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From Canfield to Stowell - How do you reshape a ballet company?

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This article on the transition ahead at OBT is fascinating. Almost every one of the central issues in it have been discussed at length here.

What do people think? I'll offer the iconoclastic view that while I agree with the repertory Stowell is bringing forward and completely with his statements on ballet, I worry that making these changes so totally and so quickly might harm rather than help the company. Dumping a Nutcracker, for instance, even for the Balanchine version can alienate a portion of the audience as it attracts another. My guess, though, is the all of the Canfield repertory is off-limits to the company anyway so Stowell has no choice about replacing it wholesale. I'm just wondering if so much change all at once will be too great a shock to a fragile system, making the company lose its audience base and giving the board the jitters.

Watermill? What do people think who are there? Do people see this as a restorative or that OBT is being forced to be a miniature PNB or SFB? What is the dancer turnover like there? Can Stowell make this entire change in in artistic outlook with the dancers that Canfield hired? For people in San Francisco, is this anything like when Tomasson replaced Smuin? What was the initial transition like there?

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It depends on what the classes have been like, and, probably most importantly, what the dancers' training has been, I think. Washington Ballet usually looks very good when they do the odd Balanchine or Tudor ballet. There have been problems in "Nutcracker" in the past few years -- mostly because they haven't been recruiting cavaliers -- but at soloist and corps level, it's fine, and there are several female soloists who can give confincing performances in classical/neoclassical roles.

So on that score, I think the transition may be easy. SFB backstage may have been uncomfortable, but I saw the company during Smuin's last year, and again during Tomasson's first -- or possibly the beginnig of the second -- and the change was quite clear. There were soloists who'd been of the flash-and-[wrist]flick variety who now were calmed down, serious, classical dancers.

The audience is another matter. From newspaper accounts, it's a bifurcated audience -- as is often the case in smaller cities, even medium-sized cities. Not enough ballet people to make up a ballet audience, not enough contemporary dance people to make up an audience. The hybrid company serves neither. Maybe there could be two companies?

Anyone who says, "We're a ballet company, not a dance company" gets my vote :) (Or vice versa. Just knowing the difference counts for a lot.)

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Gosh, I hope people more knowledgeable than I respond, Leigh...but here's my rusty two cents:

James Canfield's balancing act was almost impossible to sustain.

His very contemporary (from hard-rocking to hip hop to lasVegas to modern to neo-Billboards) programs required a company so diverse in its abilities that the classical pieces suffered.

In my opinion, this has resulted in an unstable audience base, fickle in the extreme, never knowing what to expect. (aside from an excellent Nutcracker).

I totally applaud Stowell's approach: without meaning to diss Canfield, who, on a good day produced some brilliant dance, the new direction is a step up to a clearly classical vision. The balletomanes I know are nearly weeping with joy. I just hope the general audience will respond.

Actually, the first year will be a honeymoon...it's the second year I worry about.

I would not have touched the Nutcracker if at all possible, but he may have been forced to. By the way, I find Canfield's Nutcracker approx 50% derivative of Balanchine's.

AND...OK, hang on to your hats...some of it is BETTER. I've seen a lot of Nutcrackers, and little OBT's is the best. An absolute jewel.

I will miss it dearly.

I happen to know that most of the company has been auditioning all over the place to cover their options. I expect more than half will leave or be replaced. The screaming need is for men. The skeletal crew that remains can in no way execute the season Stowell has planned. I will certainly miss some of the ballerinas, but am looking forward with excitment to new faces.

Having lived for 20 years in NYC (76-96), I was once part of a different kind of audience: one with a tradition of going to the ballet: exposed to the highest quality in dance and dancer.

It is a very different situation here in the Rose City. The audience base is smaller, with an even smaller percentage of knowing ballet fans. To the extent that James Canfield's work mirrored the popular need for a heavy rock downbeat, he was led by general audience taste for sex, drugs and rocknroll. Christopher Stowell has decided to lead this dance. Let's hope they don't step on each other's toes.


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As a San Franciscan, I'll never forget seeing Stowell's first season here -- a man who was willing to pay as much attention to his glissades as to his pirouettes and grands jetes was a man of a new order. What legs, what attack! and in a ballet like New Sleep (Forsythe), he made pristine geometry look hot and menacing.

And his last night here was a tremendous occasion -- a full house came to see him dance at the top of his form in a way he'd invented for himself, a manner that transcended accuracy and had become a high form of play. He'd created the roles in several of the ballets, and in Balanchine's Tarantella he'd remade the role, idealized it, made it a kind of pastoral, full of play, so he'd let his pirouettes slow down, spiral off-center, enjoying himself; the assemble-sixe that Villella landed and exploded instantly into an echappe, Stowell sailed through the air like a javelin -- without beats -- with a ballon that reminded me of Fadeyechev's cabrioles (which, remember, sailed along for a long time with the legs softly assembled before they opened)... and then exploded upon landing into the echappe... Every time the ballerina re-entered, it was a different one of his favorite partners -- so he danced it with Joanna Berman, Tina leBlanc, and Kristin Long, but seemed no more taxed by dancing this killer role aat top speed than any of them (and that after having danced most of the night already). It was very mindful dancing....

