Critical Dance

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Pacific Northwest Ballet:
An Insider's Personal View on the Company's Background and History

By Dina McDermott
(with contributions by Azlan Ezaddin)
June 2002

Seattle is tucked in the far Northwest corner of the United States, surrounded by breathtaking mountains and chilly Puget Sound, a city of gray mists and long, drizzly winter days. First impressions are of local lifestyles focused primarily on rugged, outdoor activities: many enjoy kayaking, skiing, and hiking. However, the Seattle institution visible on the international cultural scene is one of a wholly, different bent, but of an equally athletic nature. That institution is Pacific Northwest Ballet, directed by Francia Russell and Kent Stowell.

No less than London critic Clement Crisp of the Financial Times described a recent performance of the company there as "a performance of rare virtues, and a company of rare abilities." New York Times critic Anna Kisselgoff reports, "Pacific Northwest Ballet from Seattle would stand out in the richest of seasons." "The Nutcracker alone is worth a trip to Seattle," says Newsweek magazine. What is behind this local phenomena, which obviously has achieved international acclaim? How did this evolve? Founded in 1972, and during the subsequent twenty-five year tenure of artistic directors Kent Stowell and Francia Russell, the company has performed in Australia, United Kingdom, Hong Kong, New York’s City Center, Washington D.C.’s Kennedy Center and in 1999, the Sadlers Wells Theatre in London. The company returns for another Sadlers Wells season in June, 2002.

Pacific Northwest Ballet is widely known as one of the five largest and most highly regarded ballet companies in the United States. The repertory focuses on four areas: original compositions by Stowell; restaging of Balanchine masterpieces by Russell; contemporary works commissioned by the company; and classics from the ballet and modern repertory. Recent audience favorites have included Silver Lining by Kent Stowell, and stagings of works by Paul Taylor, Nacho Duato, Mark Dendy, Anthony Tudor, William Forsythe, August Bournonville and Marius Petipa. A company of 48 dancers gives over 90 performances per year. The company is performing temporarily at the Mercer Arts Arena, but in Fall, 2003, will premiere at their new, magnificent theater, Olivier McCaw Hall.

To what can we owe this incredible, homegrown success? Seattle has always been known for its pioneering entrepreneurial spirit. Witness the success of Microsoft, Starbucks and Boeing. PNB has inherited a classical tradition and re-shaped it with a new, zestful, high-energy flavor. Certainly, to pinpoint the company’s success, we need to look at the two leaders at the helm, Francia Russell and Kent Stowell, both of whom performed for Balanchine at New York City Ballet. Another key to the success is the company’s training ground, the Pacific Northwest Ballet School, described by Dance Magazine’s Marion Horosko as "one of the leading, if not the definitive, professional training schools in the country." Housed in The Phelps Center, the company and school’s home is a state of the art facility featuring studios, a costume shop, extensive office and conference space. I am proud to say I am a faculty member in the Pacific Northwest Ballet’s Discover Dance program. This is an outreach program that sponsors in-school residencies; the mission is to "encourage community’s ongoing interest and lifelong appreciation of dance." Discover Dance introduces ballet to local school children that might otherwise have no experience with dance. Residencies of varying lengths are taught, culminating with performances for the community, either in their school or in local, community theatres.

A strong school and a healthy bond with the community have not only produced a successful company with homegrown talent but also attracted some of the best dancers, teachers, choreographers and designers from around the world. PNB, by definition, is a world class company from the top down.

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