Francia Russell, Artistic Director of Pacific Northwest Ballet and Director of the School
Steps Revealed - Francia Russell Takes It From the Top
by Dean Speer and Francis Timlin
September 14, 2004 -- Phelps Center, Seattle, Washington
We caught up with the very busy Francia Russell in late Summer to talk about some of the things that make her "tick" as a dancer, Balanchine ballet stager, and importantly, as one of the Artistic Directors of Pacific Northwest Ballet in Seattle. Since Kent Stowell and his wife, Francia, announced their retirements effective at the end of June 2005, they've been inundated with press requests and so Francia was only able to squeeze us in all too briefly, with another reporter on our heels immediately following.
DS/FT: There isn't time to cover all of the ground we'd like to talk about, so I thought we'd focus on a few topics, try to make it as fun as possible, avoiding the much-ink-spilled retirement topic, and see where we are. I know teaching and technique are among your ballet passions, and it's clear from being around many of the Teachers' Seminars you've conducted here over the years, that you consider teachers real colleagues and have taken a great interest in how technique is taught, dancers trained, and the transmitting of this through a carefully devised curriculum here at the PNB School.
FR: I didn't have a solid foundation myself, having studied with many different teachers and their various styles. I really loved Vera Volkova with whom I got to study for one year in London when I was 11. I wanted to stay, and in fact, she suggested to my parents when we were getting ready to move back to the United States, that she adopt me!
I didn't ever expect to become a teacher or balletmaster -- that was Mr. B's idea. Had I known, I would have paid closer attention to classes and how things were rehearsed and put together. I certainly would have written down classes and combinations and regret not having done this. I learned a new way of dancing at NYCB at age 18 and this set a foundation which I greatly value. We try to provide this for PNB's students and company members. It has to be a pedigreed foundation -- then you can do anything. Technique needs to be honed every single day. It's the same for teachers, ballet masters, and artistic directors; learning happens every single day!
I recall your telling a great story about Janet Reed at her memorial here. Please remind us of that.
(Smiles.) Oh, yes! I was having a problem with one of my feet and Janet suggested that I pound my feet on the cement stairs (at City Center) until I couldn't feel the pain. It worked! In our early years here at PNB, Janet (who lived in the Seattle area) would come backstage after performances and give criticisms to Kent and myself, telling us -- with no holds barred -- everything that was wrong. While she was not diplomatic, we valued her opinion. Janet was very clear about one thing -- you cannot bore the audience. Both she and Jerry Robbins were very clinical about any comedy, as the timing has to be just perfect.
Tell us a little bit about your process for staging a work on another company.
Casting can be very difficult with companies I have not worked with before. I typically watch a company class, but it's hard to know just from class what the dancers are going to be like on stage, so I take advice from artistic directors and balletmasters. I feel that I am able to give Balanchine stagings a specific point of view ('50s and '60s), as I didn't see later versions of Balanchine's works, and this enables me to give, I believe, a pure perspective. I like to give as much opportunity as possible for people to show themselves.
Steps are just the beginning. With Balanchine, the music is paramount, so fitting the steps to the music is the thrill for me every single time. I work on how the step is to be presented -- something which can't be conveyed from a videotape. There are so many wonderful moments in his ballets and they have to be remembered exactly -- and dancers respond to this, I find. There are also the elements of scenery, costumes, lighting, bows -- every aspect of the production is the stager's responsibility.
How long does it usually take to stage a work?
Two weeks and then going back at some point is standard. In Russia, I was there for five weeks. Rehearsals there were much more fragmented than what I'm used to. When I first went to Russia in 1988, Balanchine barely existed for the Kirov. They found the work very different: "too fast, no preparations." The second time I went, it was much easier. One of the dancers,Yuri Fateev, had an intelligence about him that made him my choice for being in charge of Mr. Balanchine's ballets. He has turned out to be an excellent balletmaster.
What have you learned over the years -- about choreography, dancers and what are some of your own, personal tastes in ballet? Who do you view as some of the up-and-coming new generations of choreographers, and where do you see ballet going in the next 10 years?
There are tons of dancers with great personalities and they need great vehicles. Today's dancers need a very refined technique, to be prepared for extraordinary demands, and need to know different styles if they are to be successful. Did you know that there are exactly 100 different choreographers who have been represented in PNB's repertory?! We take great pride in this.
I like works with a complete point of view, something that is faithful to itself. People don't realize how hard it is for us to get out and see ballets! We're here often from 8:00 in the morning and work sometimes to 11:00 at night and so travel and time to see other companies is precious little. I think that [Jiri] Kylian, [William] Forsythe and [Christopher] Wheeldon are very talented. Locally, my son Christopher (grins) and from our company, Paul Gibson and Olivier Wevers I'd include in that talented pool. I'm fascinated by seeing young dancers' choreography. I think Peter Martins' choreographic institute is great. They need opportunities to experiment where their failures do not to matter.
Seeing dancers develop is my greatest reward.
We mustn't sell out, we mustn't sell out, we mustn't sell out!! (Said while pounding the arms of her chair.) No "Draculas" or "Peter Pans!" There is a great pressure on our marketing department. We need to hold the line. Over the years, we've done some things that we were not crazy about presenting, but have managed to hold the line on integrity.
What are you currently reading?
I'm reading the two-volume memoirs of Siegfried Sassoon: Memoirs of a Fox-Hunting Man and Memoirs of an Infantry Officer. It's about World War I and goes from frivolity to desperate reality with a poet's sensibility. Some parts are very beautiful.
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