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Making Seattle Dance

Kent Stowell Talks about Seattle Dance Project 3

by Dean Speer and Francis Timlin

Published February, 2010

Choreographer and founding artistic director of Pacific Northwest Ballet, Kent Stowell, was asked by the directors of Seattle Dance Project to make a new dance creation for their upcoming "Project 3" which was unveiled at the end of January, 2010.

We sat down with Stowell to talk about choreography, his own process, and what to look forward to seeing onstage.

What is the Genesis of your new piece?

The piece is different from everything else [on Seattle Dance Project's program] – it's on pointe. Co-artistic directors Julie [Tobiason] and Tim [Lynch] thought they needed a short pas de deux. The process is a bit analogous to cooking bread – all the elements such as temperature, the weather need to be in alignment and it needs to be done often in order to have a proper sense of it. I felt out of shape at first.

The dancers are Joseph Anderson and Michele Curtis who said she was happy to be dancing on pointe again. I've never directly choreographed on either before, even though Joe was in our company. The hard part is working with unfamiliar clay and making the process – and ultimately the product – mutually interesting. Both Michele and Joe were real troopers and a pleasure to work with.

What is the music?

It's by William Bolcom, who has an artistic sensibility similar to mine – he uses a lot of Americana and feels an affinity for musical theatre. Today's choreographers have the advantage of a far more varied dance environment; my generation turned to the movies. The ballet tradition has been very influential in the rehearsal ethos... in film, the final version is there forever; on stage this is not so – which can be a good thing.

Today, there are so many young people working on craft and taking opportunities to find expression and expand and present the art form. It's great to see all these people out there tackling it. Ballet is the foundation for most of them and it's the ballet institutions that have formed these opportunities – through workshop performances, informal showings, choreography showcases, and the like. Many are interested in creating and inventing the new, yet I recall one bit of Balanchine's wisdom – that he was happy with piqué arabesque. The challenge is how to make the old steps new and fresh.

That's true. There's piqué arabesque, and then there's piqué arabesque.

One way is when ballet is new to an audience. “Swan Lake” was once completely out of fashion. Reinventing it helped to rebuild the audience for it. Directors discovered it was another tool in the chest that helped to strengthen the foundation of their companies.

Today's choreographers work more like movie directors – movies are a springboard. Think about what movies can do – how they make your mind work differently. These choreographers think outside the box – like the way they have no reservations about using pastiche sound scores. It can be more like performance art: a different way to look at theatre. It opens up lots of different ways to look at structure.

I once asked a well-known contemporary ballet choreographer if he were to make a ballet to no music, what would it look like? I was trying to ferret out what he felt his choreographic DNA or imprint might look like. Do you have a sense of what your creative "voice" looks like?

It looks more like breakfast than dinner! Breakfast is my favorite meal – it's straightforward. Dinner has lots of opportunities for richness and texture. My ballets were created to attract and expand our audience – I did what needed to be done for the future of our institution.

How is the process different for you this time?

It's interesting to be working without the large institutional support structure. I proudly note that, during our tenure, PNB did more than almost any company in terms of creativity and growth of repertory: presenting the work of 107 choreographers, many of whom created their ballets on our dancers. We started with virtually nothing and, over time, developed to compete with the major national companies. Almost unbelievably, back in 1981, PNB was one of only two companies in the U.S. to present a full-length “Swan Lake.” The other was David Blair's 1960's production for ABT. Now many companies have a production but, clearly, PNB was a leader in growing beyond regional expectations.

Entrusting major commissions to a choreographer is a big risk. I mean, to whom would you give a million dollars? That's the kind of number – and more – that today's ballets cost to put on. The

integrity of the work and the relationships with the artists are the foundation.  I believe the gene for artistic integrity is one that I inherited from Balanchine.

The working relationship of creative artists is a bit like a romantic one – a commitment is required. Some dancers never get there because of their own insecurities. The reason other dancers have a lot of new work created for them (e.g. Suzanne Farrell, Deborah Hadley, Jonathan Porretta and many other PNB dancers, as well as Michele Curtis and Joseph Anderson) is that they have a great willingness to extend themselves and to try new things.

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