Seattle's Silver Lining

By Windreich, Leland | The World and I, October 1998 | Go to article overview

Seattle's Silver Lining

Windreich, Leland, The World and I

In its twenty-fifth anniversary season, the very capable Pacific Northwest Ballet has premiered a remarkable ballet based on the music of cherished composer Jerome Kern.

Fifty-five years ago Agnes de Mille made theatrical history with her dances for the musical Oklahoma! In it dancers with ballet training replaced the usual squads of hoofers employed for Broadway shows, and the dancing took the form of ballet episodes that were genuine extensions of the play's narrative. This year in Seattle, Kent Stowell has reversed the process, devising a remarkable ballet in the format of a Broadway revue, based on songs and musical episodes from the prolific output of Jerome Kern. Silver Lining, as the new work is called, has no plot, but in celebrating the varied and ingenious catalog of one of America's most cherished composers, it conveys in essence the story of the American musical theater in the two decades before Kern's untimely death in 1945.

Silver Lining is first and foremost a ballet, and the choreography and staging respect the requisites of the academy, with its courtly European antecedents. Kern himself, born to immigrants of Czech-Jewish origins, favored European sensibilities in his early compositions for the American stage: The musical comedy that emerged in his lifetime was an evolution of the Continental light opera popular at the turn of the century in London, Paris, and Vienna.

Stowell, a ballet choreographer by occupation, has not abandoned his own professional mandate in the creation of a musical revue but uses ballet as the basis, the receptacle for the songs and patter, the raw vernacular, and the sophisticated dance styles of an age he recalls with affection. Thus, while de Mille fused ballet to the elements of musical theater, Stowell has taken the approach of adding the trappings of American popular music and dance to the reliable broth of ballet. The result has been nothing short of miraculous.

This year Pacific Northwest Ballet (PNB) celebrated its twenty-fifth anniversary with a daring season of ten new commissioned works by young choreographers. Stowell and his wife and partner, Francia Russell, realized that they were taking a big gamble with such an assignment. But PNB has built its reputation on taking chances, and its board agreed to the proposal. And Seattle audiences, who invariably demand at least two full-length classics in the repertory, did not sulk over the consignment of Swan Lake, Coppelia, and the brilliant Balanchine repertory to the storage rooms for a full year. The box office for this experimental season was surprisingly healthy for both series and single-program sales. On the artistic side, by the end of the final program in May, both critics and directors were gratified to note that the hits greatly outnumbered the failures.

The only gesture to ballet's past came in a ravishing production for the opening program of George Balanchine's 1941 Ballet Imperial, which Russell lovingly restored from notes she had made of a revival while a member of the New York City Ballet. Stowell, usually obliged to devise or restore several of his own creations, was free to work on the last offering of the season--the Kern ballet--which he had been contemplating and planning for over two years.

"After all the new pieces, I wanted to do something that would be pure entertainment--something that would give our audiences a wonderful time," Stowell explained in his office at PNB's new Phelps Center a few days after the premiere. Unnecessarily modest about his work, he was not yet aware of the impact that the ballet had on local viewers. And he had avoided reading reviews in the Seattle press.

Born in Rexbridge, Idaho, in 1939, Kent Stowell grew up in a Mormon household in the minuscule Utah community of St. George, where his father worked as an athletics coach at the junior college. Young Stowell's only link with a world outside was the local picture palace, where he became smitten as a preteen by the dancing in Hollywood musicals and, more specifically, with the performances of Fred Astaire, an artist whom he was shortly determined to emulate.

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