Kent Stowell on the PNB Orchestra, Carmina Burana, and More
Pacific Northwest Ballet’s Founding Artistic Director Kent Stowell was instrumental in creating the PNB Orchestra; he recently sat down to share memories of the PNB Orchestra and his Carmina Burana, which will be performed by PNB May 29 – June 7 at Marion Oliver McCaw Hall.
On his role in creating the PNB Orchestra:
KS: When we came here, we felt that our only way to make PNB become viable was to try to be one of the best companies in the country if not the world, and that included live music. It was part of the survival of the opera and the symphony – we all had to share the cost of the orchestra; then it became a difficult scheduling and energy problem because they were overworked. And the amazing part was the simple psychological part of leaving – because we gave our check to the symphony, who paid the orchestra – they felt like they were working for nothing for us, because we didn’t write out the checks. It wasn’t physical. So when we started writing checks to the orchestra employees ourselves, they felt a real sense of being a part of PNB. Over the years, we had enough employment for them to feel like they could do their teaching or play for NW Chamber Orchestra or do their other gigs without having to decide whether to play for the opera, ballet, or symphony. And we fostered that feeling of ownership. We would go into the pit during the run or dress rehearsal or opening night; we set up videotapes so if they wanted to, down in their lounge, they got to participate in the experience. So I think over the years we made a really strong effort to make them feel included.
(Author’s Note: A December 2014 survey of PNB Orchestra members demonstrated that they very much still feel a part of the PNB family.)
How the break from the tri-partite agreement (between the ballet, opera, and symphony) came about:
KS: I think the three organizations realized it wasn’t working anymore. The symphony wanted to work for the opera, and the opera wanted the symphony to work less for us and more for them. So we weren’t necessarily shut out of it but we were glad we weren’t in it – they had their own thing[…]we were happy to have that part of the organization become a whole part of it instead of an orphan part. I think everybody felt good about it.
Particularly for the ballet, when we moved into the Phelps Center – that is a coming of age, to have your own facility –we were one of the top 3 or 4 ballet companies, and [had] developed the audience to support it. At one time we had the highest ballet attendance in the country per capita.
On the importance of live music at the ballet:
KS: Well, reverse it – what if we had live music and taped dancers? How unrewarding would that be? It has to do with the very act of existence. From my perspective, and Francia’s, and what we set out for PNB, you can’t farm out one part of the artistic equation to a safe ground. “Oh, I’m comfortable with this tempo, let’s do the recording.” All of it has to do with risk at any point, particularly for the dancers who go out on the stage and do this tricky stuff and can get hurt. It’s risky. And it’s unfair to the audience and to them [the dancers] and the experience of going to the theater to not have everybody at risk. The whole idea of live performance means everybody’s live. The audience is live, the dancers are live, the orchestra is live. And every once in a while you go to a performance and it’s just exhilarating[…]When you go to the theater, it might be a one-time event for you. And we should anticipate that it’s a one-time event – because every performance is different. Every performance with live music is different. And the subtleties, the casting, the tempos, my cold, I have a bad foot, all of those things are part and parcel of what a live performance is about.
One of the nicest things happened to us a couple of months ago. One of the orchestra members had a party and invited us, [and someone] said, “I want to thank you for having live music, because if you hadn’t done that I wouldn’t have a job today.” When you look around the country, the [smaller] number of ballet companies…it’s a mistake when you’re in trouble to shrink because that will be the next thing the next time around. It sets a pattern. And it takes courage on everybody’s part, you know not just the Artistic Director but the alums and the board. But if the Artistic Director isn’t willing to stand ground, then things start going downhill pretty fast, and you lose not only the respect of your profession and yourself but the audience thinks they’re being cheated.
On the origins of his Carmina Burana:
KS: We moved into the Phelps Center in 1993 and we had worked on that building for 13 years. Trying to find a new place, and it was after the Nutcracker when we opened that in ‘83, suddenly we became this organization that everybody had to contend with. We doubled our income in one year. And it set us on a path that gave us just a lot of money that we had never experienced before. And of course, you can spend it very quickly! Because our job – what we said to the board – was that if we’re not having great expectations, if we’re not driving you crazy with what the dreams are and what we think are necessary and what we could accomplish, then you should fire us! We’re not doing our job. And so part of the impetus of Nutcracker propelled us into[…]Seattle Center. It took us until ‘93 to raise the money and get it all done, and we had to stop construction and raise more money. Some people said, “Move in now and bring the old furniture,” and I said, “No. We don’t want to degrade the money that’s already given. We don’t want people to say, we invested in this? We have to do this right.” So we invested in construction and found more money.
In that context we knew that our board and public would say, “Now you have your building, don’t bother us anymore.” Or, “What’s so fabulous about this building…what’s this going to do for the ballet and the public?” So we made the determination that the next season had to be spectacular. I decided to do Carmina and Cinderella in the same year, and Francia thought I should be put away.
Carmina is a very suspect theatrical event that is very hard for a lot of major choreographers, they think it’s way too overblown, or it’s not very artistic material with great depth. I decided that other choreographers had done it part way, but they didn’t capture the essence of this great big, bawdy piece of music that is full of all kinds of flavors, and whether it’s a vehicle for a great artistic point of view wasn’t my mission. We tried to bring in new audiences from the opera and choral worlds, and to expand the audience base by exposing them to a work that they knew, but in relationship to the ballet. We needed to do something to capture the public’s attention, [to show] that we’ve arrived and that we have a new building that we’re going to do wonderful things out of. Carmina was that because of the connection to the world out there that doesn’t go to the ballet, which was important.
Cinderella, at the end of the season, was important to get the families involved. It was an almighty effort on everybody’s part, but it was a wonderful experience, particularly Cinderella, where people up in the offices on their lunch hour were sewing things onto costumes because we were running late, but they were engaged and had a sense of ownership and belonging, participating and putting something on the stage. And it was a total event for the whole organization – we had a lot of kids in it and all these wonderful characters. That year was really important to set off our agenda for the next 20 years, of how we would function and raise the profile of the ballet and its expectations. We felt it was part of our mission to not just have a profile of “We’re going to show you what we think is wonderful” – we have to show you what you might think is wonderful, and to expand our own expectation.
When we were out of the theater, when we had to do Mercer Arts Arena, we did a Carmen ballet with video – with cameramen on the stage, videotape, and big screens so that they could see their faces. And one of the audience members said, “I just love the way you guys keep challenging your own profession to do it in new ways.” The important part was that it gave the audience an opportunity (because Carmen is an opera) another reason for them to look at the opera world in a different way. The things that we tried to do that included the orchestra were things that would expand the audience base, get them to come to the theater, get them to participate so they can come to Billy Forsythe, so they can come to the Balanchine, so they can come to see all of the other points of view about ballet represented onstage.
About the Carmina Burana set:
KS: You don’t realize it but the chorus is on a swing – there are no supports underneath. It’s hanging there and it moves, not very much, but that’s part of the theatrical experience that is so wonderful about Carmina –that the chorus is right there – it is part of the show. They can see what’s going on onstage when they’re singing, and they really enjoy it.
PNB performs Kent Stowell’s Carmina Burana
May 29 – June 7
Featured photo: PNB dancers, chorus and the great wheel of Fortune in Kent Stowell’s Carmina Burana. Photo © Angela Sterling.