The most alluring thing about ballet is not that it is beautiful or graceful, but that it is unnatural and exquisitely difficult to pull off. Fifteenth-century Florentine and Milanese princes, the sorts of people who bankrolled Leonardo da Vinci’s Last Supper, and 16th- and 17th-century French nobles like Louis XIV, the flamboyant king responsible for the gardens of Versailles, got the tradition rolling with grand spectacles featuring songs and recitations, dancing courtiers, and even men on horses riding in geometric configurations.

These precursors to ballet were personal statements of power and will. But to get from those early potpourris of theatrical excess to, say, Marius Petipa and Tchaikovsky’s 1890 Sleeping Beauty, a three-act ballet performed on a proscenium stage with a professional company of ballerinas dancing on point—and from there, to reach a 20th-century masterpiece such as George Balanchine’s marvel of neoclassical abstraction, Concerto Barocco—has required a different sort of exertion of will.
bq. ‘I see ballet as a language’ he says. ‘And it’s a language that’s very difficult to speak, to stick with the metaphor.’

Ever since ballet’s five positions of the feet were codified sometime previous to 1700, the art form has evolved by means of a long, collective drive to perpetuate#8212;and better#8212;the achievements of previous generations. In Paris, St. Petersburg, London, and New York, it has developed by way of the collaborative toils of innumerable dancers, ballet masters, choreographers, composers, and directors—such that today, when a ballerina rises on point in a swanlike arabesque, it is the weight, and the appearance of weightlessness, of at least three centuries of human effort that rest on her toe. Nevertheless, towering artistic achievement that it is, ballet (which has never developed a common system of notation for movement, as classical music has for song) is both ephemeral and mercurial. At any moment, the modern-day institution of ballet is dependent for its form upon numerous dance companies and associated training academies around the globe, each led by an artistic director, each of whom is responsible for maintaining and improving his particular branch of the balletic flume.

Taken together, the actions of these artistic directors in large part determine the survival of the art. They also give each ballet company a distinct identity. How will the dance training incorporate elements from different stylistic traditions? How will the repertory strike a balance between older works and risky new ones? And how will subscriptions be sold and patrons milked for contributions to pay for all of this?

The latter question is certainly not inconsequential for Stowell, who will mark his fifth anniversary as OBT’s artistic director next month, having set a new company high in spending for ballet productions. But it’s the way in which Stowell has redefined OBT’s artistic identity that has left the deepest impression on observers since he took over from the company’s founding director in 2003. This month, when OBT dancers travel to the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C., to perform in the venue’s inaugural Ballet Across America Festival (an honor to be shared with venerable companies such as the Houston Ballet and the Boston Ballet), a large and discerning dance audience will have a chance to see just how this young director has imprinted his own artistic heritage on a ballet company that’s only beginning to come of age.