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Thursday, February 12, 2004 - Page updated at 11:58 A.M.

Dance
Ballet's artistic directors to retire

By Moira Macdonald
Seattle Times arts critic

STEVE RINGMAN / THE SEATTLE TIMES
PNB co-artistic directors Kent Stowell and Francia Russell will retire at the end of next season.
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Kent Stowell and Francia Russell announced yesterday that after more than a quarter century at the helm of Pacific Northwest Ballet, they are ready to take their final bow. They will retire at the end of the 2004-2005 season, and Russell will also retire as director of the PNB School.

With the company's successful relocation from the old Opera House to its new home at McCaw Hall, Stowell and Russell, both in their mid-60s, said that it seemed an appropriate time to end their 27-year tenure.

"We had long felt that 25 years was a reasonable and important milestone," said Stowell. "When we started working on McCaw Hall, we felt it would be too disruptive for PNB to change leadership during that process." They agreed to stay for one more season after the hall's completion — "one more season where we celebrate our wonderful audience and this community that's supported us and our dancers."

A leadership task force has been in place behind the scenes for more than a year to prepare for their departure. Stowell and Russell are part of a search committee to identify candidates for their positions.

The husband-and-wife team presided over years of dramatic transformation, shepherding PNB from a tiny local troupe to an internationally acclaimed company and school.

When they arrived in Seattle in 1977 from Germany, where they had led the Frankfurt Ballet, "we inherited the beginnings of a ballet company on the verge of falling apart," remembered Stowell. "(There were) less than a thousand subscribers. We did maybe half a dozen to 10 performances a year." The company's annual budget was $800,000.

By comparison, PNB now has nearly 11,000 subscribers, 85 yearly performances and an annual budget of $16.3 million.

The troupe has been internationally recognized for its expertise in presenting ballets by 20th-century master George Balanchine. Russell joined Balanchine's New York City Ballet in 1956 and later served as ballet mistress there; Stowell joined in 1962. Russell has staged more than 20 Balanchine ballets for PNB, and Stowell has contributed his own original choreography.

Offstage, the company has seen immense growth as well. The PNB School, which in 1977 occupied a few rooms at the Good Shepherd Center in Wallingford, now serves over 1,000 students in two custom-built facilities of its own. The Phelps Center, located adjacent to McCaw Hall, opened in 1993; The Francia Russell Center, in Bellevue, opened last year.

"It's been very important for us to build an institution where artists can do their work," said Russell. "That's how PNB can be judged now, in the performances, which I think are brilliant."

The bottom line is a judgment of another kind, and financially, PNB's status is uncertain. The company faces an accumulated deficit of $1.23 million, the largest in its history. But the current season looks to be shaping up well financially. Both "Swan Lake" and "Nutcracker" sold well, as has the company's well-received tribute to Balanchine, now in mid-run.

Stowell expressed optimism that the financial situation would soon improve. "We've worked very hard to eliminate the deficit, and I think we'll end up the year in a positive stance," he said.

Stowell and Russell's tenure receives generally warm reviews from other members of the arts community.

"Their contribution to the state of Washington has been enormous," said Seattle Opera general director Speight Jenkins. "They took a small, struggling ballet company and created one of the great ballet companies in the country."

Dancer Patricia Barker, trained in PNB's school and now a principal with the company, has known the couple for 25 years. She described them as "great role models. ... They make you want to dance. They make you feel you're part of the organization, not just as a dancer, but as a person."

Anne Derieux, a former principal dancer who left PNB in 2000 after eight years (now development director for Evergreen City Ballet in Auburn), said Russell and Stowell command tremendous loyalty. She noted that many of PNB's principals have stayed with the company for an unusually long time. However, in her opinion, the pair has "focused a lot on dancers with strong technique, but not so much artistry."

Nancy Reynolds, director of research for the George Balanchine Foundation, said she was sorry to hear that Stowell and Russell were retiring. "They have absolutely wonderful, clean dancers. Unfussy. Very technically accomplished," she said. "I love the fact that they have so many different choreographers and are not afraid to do new choreography."

Looking ahead, PNB board chairman Cathi Hatch said that names of potential new artistic directors had not yet been discussed, but that the company is looking for someone who would "respect what PNB is now, but they wouldn't necessarily have to be slavishly bound to it." The ideal candidate would have varied experience, preferably in performance, choreography and administration, she said.

Barker hopes the new director or directors will "respect the past and ensure the future."

Russell said that after her retirement from PNB, she will continue her work as a stager for the Balanchine Trust. Stowell has "a few projects," but both say they look forward to a life beyond ballet.

"We want to be able to enjoy our children" — they have three grown sons — "enjoy some travel and reflection," said Stowell. "This is a job that is all-consuming."

Moira Macdonald: 206-464-2725 or mmacdonald@seattletimes.com


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