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One last dance

'Nutcracker' dancers put their hearts into Christopher Stowell's final Oregon Ballet Theatre production


by: COURTESY OF BLAINE TRUITT COVERT/OBT - 'The Nutcracker' hits the stage Dec. 8 to 23 at Keller Auditorium, in Christopher Stowell's final show as artistic director. Stowell has been a big proponent of all of George Balanchine's work. Here, Kelsie Nobriga performs during the 2011 production.“The Nutcracker” has been part of Christopher Stowell’s career for 35 years.

It never gets boring, especially for Stowell in the past nine years as artistic director of the Oregon Ballet Theatre, which annually shows the innocence and human charm of George Balanchine’s version of the holiday hit.

“It’s a ballet that allows me to give young dancers opportunities,” Stowell says. “Every year you get to see people really grow, get stronger. It never gets boring to see dancers grow and achieve more every year.”

It’s fitting, then, that “The Nutcracker,” Dec. 8 to 23 at Keller Auditorium, will be the 46-year-old Stowell’s final show with OBT. He has announced his resignation, effective Dec. 31, citing differences with the OBT board of directors on the direction of the company — i.e. budget constraints — and his desire to explore other opportunities.

To say “The Nutcracker” shows will be sentimental would be an understatement, given the respected Stowell leaving many of the dancers that he has helped groom.

“Oh man, yes, it’s going to be really sentimental,” says Lucas Threefoot, 24, who moved from OBT student into being a professional under Stowell’s watch. “We’re trying to come up with a special something for the last show, not sure what, yet, but we want to do something to celebrate Christopher and this company.

“I’d say, as a company, we’re in collective shock. It was totally unexpected, none of us foresaw (the resignation). We’re doing our best to make sense of the situation. It’s chaotic. I’m glad we get to share the grieving period with each other.”

Says Alison Roper, an OBT veteran: “Some people are emotional right now. People will become more so, everything will become more poignant as time gets closer to our final show.”

Stowell doesn’t know what his future holds. He might want to pursue another artistic director position, or work freelance.

by: COURTESY OF JONI KABANA/OBT - Christopher Stowell, 46, doesn't know what his future holds after leaving Oregon Ballet Theatre. He'll take a few months to ponder things.He has offered to serve as a consultant for OBT, while the company conducts an international search for his successor.

Stowell took over for James Canfield in 2003, and he has put his mark on OBT, says Roper, who has performed on “The Nutcracker,” among other roles, in each of her 17 seasons with the company.

“He’s very smart and witty,” says Roper, 38, the last of the OBT dancers remaining that Stowell inherited from Canfield in 2003. “He has a dry sense of humor. I’ve always found him very approachable and caring.

“Family is more important (to him), and he’s very caring about people as people. He really has helped guide the careers of many dancers here — ‘How can I help this dancer grow? What role can I give him or her so they can be pushed to the next level?’ ”

“He’s been a guiding figure. He’s friendly. He’s intuitive,” says Threefoot, who began to dance as an OBT student at age 4. “Canfield told me some things, but he scared me a little bit. Christopher has taught me almost everything I know. You don’t feel like you’re too much on the spot, but he definitely expects a good performance from you.”

A New York City native, Stowell began his 16-year stint with San Francisco Ballet in 1985, dancing in theaters throughout the world and appearing in nearly every Balanchine ballet. He retired from dancing at 35, his body starting to hurt, the athleticism no longer the same.

He taught in San Francisco, New York, Japan and Europe, and created many new works. In taking the reins at OBT, Stowell brought works from Balanchine and many others. World premieres included “Swan Lake” (2006), “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” (2007), “The Sleeping Beauty” (2010) and “Carmen” (2011).

Oregon Ballet Theatre has performed Balanchine’s “The Nutcracker” twice in South Korea.

It doesn’t get any better than Balanchine’s version, he says.

“It doesn’t rely on big special effects,” he says. “The interactions between the people are very natural, and details very heartwarming and sentimental — from a child’s perspective.

“Every year we work on it, I really admire his work. It’s not terribly hard, but the way it unfolds, it’s exciting. I haven’t seen a show where the audience doesn’t go crazy at the end.”

Roper has played many roles in “The Nutcracker.” This year, it’s four different parts again, as it has been under Stowell, including the sugar plum fairy.

“I’ve danced with many different partners for the sugar plum part,” she says. “Lucas is my partner this year for the first time.

“We met here. He was a student at the school when I came. He was 8, I was 21. He was my little boy in the party scene. I was the governess in that production, he was naughty and I had to chase him around, chastise him, clap my hands ... now we’re having a good time dancing in a very romantic adult part. I didn’t think this day would come.”

Threefoot, who’s also performing multiple roles, laughs at the same memory, and the fact that he plays an “equal” role with Roper.

Both didn’t see Stowell’s departure coming.

It’s why “The Nutcracker” will be so special, even as Threefoot puts it, “you’ll hear a lot of dancers complain about having to do it again. I admit, I’m one of them. But, it’s a tradition, and I get to perform a lot.”

Stowell says he received dozens of emails and text messages after the news of his resignation broke last week.

A lot of people were surprised at the news. He said it wasn’t a “a knee-jerk decision.”

“I’ve had such a great time working with all of these people at OBT for the past nine years,” he says. “I’m proud of all the work we’ve done together. I don’t dance anymore, but I consider myself a performer, and I’m very good about getting on with it. And, it’s really boding well for the best performances of ‘The Nutcracker.’ “

For complete information on “The Nutcracker” shows, Dec. 8 to 23 at Keller Auditorium, 222 S.W. Clay St., go to www.obt.org.