Farewell to the Christopher Stowell Era at OBT

The great dancing the exiting artistic director left with us

Oregon Ballet Theatre performs Christopher Stowell’s “The Rite of
Spring”/Blaine Truitt Covert

By MARTHA ULLMAN WEST

Alison Roper’s seductive Carmen, heartbroken Odette, implacable Myrtha, hell for leather dancing in William Forsythe’s “The Second Detail”…

Grace Shibley’s long legs flashing across the stage in Balanchine’s “Stravinsky Violin Concerto,” her choreographically and musically contentious pas de deux in the same ballet with Brett Bauer…

Whippet-thin Anne Mueller’s whip smart performance in Stowell’s urban take on “Rite of Spring,” her swift, chrystalline Dewdrop in Balanchine’s “The Nutcracker”…

Gavin Larsen and Artur Sultanov’s eloquent musicality in Balanchine’s “Duo Concertant,” their highly nuanced dancing in Jerome Robbins’ “Afternoon of a Faun”…

Chauncey Parsons’ aristocratic Albrecht and down and dirty performance in Twyla Tharp’s “Junk Duet”….

Yang Zou and Haiyan Wu’s heart-rending dancing in Kent Stowell’s “Orpheus Portrait”…

Wu’s dramatic shifts in Act One of “Giselle,” her desperate resolve in Act Two…

Brian Simcoe and Lucas Threefoot’s pas de deux in Stowell’s “Ekho” and the pas de trois with Xuan Cheng, whose dancing in the fall opener was consistently top notch, beautiful when called for, highly disturbing in “The Second Detail”…

Sultanov’s Phlegmatic in Balanchine’s “Four Temperaments” and hen-pecked husband in Robbins’ “The Concert,” roles originated by Todd Bolender, one of the subjects of the book I’m working on, so I’m mighty fussy about them…

Yuka Iino’s Odette/Odile, fleet Dewdrop in Balanchine’s “The Nutcracker,” her witty, hard-edged Girl in Nicolo Fonte’s 21st century take on “Petrouchka”…

Threefoot’s solo in Trey McIntyre’s “Like a Samba,” his first crack at Balanchine’s “Apollo” with Shibley as a stunning Terpsichore…

Candace Bouchard’s stylish performances of multiple roles in “The Nutcracker,” including Dewdrop, Marzipan and the Sugar Plum Fairy, not to mention her detailed speed as Polyhymnia in last fall’s “Apollo”…

Kathi Martuza’s dewy Aurora in “The Sleeping Beauty,” another great ballerina role, and driven dancing in James Kudelka’s “Almost Mozart…”

Half the company, more or less, surging across the Kennedy Center’s Opera House stage in Christopher’s Wheeldon’s “Rush,” in 2008, and I might add Roper and Sultanov were featured on the Ballet Across America Festival playbill cover that year…

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Yuka Iino, Brian Simcoe and Lucas Threefoot in OBT’s “Petrouchka”/Blaine
Truitt Covert

These are some of the images that flashed through my mind when I learned of Christopher Stowell’s decision to resign from the artistic directorship of Oregon Ballet Theatre, effective the last day of the year. While Sultanov and Martuza retired from the company last season,  Mueller in 2011 and Larsen in 2010, if the rumors of the board’s decision to cut roughly a fifth of OBT’s budget (which the board itself denies having done) are true, that means the potential loss of many of these dancers and a number of others I’ve not yet mentioned, as well as much of the repertoire and, one would assume, since it’s happened before, live orchestral accompaniment.

But I’m frankly surprised Stowell stayed as long as he did. His reasons for resigning in the middle of the season have been discussed elsewhere (including this post by Bob Hicks), and he’s not to be blamed for moving on, much as it saddens me personally and professionally. He’s fought the good fight to do the job he was hired to do, and he’s justifiably proud of what he’s accomplished. Why would he want to oversee the dismantling of the company he’s built, the departure of the dancers he brought to OBT and trained, (everyone now in the company except for Roper), the mothballing of much of the repertoire a downsizing of the company and potential change of performance space would mean?

