Pacific Northwest Ballet, founded in 1972, is consistently ranked among the leading professional ballet companies in the United States. Since its inception, the company has performed at Seattle Center, first at the Opera House and then at McCaw Hall. From 1977 to 2005, artistic directors Kent Stowell (b. 1939) and Francia Russell (b. 1938) developed and guided the company. Their talent, dedication, and long tenure profoundly shaped the company and the Pacific Northwest Ballet School. Since 2005, Peter Boal has led both company and school. Under Boal's watch, the ballet has greatly expanded its repertory and presented regional premieres to critical acclaim.
Seattle's exposure to classical ballet prior to the formation of Pacific Northwest Ballet came, in general, from two sources: touring performers and local dance schools. Many of the touring companies who stopped in Seattle were legendary. Anna Pavlova (1881-1931) appeared at the Moore Theatre in 1914. The Ballets Russes de Monte Carlo, an offshoot of the legendary Ballets Russes company founded by Russian choreographer Serge Diaghilev (1872-1929) in 1909, toured the United States extensively during the mid-twentieth century, including a 1936 stop in Seattle (and many subsequent visits). Sadler's Wells (later called Royal Ballet) performed in Seattle several times prior to the organization of Pacific Northwest Ballet, beginning in 1951. Influential Seattle theater and music promoter Cecilia Schultz (1878-1971) booked touring professional ballet companies, including the San Francisco Opera Ballet and American Ballet Theatre. Seattle native Robert Joffrey's (1930-1988) company appeared on a nearly yearly basis beginning in 1958, under sponsorship of various civic organizations.
Cornish School, founded in 1914, offered ballet classes. These were initially taught by Mary Ann Wells (1894-1971), who founded the school's dance department, directed it for seven years, and then operated her own studio from about 1920 to 1958. Wells provided early training to many dancers who went on to major national and international careers. Other influential area dance teachers over the years included Karen Irvin (1910-1989), Ruthanna Boris (1919-2007), Jan Collum (1919-2001), Jo Emery, Dorothy Fisher (1910-1988), Ilaria Ladre (1908-1991), and Gwenn Barker (1929-2009). Students performed locally, usually in an annual recital but sometimes more frequently. The University of Washington's dance department was also influential.
Pacific Northwest Dance
The company that would eventually become Pacific Northwest Ballet was initially formed under the umbrella of the Seattle Opera as Pacific Northwest Dance. Seattle Opera director Glynn Ross (1914-2005) also served as the dance company’s director. Ross filed articles of incorporation for Pacific Northwest Dance on November 20, 1972.
Pacific Northwest Dance initially functioned as a presenter, with the future goal of developing into a Northwest-based dance company. Presentations during the first season included successful engagements of the Utah Repertory Dance Theater, the Joffrey Ballet, and the Los Angeles Inner City Repertory Dance Company. (Pacific Northwest Dance continued to sponsor the Joffrey Ballet's Seattle performances until 1977.)
Seattle mortgage banker Sheffield Phelps (1920-2006), Seattle Opera's board president, assumed that role for the fledging ballet company in August 1973, following a brief tenure by Harold Heath. Leon Kalimos, formerly executive director of San Francisco Ballet, became executive director in the fall of 1973. Former New York City Ballet principal dancer and ballet mistress Janet Reed (1916-2000) began the slow process of building a ballet company and (from 1974 to 1976) directed the ballet school. San Francisco Ballet artistic director Lew Christensen (1909-1984) organized a professional development program for dancers, initially funneling these performers into Seattle Opera productions. The ballet provided dancers for Seattle Opera during Janet Reed's tenure, and most of the opera company's choreography was by Reed.
Classes were initially held in the Madrona Dance Center, a municipal bathhouse at Madrona Park which the city of Seattle had converted into a dance studio.
After a long search for a building to serve as the ballet company's home, Sheffield Phelps and Janet Reed settled on the Home of the Good Shepherd in Seattle's Wallingford neighborhood. Established on First Hill in 1890 by Roman Catholic sisters of the Order of the Good Shepherd to serve so-called "wayward" girls and women, in 1907 the charity had constructed an imposing building surrounded by an apple orchard at N 50th Street and Sunnyside Avenue N. By the time Phelps and Reed set their sights on the building, it was occupied by only a handful of nuns. The company rented studios and office space there in November 1974. In 1975, the City of Seattle acquired the building, which was thereafter operated by Historic Seattle, with Pacific Northwest Dance/Pacific Northwest Ballet as the main tenant.
