In his element: at age thirty-two, Christopher Stowell has added artistry and interpretation to the virtuoso technique that launched his career with San Francisco Ballet, performing at Manhattan's City Center, October 20 to 25.
Success in ballet would appear to be a given for Christopher Stowell. The son of Kent Stowell and Francia Russell, two influential ballet dancers and artistic directors, he "met" George Balanchine when he was but a few days old, grew up in theaters in America and Germany, was groomed in his parents' school at Pacific Northwest Ballet, polished his technique at the School of American Ballet, landed a contract at San Francisco Ballet on the recommendation of his father, and rose quickly through the ranks to become a principal with a wide-ranging repertory.
Yet the concept of Stowell as the inevitable product of an insulated hothouse doesn't match the reality of the dancer whom SFB audiences have come to know and admire over the past thirteen years. In reality, his success has been almost entirely a result of dogged determination and an intellectual approach to his roles that has made him the thinking man's dancer in the company.
Versatile, technically flawless, intelligent, and emotionally expressive, Stowell is the embodiment of what artistic director Helgi Tomasson has achieved in San Francisco. "He is completely at home onstage," says Russell. "It's a wonderful combination of being so instinctual onstage and feeling so comfortable, but doing all of the work to prepare and make it read to the audience." Former SFB principal Elizabeth Loscavio agrees: "When Christopher goes out onstage and does a solo, whether it's classical or neoclassical or contemporary, he's in his element. He does a lot of solo stuff, but in principal caliber; I don't mean in soloist stature. He's a virtuoso."
Stowell, however, pauses thoughtfully when asked whether he would be a dancer had ballet not been the family business. "I'm almost positive I wouldn't be," he explains, "because in some ways it's not natural for me. There are dancers who really need to be and should be dancers, because they don't overly cerebralize. I've discussed this with my parents; it's something we call `dancer smart.' They don't evaluate things too much, they're really a body to move. I'm not really like that. I'm overly cerebral and technical and conscious and planned. I think it is easier to be a dancer if you are not all of those things."
It may be easier, but it's not Stowell's habit to take the easy way out. Discouraged by his parents from studying dance as a child, Stowell has also had to overcome having a difficult body for dance, being rejected by New York City Ballet, and reaching an early career plateau.
Stowell's entree into the dance world, at only a few days old, was inauspicious. When he was born, his father was dancing with New York City Ballet, and his mother, a former company member, was the ballet mistress. In the recent book Let's Go On: Pacific Northwest Ballet at 25, Kent Stowell describes introducing his newborn to Balanchine, who reportedly did not approve of his dancers intermarrying or having children. "When we had our first child, Balanchine came over to our apartment on West 69th Street near Lincoln Center, took a look at little Christopher, and said, `Not as bad as I expected."
Stowell grew up surrounded by dance. "Christopher was walking around in the New York State Theater when he was two years old," says Kent Stowell. "He rode around on the donkey in Don Quixote before the performance began." After a seven-year stint in Germany, where the Stowells danced, choreographed, and eventually codirected Frankfurt Ballet, the family settled in Seattle when Stowell and Russell took over Pacific Northwest Ballet in July 1977. It was only after the family moved from the suburbs into Seattle a few years later that Christopher was finally allowed to study ballet. "We discouraged him," says Russell, "but he was determined."
For his part, Stowell was initially less interested in dancing than in performing for an audience; like many children, he didn't necessarily want to follow in his parents' footsteps. "I loathed, I hated ballet. I thought it was so boring," says Stowell. "The first year I did Nutcracker, I wasn't in the school. I just did it because I could do a pas de chat, because I had seen them plenty of times. But then they said, `You really have to be part of the school to be in it next year, otherwise it's just not fair.' That was the only reason I started ballet--it was the key to getting onstage."
This love of being onstage distinguishes Stowell from his parents, who describe themselves as having been "reluctant performers." This characteristic, combined with his intelligent, thorough preparation, has served him well in roles demanding cleverness and humor, such as Alain in La Fille Mal Gardee, Ignatz in Brenda Way's Krazy Kat, or Mercutio in Tomasson's Romeo and Juliet. "We like to ham it up in much the same way," confirms Loscavio, "and we feed off each other in that aspect."
Progressing through the ranks at the Pacific Northwest Ballet School and spending summers at the School of American Ballet in New York City, Stowell realized that he wanted to make dance a career: "All of a sudden the goals of dancers in their mid-teens were becoming my goals."
