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Friday, May 27, 2005 - Page updated at 12:00 a.m.

Dance Preview

PNB: a tribute to musical theater, a surprise for retiring directors

Special to The Seattle Times

Pacific Northwest Ballet closes its farewell season for retiring artistic directors Kent Stowell and Francia Russell with a suitably rousing and wistful program. Stowell's "Silver Lining" is a ballet set to songs of the 1920s and 1930s by popular American musical composer Jerome Kern. It's a crowd-pleaser in which the dancers not only perform Broadway- and vaudeville-flavored classical ballet but also burst into song.

The final performance of "Silver Lining" on June 12 will be replaced by a one-night-only tribute program honoring Stowell and Russell's 28-year tenure. The tribute will feature highlights from favorite ballets and world premieres created for the occasion. A champagne reception for all attendees will follow in the lobby.

"Silver Lining," in its own way, brings Stowell's career full circle. It was his love of musical theater as a boy growing up in St. George, Utah, that first led him to become a dancer and choreographer.

Dance previews

Pacific Northwest Ballet's "Silver Lining," 7:30 p.m. June 2-4 and 9-11, matinees 2 p.m. June 4, and 11 a.m. and 1 p.m. June 5, McCaw Hall, 321 Mercer St., Seattle; $20-$137 (206-441-2424 or

"A Tribute to Kent Stowell & Francia Russell," 6 p.m. June 12; $30 to $150 (206-441-2424 or

"Most people don't know how important the world of American musical theater was to ballet," Stowell said recently during a talk moderated by PNB's Doug Fullington at the Elliott Bay Book Co. "So many ballet dancers got their start, as I did, through exposure to musical theater in the movies."

Captivated as a teenager by the dancing he saw on the big screen, Stowell enrolled in tap class. "I wanted to be Fred Astaire," he said. His teacher suggested he take ballet lessons to improve his tap. Once he discovered the joy of ballet, especially the big jumps, he soon dropped tap and was eventually hired by San Francisco Ballet and later by New York City Ballet. "I had only seen one ballet on the stage before I was employed as a ballet dancer," he said. "It was really the musical theater that got guys like me into dance."

Stowell, in creating "Silver Lining" as a new full-length ballet for PNB's 25th anniversary season in 1998, was drawn to the range and style of Kern's music. "In addition to writing for vaudeville and musical theater, Kern spent a lot of time in London working on operettas like 'Merry Widow.' He was very close to the classical tradition. His music fit my temperament and sense of romance."

Working with arranger and orchestrator Russell Warner, Stowell developed a score using both such well-known numbers as "Smoke Gets in Your Eyes," and pieces that have been rarely heard. Baritone Erich Parce and soprano Valerie Piacenti will be featured singers. A large part of Stowell's vision for this ballet, though, was having the dancers themselves sing. He recalled, with glee, the audience's startled reaction on opening night when the dancers first opened their mouths.

Sets by Ming Cho Lee and costumes by David Murin evoke, in turn, the lighter, vaudeville mood of the 1920s, the swinging Cotton Club atmosphere of Harlem, and the smooth, sophisticated styles of the 1930s. Stowell set out to create dances that would show off the company, featuring soloists and principals in numbers ranging from suave to raunchy. The dancing is almost purely classical ballet but incorporates period dance idioms like the shuffle and slide of the Broadway hoofer. The ballet even includes a tap dance.

Stowell and Russell are being kept in the dark about the program for the June 12 tribute evening, which is being directed by their son, Christopher Stowell, artistic director of Oregon Ballet Theater, and hosted by ballet supporters Susan and Jeffrey Brotman.

"The dancers won't let us into those rehearsals. It's the first time in 28 years Francia and I don't know what we're putting onstage," Stowell said. "We can hardly wait to see it."

Mary Murfin Bayley:

Copyright © 2005 The Seattle Times Company




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