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Tuesday, March 16, 2004 - Page updated at 10:11 A.M.

What's PNB's next step?

By Melinda Bargreen
Seattle Times arts critic

BEN KERNS
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The long, inspiring pas de deux is coming to a close.

With the announcement last month that Kent Stowell and Francia Russell will leave Pacific Northwest Ballet in 2005 after 28 years as co-artistic directors, the company is facing twin challenges. How do you follow a class act like Stowell and Russell — and how do you surmount a $1.23 million accumulated deficit?

Russell and Stowell helped put Seattle on the cultural map by transforming a fledgling, struggling little company into a major regional troupe. They did it by acquiring a treasure trove of Balanchine ballets, presenting new choreography by Stowell and many others, staging big story ballets such as "Swan Lake" and creating a major ballet school.

Will PNB continue on its current course or look for a new, venturesome artistic direction?

The search for a successor (or successors) to Stowell and Russell is barely under way, with the board's search committee just convened with what seems like a sensible mandate: First, establish the criteria for the new artistic director(s), and then start searching for the candidate who fits.

STEVE RINGMAN / THE SEATTLE TIMES
Kent Stowell and Francia Russell will leave Pacific Northwest Ballet in 2005 after 28 years as co-artistic directors. A PNB board committee has convened to search for their successor or successors.
PNB isn't ruling out the idea of another two-person team like Stowell and Russell, according to board President Cathi Hatch. But husband-and-wife teams, or any other pair able to work in close partnership, don't come along every day.

And the search process has been thrown wide open by the creation of two additional advisory panels, comprising everyone from dancers and musicians to subscribers and community leaders.

In this inclusive spirit, we asked a half-dozen ballet insiders and observers what should happen next. Nearly everyone contacted had a similar viewpoint: PNB should "build on the legacy Kent and Francia have put into place, which has created an incredible world-class ballet company," as Hatch puts it. And many in the organization are optimistic about the chances for wiping out that big deficit, too — maybe even as early as the end of the current fiscal year (June 30).

Here's what we heard when we polled people about PNB's next steps:

Nancy Reynolds

Dance historian, Balanchine Foundation, New York City

Nancy Reynolds
"Whoever succeeds Kent and Francia has to have good taste, administrative skills and a strong background. They will inherit a magnificent company, with all the groundwork done, operating on the very highest level. "I'd want to see more of the same at this company, with Balanchine works, story ballets, new works, and an open mind about everything. The school has a very strong reputation; it's one of two top schools, along with the SAB (School of American Ballet, the school of New York City Ballet), where you always see moms on the Internet chat rooms saying they want to send their daughters who are serious about ballet.

"Who might they choose as the new director? A lot of people might make themselves available. Christopher Stowell (Kent and Francia's son) has tremendous talent, sensitivity and smarts, but he has just begun at Oregon Ballet Theatre."

Christopher Stowell

One of Stowell and Russell's three sons

Christopher Stowell
Christopher danced with San Francisco Ballet and was recently named artistic director of OBT. Would he want to succeed his parents, if chosen? Anything is possible, but it doesn't sound likely.

"I don't envy the person to follow them," he says.

"I now understand how difficult their work has been and how many pitfalls there are. Whoever comes next will have to have perseverance and insistence on the highest quality. My parents' ability to build incredible loyalty in their company has meant that they get lifetime commitment from people, many of them working for them for 27 years.

"Right now, I feel a tremendous commitment to OBT. I have a much better situation than my parents initially faced in Seattle, but I have the chance to do much the same thing in building a company. Portland is ripe for cultural growth, and it's exciting to be a part of it.

"It'd be dangerous to consider a ballet company as a family business. This would be a great opportunity for anyone, but the expectations are going to be very high."

Wade Walthall

Former principal dancer at PNB, now artistic director of Evergreen City Ballet in Auburn

Wade Walthall
"Kent and Francia have done an excellent job building a dance company, and they'll be a hard act to follow. I hope the board doesn't go with just a 'name' as their successor; boards sometimes tend to go after names and famous dancers.

"Will they want to continue the way PNB has, or will they want a more cutting edge? Will they want to keep so many dancers? (The company has nearly 50.) That's a large budget ($16.3 million) to hand over; it's a big responsibility."

