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.

Cuckoo Over Owls

Long-Eared Owls rarely range west of the Cascades.
Long-Eared Owls rarely range west of the Cascades.

Long-Eared Owls rarely range west of the Cascades.

It once roosted in a thicket the size of a two-car garage, amidst wetlands and diked agricultural fields near Stanwood. The brush was so thick, the Long-Eared Owl must have felt unassailable. Long-barreled photographic devices proliferated and trained at it like arms in a cold war. The birders and the avian paparazzi jostled and bickered and shoved like football fans queued for playoff tickets. With Mount Baker gleaming in the background, hunters boomed rifles, dogs sniffed and barked and, just across a flooded field, a battalion of construction workers jack-hammered and backed loudly beeping trucks.

Yet, all the while, the object of everyone’s desire might crack open one of its impossibly large eyes but otherwise appear to not give … a hoot.

The people did, for sure.

The nocturnal birds of prey with the long, distinctive ear tufts prefer shrub-steppe habitat in Eastern Washington, making their presence on the other side of the mountains a “thing,” the way a new iPhone is a “thing.” The resultant mobbing of the Long-Eared Owls at one point regressed into panic that one literally had been loved to death. Those fears proved unfounded, but the episodic two months provided yet another cautionary tale about unchecked human interaction with one of nature’s more sensitive species.

One of the Long-Eared Owls, at dusk.

One of the Long-Eared Owls, at dusk.

Almost more than any feathered creature, owls will bring out the cuckoo in birders.

“Owls become like religion for people,” said Dr. Kevin McGowan, a professional ornithologist and educator at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, one of the global authorities on birds.

“They are more people-like — like cats. Those round heads and flat faces — it ticks something in the brain that other birds wouldn’t inspire.”

On Dec. 8, Mitchell Von Rotz of Woodinville made one of those sightings that sends feathers – and people – flying. He posted to Tweeters, a local birding email list processor, or listserv, that he was “80-85” percent certain he’d spotted a LEOW (birder’s shorthand for Long-Eared Owl) near Stanwood. He also noted, “it may be a quasi noteworthy sighting,” which may have been an understatement along the lines of, “Houston, we’ve had a problem.”

So many birders subscribe to instant alerts that reports like Von Rotz’s are tantamount to firing a starter’s pistol. The race certainly was on after Ryan Merrill of Kirkland made the state’s first-ever confirmed sighting of a Wood Sandpiper in 2011. Just before posting a report online, Merrill warned Harley Soltes, the owner of the Edison, Wash., farm on which the sighting was made: “You might need help to manage the crowds.” Shortly after Merrill hit “send” on his phone, the cars started lining up along Bayview-Edison Road, according to Soltes.

Merrill’s transmission was made over Tweeters, which was established by Dan Victor in 1992. Victor’s preceded another bird-themed social network, Twitter, by 28 migrations or 14 years, depending on how you mark your time. Closing in on 3,500 subscribers and read by countless others on the Web, Tweeters is a place to chirp about anything bird related. Cats eating birds is the all-time, “hot-button issue,” according to Victor. The most ubiquitous sightings-only tool is eBird, an online data-collection program launched by the Cornell Lab and National Audubon Society in 2002 that can be accessed via smartphone applications.

The aftershocks of Von Rotz’s report didn’t really hit until the holidays, when crowds and emotions began to escalate. Mayhem seemed an inevitable consequence. Belinda Rotton, who manages the Skagit Wildlife Area for the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife, received reports of as many as 20-30 cars at the site, stretching from a parking lot that holds about six. The demise of one of the Long-Eareds was incorrectly reported more often than Morgan Freeman’s. When photographer Bryce Yamashita of Bothell returned to the site in February, he felt such a chill from birders, he skipped looking for the Long-Eared Owls because he “didn’t want to get beat up or yelled at by anybody.” Even hunters felt squeezed out by the raptor-triggered mosh pits.

The WDFW posted signs and increased its presence.

The WDFW posted signs and increased its presence.

The place ended up looking like the high-school football field the morning after senior prom. Large parts of the thicket were trampled and strewn with waterfowl carcasses and garbage. Sammy Catiis of Arlington says she found a knife sticking out of a tree where branches were cut away. Someone went joyriding in a four-wheeler and chewed up sections of the adjoining farmland. The WDFW eventually plopped down signs and increased its enforcement presence.

McGowan of the Cornell Lab listened to a detailed account of the commotion near Stanwood and offered a figurative shrug. He noted that Long-Eared Owls generally are plentiful and far from threatened. The same could not be said of people inspired enough by birds to help protect the environment. “People who are in the business of protecting the well-being of a species are all about populations and habitats,” McGowan said. “Everything else is a distraction.”

The Washington Ornithological Society weighed in late with a release warning against aggressive behavior by humans viewing and photographing the Long-Eared Owls. The WOS posited that there are “telltale signs that a roosting owl has been disturbed,” an assertion disputed by bird and raptor experts.People tend to project their own anxieties on the birds, McGowan and several local avian experts said, and the fact that the owls remained near Stanwood as long as they did tells the tale more than anything else.

“They have wings, don’t they?” one local authority asked, suggesting the owls could easily have moved if genuinely harassed. For that matter, the legions of outraged birders and photographers had the same choice. After all, numerous birding listservs and forums, even the American Birding Association, discourage reporting the location of sensitive species, which certainly include owls, particularly the dislocated.

Barb Deihl of Matthews Beach once had been posting on Tweeters as much as several times a week about the Long-Eared Owls. Her reports included links to photos and description of the owls’ behavior. Increasingly, the posts contained complaints about the expanding human circus, which she now fears she may have contributed to arousing.

“I have vacillated between feeling guilty about doing this,” said the retired junior-high-school teacher.

The last post about the Stanwood site on Tweeters was a response to another by Deihl on Feb. 24. Hers included nary a mention or photograph of the owls. There weren’t many people in her photos, either. She’s since moved on to another longtime love, the Merlin, a falcon that she volunteers to monitor in Seattle neighborhoods that barely notice its presence.

A Long-Eared Owl, striking at prey.

A Long-Eared Owl, striking at prey.

Most of this story appeared at Crosscut.com.

For More Owl Photos: Click Here.

2015 Calendar: Nature Calls

OCTOBER: Mount Rainier looms over Edith Creek on a gorgeous fall day in Mount Rainier National Park.

People keep telling me, “You should do a calendar!”

And other people smarter than me say, “You’ll be sorry!”

I’m heeding the former; let’s prove those latter folks wrong! I know $30 is at the high end for a calendar, but, honestly, I might make a couple bucks on each, paying for half a gallon of the many gallons of gas I burned, chasing the light this past year.

You can see the lineup below.

I will take orders until DECEMBER 7. That way, I can get the calendars out before the holidays.

Hit me on the Contact Page to make arrangements. PayPal would be great, but Bitcoins also work (not really; can anyone explain to me how they work?).

By the way, clicking on any image below will launch a viewer.

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