Seattle ballet leaps into its new home

Seattle is a city marked by institutions with landmark homes, from the Mariners' Safeco Field to the shiny, purple walls of the Experience Music Project, designed by Frank Gehry.

So it's no wonder that the community is rejoicing once again about an architectural and cultural milestone: the recent opening of the renovated Marion Oliver McCaw Hall (formerly the Seattle Opera House), longtime home to the Pacific Northwest Ballet (PNB) and the Seattle Opera.

One of the leading American dance companies in size and reputation, the Pacific Northwest Ballet returned to McCaw Hall last week - after spending 18 months at nearby Mercer Sports Arena - with a new production of "Swan Lake." (The Seattle Opera's production of "Parsifal" in August christened the new hall.)

At last week's opening night of "Swan Lake," nearly 3,000 people filled the orchestra seats and wood-paneled cantilevered balconies of the auditorium.

The performing-arts center is now "a fun place to go," says Kent Stowell, who directs the PNB with his wife, Francia Russell. "There were no windows in the old building," he says. There is no shortage of light in the new facility, which features a five-story wall of windows.

When Mr. Stowell and Ms. Russell, former soloists at New York City Ballet, began running the PNB 27 years ago, the troupe "gave 12 performances a year," says Stowell. "Other companies gave 10 more. Now, between PNB, the Paramount Series, and the University of Washington Dance Series, there are 120 to 150 [dance] shows a year. What's great about dance in America is that it's not only in New York but Houston, Denver, and Seattle, too."

When the couple first took over in 1977, they worked with the bare minimum. The company owned sets and costumes only for the classic ballet "Coppelia" and a production of "The Nutcracker."

They began to stage works by their mentor, George Balanchine, and were determined to build a repertory and a company connected to their community.

Stowell's concept of outreach included choreographing ballets with popular themes and music, like his 1998 full-length "Silver Lining," set to the songs of Jerome Kern. Russell developed the ballet's school into a world-class training organization.

In 1993, the company and school moved into expansive headquarters next to what was then the Seattle Opera House, making the PNB one of the few troupes in the nation with a direct, indoor passage to its performing space.

The hall was first built in 1928, 50 years after salon owner James Osbourne had provided an endowment of $20,000 to fund Seattle's first theater. It was updated for the 1962 World's Fair, but by the 1990s it was clear that the hall needed a seismic retrofit.

Backstage at the old hall was "pretty primitive," Stowell recalls. "We couldn't drink the water from the taps, and there was only one shower."

In the new facility, he says the dressing rooms are at stage level so dancers don't have to climb four or five flights of stairs to change costumes. The stage is the same size, but the hall now has twice as much space offstage.

The company numbers 46 dancers, with an annual budget of $16.3 million. By comparison, New York's American Ballet Theatre has 80 dancers and had a $32 million budget last year.

The original renovation was estimated to cost $80 million. But the partners - the city, Seattle Center Foundation, the ballet, and Seattle Opera - instead decided to upgrade the building into a full performing-arts center by sharing the $127 million costs. Fundraising and planning took a decade.

D. David Brown, the PNB's executive director, helped manage the project. "The building improves what we can do backstage, in terms of scale of production, and the comfort and efficiency for the artists," says Mr. Brown, "with a parallel improvement in the front-of-house, especially in terms of events, like large-scale galas...."

But it's primarily the shows on stage that distinguish McCaw Hall, like the sumptuous "Swan Lake." While there were few surprises in the choreography, and the storytelling was straightforward, the success of the ballet lay in the finely honed technique of the 30 swan maidens, performing precisely in step.

Company veteran Patricia Barker led the swans in a poignant portrayal of the white Swan Queen, transforming into her evil twin, the Black Swan. The major change came at the climax when the Swan Queen faded back into the forest, leaving the Prince (Stanko Milov) to collapse with a broken heart - no happily-ever-after ending here.

"I wanted to show that betrayal has its consequences," Stowell explains.

Tchaikovsky's famous score, performed by the PNB orchestra, sounded newly minted because of the McCaw Hall acoustics.

"Our philosophy when we came here was that we wanted to touch as many people as we could," Stowell says. "That's why we did 'Swan Lake' in 1981 and again now.... The more we go beyond our small world, the better."

'Swan Lake' runs until Oct. 5. Seattle Opera presents 'Mourning Becomes Electra,' Oct. 18-Nov. 1. PNB returns with a mixed bill of four ballets, Nov. 6-9, followed by the 20th anniversary production of 'The Nutcracker,' Nov. 28-Dec. 28. All performances are at McCaw Hall.

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