Patricia Barker

PNB principal dancer

Patricia Barker
"I'd really like PNB to honor the past and preserve it, but I also know that everything evolves," says Barker, one of the company's greatest ballerinas, who grew up in the school and got her first scholarship from Russell.

"I want to see a future of innovative performances and a strong artistic vision; I want a director who will stand behind this company and who also will ensure its long-term financial stability. They have to do more than talk about it; they have to go out and do it with great energy and vision."

Kent Stowell and Francia Russell

Their tenure (since 1977) has been "a good long stint, longer than anybody else in the country," according to Stowell. Not surprisingly, they agree on what needs to happen at PNB after they've retired.

Kent Stowell and Francia Russell, shown in 1977.
"Building on tradition is important, especially in the school," says Russell, and Stowell says, "The flow of teaching technique must not be interrupted, or it can take 10 years to fix."

But both directors also want to see someone with "the belief that anything is possible," which Stowell says is the belief that propelled the two of them to Seattle. "A new way of looking at things, a different point of view and youthful energy" all will be pluses in a new director, Russell says.

Would it be a plus for a new director to have had dance experience at PNB? Russell thinks that "might be a point in their favor."

Building on the past, rather than reinventing the wheel, is the process both directors favor.

They also see the advantages of having more than one artistic director, especially given the demands of running the school (which Russell directs). Stowell says, "I'm a choreographer and Francia is a stager, so in some ways there's four of us. Maybe a combination of a couple of people would work; maybe there's one absolutely perfect candidate out there." Both directors are involved in the search process in an advisory, not voting, capacity, with Stowell stating that "the board must take ownership of this process."

David Brown

PNB executive director

David Brown
Brown says it is "premature to speculate" about new artistic leadership, but he has plenty to say about the company's finances — most of it surprisingly upbeat for a fellow facing a $1.23 million deficit, the largest in PNB history. In fact, Brown says, "I think we'll be able to make a statement in June that there has been significant progress in lowering the deficit — if not eliminating it."

The reason? The deficit, Brown says, is a legacy of "our exile to the Mercer Arts Arena" during the seasons when the Opera House was being rebuilt as Marion Oliver McCaw Hall. Contributing factors were "a difficult local economy and world events. Three seasons ago we finished the year with a modest surplus; two years ago, we had a modest deficit, and last year the deficit was $800,000."

With the company back in the handsome environs of McCaw Hall — right across the walkway from the studios at the Phelps Center — PNB finds itself possessing some of the country's most enviable dance facilities. The new hall and the gradually rising economy have brought patrons back to ballet in droves.

"We've seen subscribers returning to us, and we set a new box-office benchmark of $830,000 in single tickets for 'Swan Lake' (last fall). We've overachieved our subscription goal this season by $100,000; it now stands at $2.9 million."

Last December's "Nutcracker" was a big winner, too, topping expected revenues by about $500,000.

Brown says the trustees, staff and dancers are working together to eliminate the deficit and to complete the $500,000 campaign for the new Eastside school. The dancers, for instance, have created "Project 11," a book of photographs of 11 PNB principals, and all proceeds are donated to the company — $30,000 so far. (The book is available in the McCaw lobby at all PNB performances.) The dancers and staff also took unpaid furloughs last season to reduce the company's costs.

What about persistent rumors of a major private PNB gift in the works, perhaps as a tribute to Stowell and Russell on 28 years of achievement? Neither Brown nor Hatch said they are aware of such a gift.

"But a gesture such as that would be a fitting tribute to their long and glorious tenure," adds Brown. "Their value to PNB, and to the Seattle community, has been tremendous. They will be a tough act to follow."

Epilogue

PNB is preparing for its upcoming run of performances ("The Romantics," Thursday through Sunday at McCaw Hall). But what's the next act for Russell and Stowell, who have spent 41 years together — and raised three sons and one major ballet company?

"We have been very fortunate in our unitedness in private life and in our work," Stowell says.

"I'm thinking about (writing) a book. Francia will stage Balanchine works. I may do some choreography. We will travel; but this is our home."

Russell says, "We've had a great run. Here we are, a couple of ballet dancers, able to do what we dreamed of doing. We feel mixed about leaving. We love so many aspects of the job, especially the people, and our wonderful, sophisticated audiences."

But, as Stowell puts it, "It's time for the parents to leave home."

Melinda Bargreen: mbargreen@seattletimes.com


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