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A Conversation with Kent Stowell

By Dean Speer & Francis Timlin

On a clear and sunny Seattle day, we recently sat down with Pacific NW Ballet's Artistic Director, Kent Stowell to discuss PNB's upcoming tour to London. Relaxed and engaging, Mr. Stowell took time out of his busy schedule to answer questions, offer commentary, and provide his views on the tour, building ballet companies, what it's like to create a new ballet, and share some memories of his career and how this has influenced and shaped his ethics, work habits and artistic vision.


The Chosen Ones


Choosing repertory for a limited tour must be daunting. What are some of the considerations and processes that you went through to select the ballets that you're taking this time?

In selecting repertory to take on tour, I think it is important to showcase what the Company looks good in. The London audience has not had the benefit of seeing the company's repertoire as it has developed over time. So, the tour repertoire was chosen to say, "Now, this is what we think we can do really well." As for Silver Lining, Jerome Kern has had a lot of work appear on the London stage, so London audiences are likely to be somewhat familiar with his work. It's a true "Americana" work, and no American company has ever brought this kind of full-length ballet to London before. The presenters had seen the work in Seattle and had asked for excerpts during PNB's last London appearance, but I did not want to do excerpts. So for this tour the London audience will see the whole ballet.

Having taken the Company to the UK twice now, do you feel better prepared in anticipating what to expect? How has this affected getting ready?

I think they will love the company and the repertoire selection gives them a good sample of everything we do. I think it's a danger to try to second-guess or underestimate the audience and critics.

The ballets a company does is part of educating and training audiences. Do UK audiences present a special opportunity for this? I'm thinking of how they seem to not be as used to mixed bills and to our way of making ballets and moving...

The London audience places a far higher value on dramatic ballets which stems from their long tradition of connecting stage presentations with drama and theatre. They are also frequently shown "the classics" - Giselle, Swan Lake, Don Quixote, La Bayadère - by English companies and any number of continental companies, often all within a very compressed time frame - so it seemed silly to take repertoire they are all very familiar with. American dance has a wider variety of influences, and I chose repertoire to reflect this. Selling Seattle is often a greater challenge...

Opening what is perhaps a "can of worms" - while the Royal Ballet does have some Balanchine in its bank of ballets, never the less, Mr. B's works sometimes seem to be cooly received. Can we change this perception or attitude?

Mr. Balanchine had originally wanted to settle in England but was denied residence status at that time. This plays a part in UK audiences not always connecting with Mr. B's ballets, as there has not been the long tradition of seeing his work. However, this is changing and many UK and European ballet companies now feel that it's important to include Balanchine ballets in their repertoire as his ballets are now viewed as an important element of established "world" dance.

Expectations and perceptions of English audiences has also changed. MacMillan's dramatic works have become the box office standards, as opposed to Ashton. Part of this seems to be driven by the desire of performers to explore choreography that allows for wider expression, for example, Forsythe. Dancers are attracted to companies that perform this repertoire - so that training tilts toward producing dancers who can do this. All of a sudden, Ashton's charm seems tame, if not a little silly, and so it begins to become a question of resources - dancers who can do one sort of work well are not necessarily suited to other repertoire.

What are some of the "cutting edge" ballets of PNB that you're particularly proud of?

I don't believe we have anything particularly "cutting edge" - we would probably need to go to Maguy Marin or Mats Ek for that. Forsythe and Duato are simply "good dance" and that is why they are included in our repertoire. As for new, full-length works, it always becomes a scary proposition to ask, "who am I going to hand over $1 million to?" But new choreography is terribly important for the company dancers - and the audience comes along with it very well.

There was a trend toward "fusion" in dance some years ago and to looking to modern dance choreographers to, I think, "fix" or inspire repertories. More recently, the trend that I've observed is for ballet companies to look more to choreographers with ballet backgrounds to create new works. What's your commentary on this?

Drawing a parallel to the evolution of music, dance evolution has been compressed into about 75 years. Composers have historically built on what has gone on before. In ballet we also get a lot out of each other; it's a natural evolution. I think it's unfortunate for choreographers that their work is so quickly accepted or rejected, without allowing much time for reflective assessment. Critiques are instantly positive or negative.

I look around and see both newer and well-established ballet companies having ups and downs with their respective fortunes - artistically and financially. However PNB has long bucked this pattern and seem solid and stable. Although I'm sure fundraising is perpertually a concern for any arts organization, please comment on why PNB is where it is today. Certainly one factor is the longevity of you and Francia at the helm...

We are very proud of never having missed a payroll, of having to cancel only three performances (due to weather), the dancers getting really good benefits including 401K plans, a long-term artistic team (technical, costume etc.), the best of facilities, a good ongoing relationship with our audience, and the establishment of an endowment. These are some of the values we brought with us from NYCB - that PNB is a company that would "show up" with consistency.

When you talk with your peers in other ballet companies, what are some of the things you discuss? Any outstanding issue or trends?

Our peers are most often the choreographers who come in to work with the company. One of the nice things about my stage in life is that I no longer feel the need to "play roles" - you don't need to make an appointment or see an agent - we can just communicate honestly and directly. I think it's most important for directors to do those things that give a sense of identity and "place" to your company. Strengthening community ties and sharing them with others is what most is most vital.

What are some of the things that gets Kent Stowell looking forward to work each day?

Looking at the Dance Chance students (of the PNB School) is the most hopeful and rejuvenating thing for me.

Tell us about some of your fond memories or stories as a dancer yourself...

Dance affords young people the opportunity to gain a sense of themselves - an identity - at a difficult time in everyone's personal development. Lots of people get it from sports. Initially, the identity is more important than the dance. For me at the time, NYCB was a great bedrock of stability and possibility. Dance was a continuum - not just a career. These are some of the reasons that dance is America's first art form.

How do you approach making a new ballet?

Creating a ballet, not matter how experienced, produces feelings of anxiety and doubt, as it's in a sense, wiping the slate clean and starting all over again. Ballet needs the structure of an institution in order to survive. However, the inclination of institutions is always to become conservative and predictable. The job of an artistic director is to make sure that things stay out of the rut of the predictable and enable the institution to become exciting and vital.



Kent Stowell has been Artistic Director and Principal Choreographer of Pacific Northwest Ballet since 1977. His contributions to PNB's repertoire include the full-length productions of Silver Lining, Swan Lake, The Tragedy of Romeo and Juliet, Coppelia, Cinderella and Nutcracker. He has also choreographed such innovative works as Quaternary, Dumbarton Oaks, Delicate Balance, Hail to the Conquering Hero, Orpheus Portrait, Time and Ebb, Poème Saint Saëns, Through Interior Worlds and Carmina Burana.

Born in Idaho, Mr. Stowell began his dance studies with Willam Christensen at the University of Utah, later joining San Francisco Ballet and, in 1962, New York City Ballet. In 1970, he joined the Munich Opera Ballet in West Germany as a leading dancer and choreographer. Mr. Stowell was appointed Ballet Master and Choreographer of Frankfurt Ballet in 1973, serving in that capacity until being named Co-Artistic Director of the Company in 1975. In 1977, he was invited to join Pacific Northwest Ballet as Artistic Director.

Mr. Stowell has served as Chairman of the Dance Advisory Panel for the National Endowment for the Arts and on the Boards of the School of American Ballet and Dance/USA. In 1989, he received Washington State's Prestigious Governor's Arts Award. In 1996, he and Francia Russell received the prestigious Dance Magazine Award, given to those who make significant contributions to dance during distinguished careers.

Source: Pacific Northwest Ballet Website


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