Stories are the bridge between the public and the art form. We can’t get them to watch The Four Temperaments until we get them on that bridge. And I can do those stories in ways that haven’t been done before.Kent Stowell in Mindy Aloff’s essay, Balanchine and Beyond, Melbourne International Festival of Arts Program, October 1995.
Within a year of the November 1972 incorporation of Pacific Northwest Dance (PNB’s name until 1978), Glynn Ross, general director of Seattle Opera and the new ballet organization, prepared a Plan Outline for Establishing a Major Dance Company for the Pacific Northwest. Shortly thereafter, this Outline was sent by Leon Kalimos, newly appointed executive director of Pacific Northwest Dance, to Kent Stowell, who in 1973 was employed as Ballet Master and Choreographer of Frankfurt Ballet in Germany; Kalimos’ attempts to interest Stowell in a position with PNWD were unsuccessful at that early date, but continued over the next several years.
According to the Pacific Northwest Dance Professional Developmental Program Narrative (an expanded version of the Plan Outline) dated 5 October 1973:
To develop an indigenous resident professional dance company, Pacific Northwest Dance has outlined an over-all program designed to create from the basic resources of the Northwest an artistically excellent, professionally organized, and financially responsible vital member of the American Dance world. It is the expressed intent and goal of Pacific Northwest Dance to see a nationally credible Dance Company realized within a period of 4 years.
Under the leadership of Janet Reed, Ballet Mistress and Director of the School from July 1974-June 1976, and Leon Kalimos, executive director October 1973 through 1977, PNWD took the first steps toward training company dancers and building a repertory.
One of the Company’s first performances (except for brief appearances in dance scenes in Seattle Opera productions) was Pulcinella in spring 1975. Choreographed by Janet Reed for selected dancers and featuring members of the Seattle Symphony Orchestra and Seattle Opera chorus performing the Stravinsky score, this work in a sense represented the Company’s first story ballet. The Company also participated in lecture-demonstrations in local schools in a program called Ballet is a Contact Sport.
Although major steps in the Company’s development occurred with the Lew Christensen Nutcracker (eight sold-out performances in December 1975 and eleven sold-out performances in December 1976), the first repertory season in February, March, and May 1977 under the guidance of Melissa Hayden (Janet Reed’s successor) represented a different level of achievement. Company dancers and guest artists appeared in varied programs that included works by George Balanchine; the season closed with Hayden’s staging of Coppélia—the full-length story ballet that, in various versions, has consistently been a part of the Company’s history from 1977 to the present.
Even before PNWD’s first Coppélia took to the stage, Hayden had requested release from her contract; many of the dancers left the Company at the same time. Leon Kalimos’ persistent contacts with Kent Stowell bore fruit, and Stowell and Francia Russell arrived in Seattle in late summer 1977 to rebuild the Company and the School. After 14 sold-out performances of Nutcracker in December 1977, they mounted their first full season, with mixed repertory performances in February, March, and May, and Coppélia in June 1978. Stowell created his own version of the full-length ballet, using costumes left over from the previous year’s production and new sets by the original designer, Robert O’Hearn.
During the 28 years that Kent Stowell and Francia Russell led PNB, Stowell expanded PNB’s repertory by creating nine story ballets/full-length ballets in addition to Coppélia: Daphnis and Chloe (1979), Swan Lake (1981, and a new production in 2003), the Stowell/Sendak Nutcracker (1983), The Tragedy of Romeo and Juliet (1987), Firebird (1989), Carmina Burana (1993), Cinderella (1994), Silver Lining (1998), and Carmen (2002).
In these works, he endeavored to attract a broader audience by drawing on the appeal of story ballets, and to create his own unique versions of familiar story ballets. In some instances, he choreographed ballets to celebrate major landmarks in the Company’s history. For example, Stowell created both Carmina Burana and Cinderella for the 1993/1994 season, PNB’s first full season in the newly constructed Phelps Center. As he noted: “We have to get everyone’s attention back on what this building is all about: putting art on stage.” He created Silver Lining for the entire company to mark the culmination of the 25th Anniversary Season; Carmen to attract audiences to the less than desirable auditorium of the Mercer Arena, home to the Company during the renovations to the Opera House; and a newly designed production of Swan Lake for the opening of McCaw Hall.
Under Peter Boal’s direction (beginning with the 2005/2006 season), Pacific Northwest Ballet continues to expand the repertory by presenting its own versions of full-length classics.
With the Balanchine/Danilova Coppélia, which premiered in June 2010, PNB for the second time undertook a total redesign of a Balanchine story ballet (the first being the 1997 production of Balanchine’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream with scenic and costume designs by Martin Pakledinaz). Roberta Guidi di Bagno, who also had designed Ronald Hynd’s production of The Merry Widow (performed by PNB in September-October 2002 and March 2005), created scenic and costume designs for PNB’s new Coppélia.
June 2011 witnessed the historic premiere of PNB’s Giselle, staged by Peter Boal with the assistance of dance historians Doug Fullington and Marian Smith and based on primary musical and dance notation sources from Paris and St. Petersburg that had been unknown to or neglected by other major companies.
PNB also has continued to acquire other choreographers’ updated versions of the classic story ballets. In February 2001, under Stowell and Russell’s direction, PNB dancers triumphed in Ronald Hynd’s production of The Sleeping Beauty, thus rounding out the trio of spectacular Tchaikovsky ballets that started with Nutcracker and Swan Lake. In January 2008, PNB became the first American company to perform Jean-Christophe Maillot’s Roméo et Juliette, a work whose freshness and exquisitely stark design enthralled Boal when he first saw it in 1997. And most recently, in February 2012, PNB presented the American premiere of Alexei Ratmansky’s 2010 version of Don Quixote.
—Sheila Dietrich, PNB Archivist
Featured photo: PNB Company dancers in Kent Stowell’s Swan Lake. Photo © Angela Sterling.