By Steve Sucato
Underneath Grand Rapids Ballet artistic director Patricia Barker’s million-watt smile lies an unyielding determination to realize her artistic visions. So when friend Maurice Sendak, author of Where the Wild Things Are, unexpectedly died before he could introduce her to fellow author Chris Van Allsburg (The Polar Express and Jumanji), Barker took it upon herself to visit Van Allsburg’s Massachusetts home to convince the Grand Rapids native to help design GRB’s new Nutcracker production. When Van Allsburg was reluctant to venture down that well-traveled road, Barker convinced him otherwise. The resulting 2014 premiere proved a seminal moment in the company’s history.
It was with that same determination that the first-time artistic director vaulted GRB from a largely unknown regional company in Michigan to one in the national spotlight in less than four years. Born in Richland, Washington, Barker studied at the Boston Ballet School and at Pacific Northwest Ballet School before joining PNB in 1981. She became a principal in 1986, starring with the company until her retirement in 2007.
Prior to her taking the reins at GRB in 2010, Barker honed her business and leadership skills as designer/owner of dancewear line BKWear, as a spokesmodel and designer for Bloch Inc. and as an artistic advisor to Slovak National Theatre Ballet. Former PNB founding artistic director Francia Russell had sparked Barker’s desire to direct years earlier, so when GRB’s executive director came calling, she jumped at the opportunity.