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Tribute Performance for Russell and Stowell

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On Sunday night, 12 June, Pacific Northwest Ballet is producing a farewell tribute program for Francia Russell and Kent Stowell. On the website is the following description:

The Tribute program will be a surprise for Stowell and Russell and will not be announced in advance, with one exception. As a gift to their parents, the Stowell's three sons have acquired excerpts from George Balanchine’s 1960 Liebeslieder Walzer for a one-time performance at the Tribute. Often mentioned as their favorite Balanchine ballet, Stowell and Russell are intimately familiar with this work for four couples, accompanied on stage by four singers and two pianists performing waltzes by Johannes Brahms. Russell was in the second cast when Balanchine choreographed the ballet and Stowell performed it many times during his career at New York City Ballet. The Tribute excerpts from Liebeslieder Walzer will be staged for PNB by Karin von Aroldingen, Trustee and Repetiteur of The George Balanchine Trust.


What a wonderful gift from their sons :flowers::D

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I hope no one ruins the surprise.

I agree that it's a lovely gift, but seeing as how it was posted on the web site more than a month in advance, how much of a surprise can it really be?

Maybe I'm missing something. Do they not know about the company web site?

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The Tribute program will be a surprise for Stowell and Russell and will not be announced in advance, with one exception.

Quite an exception -- and I suppose one that's rather hard to hide.

The PNB site mentions that the company has 21 Balanchine ballets in its repertoire. I assume they've never done Liebeslieder Walzer before. Anyone know why? Do you think it will somehow remain in repertoire after this one-off celebration?

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The PNB site mentions that the company has 21 Balanchine ballets in its repertoire.  I assume they've never done Liebeslieder Walzer before.  Anyone know why?  Do you think it will somehow remain in repertoire after this one-off celebration?

PNB has never performed Liebeslieder until tonight, and the performance consisted of, if I counted correctly, eight waltzes from Part I. In the first few Q&A's I attended in which Russell and Stowell discussed the ballet, they tended to speak around being afraid the audience wouldn't accept the ballet, and they cited the first NYCB performances, where many audience members left after the first part. (My co-favorite Balanchine quote is when he was told, "George, look at all the people who left," he replied, "But look at all the people who stayed.")

However, after they announced their retirement last fall -- or, after it was leaked -- they said that the Balanchine Trust requires a Company to use a replica of the original sets and costumes, and they just couldn't afford to do it. For tonight's performance, staged by Karin von Aroldingen, they borrowed the women's dresses from San Francisco Ballet, and used white tie from the PNB costume shop for the men. There were chairs and tables, but they must have received dispensation from the Trust, because there were no sets.

I don't know if the SFB sets would fit on the McCaw Hall stage, or if they are even available for loan. I can't imagine that permission would be granted for a set-less full staging, and until someone writes a big check for a new production, I suspect we're not going to see it again.

It was a most beautiful, moving performance, and the ballet means so much to Russell and Stowell. Ariana Lallone and Stanko Milov danced the Jillana/Conrad Ludlow roles, and in the section that is excerpted in the PBS Balanchine biography, Lallone's attention was as deeply passionate as her dancing was decorous, quite different than the almost lighthearted one by Jillana (in that song). Usually that sense of a couple so bound that they don't need to speak is conveyed in the second-to-last song in Part II, in the role originated by Melissa Hayden, which, for me, is the center of the ballet. The Hayden/Jonathan Watts roles were danced by Kaori Nakamura and Jeff Stanton, but I don't think the Part I dances for this couple are the most notable in the ballet. Patricia Barker and Christophe Maraval danced the Diana Adams/Bill Carter couple, with the famous "whispering pas de deux," which was quite lovely. He is a wonderful partner.

At one point, I think a child let out a noise, which allowed the coughers to chime in, but for most of the ballet, you could hear a pin drop. When Louise Nadeau and Olivier Wevers finished their second pas de deux to the tenor solo in the Violette Verdy/Nicholas Magallenes roles, it was so ravishing, that an audible, collective sigh rose from the audience.

