Artistic Director’s Notebook: Kent Stowell’s Swan Lake

Dear Friends,

Just over twenty years ago, in September 2003, a theater called Marion Oliver McCaw Hall opened in Seattle. Built on the site of the Seattle Opera House, which dated back to the 1962 World’s Fair, the new hall was the realization of years of dreaming, planning, fundraising, and building. With Seattle Symphony’s recent relocation to Benaroya Hall, McCaw Hall was tailored to the needs of its two primary tenants, Seattle Opera and Pacific Northwest Ballet. After a joint gala celebrating the new digs and the dawn of a new era for each arts organization, PNB offered another unveiling – a completely redesigned version of Kent Stowell’s Swan Lake.

Kent turned to three trusted collaborators for fresh designs: Randall Chiarelli for lighting, Ming Cho Lee for sets, and Paul Tazewell for costumes.

Kent and Randall (known to all as Rico) were an inseparable team. Rico served as PNB’s Lighting Designer and Technical Director from 1977 to 2011, with a brief stint as technical director for San Francisco Ballet. He served as Resident Lighting Designer until his retirement in 2019, though Rico never really retired from PNB, continuing to work on his designs and offering whatever was needed. People often said Rico knew what Kent was going to say just before he said it. He could fill the room with clarity and clever solutions. He had a knack for making people laugh when they needed it most. Rico painted in light, creating mood, story, and sense. His contribution to PNB’s look and identity cannot be overstated. We mourn Rico’s recent untimely passing and see Swan Lake as a poignant celebration of his contribution to our lives. He will be missed.

Kent and Ming collaborated on several PNB productions, including Carmina Burana, Firebird, and Silver Lining. Swan Lake is Ming’s most spare work for PNB, and yet the bold scenic elements serve as a perfect background for the heightened drama and emotion of the story. We are duped into a sense of order through Ming’s seemingly symmetrical set in Act I. Upon closer examination, symmetry is eroded by breakage and neglect. In the second act, more crumble as Ming’s transcendent moon illuminates the love between Odette and Siegfried. In Act III, we find ourselves in a ballroom that is decidedly off-kilter. The imbalance is troubling. The sense of doom haunting. Ming’s palette doesn’t stray far from a ghostly chalk color offering a dramatic contrast to Paul Tazewell’s vivid costume designs.

Paul allows palette to tell the story with autumnal hues flitting about the stage in the opening act. Pure white dominates Act II and IV with a firework display of vibrant tones filling the ballroom in Act III. Swan Lake marks Paul’s second work for PNB – the first was choreographed by Donald Byrd. Spoiler alert: we’re working with Paul again. Watch for an announcement about what’s ahead for Paul and PNB next month.

Credit goes to these collaborators and the hundreds of others who made these designs become reality. And with each performance, dozens contribute to the magnificence of Swan Lake. PNB is so proud of every member of the team, on stage, in the orchestra pit, backstage, and behind the scenes, collectively ensuring this great ballet comes to life for these performances and many more to come.

A special word of appreciation for Kent and Francia, who continue to contribute to the rehearsal process alongside PNB’s artistic team, coaching and casting as we prepare for the stage. Almost every day over the past two months, they have been shaping fingers into feathers and perfecting pirouettes and partnering. They have been doing this for five decades. This production first premiered in 1975 in Frankfurt, Germany, where Kent and Francia served as artistic directors before coming to Seattle. Francia staged much of Marius Petipa and Lev Ivanov’s original choreography, and Kent added his own while providing the vision for the entire production.

As the unmatched swells of Tchaikovsky’s score fill the magnificent McCaw Hall, and dancers don exquisite costumes and take flight before your eyes, know you are witnessing one of our most treasured PNB productions that promises to entertain and enchant. Welcome to Kent Stowell’s Swan Lake.

Kind regards,

Phot credits: Featured image: Peter Boal and Elle Macy in rehearsal, © Lindsay Thomas. Randall (Rico) Chiarelli and Kent Stowell, photo © Angela Sterling. Leta Biasucci in Kent Stowell’s Swan Lake, photo © Angela Sterling. Francia Russell and Jonathan Batista in rehearsal, photo © Lindsay Thomas. Leta Biasucci, Kyle Davis, and Kent Stowell in rehearsal, photo © Lindsay Thomas.