The master turns 100 - Francia Russell remembers George Balanchine

Ballet, more than any other art, relies on teachers. Professional dancers attend class throughout their career not only to hone their skills but also to connect to the past generations. The teachers enable them to recreate dances in the manner that the choreographers envisioned.

Classical ballet flowered in Russia in such institutions as the Imperial School of Ballet. George Balanchine (born Georgi Balanchivadze) left Russia and brought his Imperial School training to America. He founded the School of American Ballet in 1934 and, through his choreography and teaching, forever changed the look of ballet in this country.

As artistic director of Pacific Northwest Ballet and director of PNB's school, the first thing that Francia Russell emphasized in a recent interview was that PNB is not a Balanchine school.

"What Kent [Stowell, PNB artistic director and Russell's husband] and I have done in Seattle is the product of many influences," said Russell. "We don't teach Balanchine technique - we teach many different things. In the same way, Balanchine developed his own ways to do something that was different from what he had learned. What he was teaching was how he wanted to dance."

At the same time, Russell sees Balanchine as a primary influence in her development as a teacher of ballet.

Russell joined New York City Ballet in 1956, nine years after Balanchine had established the company. Russell was promoted to soloist in 1959 at NYCB. Stowell joined NYCB in 1962 and danced there as a soloist until 1968.

In 1963, Balanchine appointed Russell as a faculty member at the School of American Ballet. In 1964, Russell became ballet mistress at NYCB and directed rehearsals at the company.

"Balanchine took me by the hand and taught me how to teach," recalled Russell.

Because of this experience, Russell was one of the first ballet masters to receive Balanchine's permission to stage his choreography. She has since staged more than 100 Balanchine ballets in the United States and Europe.

In 1987 she mounted the first Balanchine ballet in China for the Shangai Ballet; the following year, she staged "Theme and Variations" for the Kirov Ballet of St. Petersburg, the first authorized performance of a Balanchine work in the country of his birth.

In PNB's own repertory, 28 out of 88 works are Balanchine masterworks. So, in a natural progression, PNB became one of 60 companies celebrating the lasting contributions of Balanchine to the art of ballet on the centenary of his birth.

For their "Balanchine Centenary," Russell and Stowell picked three works: "Divertimento No. 15," "Agon" and the Brahms-Schoenberg Quartet.

Besides their artistic merit, the works also have personal connections for Russell and Stowell. When Balanchine redid "Agon" in 1961, he choreographed the women's roles based on Russell's work as a soloist.

"I danced in the first casts for 'Divertimento' and 'Agon.' I was ballet mistress for the Brahms-Schoenberg, and Kent has danced three different leads in it," said Russell. "Those were very rich and wonderful times for us as artists."

Russell won't pick a favorite piece, but she calls one pas de deux in the Brahms-Schoenberg "one of the most beautiful moments in dance."

Balanchine became famous for permanently changing the way ballet looks, choosing dancers (especially women) with long, lean elegant lines; his choreography requires incredible stamina from the dancers as well as impeccable technique.

"Balanchine often gives no time to the dancers to recover or catch their breaths," said Russell.

The choreography also demands dancers who are very musical, especially for pieces like "Divertimento No. 15," which sets Balanchine's vision to the delicate music of Mozart.

"Often his steps played inside the music, an extra movement here or there that leads back to the music, and that can be difficult at first for a dancer," Russell said.

But once the dancer catches Balanchine's artistic vision, she added, then the movement becomes comfortable for the body, and the choreography becomes the natural extension of the music.

When staging a Balanchine work, Russell helps the dancers to understand what Balanchine wanted. "I tell the dancers that everything that I say to them is what I heard him say," she said.

Ballet runs deep in the Russell-Stowell household. Once "Centenary" closes, Russell will travel to Portland where she will stage a ballet for her son, Christopher Stowell, the artistic director of the Oregon Ballet Theatre.

"The Balanchine Centenary" will be held Thursday, Feb. 5, through Feb. 15 at Marion Oliver McCaw Hall. Tickets $16 to $125 may be purchased by calling the PNB Box Office at 441-2424. More information is available through

Rosemary Jones covers arts and entertainment for the Capitol Hill Times. She can be reached at

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