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