More visible and talked about than Stowell’s habits in the studio are the changes he has made to the company’s public face—changes that add to the impression that he is the virtual antidote to Canfield (or at least, in the words of Roper, Canfield’s “polar opposite”).
Canfield, a former dancer with Chicago’s Joffrey Ballet known for his commanding physique, sharp intellect, and serious bearing, came to Portland in 1985 to dance with, and soon thereafter to direct, what was then the Pacific Ballet Theatre. By 1989, that company had merged with a competitor, Ballet Oregon, and Canfield, then in his late 20s, became the new company’s artistic director. An exponent of the Joffrey Ballet’s style of freely melding modern and classical dance forms, Canfield sought to attract younger audiences by augmenting classical ballets with edgy, contemporary pieces—ranging from works in progress by OBT dancers to glistening creations by eminent choreographers such as Bebe Miller and Karole Armitage.
‘I see ballet as a language,’ he says. ‘And it’s a language that’s very difficult to speak, to stick with the metaphor.’
But Canfield became best known for the pop-culture-influenced ballets he choreographed himself. Often scored to loud rock music and featuring outlandish costumes or skimpily clad ballerinas performing sexually suggestive moves, these productions shocked old-guard audiences and some feminist-leaning balletomanes to the point that, as Oregonian journalists Bob Hicks and Barry Johnson wrote, “By 1989 [Canfield] felt it necessary to tell the Oregonian, ‘I’m not a female hater or a female beater. I’m not a psychopath.’”
Still, thanks in part to Canfield’s gifts as a teacher (Roper, for instance, credits him with turning her into a “great” dancer) and his deep fluency in ballet’s classical vocabulary, he helped OBT to grow into the accomplished midsize company that it is today. By the beginning of Canfield’s 10th year as artistic director, the company had earned the first of two invitations to perform at the prestigious Joyce Theater in New York, and it had raised enough capital to take title to a new headquarters in a renovated First Interstate Bank building on the corner of SE Sixth Avenue and Morrison Street (it’s still OBT’s home). Yet by the time the 2001-02 season opened with Lady Lucille and the Count, Canfield’s modern-Gothic interpretation of Bram Stoker’s Dracula set to a score by Dead Can Dance—which also included a set piece that the Oregonian described as a “two-story-high phallus”—the tide was turning against him. In February 2002, Canfield announced plans to leave OBT, citing a desire to pursue other creative interests, and though a representative of the board denied he had been pushed out, many were glad to see him go.
Stowell’s exorcism of Canfield’s ghost was immediate, underscored during an early talk for OBT supporters when he declared, according to the Oregonian, “This is a ballet company, not a dance company.” His first season, he replaced 8 of 19 dancers with handpicked successors, hired a new school director, and began the process of overhauling OBT’s repertory, introducing the same type of high-minded classicism that had, broadly speaking, predominated in his parents’ and Tomasson’s companies.
His first season offered 11 company premiêres, including classic modern works by Balanchine and a recent piece by a much-in-demand British choreographer named Christopher Wheeldon, whom Stowell had worked with and befriended while at the San Francisco Ballet. In coming seasons he gradually interspersed mixed-repertory programs of traditional and neoclassical works with lush, evening-length story ballets: densely populated, technically demanding works such as Swan Lake and Stowell’s own A Midsummer Night’s Dream, choreographed to Mendelssohn’s score, that focused attention on the company’s classical technique and its growing corps of artistically mature dancers (a corps that Stowell increased from 19 to, as of this season, 28). The Stowell era had begun.