform, I knew if I ever were grounded and stuck at home, I still would have access to Körbes, who I came to regard as the best of them all. In the summer of 2012, she moved Alastair Macaulay, the famously cantankerous New York Times dance critic, to gush, “There’s no question that she is one of the finest ballerinas appearing in America today; some think her the finest, and last weekend I felt in no mood to contradict them.” I felt like he’d trolled my mind for that comment.

I’ve seen enough ballet now that I can articulate what makes Carla Körbes so great, though I don’t know if it’s how a dance critic would express it. She was so delicate and precise in “Coppelia,” so sultry in “Serious Pleasures,” and so versatile — even erupting in song — in “Westside Story.” She has undeniable presence and her lyricism is so unmatched, PNB musical director Emil de Cou said Körbes is “like another instrument in the orchestra … a visual melody.”

A long-limbed 5’7 ½, Körbes has flowing, golden hair, expressive arms and face, and almost preternatural balance, allowing her to hold her exquisite lines longer and with more ease than most.

I can’t remember the name of the piece, but I have frozen in my mind a scene during which Körbes performed a series of arabesques, not once clutching her partner for balance, the way I saw another dancer do it. She once kicked off her sandals, I thought to reveal a foot injury. “No,” she said, giggling, “it’s my natural deformity.” Her feet are arched, exactly in the way that would be considered perfect form, en pointe. It’s as if the gods conspired to conceive this prima ballerina.

Yet, I also know nothing came “naturally,” the way it looks and the way the average consumer assumes it does. Körbes has been driven to excel. She has sacrificed much — her body, her proximity to family back in Brazil, her free time. Her luminous, alabaster skin and fit form don’t come from lounging in the sun with a Caipirnha (Brazilian cocktail). She admitted that she once spent every morning of a Hawaiian vacation at a barre, a handrail dancers use for exercise and stretching. “If I take two weeks off, when I come back I feel like an alien,” she explained. “I feel like my feet don’t fit the rest of my body. I feel dizzy.”

So, yeah, a couple years ago, the season was done for Körbes, but something was gnawing at her. She had a short, 3 1/2 –minute performance of the solo ballet, “The Dying Swan (Le Cygne),” at Vail in August — three months later. So she enlisted some one-on-one time with PNB coach Elaine Bauer, a former principal at Boston Ballet.

The sun was streaming through the ceiling-to-floor windows in a studio at PNB’s Phelps Center in the center of Seattle. It was warm, and Körbes was decked in her armor — back brace, warmer on right leg, leotard with a hole under the left arm. It was important to her that I witness the kind of tribal knowledge that sustains ballet, passed on dancer to dancer, generation by generation. I started sweating, just watching.

Körbes, sounding like a sneaker commercial: “Just do it?”

Bauer: “Do you want to walk into it first?”

Körbes: “I’ll just do it.”

She does.

Körbes: “Yuck.”

Bauer: “It’ll never feel comfortable.”

Körbes grits her teeth. The lack of perfection is so unbearable.

The best dancers are utterly self-aware of even minute missteps, seeing them as lesser representations of what in their own minds constitutes an ideal. Körbes chased her ideals with single-mindedness and over two continents, along a trail blazed by Peter Boal, with whom she danced at her ballet school in Porto Alegre, Brazil, when she was 14.

What she remembers most about her first encounter with Boal was that she had never smelled anyone so delightful. “It was probably some cheap hairspray we didn’t have in Brazil,” she cracked. Yet she followed the scent, first from Brazil to New York, where Boal was a star at City Ballet. In 2005, she followed it again to Seattle, where Boal took over as artistic director at Pacific Northwest Ballet. In between, Körbes assumed the role of fast-tracking star at NYCB, rising in the ranks to soloist. “Amazingly confident,” the venerable critic Anna Kisselgoff raved back then in the New York Times.

Körbes is from a small city in Brazil called São Leopoldo. It’s more than 5,000 miles from there to Manhattan, where, on Boal’s recommendation, she attended the School of American Ballet, which is affiliated with New York City Ballet. Körbes was 19 when she made her debut in a leading role at City Ballet. She was told at noon that she had to replace an injured dancer for that night’s performance of “Episodes,” a two-part ballet by Martha Graham and George Balanchine. Körbes rehearsed all afternoon to a lone piano. When the curtain rose hours later, an orchestra was playing the music, and she didn’t recognize it.

The beginning went fine, because she danced with Charles Askegard, the famously reliable and gallant partner who termed the evening “unforgettable.” He also said the passage included music from Bach, which meant some welcomed repetition. Körbes then had about a minute solo.

Askegard: “All of a sudden, she started doing her own choreography.”

Körbes: “I’m in the home of (George) Balanchine, and I’m butchering — I mean, butchering — his work. … I thought I was going to be fired. But they were really nice about it in the end because it was like a mission impossible.”

Ultimately, it came down to too many impossible missions. So, while performing artists compulsively migrate to New York City to crown a career, Körbes scrambled away to blossom.

