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Pacific Northwest Ballet

Balletic Force Majeur: Pacific Northwest Ballet's Tribute to Kent Stowell and Francia Russell

by Dean Speer

June 12, 2005 -- McCaw Opera House, Seattle

What a great way to go out – with one fabulous, first-class tribute. Personally, I will never, ever forget and will always be grateful for how well Mr. Stowell and Ms. Russell treated ALL of their colleagues. This atmosphere of positive collegiality came from the top down and permeated all of their dealings with their teams of teachers, production crew, staff, artistic staff, dancers, volunteers, donors, subscribers, and their respective dance colleagues and they included in that area dance teachers.

I was so impressed when, as the novice director of a new ballet school in a rural and fairly remote region, I nervously called PNB to ask how to construct the steel portable ballet barres that I had seen and used myself in their studios. The head technician, Randall Chiarelli, actually took my call himself and walked me, step-by-step, through the steps of making barres – from ordering the steel and fittings to rubbing them down and finishing them with the right kind of paint (“Rustolium”). Later during one of the Teachers’ Seminars, then held at their original location at the Good Shepard Studios, Denise Bolstad (who is now the Administrative Director of the School and was then the “front line” Registrar) generously met with our registrar and coached her on many of the best practices that PNB used at the time.

After our school and its performing company were established, guest dancers from PNB would appear on at least one of our programs each year. This was wonderful for the students and their families, our dancers and staff, as well as the public. Francia herself would coach them (and others too sometimes) and twice we got a Balanchine excerpt; two pas de deux. I know how thrilled I was to get this in a county whose entire population totaled not more than 66,000 souls. (We happened to be the only ballet school in the entire county; this is still true today as it was in 1981 when I first started teaching there.) We were pleased that our programs then were done to live (piano for the most part) music and being able to provide this not only for our students, company, and audiences but also for our guests. It was very special having these glamorous role models in our midst; they even participated in warm-up class with us on stage with the advanced students and company members. No aloof dancers, these. Everyone was most impressed by that!

And at the Teachers’ Seminars each and every teacher who attended was made to feel welcome and appreciated. So many other little, but important things, come to mind such as Francia remembering everyone’s name and how during one pre-performance talk she mentioned that it was my father’s birthday that day, recognizing him. He was pleased as punch and just glowing.

So it was with this background and personal affection for how they treated people and their enormous artistic contributions that I came to PNB’s Tribute for the couple that truly has been a force majeur in Northwest and national ballet.

The Tribute was an emotional and thrilling roller coaster ride. Very, very well done, the excerpts shown were a complete surprise to the honoring couple until they actually saw them. (They were not even allowed to look at a program.) The exception to this was the announced Liebeslieder Walzer which was a gift from their three sons. Kent and Francia have said publically that this is one of their favorite Balanchine ballets. It was certainly a major treat for Seattle audiences to get a glimpse of this important and very expressive work. Perfectly cast and staged by Karin von Aroldingen, the eight (by my feeble count) brief sections – four pas de deux twice – were given lovely and mature performances by some of PNB’s best: Patricia Barker; Ariana Lallone; Louise Nadeau; Kaori Nakamura; Christophe Maraval; Stanko Milov; Jeffrey Stanton; and Olivier Wevers. With the performance given, Liebeslieder has zapped itself onto my Christmas wish-list. I like to imagine that Mr. Boal will be a very generous Santa one season in the not-too-distant future. (And, yes, I believe our Seattle audiences are better than those in New York; we would NOT walk out during the pause between opus 59 and opus 65!)

I would be remiss to leave out any mention of a ballet that’s clearly very significant to Francia Russell’s career and of which she was an original cast member – "Agon". The first pas de trois was given a marvelously edgy performance by Maria Chapman, Jonathan Porretta, and Mara Vinson.

And I really cannot object to Snow in June! Louise Nadeau and Olivier Wevers were the duet couple in this excerpted scene from Stowell’s well-known version with the Sendak sets and costumes. It was nice to get the whole Snow scene which included the sets and falling snow. As much as dancers love "Nutcracker", Nadeau and Wevers made it seem fresh, limpid, and magical. I believe this is one of the unstated strengths of each of the artists at PNB – that each performance seems as if they are doing it for the first time. That’s it’s not at all rote and no one is “phoning in” their performance. They have captured the essence of creating and re-creating parts. Somewhat how actors must infuse life into lines they speak and act eight shows a week. It demonstrates respect for their art, for the choreographers, and importantly for the audiences who are treated to these renditions.

In the moment and beyond were two of PNB’s newest stars – Noelani Pantastico and Jonathan Porretta in the latest dance Stowell has made, "Dual Lish" to piano “rags” of William Bolcom.

Other highlights for me included the pas de deux and Polonaise from "Theme and Variations", and Mr. Stowell’s pas de deux from his full-length "Daphnis and Chloe", a work that I didn’t get to see when it premiered. When those tympani begin to thunder at the start of the Polonaise and the brass join them, it’s really goosebumps time at the ballet. Tchaikovsky at his best and Balanchine at his most inspired.

With a pairing that I perhaps would not have thought of at first blush, Carrie Imler and Batkhurel Bold were paired well for Theme and it worked very nicely indeed. Each is a powerhouse and the two of them together generate enough electricity to light up a small town. Bold is an excellent partner and I enjoyed seeing him dance with Imler. Perhaps they will be matched again in future ballets; let’s hope! The entire corps was tight and “on.” I think we probably do one of the best renderings of this famous ballet anywhere.

The Pièce d’Occasion – choreographed by Stowell fils, Christopher – was a fun romp that used costumes from many of the ballets Stowell père had made over throughout his tenure. It was fun trying to “name that tune” with them.

How fitting that Patricia Barker and Jeffrey Stanton were chosen to conclude the danced portion of the Tribute with the duet from "Daphnis and Chloe". Fitting in that each is an equal among equals, are artists who can do anything and are matched often in castings. Also fitting that the ballerina with whom Kent has worked the longest at PNB was doing a role created for a ballerina who was his muse during PNB’s earliest years: Deborah Hadley, also a simply amazing dancer. I liked the pas de deux very much and found myself longing to see it someday in the context of the entire ballet. Perhaps Mr. Boal will commission a revival of this work that was important to the early growth of the Company.

Each and every dancer was fabulous and dancing their hearts out. The Company is at a very high level and the immense artistic resources, depth and soul were at the center of each work.  Tributes were given by notable dancers and artistic staff and others in loving video clips.

For the finale (set to the finale from Firebird), the couple themselves were brought up on stage and the audience stood and roared its approval and love for a long while. Smiles and tears were freely much in evidence.

Audience members were able to salute Kent and Francia via a toast following the show.

Thank you, Kent and Francia for all that you’ve done. It’s shown in every inch of what’s been presented on stage and by the effects your work and attitude have done throughout the dance scene in the greater Northwest.

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