A Change in Direction

November 28, 2001

On a rainy spring evening in the studios of Portland’s Oregon Ballet Theatre, in front of an audience of company supporters and members of the press, Chairman of the Board John Bernard shot dancer Alison Roper and everyone applauded.

Roper, clad in the fishnet stockings and three-inch heels demanded by the role of The Stripper in George Balanchine’s Slaughter on Tenth Avenue, rose to her feet with help from Jon Drake as The Hoofer, and Bernard, filling in for the murderous Big Boss, breathed a sigh of relief.

Not every ballet company allows the board’s Big Boss to shoot a ballerina, but this is one way Artistic Director Christopher Stowell is sharing ownership of the 18-year-old company he took over in July 2003.

In several respects, Stowell is building on what founding Artistic Director James Canfield began in 1989, when Pacific Ballet Theatre and Ballet Oregon merged to become the present company. Stowell is continuing to stress community outreach and rigorous classical training. The artistic vision, however, has shifted from Canfield’s melding of popular culture with classical technique in works like his Go Ask Alice, set to the music of Pink Floyd with a story line based on several films, to Stowell’s much greater emphasis on classical and neo-classical ballet danced to classical music—played by live musicians whenever possible. 

The 2007-08 season, announced at the event where Roper was “gunned down,” reflects that fundamental change. Entitled “A Grand Tour,” in honor of the tradition of sending young people abroad to finish their educations, each program is keyed to the nationality of its composers, beginning in October with the Germanic lands and ending in Russia in June.

When Stowell programs a season he keeps in mind the dancers and the audience, but uppermost is what he says he would like to see on the stage: “That takes into account that I want to see audiences engaged and excited and dancers fulfilling their potential. My point is that it comes down to my taste and my expectations of myself. I want to feel good about our performances being a reflection of our artistic aspirations and values, which range everywhere from challenging to entertaining.”

To display that range, Stowell has added, among other company premières, the challenge of Balanchine’s The Four Temperaments and William Forsythe’s The Vertiginous Thrill of Exactitude, and the fun of Jerome Robbins’s The Concert and Sir Frederick Ashton’s Façade, as well as his own Eyes on You to music by Cole Porter. In December of 2003, he replaced Canfield’s elegant Nutcracker, in which Wizard of Oz–inspired characters accompanied Marie on her journey, with George Balanchine’s The Nutcracker, making OBT the only West Coast company to perform it.

Stowell brings his personal taste, which he characterizes as eclectic, as well as his experience as a dancer into play when choosing repertoire. Accordingly, other OBT repertoire choices include choreography by his father, Kent Stowell, as well as Julia Adam, Christopher Wheeldon (OBT will perform his Rush at the Kennedy Center’s Ballet Across America Festival in June 2008), James Kudelka and Yuri Possokhov. Stowell has also brought in ballets by Helgi Tomasson, under whose direction he danced for 16 years at San Francisco Ballet. Meanwhile, choreographer Trey McIntyre continues his extended relationship with the company.

With board support Stowell has had the opportunity to commission several premières. The fall season opens with Stowell’s one-act version of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, with Mendelssohn’s incidental music in a new orchestration by longtime company music director Niel DePonte. A new Bolero choreographed by Nicolo Fonte is scheduled for later in the season.

Going into its fifth year under Stowell’s leadership, OBT is as much about the dancers as the repertoire that attracts them. He’s instituted ranking for the first time in company history and, to build community interest in the company, Stowell has authorized an advertising campaign that shows the dancers as individuals with personal lives: Anne Mueller, who lives on a “farm” with her goat; a pointe shoe–clad Kathi Martuza painting a wall; a pregnant Daniela DeLoe on pointe; a poker-playing Gavin Larsen. “Making dancers celebrities,” Stowell says, “keeps OBT in people’s minds.” 

Stowell has created a repertoire that gives dancers numerous opportunities, even those who are inexperienced. Company artist Adrian Fry, who joined OBT last season, knows exactly why he chose a contract with OBT over an apprenticeship with the Joffrey. “It came down to the repertoire, where it was and where C. S. was taking it,” he says. “Also because of the energy of people coming together for a common goal.” His choice paid off last season when he danced three performances of Apollo after Artur Sultanov was injured.

More experienced dancers also flourish under Stowell’s direction. Principal Ronnie Underwood came to OBT in 2005 from Fort Worth, TX, where he had been dancing with Texas Ballet Theater. OBT’s repertoire, as well as the desire to dance more Balanchine and something other than story ballets, attracted him.

“These are great programs—the Kudelka, Kent Stowell—and not many companies do Slaughter on Tenth Avenue,” he says about the “America” program coming up in the spring. Underwood came to appreciate “the ease C. S. brings to the studio; he tells you something and then it happens. He’s a fabulous mentor and coach. This will be a great place to dance for a long time.”

Just- announced principal Martuza, who joined the company in 2003, after six years dancing in the corps at SFB, is another seasoned dancer enjoying working for this company. She and her husband, Kester Cotton, also a former dancer with SFB, took a considerable pay cut to dance with OBT, but for 28-year-old Martuza, a self-styled “quirky dancer,” it has been worth the financial loss. With OBT, she has found the opportunities she was seeking, dancing an elegantly lyrical Princess in The Firebird and a thoroughly demanding role in Kudelka’s Almost Mozart.

“OBT is a good fit for me,” says  Martuza. “I feel fortunate to have it; lots of dancers don’t find it ever.” Martuza and Cotton, who has recently retired from performing but teaches in OBT’s school, took class with Canfield at OBT when they first arrived in Portland.

“James is a fantastic teacher, and Christopher was fortunate to come into a situation with the incredible work ethic he had created here,” says Martuza.

For Roper, whom Canfield took into the company at age 21 in 1996 and is one of eight newly announced principals, the change in artistic emphasis came at just the right time. She credits Canfield for carefully, “patiently,” nurturing her technique and talent and “shaping her into a solid professional dancer.” Nonetheless, she was ready for a new approach to her career and a greater challenge.

Roper says, “Christopher has provided both more classical work and a higher caliber of choreographers and répétiteurs. [Stowell’s mother, Francia Russell, has been staging some of the Balanchine works.] I had no idea how much I would love dancing Swan Lake, and Aurora was a career highlight for me.

“I only wish we could dance the full ballet very soon, as I relish sinking my teeth into Act One,” she continues. “That statement alone expresses the change that I’ve undergone with Christopher at the helm of OBT. I’ve taken all the tools that James gave me, and I can set them free and be excited and unafraid to meet the next challenge.”

Martha Ullman West has been covering dance in Portland and other cities since 1979. She is a senior advisory editor at
Dance Magazine and a former
co-chair of the Dance Critics Association.