Or work with a board that doesn’t support his vision (or mine, either) of what a medium-sized ballet company in a small city should look like, certainly not one that since Stowell’s arrival in 2003 has taken its rightful place in the panoply of the city’s major arts institutions, Portland Center Stage, the Oregon Symphony and the Portland Opera. (No one, incidentally, has mentioned his gift for collaboration with other arts institutions. He’s done two with the Portland Art Museum, the first a program of ballets performed to French music, including his own “Zais,” when in 2008 the Museum mounted a show of works by Degas, Toulouse-Lautrec and Forain, the second this past fall, in conjunction with The Body Beautiful.)

I first saw Stowell dance in 1994, when, as a principal dancer with the San Francisco Ballet he performed a spectacularly virtuosic Mercutio in Helgi Tomasson’s staging of “Romeo and Juliet,” a role I had seen Mark Goldweber perform equally memorably, but differently, in James Canfield’s staging of the same ballet. A few years later, I encountered him at a Dance USA roundtable in Charleston, South Carolina, where I was representing the Dance Critics Association and he was on a panel discussing the effects of such things as changes of performance venue on ticket and subscription sales—not good, OBT board members please note. I was struck by the intelligence and thought behind his presentation and chatted with him briefly at some reception or other later in the day.

Over the years, I saw him dance Oberon in Balanchine’s “A Midsummer Night’s Dream,” as a guest artist with Pacific Northwest Ballet, read positive reviews of his choreography in the Bay Area by colleagues whom I respect, and, in 2003, when I learned he was a finalist for the job, hoping to God that he would become OBT’s artistic director, not for his sake, but for ours.

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Yuka Iino and Chauncey Parsons in “The Four Temperaments”/Blaine Truitt
Covert

This was partly because of his talent, intelligence and experience, but also because his dancing career had been spent in the Pacific Northwest, not to mention much of his childhood, and because of his role (not business) models: his parents in Seattle, Kent Stowell and Francia Russell, founding artistic directors of PNB, and Tomasson, who rescued San Francisco Ballet from tumultuous times when he took the helm there. And it hasn’t hurt that as a supremely gifted dancer he developed close relationships with choreographers such as Kudelka, Wheeldon, Mark Morris (I was looking forward to a Morris work at OBT), Forsythe, Paul Taylor, whose “Company B” opened his first season, and those in charge at the Balanchine and Robbins Trusts.

It is because of the respect he has earned nationally and internationally as a performer, as well as his pedigree—he is after all third generation in the Balanchine diaspora—that Stowell has been able to get quite a bit of OBT’s current and astonishing repertoire at lower rates than anyone else could. Moreover, OBT is one of very few American companies that has performed a work of Sir Frederick Ashton’s in the last decade. “Façade” brought out the comic talents of the dancers and also exposed them to the wisdom of Alexander Grant, one of the great comic dancers of all time, who came to stage the ballet.

What I had no reason to know until Stowell arrived in town is what a superb teacher and coach he is. Watching him teach company class is to see a first class performance, or it was until his hip deteriorated. The level of detail in his demonstrating, the precision of his coaching, and the combinations he gave the dancers both challenged them and gave them pleasure in the hard, hard work.

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Brian Simcoe, Xuan Cheng and Lucas Threefoot in “Ekho”/Blaine Truitt Covert

In his public statements since his resignation, Stowell has revealed many times over his love and respect for OBT’s dancers, and I’m as certain as I am that the rain will continue this winter that the timing was to protect them by giving them time to audition for other companies, or perhaps in some cases start alternative careers, before they get the chop at contract renewal time.

Larsen told me in an email that Stowell told the artistic staff and dancers when he met with them last Wednesday that “he could not ‘let go of what [he] believes in.’ [This means] I’m sure,” she added, “ that he believed in the work we’d done since 2003, and wouldn’t stand there to see it destroyed.”

“The work we’d done….” That phrase speaks volumes for the ownership the dancers feel they share in the artistic direction of the company. It’s not surprising. As director, choreographer and teacher, they know Stowell has their best interests as artists at heart. Needless to say, when he plans a season—which he won’t be doing this year—he has the audience and box office in mind, but he chooses, commissions, and creates choreography that both showcases and stretches the dancers, just as all artistic directors who are worth their salt do. If pieces he originally choreographed to sell tickets—“Midsummer Night’s Dream” and “Rite of Spring” (which he made in collaboration with Mueller)—turn out to satisfy him aesthetically, as both those pieces did, that’s all to the good.