For the musicians, it was also a fitting tribute: long time company pianists Dianne Chilgren and Allan Dameron (who also conducts) are so attuned to each other, that they sound like one instrument. Soprano Catherine Haight and baritone Erich Parce have performed in Stowell's Carmina Burana and mezzo soprano Emily Lunde has sung in A Midsummer Night's Dream. Tenor Wesley Rogers joined them, with his beautiful tenor voice. The four singers blended together and sang the songs as lieder, not opera, in the finest performance of the music I've heard.

There are several legacies that Russell and Stowell leave the Company and the city, but one went mostly unspoken in all of the tributes: they've built and educated an audience that wouldn't consider leaving after the first part of Liebeslieder Walzer.

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The structure of tonight's intermissionless tribute program alternated between dancing and mostly taped spoken tributes, but it opened with a live spoken introduction by Susan Brotman, Board Chairman of the Company Foundation and former Chairman of the Board of Trustees. It was a short intro, in which she was joined by two young students, Emma Baker and Jeremy Blancas, who also both spoke a line or two of thanks to Russell and Stowell.

The performance began with the overture to Stowell's ballet Silver Lining, which closed the regular season last night. The first taped tribute was by Suki Shorer, well-known to NYCB fans as a teacher and author of Suki Shorer on Balanchine Technique. The first dance, the opening section of Serenade, was fitting for the founders of a school that is now feeding the Company (and how!): it was performed by students of the Professional Division.

Tributes by Jocelyn Vollmar, who danced with San Francisco Ballet, as Kent Stowell did in his early career, and who now teaches at the San Francisco Ballet school, Violette Verdy, and Deborah Hadley, former Principal Dancer for PNB, followed. Verdy was very funny and noted that people work harder in retirement. Jodie Thomas and Casey Herd danced the coda from Pas de Deux Campagnolo, set to Verdi's music from I Vespri Sicilian, which Jerome Robbins used for part of The Four Seasons. I wish they had been able to dance the entire (short) ballet, and I hope it's revived after next season. It was clear from that first performance how "on" the dancers were going to be; they sustained the energy and devotion displayed by Thomas and Herd. So did the Orchestra, which played beautifully throughout the program.

Writer, historian, and Director of Research for the Balanchine Foundation Nancy Reynolds gave the next tribute, which was followed by a performance of the First pas de Trois from Agon, with Jonathan Poretta, Maria Chapman, and Mara Vinson. The version they performed was the one that Russell learned from Balanchine -- the opening of the movement is completely different than the one performed by NYCB and staged by Richard Tanner on Ballet Arizona -- and he re-choreographed the Galliarde on her. In the commemorative booklet, Arlene Croce wrote a remembrance about her 1993 trip to Seattle to see Russell stage Agon. In it she said, "I had been watching Agon from its opening night, but not until the PNB staging did I realize how much had actually changed, accidentally or on purpose...Agon had been minimized for far too long a time."

Maurice Sendak, whose sets and costumes for Stowell's The Nutcracker were part of the first "start from scratch" major new production in Russell and Stowell's tenure, spoke next. It was fascinating to hear the different take and response of a professional whose life isn't centered around ballet. Louise Nadeau and Olivier Wevers then danced the "awakening" pas de deux from the first act of the ballet -- set to the music that NYCB fans will recognize as the "moving bed" music -- complete with full sets and snow -- and the corps followed with the Waltz of the Snowflakes. There's something a bit electric in the air when Nadeau and Wevers are paired.

Probably the most moving moment of the tribute was that to an orchestral introduction to Theme and Variations, photographs of Russell staging the ballet for the Kirov Ballet (as it was still known) in the late 1980's. The curtain rose on the pas de deux, danced splendidly by Carrie Imler and Batkhurel Bold, and the violin solo gave concermaster Marjorie Kransberg-Talvi a chance to shine. The corps and demis entered to perform the Polonaise. This performance got a huge ovation, and the applause didn't end until William Bolcom's tape tribute started.

I think I counted four times where Bolcom exclaimed how important it was to work with a choreographer who new and understood music. This was followed by Stowell's fourth ballet to Bolcom's music, Dual Lish, to the "Serpent's Kiss" section of The Garden of Eden. This was the first time I saw this ballet; I was travelling when it premiered last year. Larae Hascall designed another beautifully flattering costume for the female lead, danced by Noelani Pantastico, who was partnered by Jonathan Poretta, in a role that is a classical take on the song and dance man that Stowell had wanted to become as a boy.

