Make no mistake: Oregon Ballet Theatre is very much Christopher Stowell's company.
This is, as the last four seasons have shown, an overwhelmingly good thing for Portland's cultural life. Since taking OBT's artistic reins in 2003, Stowell has increased the size of the company of dancers (from 21 to 26), made a strong commitment to live music (much of it unusual and interesting) and brought his organization national acclaim.
But his most ambitious plans may yet lie before him. OBT has a vigorous winter program of premieres opening this weekend, and just last week announced its 2007-08 season, "A Grand Tour" of dances set to music from across the globe.
On a recent Wednesday afternoon at the slightly cramped OBT studios in Southeast—which Stowell admits the company has already outgrown; they're scanning for new space—I sat in on a rehearsal for one of this weekend's premieres, Through Eden's Gates, which is set to piano ragtime music by that great and frequently overlooked living American composer, William Bolcom.
And who designed this world-premiere dance? None other than Kent Stowell, Christopher's father and founding member of that "other" Northwest ballet company, Seattle-based Pacific Northwest Ballet Theater. The elder Stowell, an affable and appropriately fatherly presence in the studio, is putting a sextet of dancers through their paces in a challenging section of his work, which he calls "pure Americana."
"Not so academic-looking," he says, gently, to a young dancer with a stern face. "Now, you see, you're doing Martha Graham," he says, and bows his head, shoulders hunched. "This," he raises his head, bringing his shoulders back, "is Gene Kelly."
"It's nice having Dad around the studio," the younger Stowell says, and he must mean it, because he's made the unique decision to keep the elder Stowell's Through Eden's Gates—before any audience or critical reaction has been offered on the new work—in OBT's 2007-08 season.
That season also includes three new dances from the younger Stowell (including his first original narrative ballet—his take on A Midsummer Night's Dream), major new repertoire for the company, like George Balanchine's iconic Slaughter on Tenth Avenue from 1968, and a coup: the first OBT performance of a work by the current darling choreographer of contemporary ballet, William Forysthe. "Doing the work by Forsythe is huge," Stowell says, "and he continues to be at the forefront of interesting dance-making around the world."
Oregon Ballet Theatre at Keller Auditorium, 222 SW Clay St., 222-5538. 7:30 pm Friday-Saturday, 2 pm Sunday, March 3-4 & 9-10. $10 and up.