“I’m proud of them,” he told me in a brief telephone interview, and so he should be. The former is sophisticated and witty, with a wonderfully choreographed marital row between Oberon and Titania that brought out another side of Roper. Javier Ubell danced an impudently manipulative Puck, moreover, and the libretto was extremely skillfully compressed into one act. “Rite” isn’t everyone’s cup of tea in this version, but it showcases the dancers and their well-schooled look.

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“Swan Lake,” the first evening-length ballet Stowell staged, gave Roper, Martuza and Iino the opportunity to dance one of the great ballerina roles; their interpretations were quite different, and equally valid. And it was a huge box office success. In February, perhaps Shibley, still a company artist because of budgetary concerns, will get a crack at it, and Brett Bauer, who under Stowell’s tutelage, has become a compelling dancer to watch, a chance to perform the feckless Siegfried. Watching Stowell rehearse a segment of the “White Act,” before the ballet’s premiere, demonstrating the details he wanted incorporated into Roper’s performance, he so vividly transformed his compact, male body into the Swan Queen’s I told him I thought he should dance the role himself.

Stowell’s staging of “Swan Lake” is one of the best—a lot of liberties have been taken with it since its Russian premiere in 1877 and have seldom improved it. And it has been a gratifying experience for this critic to watch him develop as a choreographer. I thought “Ekho” was one of the best things he’s done, replete as it is with all of the qualities that are most important to him—musicality, detailed movement classically based but melded with modern style, just as Balanchine did with “Apollo,” arguably the first post-modern ballet. And it has charm,  a quality sadly lacking in much contemporary choreography in every dance form. Other highlights of work Stowell created on and for OBT’s dancers include “Adin,” a series of pas de deux that premiered in his first season; the aforementioned “Midsummer” and “Rite of Spring;” and “Carmen,” in which he incorporated children from OBT’s School, provided a pyrotechnical pas de deux for Ubell and Julia Rowe, and was marred only by the noise made by the not entirely movable set piece.

OBT’s School has had its ups and downs over the years, goodness knows, but its establishment in current form as a feeder school for this company and others is something for which Stowell can take credit, along with Damara Bennett, who came up from San Francisco with him. While the board hasn’t mentioned the School as something that will be affected by the vague new business model, I think it’s likely that Bennett will leave at the end of the school year. I might add that Stowell has done some of his most charming choreography for the School show, specifically a highly innovative “Peter and the Wolf,” and in the last show I saw, the students tossed off a highly professional rendition of Balanchine’s quite difficult “Divertimento 15.” I was, however, grieved when I learned that Josie Moseley, one of Portland’s leading modern choreographers, and a passionate teacher of modern dance who had been instrumental in getting up-and-coming choreographer Rachel Tess into Juilliard, and several others, had been let go. In any case, along with dancers, repertoire and live music, I fear we will lose the School in its present form, though we don’t know for sure where the current reorganization will lead.

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Alison Roper and Anne Mueller in Trey McIntyre’s “Just”/Blaine Truitt Covert

I haven’t liked, or thought was good (two different things as I keep yelling at my colleagues in the Dance Critics Association) everything that Stowell has created or commissioned or added to the repertory. I loathed Kudelka’s “Hush,” for example, and thought Emily LeCrone’s piece of several years ago was awful, while respecting Stowell’s willingness to take a risk on a young choreographer. And I think Robbins’ “Cage” is one of the most detestable ballets ever made.

I do think Stowell has made some expensive mistakes—renting a production of “Giselle,” as lovely and lavish as it was, from a company in Italy was a bit on the extravagant side. Taking a piece requiring a dozen dancers rather than half that to the Kennedy Center in 2008 was also pretty costly, but both those expenditures paid off aesthetically. (Note: this June OBT is taking Kudelka’s “Almost Mozart,” which has a much smaller cast, if of course it makes it through the rest of the season, as the board says it will.)

