Pacific Northwest Ballet School: Doing It Right

Article excerpt

The entrance to the Pacific Northwest Ballet School at Phelps Center adjacent to the Opera House begins with a walk over a small concrete bridge from a busy street into the quiet, studious, and remarkable world created by Francia Russell and Kent Stowell. In addition to being artistic directors of Seattle's Pacific Northwest Ballet, a superbly trained company that performs Balanchine ballets that rival the parent company, Russell has created a school that is one of the leading, if not the definitive, professional training school in the country.

There are at least two sides to Francia Russell: She is elegant and tough, thoughtful but decisive, demanding yet compassionate, traditional and a risk taker. "I am the person young performers come to with their problems," she admits.

Russell and Stowell, veterans of performing, teaching, and rehearsing - both were coartistic directors of Frankfurt Ballet - base their success on "doing it right. There wasn't any other way," says Stowell, PNB's principal choreographer. It took thirteen years to find the right building for the school and eight years to raise the money. Halfway through construction funds ran out, but they insisted on continuing to build a state-of-the-art facility. No compromise, no putting off its completion. Funds were raised and within a year, in 1993, the eight-studio building was complete and free of debt. The theme of the design is visibility. The outdoors come in through floor-to-ceiling windows; every class is visible from the inside corridors to inspire and acquaint the student with the workings of the school and company.

"We had a couple of horrible years being criticized for doing what we thought was right. We weren't known, but eventually we got the support of the board and we grew." Russell adds: "It was a risk for Kent and me to come to Seattle with our three boys, but with all our experience, we knew what a school and a company should be. We just had to be strong enough to insist upon what was best."

THE SCHOOL

Beautiful Seattle offers sweeping views of Elliott Bay and the Olympic Mountains, charming shops, fabulous fish restaurants, one maze after another of alleyways full of art galleries, espresso nooks, specialty shops, and ethnic restaurants. Victorian brick buildings share space with glass office towers; a large Asian population lives beside Native Americans; sophisticated transplanted urbanites ignore the last vestiges of rebellious sixties freethinkers. In 1977, when the Stowells came to Seattle, there was less of everything, and there was a fragile school history begun with the Pacific Northwest Ballet Association in 1972.

In the studios in Seattle and Bellevue (east of the city), PNBS now divides into extensive programs: A children's division, for youngsters ages five to' seven enrolled in creative movement and preballet classes; and the student division, (audition required), beginning with eight-year-olds enrolled for instruction in basic ballet technique Levels I to VII, and the professional division. …