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Flash Review 1, 4-24: He Flew Through the Air, with the Greatest of Ease
S.F. Ballet & Fans Pay Tribute to Christopher Stowell

By Aimee Ts'ao
Copyright 2001 Aimee Ts'ao

SAN FRANCISCO -- On Friday, the War Memorial Opera House was buzzing much louder than usual. Besides the usual crowd, I saw lots of dancers who had come to witness Christopher Stowell in his last dance with San Francisco Ballet on the Opera House stage after 16 years with the company, in a tribute program featuring this remarkable and much-loved artist. In the opening ballet, Mark Morris's "Pacific," Stowell performed the role he had created when the piece premiered at the United We Dance Festival in 1995 to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the United Nations. His entrance was greeted with applause, and the sharp edge of the audience's anticipation melted as everyone relaxed and savored his delicious rendering of Morris's choreographic meal. Seeing Stowell impeccably matched with Tina LeBlanc in a lyrical pas de deux, I wondered how this pair managed to generate their movements from the same place given that they were two separate dancers.

I thought back to the first time I had seen Stowell dance. Not performing, but in Alonzo King's class. His effortless elevation, precise pirouettes and blatant joy in moving remain embedded in my memory. At the time I didn't yet know who he was, but made sure to find out as soon as class was over. Over the years I was fortunate to see him perform many times and will miss the incredible artistry that allowed him to shape his roles seamlessly in whatever style they required.

Unfortunately, Stowell had to miss the curtain call for "Pacific" as he was making his costume change for SFB artistic director Helgi Tomasson's "Meistens Mozart" in a solo he created. Although Stowell claimed in an interview with the San Francisco Chronicle's Alan Ulrich that it's harder and harder to maintain the level of dancing he demands from himself, he still looked completely at ease, gleefully tossing off turns and bounding through the air. Yes, perhaps he doesn't feel that he surpassed some elusive personal best (we certainly weren't aware of that), but more importantly Stowell, as always, established such a warm and open rapport with the audience. He transports us and allows us to imagine how exhilarating it feels to fly and swoop, spin and stop on a dime. That is his gift to us, from a dancer to his audience and from one human being to another. As he took his bow the crowd clapped wildly, cheered, roared and raucously demonstrated its appreciation. He was forced to take one bow after another with a look bordering on disbelief that all these people could love him so much.

After an intermission, followed by Yuri Possokhov's "Magrittomania," and then another intermission, we finally got to Balanchine's "Tarantella." Originally choreographed in 1964 as a pas de deux for Edward Villella and Patricia MacBride, here in an augmented version it gave Stowell the chance to flirt with not one charming woman, but three! Principal dancers Kristin Long, LeBlanc and Joanna Berman each took a turn at the variations and Stowell could barely believe his luck in scoring a triple. Both Long and LeBlanc were wonderful, but it was Berman whose comedic timing came close to Stowell's own flawless pacing and humor. He drew extra pirouettes out of thin air at the moment a normal dancer would finish, held balances that gave new meaning to the word rubato and I'm willing to bet that he can also squeeze blood out of turnips, or at the very least red wine. The audience jumped to their feet and hurled bouquets and single long-stemmed blooms at him. The rest of the company's dancers emerged from the wings, some in costumes for the next ballet, Balanchine's "Symphony in C," while Tomasson presented him with a bottle of champagne. Stowell mimed that they should open it immediately, then handed it to Tina LeBlanc. As he continued to bow, with his impish grin he gestured to the audience to throw more and gathered what flowers he could from the ground. The audience would not stop clapping and in a final gesture, Stowell tossed all his floral gleanings into the air behind him and walked forward alone to bow deeply before the prolonged standing ovation, crossing his hands over his heart in reciprocal acknowledgment.

My only disappointment lay with the programming. I wanted to have Stowell dance the last ballet of the evening, so the last image we had would have been seeing him on stage with the entire company, celebrating with his friends and colleagues one last time. As it was, "Symphony in C" was something of an anti-climax. It would have been easy to have put Stowell in the Third Movement, one of his roles, and cut one of the others, though of course I wouldn't have wanted to miss him in anything.


(Editor's note: To see a photo of Christopher Stowell at the barre, please click here.)

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