IT’S 4 O’CLOCK in the afternoon, six hours after morning rehearsals began, and the main studio of Oregon Ballet Theatre (OBT) is starting to get humid—stickily so. The windows facing SE Sixth Avenue are clouding with beads of condensation; the odor of sweaty feet suffuses the thick air. Dancers pace the edges of the room, long limbs grazing each other, as Christopher Stowell, OBT’s artistic director, signals the dancers to take their marks.
Stowell’s splayfooted stance—heels together, toes apart—and erect carriage evince his own past career as a dancer (the hidden reminders include three herniated disks and an arthritic hip). At age 42, Stowell, a man of medium-small build, with short, slightly receding brown hair and nondescript spectacles, no longer subjects his own body to the rigors of ballet. He has 28 other bodies for that, and right now most of them are running through the first act of Through Eden’s Gates, a vaudeville-inspired dance medley set to composer William Bolcom’s pounding piano rags, scheduled to open in 11 days.
“Five, six, seven, eight! And one, two, three, four, boom-cha-cha-uh!” Stowell counts off in his cheerfully commanding, reedy voice. Ten dancers, their muscles cut like Michelangelo sculpture, explode in an intricate partnering sequence. Stowell interrupts as five male dancers yank hard on their partners’ hands to pull them into piqué turns. “OK, you know what’ll make it look one step better is—guys, once you pull her, if you really go push to the other side,” he coaches, roughly miming the move by jumping to one side as he thrusts his hands in the opposite direction. “One more time.”
Again the dancers burst forth, this time recalibrating the force-distance variables that will make this particular half-second maneuver that much cleaner, stronger, more graceful, more precise.
Developing the talents of the company dancers; directing productions (five per year); setting the training philosophy for the company school; furthering, in all ways, the artistic vision for this city’s $6.5-million-a-year ballet company: Stowell, OBT’s chief creative mind, has a lot to think about in any given fraction of a second. Virtually every decision he makes bears on a big-picture question somehow. How to attract a subscriber base that will help put the company in the black and keep it there. How to adapt ballet’s refined classical traditions—which date to the Baroque era—to fit the cultural context of the present. Often, though, these expressions of leadership come down to judgments about near—incalculably small and insensibly ethereal details: rotating a ballerina’s torso a hair to the left, so that the graceful line made by her raised arm can be better appreciated by the audience; changing the position of her foot so that it drags more fluidly when her partner whisks her across the floor.
As the dancers return to their marks again, Stowell admonishes a couple of apprentices for coming in too early with their tours jetés, a grand leap in which the legs scissor and the body reverses direction midair.
“You wanna really try to go da-da-da-plung,” he emphasizes, glossing the upper-body movements as he lifts and resettles his back foot. The boy and girl obediently take their positions to show him they’ve grasped the timing lesson.