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By Martha Ullman West
Christopher Stowell steps down.
Stowell rehearsing Yuka Iino and Jon Drake. Photo: Blaine Truitt Covert, Courtesy OBT
Last spring, Oregon Ballet Theatre’s dancers tore up the stage of Portland’s Newmark Theatre in a downright thrilling performance of Balanchine’s Stravinsky Violin Concerto, providing a watershed moment in Christopher Stowell’s artistic directorship. The ballet demands mathematical precision, acute musicality, clean technique, and exuberance—which the dancers delivered in spades. The program was further proof that these dancers can perform anything thrown at them, from Giselle to Forsythe’s The Second Detail. Portland finally had a company equal in quality to the city’s opera, symphony, and art museum.
But Stowell resigned last December, citing the board’s divergent vision. In nearly a decade of leadership, the son of Kent Stowell and Francia Russell, who had a stellar career as a San Francisco Ballet principal, used his experience, connections, talent, and good taste to forge a well-schooled, classically oriented company that performed ballets by Wheeldon, Robbins, Nicolo Fonte, Trey McIntyre, and himself.
“I am most proud of accomplishing a unity of spirit, a sense that the organization and the audience embrace the same artistic values,” says Stowell. “We’ve built a sophisticated and diverse rep that a company this size can be proud of, that attracts dancers, because they get to work with it, and many choreographers.”
Dancers appreciate his clarity in the studio. “He is so articulate,” says Candace Bouchard. “You always know exactly what he wants.” Anne Mueller, OBT’s interim artistic director, considers herself “deeply lucky” to have worked with him “in a variety of capacities. In each one, he found a way to challenge me at the same time as giving me a true voice.”
In 2009, Stowell met a challenge of his own when OBT, which had no financial reserves (and still doesn’t), discovered a $750,000 season budget shortfall. In three weeks, Stowell put together Dance United, a gala performance by dancers from all over the country, helping to raise $900,000.
OBT will continue to perform Stowell’s choreography: three of his pieces, including a premiere, appear on the 2013–14 season lineup. In time, Stowell may use his talents and connections to run another company. Meanwhile, the offers to teach, coach, and stage are coming in from the Balanchine Trust and companies in Estonia and Sweden.