The next tribute was from designed Ming Cho Lee, with whom Stowell has collaborated for most of his original major full-length productions. Liebeslieder Walzer was the next ballet, followed by tributes from Russell and Stowell's three sons, Christopher, Artistic Director of Oregon Ballet Theatre, Darren, who's a teacher, and Ethan, who's co-owner and chef for the Seattle restaurant Union. Fitting was the next ballet, a Piece d'Occasion, choreographed by Christopher Stowell, to the Bartered Bride overture by Smetana. The ballet was led by Jodie Thomas/Casey Herd and Mara Vinson/Nicholas Ade, with a large corps and six young students from the school. All of the dancers were dressed in costumes from Kent Stowell ballets, with two towering figures from Silver Lining in the background, and the piece ended with one of the Nutcracker gift boxes being rolled to center stage, out of which popped Russell and Stowell's three sons, in black tie. Given how tied up many of the dancers were in rehearsals for Silver Lining -- the whole Company is in it -- and how ambitious this tribute program was, it is amazing that the dancers performed this energetic ballet with multiple entrances and exits and patterns as if they'd rehearsed it for years.

The next set of tributes was from the "backstage" members of the Company, followed by a performance of the pas de deux from Stowell's Daphnis and Chloe, danced by Patricia Barker and Jeffrey Stanton. Dancer tributes followed, from school children, who spoke of their professional dreams, to a member of the Professional Division, to a company apprentice, to corps members, to a soloist -- at least an attempt, since Jonathan Poretta was recently promoted to Principal Dancer -- and long-time Principal Dancers Louise Nadeau, Jeffrey Stanton, Patricia Barker, and Ariana Lallone. Barker and Lallone were products of the school, and rose through the ranks to Principal status. It was only fitting that the last piece on the program was Grand Defile, to Bizet's Symphony in C.

Grand Defile began with a couple of very young students, starting upstage, doing a ballet walk downstage, and then a turn toward the closest wing, and a walk offstage with arms extended in arabesque. They were followed by increasingly older students and corps members -- who took places onstage -- until Poretta and, I think, Herd appeared. They may have been the first to step to about midstage and then run downstage, before they gave hand-on-chest bows. I thought at that point that they were bowing to Russell and Stowell, not the audience, but the after several groups of students and corps, the next male Principal received a great ovation, and the audience started to clap and cheer for the Principals, who appeared between the older students and corps. I believe the Principals entered in the order in which they became Principals with the Company. Each Principal designed his or her bow.

They were followed by the three Principal character actors, Uko Gorter, Flemming Halby, and Victoria Pulkkinen. They did a normal walk downstage, but Halby, in a well-cut suit, was as imposing and impressive as the most formal, serious Principal dancer.

The Company stood on stage for the orchestral finale from Firebird, which was almost entirely drowned out by applause. I'm not sure where Russell and Stowell entered the house with their children -- the First Tier is blocked off and is the only section that doesn't flow downwards into another, unless there's a secret, moveable gate in the barrier -- but they did come down the aisle in the section in which I was sitting (Gallery Upper Right), where they ascended to the stage via a small staircase. The crowd was clapping and yelling and whistling, glitter confetti dropped from the flies, and flowers showered the stage. The Principal dancers, Ballet Masters, and Russell and Stowell's children each gave them a flower with a big red bow, in between plenty of hugs and kisses, so that when held together, they formed enormous bouquets. The crowd went wild until the curtain came down for the final time.

About 20-30 minutes later, with a packed set of lobbies, Susan Brontman appeared with Russell and Stowell and their children. There were toasts, and Russell and Stowell each spoke. Russell thanked everyone and revealed that the "mastermind" behind the entire tribute was none other than Doug Fullington, and he had been working on it for a full year and was responsible for the commemorative program, which goes so far beyond the typical tribute program, and is an important historical document for PNB and for the history on staging Balanchine.

Like the experiment that was the United States, it's easy to assume in retrospect that the daunting task of creating and sustaining and growing a great ballet company in Seattle was going to succeed and that the existance of the Company at the current standard was inevitable. From an audience perspective, certainly in the last decade, it's easy to take this success for granted.

