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Pacific Northwest Ballet Takes a Leap of Faith, Charts Its Own Vision

Dance: Founded by two alumni of the New York City Ballet, the 25-year-old company is diverging from the Balanchine repertory to gamble on premiering 11 original works.


SEATTLE — The stage is bare, light blue with a dark blue backdrop.

In one corner, fronting an 11-piece combo, a pianist with a thick mane of white hair and a huge snowy beard lays into Thelonious Monk's "Pannonica."

At the center, a tall, striking woman wearing a diaphanous magenta wrap over a black leotard begins vamping with the languorous fluidity of a jazz dancer--en pointe.

As in almost every program in Pacific Northwest Ballet's 25th anniversary season, there is not a trace of the George Balanchine repertory that has won the troupe its greatest accolades.

In a bravura gamble that seems to be paying off for artistic directors Francia Russell and Kent Stowell, both former Balanchine dancers, the six programs feature 11 world premieres and four other works new to the nation's fifth-largest dance company. In the previous two years, PNB performed five original works.

"What I told my staff is that we should be selling PNB rather than 'Carmina Burana' or 'Swan Lake,' " Stowell said.

The strategy worked. Balletomanes have poured into the 3,000-seat Opera House for the likes of Lynn Dally's "Ruby, My Dear," "III for V" by Bruce Wells, "Ginastera" by Rudi van Dantzig and "Diversions" by Paul Gibson.

Balanchine, whose stripped-down, non-narrative choreography and uncompromising devotion to beauty of form and movement made him the most influential ballet choreographer of the 20th century, is represented only by the local premiere of "Ballet Imperiale" in the second program.

The message resounds as emphatically as a dozen dancers landing onstage with a single thump: PNB is more than just a satellite of the New York City Ballet, the company Balanchine led until his death in 1983.

"It's a very vital, living, breathing, rejuvenating institution, constantly creating new things--new talent, new works, new ideas," Russell said.

"Mr. Balanchine is very much woven through it all, but he would be the last one to have expected that of us, that we would devote ourselves to the legacy."


It was during the Russian emigre's reign at the New York City Ballet in the 1960s that Russell and Stowell danced, met, married and had their first son, Christopher, now a principal at the San Francisco Ballet.

Stowell partnered with such prima ballerinas as Maria Tallchief and Suzanne Farrell. Russell became Balanchine's ballet mistress.

"Being around Balanchine was like having the privilege of living in Vienna in the time of Mozart," Stowell said.

Now the company he and Russell have directed for 20 years has a budget of more than $11 million, trailing only the New York City Ballet at $35 million, American Ballet Theater in New York at $24 million, Boston Ballet at $20 million and the San Francisco Ballet at $19.2 million.

Stowell is chief choreographer. Both he and Russell oversee classes for the 50 dancers, who have 41-week contracts and come from as far away as Albania, Estonia, France, Japan, Mongolia and Russia.

"We always feel that that's one of the strengths of our organization, because there are male and female perspectives," Russell said.

Russell runs the school, which has a 14-member faculty, 600 career-track students, 660 in open classes and a five-week summer program for about 300 youngsters. More than half the company's dancers received some training in the school.

"Kent and Francia have done an extraordinary job of developing that company and distinguishing it as one of the premier dance companies in the country," said Bonnie Brooks, executive director of Dance USA, an umbrella organization of the nation's dance companies.

"The last time I saw them, they looked wonderful," said Helgi Tomasson, artistic director of the San Francisco Ballet and another Balanchine grad.


But there have been some bumps, falls and false starts along the way. And Stowell's impulsiveness sometimes gets him into trouble.

Music director Stewart Kershaw reportedly came close to resigning after a widely publicized incident during a New York performance in 1996. Ten minutes into Balanchine's "Divertimento No. 15," Stowell bolted to the pit, yelled, "It's too fast, Stewart," then tore back up the aisle and out of the theater.

Management turnover has also been an issue.

Since the departure of Arthur Jacobus as president and chief executive to take the top administrative job at the San Francisco Ballet in 1993, the company has had three top executives with varying titles.

"It's not an easy job, no matter where," Jacobus said. "There's a lot of turnover in general in administration in the arts world."

Stowell and Russell are among about two dozen Balanchine dancers who became company directors or ballet masters.

From New York, they went to the University of Indiana for a very brief stab at academia, then spent three years at the Bavarian State Opera Ballet in Munich, Germany, where Stowell was principal dancer and chief choreographer. Next came four years at the Frankfurt Ballet, the last two as artistic directors.

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