In July 1976, former New York City Ballet principal dancer Melissa Hayden (1923-2006) replaced Reed as ballet mistress and head of the school. Hayden's husband Donald Coleman (b. ca. 1920) had administrative duties at the school. Hayden's contract specified that she would gain the title of artistic director in January 1977. She brought in professional dancers to bolster the local talent pool and enjoyed the support of the Seattle media.
However, Hayden and Coleman's tenure was brief. The couple apparently never established diplomatic ties with their board and donors, a problem exacerbated by (or possibly stemming from) personality clashes. Interviewed decades later, Sheffield Phelps remembered: "I told Melissa that she had to stop teaching class and rehearsing with a cigarette hanging out of her mouth, and that, while her gutter language might be okay for New York, it was unacceptable for Seattle. I told her she was being a very poor role model for the students in our school. She looked at me and said, 'All right, Shef, then I quit'" (quoted in Johnson, p. 47).
Requesting a release from her contract, Hayden left the company in March 1977. Several of the dancers Hayden hired left the company along with her, an indication of their support for her and of the complex circumstances under which Hayden left Seattle. The guest artists she brought in included Suzanne Farrell, Peter Martins, Colleen Neary, Cynthia Gregory, and Jacques D'Amboise -- well known dancers who were popular with audiences and whose names generated solid returns at the box office. In retrospect, her departure probably may reveal the young company's growing pains more than serving as a comment on Hayden's tenure or methods.
Kent Stowell and Francia Russell, Dancers
Kent Stowell (b. 1939) grew up in St. George, Utah, a boy studying dance at a time when young male dancers were exceedingly unusual. From 1957 to 1962, Stowell was a member of the San Francisco Ballet. His final appearance with that company was its May 8-12 engagement at the brand new Seattle Opera House during the Century 21 Exposition/1962 Seattle World's Fair. Following that engagement, Stowell joined New York City Ballet -- and promptly returned to Seattle with that company for its July 24-August 4 appearance at the Seattle World's Fair. The Opera House -- future home to the not-yet-invented ballet company Stowell would later co-direct for 28 years -- seemingly staked a claim on the young dancer.
While dancing with New York City Ballet, Stowell met Francia Russell (b. 1938), a Los Angeles native, at a company party. Torn knee cartilage had recently forced Russell to stop dancing with the company, and she was teaching at New York City Ballet's school, the School of American Ballet. Soon after meeting Stowell, Russell became New York City Ballet's ballet mistress and principal assistant to the company's artistic director, George Balanchine (1904-1983). A ballet mistress (or master) must thoroughly know and be able to teach the ballet company's repertoire, oversee rehearsals and performances, and teach company class (the daily ballet class attended by company members).
Stowell and Russell married in 1965. They were the only married couple in the company at the time. Their marriage caused a rift with Balanchine, who was notoriously opposed to his female dancers (or in this case, his ballet mistress) marrying and having children.
In 1969, Stowell and Russell resigned and moved to Bloomington, Indiana, where Stowell took a teaching position at Indiana University. A year later, they moved to Munich, Germany, then to Frankfurt, where they served as co-artistic directors of the Frankfurt Ballet. They had three children by this time: Christopher (b. 1966 in New York), Darren (b. 1972 in Munich), and Ethan (b. 1974 in Frankfurt).
Russell and Stowell, Artistic Directors
In the immediate wake of Melissa Hayden's abrupt departure, on May 12, 1977, Kent Stowell and Francia Russell were appointed Pacific Northwest Dance's artistic directors. In a 1997 retrospective tracing Pacific Northwest Ballet's beginning, Seattle Times critic Melinda Bargreen described the chaotic scene Russell and Stowell (with their three young sons in tow) encountered upon arrival:
"They arrived to find PND in disarray, with most of Hayden's recruited professionals departed, two key administrators in ill health, a ballet teacher shortage, a hostile press, and a performance facility (the Opera House) much larger than they had expected ... Somehow the new sets [for a production of Coppelia] were paid for, the company finished the first season in the black, and the budget was nearly doubled ($600,000 to $1 million) for the following year" ("Retracing...").
Stowell later remembered, "We only had one purpose, and that was to make a good company, and in some ways our naïveté [about the company's internal upheavals] paid off, because we just put our nose to the grindstone and just did our job, and tried to make things better year after year" (Upon Reflection).