Part of leaving New York was to follow Boal, who had a knack of coaxing out her best. Still, a large part of leaving also was to escape what Körbes bemoaned as an insidious cycle that City Ballet loosed upon her — lose weight, dance a lot, get hurt, and worry she wasn’t thin enough anymore.

“I kept wondering if my thighs were too fat,” Körbes said.

During her last year at City Ballet, Körbes said, “I totally lost confidence in who I was, as a dancer and as a person. I felt like the coaches were being mean to me. Maybe they were like that to other dancers, but it felt personal to me. I’m a sensitive person and thinking about everything so much affected me. The mind has a big effect on the body, so I also didn’t feel healthy. I thought, ‘I need to get out of here.’ “

Körbes took her demons and insecurities, along with her toy fox terrier Bella, to Seattle and thrived at PNB. She believes she hit her stride as a dancer at the end of 2011, as the lead in the classic Romantic ballet, “Giselle.” The role requires elevated but restrained technique and bold acting. Körbes attacked it confidently in a re-staging of the piece by Boal — probably no coincidence.

This was a heady stretch for Körbes, and PNB’s global profile rose by extension. She continued a run of headlining at the Vail International Dance Festival, where she will be its artist in residence this summer. She also danced at the Guggenheim, and in 2013 was treated like a conquering hero while accompanying PNB to New York.

Before all that, Körbes had danced with her friend Wendy Whelan, one of the greatest contemporary ballerinas, at City Ballet and also on the side with the Peter Boal Company chamber ensemble, which also was in New York.

Whelan is acutely aware of how high Körbes soared in Seattle. “Oh my God,” she exclaimed, before ticking off a number of Körbes’ performances she’d seen since her friend left New York. “We’ve all watched her from afar,” says Whelan. “That’s really bizarre if they haven’t followed her as closely [in Seattle].” Indeed, The New York Times has written more extensively about Körbes than The Seattle Times.

During much of her rise, Körbes suffered through a string of injuries, a crumbling relationship and homesickness that often left her dispirited. “Sometimes I get so melancholy,” she said. She’d relocate her spirit during frequent calls home, though she mostly spared her mother the emotional roller-coaster she’d just disembarked. “It drives her crazy,” Körbes explained. Plus, she reasoned, her artistic bent and Brazilian background made her naturally “dramatic.”

It mostly was the frequent injuries that threatened to break her. A vast majority of them were ignored, not because of some testosterone-fueled footballer machismo or fear of losing a job to a replacement. It was as much the guilt of imposing an increased workload on a fellow dancer as it was the pure pleasure of performing. Often, no one but her physical therapist knew about the injuries and Körbes mostly masked the pain with the adrenalin rush, grinned and bore it, then limped home.

Every ping or jolt of pain brought nightmares of the “one” that would put her down, like the time early in her days at NYCB. During rehearsal for the “Nutcracker,” Körbes snapped her Lisfranc ligament, which holds together the intersection of the metatarsal and tarsal bones, and she suffered a massive dislocation of the bones in her mid-foot. The catastrophic injury kept her sidelined for nearly two years; many of her fellow dancers were shocked she overcame it. Since then, any suspicion of a major injury could trigger almost preemptive weeping — “a fear response,” Körbes said. Her worst fears were realized during the last rep of PNB’s 2012–13 season. Damage to her patella was revealed during surgery to repair a torn meniscus, and she did not dance again until nearly the end of the following season.

“It’s amazing how much pain takes away from dance,” Körbes said. “When you’re injured, life is so weird. Physical therapy. Strengthening. Go to the gym. Go for a swim. Sometimes ballet, mentally and physically, can be so difficult that you get to a certain point in your career where you go, ‘Is it worth it?’”

In the middle of one emotionally rough stretch, Körbes declared, rather portentously, “In a year or two, I should quit.”

Körbes has reached that point, retiring at 33, younger than most. Whelan quit City Ballet last year at 47; Kaori Nakamura, the last PNB principal ballerina to retire, left at 44. Körbes used to imagine she’d dance until a similar age. But now, she gets to depart with her health, following a triumphant season, and her marriage in May to photographer Patrick Fraser. In sports, this would be hailed as leaving at the top of her game.

Not long ago, on a glorious Indian summer day in Seattle, a flock of football fans landed upon the deck at a homey coffee joint in Fremont. The obviously inebriated leader of the Monday Night pre-funk whooped, “Seahawks!” He brushed past a bemused blonde nursing an Americano at a wicker table. “Seahawks,” she replied, not matching the volume or enthusiasm.

“Thanks for indulging him,” the drunk guy’s girlfriend said.

Körbes, the blonde, later recalled attending her first and only Seahawk game. She was driving out of the stadium parking lot when a drunken fan doused her car with beer. Körbes rolled down her window, steeled for battle, but her date urged, “Don’t.” So she drove away and never returned.

Carla Körbes knows when it’s time to move on.


Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 57 other followers