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Pearl of the Best Price -- OBT's New Artistic Director, Christopher Stowell, Talks About His Plans for Portland's Ballet Gem

by Dean Speer and Francis Timlin

December 2003

You have undertaken a huge challenge. Please give us an overview of your top short-term and long-range priorities for OBT.

Beyond practical things like building an endowment, going forward with the next phase of adding studios to our building, and continuing to develop our school, my main objectives are things that take a little time -- like developing a group of dancers who reflect my interest in attention to the details of musicality and finesse. I want our dancers to have a sensibility that can get to the root of the works they perform, that can understand the stylistic and theatrical differences of different choreography and different eras of ballet.

The foundation for creating that kind of company is in the repertoire. I want OBT to build a repertoire of ballets that gives both the public and the dancers an historical perspective on this art form. That will come both from doing existing ballets and finding choreographers to create works of our own. Itís important that the public and the dancers know that OBT as a company is part of the wider world of ballet.

I have a major commitment to live music, and intend that OBT move toward having more live music all the time. I feel live music is a crucial part of the dancersí and the audienceís experience. As a dancer, if the musical values werenít sound, it used to impact me the way I imagine Superman felt when someone threw kryptonite at him.

Where would you like the company to be in five, ten, and twenty years? Please consider repertory, size (numbers of dancers, budget, school), regional influence, and national presence.

Naturally, I would like to help OBT become one of the major ballet companies in the United States. I want a solid repertoire of classics, the finest of contemporary ballets, and new works. It will take time for me to discern the best routes to these goals. I need to know the community better and weigh our early successes before I commit to specifics like budget size (which of course translates directly to number of dancers) within certain time frames.

The School of OBT is already very good. A school is a vital part of any serious ballet company, both to train students to feed into the company, and to offer the community experiences with the art of ballet that go beyond performance. A fine school connects the community with balletís roots and its training. With Damara Bennett here to direct our school, I know it will become one of the best in the country. Damara and I are constantly re-examining our syllabus and curriculum in an ongoing process to create what we think are the best kind of dancers. The school and the company are directly and constantly linked.

Your first program received wide critical acclaim and seemed, from an audience perspective, to have gone very well. What is your feeling about how things went?

I couldnít have imagined it going any better. I was impressed with the extreme commitment the dancers and all the people behind the scenes at OBT made to this new venture. After the first program was finished, the whole organization took a collective exhale. None of us had realized weíd been holding our breaths, wondering what would happen. Everyone was so committed so quickly. We passed an immense milestone. Now we know we can work together.

I think the collection of ballets in the first program -- Balanchineís "Rubies," Tomassonís "Twilight," Kent Stowellís "Duo Fantasy," and Taylorís "Company B" -- made all the points I wanted to make about my tastes and intentions as OBTís new artistic director. Iím committed to that kind of diversity of choreography, Iím committed to very high quality choreography, and I have broad musical tastes. I had described these tastes, but you need to actually see them live in front of you to understand.

Of course, at the time of responding to this interview, weíre in our run of George Balanchineís "The Nutcracker." The dancers are performing beautifully, and I think they feel the positive effects of my commitment to a high level of integrity. Iím pleased that our audiences seem to be responding with excitement also.

Is it one of your aims and desires to make a significant choreographic imprint on OBT?

Lack of time is often cited as a discouraging factor by many artistic directors who might otherwise choreograph. It also represents a risk for an AD to set his or her work on the home company -- what if the critics dislike your work? How much of your time do you anticipate spending on choreography? Any outside commissions this year or next?

Balanchine has influenced the whole world of ballet in every possible way. One way is that he set up the challenge of having to be the leader and the great creator for a ballet company. Sometimes I think thereís a big enough challenge doing the director things, but I also think itís important for me to stay feeling like an artist and not purely a manager.

I do intend to remain a creator. I think itís important that I not get removed from the vulnerability of exposing myself like that, but I donít want to put the company or myself in a position where Iím having to turn out ballets. I want to choreograph when I have time, inclination, and inspiration, and of course the critics are free to decide whatever they want about my choreography.

I donít have outside commitments this year or next. My first priority is OBT. Iím not ruling out outside choreography because I want to stay in touch with the wider dance world.