Exit Chaos, Enter Order
Stowell and Russell immediately began organizing the company and establishing routines and standards. Russell determined graduated levels for classes in the school, created a syllabus, and determined requirements for advancement. Stowell began building ties with the board, addressing the ballet company's business side. Both taught long hours in the school. By the end of 1977, the board had approved hiring of and salaries for an 18-dancer company.
Neither Russell nor Stowell had worked directly as administrators in the American not-for-profit arts organization model: answering to and educating a board of directors, donor development and fundraising, building a loyal base of season subscribers, and the need to educate the audience so as to be able -- over time -- to introduce more challenging repertoire without audience revolt.
The company's first performance under Russell and Stowell's watch was a sellout run of the holiday favorite, Nutcracker, a production choreographed by Lew Christensen that Pacific Northwest Dance had been presenting since 1975.
Mixed-repertory programs followed in February and April 1978, beginning the long and important process of showing Seattle the standards of excellence they should expect under the new régime. Local dance press, still stung by Hayden's departure, began to warm.
The board of directors nearly doubled the company's budget for the 1978-1979 fiscal year and increased the number of company dancers to 24, plus six apprentices, guaranteeing them 30 weeks of employment. In the summer of 1978, Pacific Northwest Dance became an independent organization, and on May 31, 1979, filed an amendment to its original articles of incorporation formally changing its name to Pacific Northwest Ballet Association -- quickly shortened by most to Pacific Northwest Ballet or PNB. Severing the formal relationship with Seattle Opera meant that the ballet company would have to build its own administrative and support staff to replace services previously provided by the opera company. Former Pennsylvania Ballet administrator Timothy Duncan became Pacific Northwest Ballet's managing director.
Growth in the 1980s
In 1980, Pacific Northwest Ballet received a $150,000 National Endowment for the Arts Challenge Grant to initiate a cash reserve and to enable an increase in performance expenses and artist compensation. Assembling the grant's required three-to-one matching funds prompted the fledgling company to launch its first major fundraising campaign. In 1985, the company received a $500,000 NEA Challenge Grant to establish a cash reserve and implement a major artistic initiative.
As one of the world's première stagers of George Balanchine's works, Russell's presence brought Balanchine's ballets into the forefront of Pacific Northwest Ballet's repertory. As principal choreographer, Stowell produced work that steadily built and expanded the company's offerings.
In 1981, PNB commissioned famed children's author and artist Maurice Sendak (1928-2012) to design a new production of Nutcracker, a holiday staple for ballet companies across the country. The production was choreographed by Kent Stowell and premiered on December 13, 1983, and became an immediate success, heating up the local box office and drawing national attention. (At Pacific Northwest Ballet, as with virtually all American ballet companies, Nutcracker is not only a community holiday favorite, but a powerful engine of financial success. As of 2011/2012, Nutcracker accounts for approximately half of PNB's earned-revenue budget. Additionally, Nutcracker is for many an entry-point into ballet as an art form.)
British conductor Stewart Kershaw (b. ca. 1941) joined Pacific Northwest Ballet as musical director and conductor beginning with the Nutcracker premiere. He would remain with the company for 25 seasons, resigning in October 2009. Also in 1983, the company reorganized its administrative structure, hiring longtime PND/PNB board member and former Boeing executive Jerome Sanford (1915-1989) as the company's first paid president. In late 1984, former Oakland Symphony Orchestra manager Arthur Jacobus (b. ca. 1939) replaced Sanford. Under Jacobus, Pacific Northwest Ballet developed a strong administrative structure and professional staff.
In addition to Nutcracker, other major productions first mounted by the company during the 1980s included Kent Stowell's Swan Lake (1981), Russell's staging of Balanchine's A Midsummer Night's Dream (1985), Stowell's The Tragedy of Romeo And Juliette (1987), and Stowell's Firebird (1989). Between 1981 and 1988, Pacific Northwest Ballet acquired fifteen Balanchine ballets, in addition to modern classics by Anthony Tudor, Todd Blolender, Jose Limon, and new works by contemporary choreographers.
In October 1990, Pacific Northwest Ballet started the public portion of a capital campaign to raise funds for a new facility at Seattle Center. (The private phase of the campaign began in 1988.) The company planned to remodel the upper portion of the 1962 exhibition hall that originally housed the Art Exhibition during the Century 21 Exposition/Seattle World's Fair. The new facility, when completed, was triple the size of Pacific Northwest Ballet's former space at the Good Shepherd Center. The company moved into the new Phelps Center on January 10, 1993. The facility's name honored longtime patrons Sheffield and Patricia (1922-1990) Phelps.
