"He probably thought he fell on the stage when he was born,” says Kent Stowell of his eldest son. That was 1966; Kent was a dancer with the New York City Ballet, working under Balanchine, the most revered American ballet master and choreographer of all time. Kent’s wife and Christopher’s mother, Francia Russell, a former company member, was the ballet mistress. (Balanchine, naturally, was one of the first people to make a congratulatory visit to the Stowells’ West 69th Street apartment after Christopher’s birth. Seeing the 5-pound, 14-ounce infant, he is said to have remarked, “Not as bad as I expected.”)
When Stowell turned 4, his parents moved to Germany to dance with the Bavarian State Ballet in Munich, then went on to become the artistic directors of the Frankfurt Ballet. Stowell went to a German kindergarten dressed in lederhosen; evenings and weekends, he accompanied his parents to the theater. When the family returned to the States in 1977 so that Kent and Francia could take the helm of the then-flailing five-year-old Pacific Northwest Ballet in Seattle, their 11-year-old son, a Tchaikovsky and Mozart fan who had never seen a Dairy Queen, found it difficult to make friends with the neighborhood children in the Bellevue suburbs. But in the classes he took at his parents’ ballet school, he found a familiar environment and a ready-made social life. And at age 14, he decided he’d also found a professional and artistic calling.
His parents discouraged him: Like his father, Christopher had stiff hips, a severe handicap in achieving “turnout,” the outward rotation of the hips that is essential to ballet’s physical aesthetic. He was also short—and unlikely, at 5-foot-6, to be cast in the danseur noble roles of heroes and princes. “We felt it was a hard profession,” his father recalls. “He had a difficult body—it was not a supple body; it had to be shaped.”
But Stowell overcame his physical shortcomings, traveling to New York during his high school summers to study at the School of American Ballet, the professional academy of the company where his parents had worked 20 years earlier. The fall after graduating from high school, he joined the school full time, and the following spring (despite having been sidelined from class and rehearsals due to a broken foot), he performed starring roles in the school’s annual show. Although the New York City Ballet (NYCB) didn’t offer him a contract—a grave but short-lived disappointment—the incoming artistic director for the San Francisco Ballet (SFB), Helgi Tomasson, did. He hired Stowell, sans audition, based on word of mouth and excellent reviews.
Founded in 1933, the San Francisco Ballet is the country’s oldest ballet company. But it took Tomasson, a former NYCB dancer, to make it a force of national stature—using Stowell as one of his prime instruments. In Stowell, Tomasson saw a dancer who was quick to learn, articulate in his movements, and charismatic. Naturally, given his artistic lineage, Stowell executed Balanchine ballets with flair, displaying the proper cleanness of line and quick-footed musicality. But Stowell’s more traditional roles also were memorable (he pulled off the role of Mercutio in Tomasson’s own Romeo and Juliet with rare “skill and maturity,” Tomasson recalls), and before long, eminent contemporary choreographers were creating roles for Stowell in new works commissioned by SFB. Moreover, Stowell was the beneficiary as Tomasson plucked dancers and instructors from around the globe whose broad range of dance backgrounds enhanced Stowell’s early, Balanchine-influenced training.
By the time he retired from dancing after spending 16 years with SFB, Stowell was a virtuoso dancer. Owing to his intelligence and curiosity, he was also an advanced trainee in the art of ballet directing. He spent the next two years roaming the country (he also detoured through Japan), choreographing and working as an assistant director for regional ballet and opera companies. Then he got a call informing him that Oregon Ballet Theatre was searching for a new artistic director. During the summer of 2002 he crafted a point-by-point, three-year plan for the company, and was invited to begin work on July 1 of the following year.