This is after all a very expensive art form, and I would remind the board, in its most expensive incarnations—“Swan Lake,” “Giselle,” “The Sleeping Beauty”—sells the most tickets. The artistic director of American Ballet Theatre knows that: their spring season is almost nothing but evening length  ballets, and elsewhere in the country, companies are abandoning repertory evenings for story ballets as well. OBT isn’t the only ballet company in the country scrambling to balance its budget; as was said in Clinton’s first  presidential campaign, “It’s the economy, stupid.”

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Larsen asked me if I would express the dancers’ sense of loss at Stowell’s departure. “Who wants to dance at OBT without Christopher?” she wrote. “We all came here for him, stayed here for him, danced and worked each day for him—even when he wasn’t in the studio or even the building—and the mere thought of his departure is [kind of] terrifying.” In her blog for Pointe Magazine, Larsen quotes Roper: “Christopher’s departure is an immense loss for our organization and for me personally. He has been an inspiration as a leader, a friend and an artist these past 10 years. Although realistically I’m aware that the ballet will continue to thrive and evolve without him, at the moment I’m in a state of mourning.”

From my point of view, the ballet in the scaled-down version, if that’s what the board decides, represents devolution, not the reverse. But I too am in mourning for the loss to Portland of this gifted, knowledgeable and generous man, the dancers he nurtured who can go anywhere in the country it seems to me, and a ballet company that brought my colleagues in the national dance press to town to see it.

John Rockwell, then chief critic of the New York Times, came to see “Swan Lake;” Sandra Kurtz, of the Seattle Weekly, has come many times, most recently to see OBT perform the complete “Apollo,” which PNB doesn’t do, and Rita Felciano, my San Francisco colleague, came to see Yuri Possokhov’s “Firebird,” when it premiered.

Recently she emailed me, “I have been struck by the intelligence, courtesy and eminent reasonableness of every one of Christopher’s public statements. He is quite an artist and man.”

I would add that he is a man of grace and integrity, stepping down now, not only to give the dancers time to regroup, but the board to find someone interested in implementing whatever vision they have.

As Balanchine said, “Aprés moi, le board.”

9 Responses.

  1. auntpittypat says:

    That was a great article, Martha. I think the point that many are failing to see is that all the dancers, and many of the staff- came here specifically to dance for the vision and aesthetic that Christopher created. They aren’t going to be simply happy to have a job in a company with anyone at the helm. The board may be quite surprised by how many will choose to go elsewhere. Dancers want a repertoire that is challenging- both in contemporary and classical works, and the iconic Balanchine and Robbins works- as well as Wheeldon, Kudelka, Fonte, etc. etc.- dancers consider repertoire heavily when deciding where to settle their career.

  2. balletfan says:

    This is a wonderful commentary about OBT. The decisions of the Board are more likely to destroy OBT entirely, than save it. You don’t see the Symphony, with all its financial problems, changing itself into an indie band.

  3. OBTfan says:

    Beautifully put, Martha. Thank you.

  4. Carol Shults says:

    Today I heard a great quote from a 12 year-old ballet student. Upon hearing of Christopher’s departure, she said, “But he’s the energy behind everything!” She doesn’t even study at OBT. Thank you, Martha, for a lovely article.

  5. Cynthia Kirk says:

    Truly felt, beautifully written. Thank you, Martha.

  6. Ashby Baldock says:

    “While the board hasn’t mentioned the School as something that will be affected by the vague new business model, I think it’s likely that Bennett will leave at the end of the school year.”

    Instead of guessing, why doesn’t someone from the press call Damara and ask her what she thinks?

  7. Martha Ullman West says:

    I just left a message for Damara and I hope she gets back to me. You’re absolutely right.

  8. Brad Miller says:

    Martha,

    You and I talked a few times when I was a member of the board and the search committee that brought Christopher to Portland. Could you call me when you get a chance – 503 577 1300

    thanks so much

    Brad

  9. Martha Ullman West says:

    I have just spoken with Damara; she does not know what her plans are. Needless to say I hope she will stay, and I hope that she will have reason to stay.
    Brad Miller, I will call you, and yes I remember you.

Comments are closed.

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