His season deserves to be popular -- and it probably will. Look what he's got. A roster of Balanchine's most enjoyable works – Balanchine’s Nutcracker has the world's best party scene; Rubies is a great crowd-pleaser; Serenade may be hard on people who've never seen that sort of thing before, but I bet there'll be people who come back just to see if they can get a better fix on it, and there'll be a core of people who see every performance and beg for more.

The score for Firebird will by itself fill the house, and Possokhov, we've seen here, can make ballets that raise the roof. I don't myself like his Medea very much, but the audience went wild. I'd myself LOVE to see his Firebird. And Julia Adam is protean -- her umpteen ballets so far have been each as different as possible from the last. She's terrific at choreographing steps and phrases that upper-level students can own and commit themselves to. But her first ballet, a hilarious comedy, was set on the strongest virtuosi at SFB, to some ROCK SONGS. I wouldn't be too surprised if her piece gets an underground buzz in the beer-halls of Portland and all the kids showed up to see it.

Good luck to them all.

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I am truly happy for the dance audience of Portland.

They've really been starved for the past fifteen years.

On the other hand, from where is the money coming?

It seems as if more money is being spent on this one season than Canfield was able spend in his whole tenure with the company. It's not just the wonderful ballets that are being acquired, but the company must be upsizing too.

Does anyone know the scoop?

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Nice to see that Wheeldon's There Where She Loves is being staged somewhere else. I liked it very much when it was done for the Linbury Theatre (Covent Garden's small stage) but they've never revived it. It doesn't require a huge cast, and I think just had a piano and two singers - so maybe it's not too expensive to stage.

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I found the choice of Facade very interesting. I've never seen it, of course, but from descriptions it seems to be such an English 'period' character driven ballet. Unlike most of Stowell's other choices. Perhaps it ties in with the whole Virginia Woolfe / The Hours trend:D

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It's less a "character-driven" work than an assortment of characters! The selections are satires on dance trends in the twenties and thirties, and retain their freshness from the fact that some of those trends are still around! The "deadpan waltz" is an absolute shriek. And the Gigolo and the Debutante's tango is a standout, set to George Grossmith's tune "Oh, I Do Love to be Beside the Seaside". Over the years, Ashton added bits as they seemed appropriate to him as topical humor. When the topicality faded, the new bits were dropped. Bloomsbury was never quite like this!:D

It's really a brilliant choice!

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Damara Bennett, Director of City Ballet School in San Francisco has accepted Christopher Stowell's invitation to become Director of OBT's School of Ballet.

This has brought another collective sigh of relief, as the last two years the school has been drifting without vision, failing to uphold the high standards set by former school director Haydee Gutierrez.

It appears that Mr Stowell is really getting his act together. It's going to be quite a honeymoon!

Champagne anyone?

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I live in Seattle, and am very interested in seeing how things play out in Portland over the next few years. Canfield's OBT seemed to me to be a very personal company -- he has clear and in some cases pretty radical ideas about the development of ballet, and was willing to push ahead with them. That's a tricky thing to do with a small company that means many things to its home community -- it will inevitably frustrate part of the potential audience.

I haven't seen much of Stowell's dancing since his student days, but I remember him as a smart and skilled individual, and haven't heard anything about him since to change that opinion. He's got a new piece on the next Pacific Northwest Ballet rep I'm looking forward to seeing. His plan for his first season at OBT is an extremely canny piece of programming -- aesthetically, logistically and financially.

I am sorry to see that he's changing Nutcrackers, partially because I've heard good things about the Canfield and hate to see something like that go out of production. The point about Nut familiarity is a good one -- in a year of so many changes it might have been nice to keep something, but there are all kinds of pragmatic considerations involved in those decisions.

And,for me, the Ashton is a big, big plus! PNB doesn't do any, and I miss it.

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...will stay under my hat, but suffice to say - one loves reading about their hometown company!

My POV and reply to Leigh's original questions -

> What do people think who are there?

- That this is a fascinating change and direction. With any artistic change there are questions and status checks and concerns, but all in all, this has been a positive transition. Mr. Canfield, aside from being observed in this forum as "Mr. Controversy," staged his most acclaimed retrospective in Fall 2002 and recently completed staging "Giselle" to an increased audience base. Mr. Stowell is a studied and concientious individual. Many are anticipating the transition and his leadership - all while aware of the honeymoon period and potential learning curve.

> Do people see this as a restorative or that OBT is being forced to be a miniature PNB or SFB?

- This was an initial flag for the company, but was SFB worried about becoming a mini NYCB when Mr. Tomasson took over? Yes. Did it happen? No. Mr. Stowell's pedigree is based in the classics and neo-classicists (Ashton and Balanchine) with great regard for contemporary choreographers - like Morris, Wheeldon, and Adam. In fact the 2003-2004 season is entitled: "Masters + Moderns." Portland is an interesting town, but there is very little comparative identity from OBT to an SFB or PNB. What IF OBT became the best of Mr. Stowell's background: from schooling at the School of American Ballet to sixteen years at SF Ballet to parents who are Both artistic directors? Would true ballet fans, audience members, and donors balk? Not when they get to see their own "Firebird" by Possokhov next season.

