In a studio painted marigold yellow and sparsely outfitted with a stereo system, a poster bearing a diagram of the human skeleton, and an economy-size bottle of hand sanitizer, Stowell coaches Adrian Fry and Kathi Martuza through a tango-inflected pas de deux, the second act of Through Eden’s Gates. With his strawberry blond hair and easy grin, Fry resembles a Happy Days-era Ron Howard, while Martuza looks wholesomely sexy with her gold cross pendant and heavily plucked eyebrows. As Bolcom’s piano duet, “Paseo,” plays on the stereo, Fry spins Martuza in dizzying circles, assists her doelike leaps, and scoots her around the floor. A mere week and a half before opening night, perfection remains elusive, as Martuza’s foot, meant to summit Fry’s shoulder in a leggy embrace, snags bluntly against his chest. The dancers still have far to go to master the technical aspects of the performance, let alone achieve that extra quality—the palpable chemistry that should roil between the partners—that could make it transcendent.
But while some ballet directors might be sweating nervously at this point, Stowell is calm. No one is groaning, spitting invectives, or sobbing in frustration. Martuza and Fry stand with their hands on their hips, chests heaving lightly from exertion, trading quick notes: They could be playing a leisurely Sunday-afternoon game of pickup basketball while their friend tunes the boom box. The scene reflects an important way in which Stowell has reshaped the culture of OBT.
Principal ballerina Alison Roper, who has been with the company long enough to have trained under Stowell’s predecessor, James Canfield, recalls Canfield’s studio as “a serious environment where mistakes weren’t funny.” But in the first classes she took with Stowell, she says, “people would make a mistake and laugh, and I’d realize, It’s OK. It’s just class. It’s a sport, but you have to have some artistic space, and Christopher allows that.” Principal dancer Anne Mueller, the other company member whose career has spanned the tenures of both directors, concurs. “People feel happy and light,” she says, “but at the same time lots of really good hard work is getting done. That’s a difficult balance to strike as leader.”
Much of that “work” involves developing a sense for how to respond intuitively to music, an ability that is crucial in creating performances that feel vividly alive. In class, dancers practice movement combinations that use syncopated rhythms; in rehearsals, they are accompanied by a live pianist. Onstage, they must adapt to fluctuating tempos and dynamics, since Stowell has lobbied to fund the expense of a live orchestra whenever possible.
“Philosophically,” Mueller says, “when we’re performing he wants us to be very present in the moment, in a very exploratory way. He wants us to be unafraid when we perform onstage, unafraid to go for things, and push ourselves, and not to be the same every time.” This she describes as “a beautiful place to be.”