Christopher Stowell resigned Tuesday night as artistic director of Oregon Ballet Theatre.
His resignation is effective December 31.
The move, little more than a week before the opening of the company’s annual production of George Balanchine’s “The Nutcracker,” sent a shock through Portland’s arts community, where Stowell is a major figure who has positioned his company as a national player.
Since he arrived in 2003 after a 15-year-career as a dancer for the San Francisco Ballet, Stowell has elevated the company’s standards remarkably and almost completely reinvented it. During his tenure the company has added more than 50 works to its repertoire, more than 20 of them world premieres. He also, like his predecessor, James Canfield, dealt with a fragile financial organization. The company came perilously close to folding in 2009, and although it got back on its feet its financial health has never been strong. Houses were noticeably light for the company’s fall concert series, part of a pattern of light attendance this fall across the city. The company fell roughly $50,000 short of projections for that series of concerts.
A board move toward belt-tightening appears to have played a crucial role in Stowell’s departure. He has always pushed doggedly for the primacy of the artistic product, even when other voices were calling for pullbacks because of tight budgets. “OBT’s Board of Trustees has determined that the organization must adopt a new business model,” Stowell said in a prepared statement, “and, after much thought, I have come to the conclusion that I am not the best candidate to lead OBT into that future.”
Oregon Ballet Theatre has 26 dancers this season, plus six apprentices, which makes it not big by New York City Ballet or San Francisco Ballet standards, and also smaller than Seattle’s Pacific Northwest Ballet, which Stowell’s parents, Kent Stowell and Francia Russell, led for many years. But under Stowell’s leadership OBT has grown to a size and level of talent that it can handle large-scale traditional story ballets with relative ease: If there’s such a category nationally, OBT has become a small major company. If budgetary cutbacks were to include a drop in the number of dancers – and it’s difficult to believe that isn’t a strong possibility – it would mean a shift in the kinds of ballets that could be performed (or at least the variety) and almost certainly, as a result, a shift in style as well. A leaner, meaner OBT might look very different from the one Stowell has so painstakingly created.
What will OBT’s new business model look like? Right now, the answer’s up in the air. But it almost certainly would include much stricter show-by-show budgeting. It’s very early in the process, and nothing’s yet been set, Stowell stressed in a telephone conversation Wednesday morning. But he said the board is right to consider changes. “What is the right structure, size, aesthetic for the community right now? It needs to be asked.”
The board was neither hoping nor expecting Stowell to step down, vice chairman Harold Goldstein said in a telephone interview Wednesday night: “I think it’s just a shame. He’s done great work.” Goldstein, who was OBT’s board chairman for two seasons before this one and also chairs the board of Portland Playhouse theater company, said the company had managed to end the past two seasons in the black, but finances took a nosedive this fall. The board got very worried, he said: “It’s a pretty big gap and it looked like it was growing.”
Since Stowell arrived at OBT in 2003 the company has undergone an almost total personality transplant. Only one dancer, Alison Roper, remains from the pre-Stowell years. More than that, Stowell radically reset the company’s compass, away from the pop orientation of founding artistic director Canfield and toward a neoclassical impulse that has included, in addition to Stowell’s own pieces, contemporary choreographers such as Christopher Wheeldon and Yuri Possokhov but also 20th century icons such as George Balanchine and Jerome Robbins. As the White Bird dance series has brought more contemporary dance voices to the city on a regular basis, OBT has represented the deep and rich traditions of the art form.
All of this has come in the face of daunting budgetary realities. “Yes, we’re facing financial challenges,” Stowell said on the phone. “A lot of organizations are.” Part of the trouble at OBT may have come from administrative instability. Part is a natural result of the country’s long economic recession. A good share is a result of Portland’s traditional approach to arts funding, which has long lagged behind the work itself: Even “big” organizations such as Portland Center Stage, Portland Opera and the Portland Art Museum operate under relatively shoestring budgets considering their size and importance. As Stowell put it: “The quality of the arts scene here is incredibly high, and it’s hard to keep that level of quality with the level of resources that are available here.”
Like symphonic music and opera, dance – and especially ballet – is an inherently expensive art form that can’t even begin to pay its expenses from its box office receipts. Such art forms have ravenous financial appetites and must be fed constantly from outside sources – governmental, corporate, foundation and individual donations. Poor finances had a good deal to do with the downfall of the Canfield-era company, and not just financially but also artistically: In his latter couple of years, when Canfield had to choreograph most of the company’s work himself and so became overextended, the work as a whole naturally suffered.
Things came to a head in 2009 when Oregon Ballet Theatre nearly went bankrupt. It found itself in an immediate $750,000 hole, not counting longer-term shortfalls. A massive save-the-ballet campaign remarkably raised more than $900,000, part of it from a Dance United benefit concert for which Stowell called on his many friendships in the national ballet world and got first-string guest dancers from across the country to perform. General manager Jon Ulsh lost his job in the aftermath, and although the immediate crisis passed, the company was still fragile. Live orchestral music was eliminated (it gradually made a return), a significant endowment never came about, a new executive director, Diane Syrcle, was hired but left after two years for the Oregon Symphony, and development remained to a great extent a board responsibility.
“(N)o arts group can hope to thrive in the long term without some deep-pocket supporters,” I wrote in 2009 in an analysis of OBT’s emergency for Art Scatter. “Where are OBT’s deep pockets? And if they don’t exist, why not?” The questions are still pertinent.
