But Stowell says Portland is an exception to this trend partly because of the broad tastes of local audiences. “I don’t feel forced into … doing as many performances of Swan Lake as we can,” he says. In April—the same month the Atlanta Ballet drew national media attention for Big, a production featuring classically trained dancers leaping and spinning to the rhymes and beats of Big Boi, half of the hip-hop duo OutKast—OBT was doing Balanchine. In the next few seasons Stowell hopes to introduce works by Twyla Tharp and Mark Morris, the great Seattle-born contemporary choreographer, into the company’s repertoire, which will further broaden OBT’s foundation of modern classics. Neither Peter Pan nor a festival of new works are part of the plan.
But even if financial worries aren’t driving Stowell’s artistic decisions, they are not far from his mind. Asked what he would do with a $10 million gift, he replies that he likely would put it into an endowment. “We’ve gotten a lot done in the five years I’ve been here,” Stowell says. “We have a whole new repertory; we have developed relationships with important artists who are continuing to come back and make new work for us; we are attracting a really high quality of dancer from all over the world. So we have real building blocks in place.” Now, he says, his focus is on “sustainability.”
“How can we make this an institution,” he muses, “and find ways of sustaining all the work we’ve done—and increase it, of course—but also have the support we need there, so it’s not threatened to be ripped out from underneath us?” That, of course, is the eternal question.
On May 8, it was as if Stowell’s past itself had descended on the Arlene Schnitzer Concert Hall: Four West Coast ballet companies convened there for a rare group performance presented by Portland’s White Bird, and for a bit of friendly artistic rivalry centered around the evening’s theme of “contemporary ballet.”
Tomasson, Stowell’s former director at San Francisco Ballet, was there, defending the classical fort—and displaying what a $42 million budget can buy—with his Concerto Grosso, a withering fusillade of virtuoso leaps and spins by five male dancers. Peter Boal, the leader of Seattle’s Pacific Northwest Ballet since Stowell’s parents retired in 2005, replied with Shindig, a whimsical parody of ballet’s fussier conventions choreographed by one of the company’s dancers. Toni Pimble of Eugene Ballet Company took up the social protest flag with Still Falls the Rain, her modern-dance-inflected piece inspired by the story of a young couple’s late-1990s death by stoning in Afghanistan.
bq. ‘[Dancers are] like the Kentucky Derby-winning horse…They have ready at their disposal a physical arsenal.’
As for Stowell, he claimed his characteristic, classically attuned middle ground with Christopher Wheeldon’s Rush, the quirky, athletic, dance-for-dance’s-sake ballet that OBT will perform again this month at the Kennedy Center. It was the only company première of the night, and a few minutes before the curtain rose, Stowell was backstage, exhibiting his typical high tolerance for last-minute uncertainties.
His dancers, scattered across the floor, adjusted their costumes (one ballerina had discovered that hers was on backward) and made runs to the wings to consult on details of head- and hand-positioning with the visiting ballet master. Stowell mingled among them, offering words of encouragement and light quips. Then, addressing the group, he shared one last reminder: “Dance big, and have a great time, everyone!” The dancers raised their hands in a light patter of good-luck applause. Stowell exited through the stage door to watch the show.