> What is the dancer turnover like there?

- Surprising certain "insiders" there has been and will be very little turnover. Mr. Stowell plans to expand the current company size to around 22 dancers. Dancers who have been with the company over a certain number of years were offered guaranteed contracts for the upcoming season by Mr. Stowell, the administration and the board of trustees. The only loss in their guarenteed formative ranks is highly lauded Katarina Svetlova and her husband, James Thompson, who are moving to Germany where she has accepted a full time contract as a principal with Dusseldorf at the Deutche Opera Am Rhein.

In response to the audition comment: unlike previous years, dancers were notified about their employment status in this non-AGMA company in February rather than the usual "last week of the season" providing company dancers their first opportunity to go to auditions in years, should they desire to pursue them.

> Can Stowell make this entire change in in artistic outlook with the dancers that Canfield hired?

- Yes! Canfield's dancers have the technical chops to perform the announced rep - and beyond. That is a compliment to Mr. Canfield and all of his previous artistic partners responsible for the development of the current company. Anyone go to the Joyce performances in Summers of '99 or '02? This is NOT a technically weak company.

In response to Glebb's questions:

> I am truly happy for the dance audience of Portland.

> They've really been starved for the past fifteen years.

- Even with the emergence of the dance presenters: Whitebird? Even pre-1996?

> On the other hand, from where is the money coming?

- From donors and ticket buyers just like us. The Board has commited to this season - and beyond. The upcoming season will add live music to more performances (but not in all works) and is a rebuilding of the foundation of the company repertoire, a philosophy many have encompassed.

> Does anyone know the scoop?

- How do I know this? I don't work in the Marketing department, but I do know Watermill.

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Very exciting times on the Portland side of things! I'm really looking forward to hearing more about their upcoming performances, as well as about the changes in the company that are noticed as time goes by.

I have a niece out there and I'd love to buy her some tickets to the ballet as a Christmas present. :D

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Frankly, from a san francisco perspective, I look at Stowell's first season and I wish I lived in Porland --I want to see everything on hte list, everything -- it's just fabulously promising...... Our roster is mighty fine, but our repertory down here has got some dogs in it' Stowell's first season looks aesthetically marvellous....

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Any recent news on OBT? I remember reading in the San Francisco Cronicle that two from SFB where headed that way. I do wonder about money too! It's amazing to watch the company develop reminds me of the stock market in the late 90's. I last read that Stowell was off to Switerland to set a piece by Mark Morris, does anyone know how that went or is going? San Francisco has been so lucky to have Morris at Zellerbacher Hall, I wonder if he will take a jaunt up to Portland in the near future? How big is the metropolitan portland area?

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hey Ed,

WHO exactly did you hear is going from SFB to Portland/ Would that be Kester Cotton and Kathleen Martuza? I haven't heard where they're going, but they've been FINE dancers confined to the corps, andthey're definitely laving and going somewhere else.....

SHe in particular danced a demisoloist in the finale of Diamonds SO beautifully it was one of hte minor glories of hte season, so musical, every impulse was right......

ANd he's been accurate, in the spirit, strong, handsome, always in everything.... hate to see him go, hope he gets the opportunities he wants....

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Just a reminder before someone comes on and helpfully supplies the names of people they've heard might be changing companies -- please stick to PUBLISHED REPORTS OR PRESS RELEASES ONLY. Naming people who are switching companies may be premature and cause contractual difficulties for the parties involved :) Thanks!

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Good point, Alexandra, but not to worry: it was announced in the Chronicle a while ago that Kester Cotton , a Portland native, and Kathleen Martuza were heading up I5 to OBT. Very exciting!

Mark Morris & Company just received a standing ovation here in Portland. He is not my favorite ballet choreographer, but in the world of PR visibility, his working with OBT could be a nice boost.

Ed, Portland itself is approx 240,000 with 1.2 million in the metropolitan area.

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Originally posted by Watermill

Good point, Alexandra, but not to worry: it was  announced in the Chronicle  a while ago that Kester Cotton , a Portland native, and Kathleen Martuza were heading up I5 to OBT

Watermill, the only article in the Chronicle about this that I can remember stated merely that they were leaving SFB for a smaller company. The dancers declined to state which one.
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In regards to the Chronice publication of two folks leaving.

I can't remember the exact date it was published, it looks like it may have been mentioned on two seperate occasions...

When I saw the mention of two dancers heading to OBT it was in a section that is published about once a week in Datebook and consists of blurbs on local atists, groups, and news on the arts.

hope this helps

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Yes, thanks, Ed: that is where I saw it.

Ari, Maybe I can dig it up.

I totally agree with the policy of not blabbing about prospective moves between companies, and have held my own bad tongue regarding several company changes until they were published.

I'm guessing that we'll first glimpse the new company members at the open air rehearsals in the Park Blocks in August.

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