The Phelps Center featured a Gallery Studio with the same dimensions as the Opera House stage; six additional studios; a large costume shop with laundry and dye facilities; a library; two sound-proof piano practice rooms; a physiotherapy room; a shoe room featuring a shoe locker for each member of the company; a parents waiting room; and separate student, company member, and faculty and staff lounges. Administrative, artistic, production, and school offices, as well as conference and board rooms, are also housed within Phelps Center.
The move to the Phelps Center, principal dancer Louise Nadeau (b.1964) told an interviewer in 1999, "really energized everyone. There was such pride to be in this beautiful building that was created for dance. We also felt a vote of confidence from the community -- a sense of our being something special that everyone should take care of" ("Louise Nadeau," p. 3).
Pacific Northwest Ballet toured frequently during the 1980s and 1990s, cementing its reputation as an important company on the national and international stage. The company has performed in Vancouver, British Columbia, Alaska, Minneapolis, Washington, D.C., Aspen, Hawaii, Arizona, and California, among other places. In 1995, the company traveled to Melbourne, Australia, where it opened the Melbourne International Festival. Critical acclaim during a 1996 appearance at New York's City Center (where Stowell and Russell had danced with New York City Ballet) was a particularly sweet reward, and yielded further support in form of grants and increased interest at the Seattle box office. New York Times dance critic Anna Kisselgoff (b. 1938) wrote:
"Kent Stowell and Francia Russell, artistic directors of the company, have done wonders with the regional troupe they took over in 1977, grooming it for the national status to which it so deservedly aspires. Anyone who glimpsed the company on its last visit, at the Brooklyn Academy of Music in 1984, can now see the fruit of that endeavor. It isn't only practice that makes perfect, but also time to nurture an entire new generation of dancers in classical technique and to raise a standard that will attract excellent dancers from elsewhere. This Mr. Stowell and Ms. Russell ... have now splendidly achieved" (October 24, 1996).
The company performed at the Edinburgh Festival in 1998, and at Sadler's Wells in London in 1999 and 2002. Touring allowed the company to continue generating some income during the period when it shared the Opera House with both Seattle Symphony and Seattle Opera, rendering sufficient stage time impossible. This situation was eventually resolved when the symphony moved to the newly-constructed Benaroya Hall on September 12, 1998. Although the income generated by touring was extremely slight (never more than 5 percent of earned revenue), the accompanying press and exposure helped raise the company's profile, in addition to guaranteeing dancers further weeks of work.
For dancers in training, Russell and Stowell provided more than artistic leadership. They were mentors, teachers, demanding excellence, guiding and growing the Pacific Northwest Ballet family.
Longtime ballerina Patricia Barker (b. 1963) -- a true Pacific Northwest Ballet product who was trained at the school beginning at age 13 and was hired by the company at 17 -- was greatly influenced and mentored by Francia Russell. In a 2001 article, Barker remembered, "Francia taught all of us [in the school] and she changed me: from tendues to pointe shoes to some of the most beautiful ballets I've ever seen" ("Barker Unveiled," p. 4).
The family metaphor extended beyond the dancers. Stowell told a television interviewer in 1993, "A ballet company is a true collaboration of elements. You have subscribers, you have the board of trustees, you have teachers, parents who take their kids to the school, you have the students themselves, you have an administrative staff, you have a production staff, you have a musical staff, you have an orchestra -- you have all these elements that won't function unless there's a community goal and agreement -- on what we are and where we want to go and what we want to do and how we're going to get there" (Upon Reflection).
In 1996, Kent Stowell and Francia Russell were honored with the prestigious Dance Magazine Award. The award honors significant contributions to dance during distinguished careers.
In 1997-1998, Pacific Northwest Ballet celebrated its 25th anniversary with a season designed to cement its development from a fledging regional effort to one of America's leading professional ballet companies. In a move that was probably unprecedented in a professional company, every ballet the company performed during its 25th anniversary season was a new work never before performed by Pacific Northwest Ballet. (The exception was Nutcracker, which is performed annually, but is not part of the regular season subscription package.)
Programming included 10 world premières commissioned from major American choreographers. The season opened with a retrospective featuring excerpts from ballets performed during the company's first 25 years, and culminated with a new Kent Stowell work, "Silver Lining," that paid tribute to the music of Jerome Kern.