In addition to acquiring existing works for OBTís repertoire, what new work will you be commissioning? Do you have a sense of what percentage of the total repertoire should consist of new work vs. existing work?

The number of programs OBT can present each year is not huge, partly because of available performance venues in Portland at this time. I wish we could repeat works more, but if the audience can only go see four shows each year, there isnít as much room for repeating, and thereís less room for risk than there is in a broader season.

Iím very interested in commissioning work from talented choreographers and in giving opportunities to new choreographers, but Iím going to start out conservatively because we must have as much guaranteed quality as possible on stage. The inclusion of new works by Yuri Possokhov and Julia Adam in my first season at OBT illustrates my commitment to new work, and it illustrates what I mean about giving opportunities to young choreographers, but to artists with enough of a track record that I know they will produce substantive ballets.

Iím so fresh from my performing career that I have contacts and know who the gifted people are. They know me, and theyíll come if given the opportunity. Iím committed to sticking with the language of ballet. Iím looking for choreographers who can use the classical language and still find new things in it. Weíre experts at something, and we should be making use of our expertise.

Have you considered the prospect of working collaboratively with either PNB or SFB, say, in the sharing of productions and production costs? Dancers? A joint ballet festival?

At this time, Iím most interested in collaborating with people locally. OBT, PNB, and SFB are all organizations with our own visions and missions. To work together has to be much further down the road. The links between the three companies will be kept alive because weíre in contact all the time. People from San Francisco and Seattle have come to Portland to see these first shows, and I hope that will continue. I hope weíll become a dance destination.

Many ballet companies have a particular visual aesthetic that is almost a trademarkóa "look" if you will. Do you have a "look" in mind for OBT?

I hope that an OBT "look" will emerge over time because of the dancers working with us, as much as from me. I believe that dancers are refined creatures, like thoroughbreds. I think thatís part of what makes what we do interesting, and I want a "look" for OBT that reflects that quality. I want the company to look like race horses or wild cats -- beings primed for movement at all times, physiques that are at the ready all the time. Iím also committed to a classic look for OBT.

Aside from the obvious (getting "Nutcracker" on stage), what are you working on right now?

Concurrently with mounting and performing Balanchineís version of "Nutcracker," Yuri Possokhov has been here for several weeks setting his new "Firebird" on the dancers. This ballet is not just a "new" work, it has huge potential. It has a great score, made for ballet. "Firebird" already exists in the public imagination but isnít nailed to a specific look or choreography (I want to keep looking at scores written for ballet that donít have a definitive look). "Firebird" is a direct link to our lineage with the Ballets Russes, and it offers a Russian of this generation a take on his own culture.

To have Yuri here setting choreography while weíre performing "The Nutcracker" is a new experience for these dancers. Iím happy to be providing them with the life of a dancer in a major ballet company, where there is no delineation between the studio and the stage, youíre always living in every phase of the process. I think if someone is choreographing on you, bringing out something in you, that can carry over to the stage. It might bring something new to your performance that night. I think people rise to challenges like this. Itís one way a company gets better.

My next new ballet will also be part of our "White Nights: A Celebration of Russian Music and Dance" program, with "Serenade" and "Firebird" (February 28 through March 6). Itís my next important project, and Iím excited about creating on these dancers. Since the work will appear between "Serenade" and "Firebird," Iím striving for an aesthetic that will balance out the program. All the music for the evening will be by Russian composers, but I donít want to pretend to suddenly have a Russian soul. Iím striving to express the universal qualities of the music -- beyond nationality.

Do you see any particular "trends" in ballet today? Which do you consider beneficial and which are less desirable?

I feel part of a generation that is aware of many different approaches to ballet, and I think thatís good, but I also think itís important to believe in something in particular, specifically in ballet training. The world of ballet is so small, and we are exposed to a variety of ways of training. I believe in learning from each other, but there is a danger that this can lead to watered-down approaches, and that isnít good. Iím going more and more back to the way I was trained. I could dance with finesse because of the way I was taught when I was twelve. I want to give back that kind of training.

Are you involved with any non-dance activities?

I love opera and contemporary visual art, but I donít have time for any non-dance activities right now besides eating occasionally.

Edited by Lori Ibay

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