He also acquired the technique that has always set him apart at San Francisco Ballet. Stowell brings a clarity of line, springy jump, and rapid yet precise attack to all of his roles. "It's not very often that you see in a male dancer such beautiful technique," says Tomasson. "He has a very clean technique, which he uses to his advantage all the time in ballets that require it. Even in the more contemporary works, the articulation is still there."
The impeccable technique that Tomasson admires is not, according to his parents, a result of good genes but of years of hard work and training. Stowell lacks the height and physique of a danseur noble. "He doesn't have an easy body for ballet." says Russell, "and that's why we tried to discourage him, because we knew that. It's not just his height; he's struggled with being tight in the hips like both of his parents. A lot of things were very difficult for him, and he's made it look good. He's shaped his body through sheer willpower and work."
After graduating from high school, Stowell moved to New York City to study full-time at the School of American Ballet with the hope of joining NYCB. He danced a starting role in SAB's 1985 Annual Workshop Performance, to much acclaim. Despite the positive press and praise from his teachers, Stowell was not offered a contract. "At the time I wanted it because I thought that's what was supposed to happen, says Stowell, didn't want to work for my parents, I knew that. I needed to establish myself and have a career on my own."
His parents were "devastated" by the rejection, recalls Russell: "Because by then we were so excited about his talent, and he had received so much encouragement at SAB. And so it was very upsetting for us, because it was our company, and we had hoped and Christopher had wanted to be in the New York City Ballet. Of course, we were exclusively concerned about his feelings the disappointment for him was terrible."
"It was kind of hard," admits Stowell. "But then I talked to Peter [Martins] and it all made sense. He said, `There's not enough rep for you, I don't have enough small girls right now.' He was right, and it really only took me a couple of weeks to get over it. And I think that probably one of the best things that ever happened to me is that I didn't join the New York City Ballet." What was right around the comer was a career in a company that performed both Balanchine and non-Balanchine repertory and in which his height would be less limiting.
Characteristically, Stowell set about almost immediately to find an alternative to NYCB. His parents suggested he contact Tomasson, who had just been hired as artistic director of San Francisco Ballet. Stowell, who did not realize that Tomasson had seen him dance at SAB, was shocked by his response. "I got Helgi on the phone finally, and he said, `You realize that I can't make you a soloist.' I said, `What are you talking about?' And he said, `I only have a corps contract. Can you start Monday?' and it was Wednesday. I packed my bags and moved to San Francisco."
Officially, Tomasson and Stowell started at SFB on the same day. "It was a great situation for me," says Stowell. "I was a Helgi dancer. He needed to have representatives, so I got things to dance almost instantly that in another situation some people might have wanted to wait [for. He] needed to establish his taste and his influence on the company, so that it didn't look like the same company with a new name on the letterhead." Stowell made a splash fight away and was recognized by critics as a budding talent.
A former star of NYCB, Tomasson infused the San Francisco repertory with Balanchine which gave Stowell ample opportunity to show off his light-footed style, delicate precision, and musicality in such ballets as "Rubies" and Agon. "I saw a wonderful, talented dancer who was like a sponge," says Tomasson. "Anything you gave him to do or choreographed for him, he had a great time with."
Stowell's abilities impressed choreographers of all genres and allowed him to extend his repertory. "He's fabulously good," says Mark Morris, who has choreographed several works for SFB. "Because he's short, people use him for short roles, and I'm against that. I don't. I use him for his fabulous dancing." In addition to Morris, there was no shortage of "short roles," primarily solos, for Stowell to sink his teeth into and to demonstrate his wit and intelligence (the Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy in Paul Taylor's Company B), bravado technique (Balanchine's Tarantella), and his articulate speed (William Forsythe's In the Middle, Somewhat Elevated).
At the age of twenty-three, after just four years with the company, he was promoted to principal. "Helgi is a very good director," says Stowell. "The principal dancers in the company are not the ones who do the prince and princess only. They are the people who make the biggest contribution to the company, who establish the style, the taste, who give the company its depth. They are the ones that the performances can't do without to be their best. Even if I wasn't doing the leading role all the time, I was really necessary; the company relied on me, and he recognized that."
