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Former PNB artistic directors Francia Russell and Kent Stowell, 1985.  (Photo: Kurt Smith, courtesy Pacific Northwest Ballet)

Former PNB artistic directors Francia Russell and Kent Stowell, 1985. (Photo: Kurt Smith, courtesy Pacific Northwest Ballet)

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Pacific Northwest Ballet Turns 40

Marcie Sillman

Pacific Northwest Ballet opens its 40th season Friday night. In four decades, PNB has evolved from a small adjunct to Seattle Opera, into one of America's most respected ballet companies.

PNB has 44 dancers, a professional training program, and a permanent home at Seattle Center. Now PNB's leaders are trying to balance the company's artistic legacy with the need to push ballet in new directions.


In 1977, a couple named Francia Russell and Kent Stowell moved to Seattle from Germany. They took over artistic leadership at Pacific Northwest Ballet. Stowell says the dance company was a shadow of what it is today.

Stowell: "I think we had maybe 8 to 10 dancers that were paid, but not very much and not very often [laughs]."

That isn't strictly true, but the ballet company was bare bones. PNB started as the Pacific Northwest Dance Company in 1972, part of Seattle Opera. It was nothing like the large, state–funded ballet company Russell and Stowell had left behind in Germany. But Kent Stowell says they never had time to regret their move to Seattle.

Stowell: "We had to make it work, we had these three kids to support and get into the world. And so, of course, there were times we'd gladly run away if we could have."

At the time, the company had 18 dancers on its payroll. They rehearsed in a room at Wallingford's Good Shepherd Center. Stowell and Russell had barely enough money to acquire dances for their company to perform. So Kent Stowell wound up creating a lot of PNB's repertoire in those early years.

Sound: "Cinderella" rehearsal.

By PNB's 25th anniversary, Stowell had choreographed dozens of ballets for the company, including "Nutcracker" and "Cinderella." PNB's repertoire also included dances by George Balanchine, one of the 20th century's greatest choreographers.

Kent Stowell and Francia Russell had danced with Balanchine's company. Russell also served as Balanchine's assistant, his ballet mistress. Before the couple moved to Seattle, Russell was sure her mentor would help them make a smooth transition. Here's an excerpt from a letter she wrote to her parents at the time.

Russell: "'I feel absolutely confident that when we find the place we want to stay, that he will be very, very helpful.' And boy, he was!" Because of his close relationship with the couple, George Balanchine let Pacific Northwest Ballet perform his dances — for free. This was more than a gift to a cash–strapped company.

Russell: "He wanted us to carry on his word, you know, to proselytize, more or less, but to carry on his traditions."

PNB now has 25 Balanchine ballets in its active repertory.

Boal: "That was a very reassuring part of Pacific Northwest Ballet."

That's Peter Boal. He took over the job of PNB artistic director when Russell and Stowell retired in 2005.

Boal: "I knew, though I'd be a stranger in a new city, there'd be Balanchine, and those ballets I'd lived in and danced in."

Since Boal's arrival, he's added eight more Balanchine dances to PNB's repertoire. But Boal says PNB is more than a Balanchine company. He wants to present a mix of work, from big classical ballets to new commissions by young, sometimes unknown, choreographers.

Boal: "I'd like to have a black box theater or a smaller scale theater, where we can have more experimental work to nurture programs there. Because there's a lot of pressure in the rep that's coming up in November: four world premiers in a 3,000 seat hall. What if they're not good? How do we fill that? So, I think there's a place for that, is expanding with another, smaller venue, which would lead to a lot more risk and experimentation."

But it's a challenge for PNB, or any arts organization, to be risky when money is tight. Since the recession hit in 2008, Boal has included big crowd pleasers like "Cinderella" and "Nutcracker" on his annual schedule. This helps to balance the edgier, contemporary dances he likes to present.

Boal: "I think it's important to preserve those commissions and those risks, that aren't even audience tastes yet, but it's important to stay at the forefront and introduce the new, and to lead an audience down a path that may be their taste in the future."

Pacific Northwest Ballet's November program includes four world premiers, including a new dance by Seattle native Mark Morris. PNB's 40th season opens this weekend at McCaw Hall.

I'm Marcie Sillman, KUOW News.

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