If OBT’s financial situation is lean, it doesn’t appear to be life-threatening. The Oregonian reported this morning: “In an audit of its 2011 fiscal year, the company saw increased revenue, lower debt, and more than a $134,000 surplus against a budget of $5.48 million.” Things have shifted since then, however, and the board decided that steps needed to be taken to avert another severe financial crisis. Last season ended in the black partly because of an end-of-season push that raised about $600,000. “People stepped up and gave a lot,” the board’s Goldstein said. That success made the board optimistic heading into the new season. But some of the donors to that campaign appear to have considered that their big gift to OBT and haven’t followed through with additional giving this season, which has hurt this year’s funding campaign. Ticket sales and subscriptions are down, as well. And “Body Beautiful,” the fall program for which the company had high projections, instead sold poorly and lost money.
Goldstein said that while the company’s new business model hasn’t been fully worked out, it would include a shift from setting a budget goal for the entire season to budgeting more tightly for each show. “We want to know what each ballet is going to cost and how we’re going to cover that cost,” he said. “So, for example, how much is it going to cost to do ‘Swan Lake,’ and can this community support it?” Such an approach, he added, “requires a whole different level of oversight.” Another crucial aspect of the evolving plan is to cut costs for next season by at least 1.5 percent from this year’s levels so the company can establish a reserve fund: “For prudent budgeting you have to have a reserve.”
Would the new realities mean reducing the number of dancers or cutting the orchestra? “To be honest? I don’t know,” Goldstein said. “Because we never got to that point.” He laid out some hypothetical possibilities: The size of the dancing company could vary during the season, according to the needs of specific ballets; certain works might be accompanied by piano and violin rather than full orchestra. He stressed that the board had no intention of telling Stowell what artistic decisions he should make. But artistic decisions would need to be made with an understanding of the amount of money available.
Meanwhile, Goldstein said, “Everything’s on the table.” The board has been in contact with artistic leaders from elsewhere but hasn’t set a timeline for replacing Stowell, or even decided what its process will be. And so far, he added, the breakup has been largely amiable: “I was telling Christopher, ‘It’s a little bit like for the dancers their parents are getting divorced.”
Stowell said that plans for the remainder of the current season are well-set, and staff members are fully capable of carrying them out. He’ll remain available for consultation. In the meantime, Oregon Ballet Theatre now must find a new leader, quickly, and is in the uncomfortable position of no longer knowing who or what it is. This company has become to a remarkable extent a reflection of its artistic director. And in a month, Stowell will be gone. He was hired, he said, to carry out a specific vision. With that vision likely changing – and quite possibly necessarily – he added, “I’m just not the right person to lead that.” What the board now needs, he said, is someone who can look at the new realities with a fresh eye, and create something new based on that new, so far unformed, vision. Stay tuned.
In the meantime, Stowell for the first time in a long time is preparing to take a deep breath and see what happens. Chances are extremely high that he’ll end up leaving Portland, simply because that’s the way the dance market works. And he has a lot of connections nationally. “I’m excited about returning to the larger world and seeing what’s out there and getting on with the next step of my career,” he said.
Board chairman Ken Hick released this statement Wednesday morning in a press release:
“The Board of Trustees of Oregon Ballet Theatre is greatly appreciative of Christopher Stowell’s superb artistic leadership for almost a decade. He has created a ballet company that represents our community in its highest and brightest light. During Christopher’s tenure, OBT has become a company of national renown and international reach. Never one to rest on past accomplishments, Christopher has always pushed the limits of his own abilities and has been a model to all our dancers of how to reach higher in every performance. The Board is excited for Christopher’s next step and wish him success in all his future endeavors.”
Stowell released this personal statement on Wenesday morning:
“After careful consideration and thoughtful reflection, I have submitted my resignation as Artistic Director of Oregon Ballet Theatre effective at the end of December. OBT’s Board of Trustees has determined that the organization must adopt a new business model and, after much thought, I have come to the conclusion that I am not the best candidate to lead OBT into that future.
“I was hired by OBT’s Board in 2003 to implement and lead a specific vision for the organization. I am very proud of the work we have accomplished to that end. Now that OBT is entering a new chapter in its history, it is imperative to find the right
“To our dedicated audiences, I want to say thank you for your support of my work during my time at OBT. I believe that classical ballet, as an art form, has a great deal to offer this community and hope that you will continue to support OBT as an
audience member and donor for many years to come.
“To our funders and donors, I also extend my thanks for your many years of support. Your generosity has enabled OBT to create beauty for our audiences, given access to ballet to thousands of people and helped bring the joy of dance to thousands of
children. For that, you have my deep gratitude.
“I am very grateful to all the staff members who have dedicated so much of themselves to OBT over the last decade. It has been a great honor to work with everyone. I hope that what we have accomplished will contribute to the future
success of the organization.
“To OBT’s dancers I can only say thank you for everything you have done for OBT, for your colleagues, for your fans and for the art form. This organization, this community, this state and the whole of the ballet world owe you a debt of gratitude.
“It has been the greatest honor of my life to work with everyone at Oregon Ballet Theatre. This is the most talented, dedicated and passionate group of artists I have ever known. As I move on to new challenges and new frontiers, my experiences at
OBT will go with me and for that you have my thanks.”