But after a few years of success in the neoclassical, abstract roles, Stowell hit a plateau artistically. For someone' who had been attracted to dance because he wanted to express himself, technical proficiency was not enough. The company was still rapidly evolving, however, and Stowell was forced to be self-reliant. He says, "There are people who get everything right in the beginning and people that have had to wait, and I've done both somehow. My career was exciting right in the beginning and then it went through sort of a hitch to get moving into other areas. In one sense there wasn't a lot of time for [Helgi] to take. He had to develop a staff, the repertory was still developing, and the roster was changing all the time. So the parts that I was naturally good at or suited to or ready for were fine, but it took me, relatively speaking, more time to extend myself. I've had to do a lot on my own, and I'm actually proud of that now."
In preparing for parts, Stowell worked on putting more of himself into roles along with perfecting his technique. "What I needed to work on and still work on all the time, just because that's my nature, is to dance a little more evenly and heavily, and to establish myself and my personality onstage, not to be just a body that is moving, but a person, a man, who is different from an instrument, as opposed to just believing that the cleaner I do the step the better it is. I realized that I was missing out on a whole range of things by worrying about my Fifth Position, which in some works just happens not to be crucial."
Adding these elements made his interpretations more rich, varied, and individual. "I really like parts where I can get lost onstage--not forget where I am but get involved. Several people have choreographed parts for me like that, and they have been very special for me because I feel like I can do them a little bit differently every night, it's not all hinging on the hard step. One piece I really liked was Helgi's Meistens Mozart. I have a solo in it that is interpretable; I can respond to the varying tempi or my mood. I remember doing that ballet when I was upset about stuff in my personal life, and I did it totally differently. I remember Helgi saying, `Wow, it was really interesting tonight,' and I thought, `I bet it was--I was furious.'"
Tomasson's commitment to developing new work for the repertory, both of his own and of leading choreographers such as Christopher Bruce, David Bintley, James Kudelka, and Forsythe, also has stretched Stowell artistically. "I've created a lot of my repertory rather than always doing things that were created on other people," Stowell says. "I like working with choreographers who instead of saying, `You can do turns, so we're going to give you the parts that have turns,' create roles on me that I can interpret physically and musically. The bravura roles are exciting, especially when you are young and they bring down the house, but sometimes people don't develop into everything they could be, they're just one-trick ponies. That didn't happen to me."
In fact, Stowell sees himself more as an artist than as a dancer. "I am a dancer because that's my medium. You call people `artists,' but you don't know if they are painters or they work with clay or whatever. I happen to work with dance, but I think it could have been something else. For example I have always identified with theater.
"Some dancers always have their dance bags glued to them--they walk a certain way, and that's part of their identity. I don't feel like the physical side is part of my identity. I am an artist, and a part of a tradition and a group of other committed artists, and I want to create art--that is my identity."
Now at age thirty-two, Stowell realizes his limitations as well as his strengths. "I'm looking for ways of expanding as a dancer," he says, "even though I'm not going to jump higher and I'm not going to turn more--you can't keep up all of the virtuoso things that you did when you were twenty. If you are sharing a part with someone ten years younger, they are going to be able to jump higher longer. There might be seventy-five things they don't do as well, but jumping is a good quality in dancing sometimes. The audience thinks, `Wow, he really got off the floor.' I used to be that guy, but I'm not as much that way anymore. I don't want to be. But I'm still a part of the organization I work for, and if they need me to do a part like that, I do it. But I want to be able to take risks and it is hard to do that in white tights, standing in the middle of the stage. In roles that I can interpret I feel like I really have something to offer that other people don't."
Although retirement is by no means imminent, Stowell is thinking of the future, and talks about his desire to "direct" ballets. "You would work very closely with the choreographer, but promote your own perspective and concepts, without being responsible for three hours worth of steps. It would be interesting to create that role which has not already been developed in the dance world." He has also choreographed several works for small companies and schools in the Bay Area, although he says he does it just to develop the skill: "I don't like the idea of not being able to do something."
Stowell is philosophical in his approach to his dancing career. "At this stage in my career and my age, I want to be in charge of my career. Not in any way defying Helgi, I just want to think of it as my career instead of thinking, `I am just a member of San Francisco Ballet, and I do what I'm told,' which I do because that's my job, but also in my head I like to picture it as mine. I have to accept the things that I like, and I have to accept the things that I don't like. It's all up to me. I try to create my own happiness."
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|Date:||Oct 1, 1998|
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