A Costly Art
Ballet is an expensive art form to produce. Pacific Northwest Ballet audiences enjoy lavish sets and costumes, a large corps de ballet with top-notch soloists and principal dancers, and a full orchestra. The company spends about $200,000 per year just on pointe shoes, with each female company member going through an average of 80 pairs per season. Besides the steady income produced by Nutcracker, artistic management must balance programming to sell both subscription and single tickets, satisfying the audience's desire for familiar favorites while continuing to develop its taste for more challenging fare.
Pacific Northwest Ballet's dancers are highly trained professionals, members of the American Guild of Musical Artists (AGMA). The company employs professional musicians for its orchestra, and professional stagehands, who are represented by the International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees union (IATSE). As with all not-for-profit arts organizations, contributions from private individuals, corporations, foundations, and government entities are essential.
Pacific Northwest Ballet School
Pacific Northwest Ballet's school is a key part of the company's successful operation. The school serves more than 600 students ages 5-19 and about 300 adults taking recreational classes. Parents and students are important points of contact between Pacific Northwest Ballet and the greater Seattle community. Class fees generate significant earned income. And when ballet students grow -- whether or not they continue to professional careers -- their appreciation for and support of dance in their communities fosters and protects the future health of dance as an art form.
Interviewed for Pacific Northwest Ballet's 25th anniversary history, Francia Russell said, "We're building the future in the school: future dancers, future audiences, future supporters. The school is where the style of the company is shaped. It's our main contact with the community, and it also provides a lot of dancers for productions that we otherwise could not do" (Johnson, p. 95).
A Chance to Dance
In October 1994, Pacific Northwest Ballet created DanceChance, a dance training program designed to introduce talented children from local public schools to classical ballet. Auditions were initially held in inner-city elementary schools, and auditioners looked for children with well-proportioned bodies and a sense of vitality, musicality, flexibility, and the ability to pay attention and follow directions. Children who were invited to join the program were given leotards, tights, and ballet shoes, and basic ballet and movement classes, which happened during the regular school day.
DanceChance students who have the talent and desire to continue can transition into the regular classes at Pacific Northwest Ballet's school. The cost of their training is underwritten by various public, private, and foundation sources.
In 1998, Pacific Northwest Ballet launched Second Stage, a program that helps dancers fund continuing education studies that will help them successfully transition to post-professional ballet life. Supported by audience contributions and by forgone salary among the dancers during specific performances, Second Stage is a practical bridge for dancers whose early all-consuming training often forces them to forgo academic education. This fact, coupled with the relatively brief number of years most dancers can maintain the rigor of dance at the professional level, can render recently retired dancers unprepared to transition to other fields.
Pacific Northwest Ballet trustee Rick Redman (b. ca. 1943) -- a retired professional football player who understood the challenges of what a 2000 article on the program described as "the issues of people in very time-consuming, physical careers that often end early and unexpectedly" -- led the effort to organize PNB's Second Stage program ("Second Stage..." p. 11). Besides raising money, offering career counseling, mentoring, and assessing grant proposals from dancers seeking Second Stage assistance, one important aspect of the program is educating dancers -- even at the student level -- about the probable relative brevity of their chosen career.
McCaw Hall Construction
In 2002, extensive renovations to the Opera House began. Pacific Northwest Ballet moved into the Mercer Arena for 18 months during construction, necessitating the patience of subscribers parting company with seats they'd held for (in some cases) many years. The Opera House renovation project was designed by the Seattle firm LMN Architects, who reused approximately 30 percent of the existing building, including the auditorium ceiling.
Once completed, the facility -- renamed Marion Oliver McCaw Hall -- featured better sightlines, an auditorium that was 30 feet narrower than it had been during the Opera House era, and state-of-the-art backstage technology, among numerous other improvements. On June 28, 2003, Pacific Northwest Ballet and its orchestra performed in their new home for the first time. On September 25, 2003, the company opened its first subscription season in McCaw Hall with a new production of Swan Lake.
As thrilling as the new facility was, the transitional period between Opera House tenure and McCaw Hall occupancy took its toll on Pacific Northwest Ballet. Some subscribers, frustrated with the Arena's sub-par sightlines and acoustics, opted not to renew. Other left because they were unwilling to try new seating after years -- or even decades -- in the Opera House. Selling non-subscription tickets to see the company dance in the Arena was difficult. Contributions fell along with ticket sales, and the company faced a major deficit.