Of all of the spoken tributes, the most moving to me were from the ballet masters (Anne Dabrowski, Paul Gibson, and Otto Neubert), musicians (Stewart Kershaw, Allan Dameron, and Dianne Chilgren), school staff (Denise Bolstad), and technical staff (Jennifer Kimball, Sherri Thompson, Murray Johnson, and Rico Chiarelli) who spoke of Russell and Stowell as mentors, teachers, collaborators, and colleagues. Except for the musicians, who were established when they met Russell and Stowell, Russell and Stowell were intergral in the professional development of every other speaker. There was palpable love and emotion in the tributes, and a sense of thankfulness for being part of this venture. This is something I would have expected from the dancers, but to hear it from the people who are invisible to the audience and are rarely honored was a privilege for us.

The two qualities that they spoke most about were the trust and respect that Russell and Stowell gave them, which has engendered tremendous loyalty. Russell and Stowell managed to trust the people they worked with even when the Board didn't trust them, like during preparations for the Stowell/Sendak Nutcracker. Perhaps the key was Croce's description of watching Russell staging and Stowell choreographing in separate studios during that 1993 visit:

"Both Kent and Francia worked in the unhurried, unbothered, utterly secure manner of their mentor, Balanchine."

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The commemorative program, which was conceived and co-edited by Doug Fullington, with co-editor Sheila Dietrich writing the program notes, deserves a mention of its own.

Besides the standard retail and commercial ad tributes to Russell and Stowell, there were some touching ones: one from their neighbors and one from their sons.

In the front of the program were the full listings for the Company and Artistic, Administrative, and Technical Staffs. There was an introduction by Susan and Jeffrey Brotman, the evening's hosts, with a terrific studio photo by former PNB soloists and Company photographer Angela Sterling of Russell and Stowell.

Following are the articles from the program:

"Partnership Extraordinaire" (Leland Windreich), which discusses Russell and Stowell's backgrounds, how they met, and a short history of their artistic and personal partnership. One of the photos accompanying the article is of a young Stowell in a gorgeous attitude on demi-pointe.

"Ken Stowell Choreographer" (Elizabeth Kendall).

"Fair Francia" (Nancy Reynolds), which discusses Russell's role and legacy as stager and teacher.

Tributes by Ronald Hynd and Annette Page, Randall Chiarelli, Val Caniparoli, Deborah Hadley, Louise Nadeau, Patricia Barker, Irv Huck, Colleen Neary and Thordal Christensen, Melissa Hayden, Ariana Lallone, Allan Dameron, Larae Theige Hascall, Ming Cho Lee, Lila York, Jocelyn Vollmar, Suki Shorer, Sherri J. Thompson, Todd Bolender, Denise Bolstad, Donald Byrd, Lucinda Hughey, Angela Sterling, Otto Neubert, Stewart Kershaw, Martin Pakledinaz, Julia Tobiason, Patricia Wilde, Dianne Chilgren, Benjamin Houk, Kabby Mitchell, Victoria Pulkkinen, Jeffrey Stanton, Jane Erskine (Janet Reed's daughter), Abbie Siegel, Glen Tetley, and Peter Boal.

Extensive program notes on the individual pieces, discussing their historical place in the development of the Company and, in the case of Balanchine works, the historical significance of the staging:


Pas de Deux Campagnolo

Agon (with sidebar by Arlene Croce)

Nutcracker (with sidebar by Maurice Sendak)

Theme and Variations (with sidebar from Yuri Fateev, who was chosen by Russell as an assistant when she staged at the Kirov/Mariinsky and brought him to Seattle to stage the pas de trois from Le Corsaire, and who is responsible for Balanchine rep at the Kirov)

Dual Lish (with sidebar by William Bolcom)

Liebeslieder Walzer (with sidebar by Karin von Aroldingen)

Piece d'occasion

Daphnis and Chloe

Grand Defile

There are wonderful photographs throughout, ending with a full page photo of Russell and Stowell, Otto Neubert, and a handful of the men in the company -- Herd, Stanton, Wevers, possible Maraval, and two whose faces are obscured -- dressed in street clothes, with the men lifting Russell, and Stowell sitting casually in front of the tableau.

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Helene. I wish I had been there.

After reading your account, so full of detail and affection, I feel almost as though I were.

Thank you.

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