Interview: Anne Mueller looks back at—and beyond—her life at OBT.

Anne Mueller, then Artistic Coordinator, conducts rehearsal as Company Artists Eva Burton and Ashley Dawn look on, during Oregon Ballet Theatre’s OBT Exposed, July 18 - 23rd, 2011 at Director Park in Downtown Portland. Photo by Rachel Austen.

Anne Mueller, then Artistic Coordinator, conducts rehearsal as Company
Artists Eva Burton and Ashley Dawn look on, during Oregon Ballet
Theatre’s OBT Exposed, July 18 – 23rd, 2011 at Director Park
Downtown Portland. Photo by Rachel Austen.

The ballerina bronze in the lobby of Oregon Ballet Theatre is draped with gradually-deflating party balloons, and costume crates line the quiet halls. In a near surfeit of symbolism, Lucas Threefoot (a departing company member) hefts a gym bag and appears to be just leaving.

Apologizing for the end-of-season “mess,” out-going interim artistic director Anne Mueller ushers out an era, nervously tucking her wavy bob behind her ears and perched for flight in a conference-room chair. “I’ve been a crazy-busy person really forever if I reflect about it,” she admits, noting how even her 2011 “retirement” as a principal dancer brought little respite. “I only took a week off before charging back into my other duties.” For 2011-2012, Mueller served as artistic coordinator alongside veteran artistic director Christopher Stowell. She was prepared to continue in that role throughout 2012-13, until Stowell’s midseason departure thrust her into an interim artistic director post.

Despite their ongoing friendship, Stowell’s move was a surprise Mueller had little time to absorb. “From the moment I stepped in as interim artistic director, there was so much work to be done, and I knew I’d only be effective if I threw myself into it and didn’t think about what was coming six months or a year down the road.”

Last Monday, OBT named Mueller’s successor, Kevin Irving—ending her “interim” status and leaving the out-going dynamo with more free time on her horizon than she’s used to.

“There’s a lot that’s happened. It’s like a movie,” says Mueller of what must feel like a game of musical chairs. “I think, especially now, I have to sort of force myself to take a little time to rest, and relax, and listen to what the world is telling me.”

The former ballerina’s immediate relaxation plans sound more like a cooldown workout than an exhausted flop: First she’ll climb Mt. Whitney with her husband, then she’ll come back and teach some OBT summer sessions—like she’s done for “a gajillion years.” After that, she’ll have to decide which of her many skills to pursue, and see what opportunities arise. Beyond her abilities as a dancer, Mueller has cultivated at least three other assets: a cool head for administration, a heart that’s in the right place for community outreach, and an especially cross-disciplinary network of artists friends.

Getting a kick out of logistics…

Those who remember her clean, precise dance performances already know Mueller can literally think on her feet—but her recent role was her first chance to flex that no-nonsense efficiency in the admin realm. “I found great satisfaction in managing a team of people, and in creative problem solving,” she explains, “and I hadn’t expected how much I’d enjoy that. The pace of business here moves very quickly; sometimes the problems are very immediate and sometimes they take more chewing on, more processing. As a staff functioning without a full-time on-staff executive director, we had to find a cooperative way to submit and carry out grant proposals, create season brochures—all the usual work, really—but because we’ve been functioning under unusual circumstances these projects felt like really galvanizing team efforts to me.”

Extending ballet’s reach…

“’Outreach’ is such an overused term,” she laughs. Still, Mueller finds herself increasingly drawn to projects that provide broader community access to the ballet and foster a more diverse audience. Her eyes twinkle when she recounts choreographing and staging a stripped-down “bonbon” of a dance piece at area senior centers. “I think it’s part of the mission of a company in a community, to bring dance to people who don’t have the means,” she explains, adding that the rigors of the form (stage, costume, lighting, etc.) must sometimes be flexed to help that happen.

During her directing term, Mueller was even willing to bend—a bit—to extend an olive branch to eager-yet-misinformed fans of the lurid thriller “Black Swan,” which she admits initially repulsed her by showing ballet through an ugly, distorted lens. “Be that as it may, people got excited about it and it made them inquisitive about our dance form. So my approach became, ‘Here’s this thing, and it exists. How can we use it as a tool to educate and excite people?’” Mueller took the bird by the beak, coordinating an OBT live performance to go with a Hollywood Theatre screening.

“In the arts, you’re always fighting against resources, and you do as much good as you can with financial and time resources that you have. I found activities that brought something new to people were the most satisfying.”

Exploring other forms…

In their hire of Kevin Irving, OBT stands to gain not only Irving’s talents, but a valuable company in-law of sorts in his life partner, lauded choreographer Nicolo Fonte. Mueller’s connections, meanwhile, extend beyond ballet into other art forms. Last summer, she took an acting role in Bag ‘n’ Baggage Productions’ “Kabuki Titus” in a wordless role that costar Ty Boice contends “absolutely stole the show.” There’s a possibility that Mueller also may find a toehold in the film industry via her husband Lars Larsen (NOT to be confused with the conservative radio personality), whose credits include “Portlandia” props master, LAIKA movement mechanizer, and independent stop-mo video producer.

“Lars has talked to a puppet maker about creating a dancer,” hints Mueller, “So I may end up helping him with some movement.” But right now, she admits, her hubby’s puppets are proving a bad influence: “He’s working with a Sasquatch that has very long arms and…a very lopey running and walking style—and I actually love to imitate it!” Un-self-consciously, the otherwise-poised ballerina slumps into a simian hunch to demonstrate (which inadvertently conjures a stance from 2011 hiphop pas de deux “Speak”).

Capital acheivement…

Looking back, Mueller’s especially grateful that her directing stint coincided with OBT’s Ballet Across America performance at Washington D.C.’s Kennedy Center. “I grew up in the DC area and saw the best companies in the world perform there, so it has a huge place in my sense of status and significance in the dance world. I cannot think of a more exciting thing than to be in the nation’s capital with this company. They danced so beautifully, and I was incredibly proud of them.”

Down from the Mountain…

On the other side of her summer plans, Mueller’s future is wide open. Even a move is possible, though she emphatically considers Portland home. “Research or relaxation? I plan to do a little bit of both. I’ve always been a goal-setter. I’ve had a pretty clearly defined path in my life for as long as I can remember, so there’s an immense amount of freedom, actually, in not having a set road map in front of me. Still, I feel really supported and appreciated by this community, and that’s an awfully good place to start.”

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A. L. Adams also writes for  The Portland Mercury and is  former arts editor of Portland Monthly Magazine.
Read more from Adams: Oregon ArtsWatch  | The Portland Mercury

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