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Following In Mr. B's Steps

January 18, 1987|R.M. CAMPBELL | Campbell is the dance critic for the Seattle Post-Intelligencer. and

SEATTLE — It is nearly four years now since George Balanchine died, yet his influence on American dance seems to be waxing instead of waning.

Not only are his ballets being danced seemingly everywhere, but former members of New York City Ballet, which Balanchine co-founded with Lincoln Kirstein, are directing ballet companies from Atlanta to Chicago, New York to Pennsylvania, North Carolina to San Francisco, Miami to Seattle.

Pacific Northwest Ballet, which makes its Los Angeles debut Jan. 23 at Royce Hall, UCLA, is among the youngest of those companies.

However, Kent Stowell and Francia Russell, co-directors of PNB and married to each other, bristle at the suggestion that the company, which they have nurtured from a rough infancy to its present status, is just another City Ballet satellite.

"One has to recognize that a major figure like Balanchine will have a far-reaching influence for a long time," said Russell recently. "We are proud of that heritage and want to carry on that tradition. The way he saw dance influenced our taste, but we left there (New York City Ballet) because we wanted to do things our own way. Mr. B. understood that."

"The connection is basically psychological in peoples' mind--a way of identifying a ballet company," Stowell added. "It's hard to put your finger on what PNB is. Our relationship with Balanchine gave us an accepted entree into Seattle."

"Yes, there are a number of companies that have Balanchine people," Russell said, "but you're going to see how differently those companies develop. Take Helgi (Tomasson, director of San Francisco Ballet). He is Danish, and his technique was formed before he joined City Ballet. So he has two traditions from which to draw."

Likewise Stowell and Russell, whose traditions include that of the Soviet Union (through such teachers as Felia Dubrovska and Vera Volkova) and Western America (through William and Lew Christensen).

Russell joined City Ballet in 1956, becoming ballet mistress eight years later; Stowell joined the company in 1961, after several years as a principal with San Francisco Ballet. Russell is also widely known for staging Balanchine ballets and just spent six weeks teaching Balanchine style and setting his "La Valse" on the Shanghai Ballet--the first Balanchine representative to stage one of his ballets in China.

The Balanchine influence is bound to remain a powerful one at Pacific Northwest Ballet, because his ballets sit at the core of the company. In a repertory of approximately 50 works, Balanchine's ballets number nearly 20, some of which came to the company through a four-year, cost-sharing program with San Francisco Ballet.

The other major segment of the repertory, about 15 ballets, is devoted to Stowell. The rest is a vast mix of styles and moods, including such choreographers as Lynn Dally, Lew Christensen, Margo Sappington, Marjorie Mussman, Rudy van Dantzig, Choo San Goh, Lucinda Childs and, this season, Jose Limon and Antony Tudor. PNB actively commissions new ballets, such as Childs' "Cascade" and "Clarion."

This array of different choreographers has been the subject of some criticism for the company.

"What's wrong with being eclectic?" responded Russell. "We have to serve our region," added Stowell. "If we don't do some of these ballets, who is going to do them?"

When Stowell and Russell arrived in Seattle in 1977 from Frankfurt, where they had been co-directors of the Frankfurt Ballet for seven years, their perception was that nobody was doing much of anything.

The company was barely more than a school and a warring one at that. "When we came here, we were viewed suspiciously," Stowell said. "People didn't know us; we didn't have an American name."

"The school was just a couple of classes. There was really no company," added Russell. "There was so much confusion with goals."

The genesis of the company was in 1972 as a part of Seattle Opera: a presenting arm to bring dance companies--primarily the Joffrey Ballet, whose founder Robert Joffrey was born and reared in the city. Soon afterwards, the organization began to provide local dancers for various Seattle Opera productions, and, in 1975, the company's first "Nutcracker," choreographed and staged by Lew Christensen of San Francisco Ballet, was presented.

The school, which Russell directs, now has 400 students. The company has 37 dancers, 14 of whom are from its own school and 10 from the School of American Ballet, the teaching arm of New York City Ballet.

The year-long season consists of mixed repertory programs in the fall and spring, a month of "Nutcracker" in Seattle and on tour, and a full-length ballet to conclude the season in early summer--this year, Stowell's brand new "Romeo and Juliet," set to music by Tchaikovsky instead of the usual Prokofiev.

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