Q&A: OBT's Christopher Stowell on Leaving the Ballet

Yesterday the artistic director announced he was resigning. Today he tells us why.

By Aaron Scott November 29, 2012

Oregon Ballet Theatre announced yesterday that Artistic Director Christopher Stowell submitted his resignation to the OBT board and will leave the company at the end of the year. In his nine-year tenure, he’s drastically recreated and expanded the company, so much so that it’s hard to imagine it without him. For more about his announcement and the resignation, see our post from yesterday.

I spoke with Stowell on the phone this morning about his choice to resign, and what exactly it means that the OBT board wants to adopt a "new business model." The mostly unedited conversation is below. 

Culturephile: In the nine years you’ve steered OBT, you’ve overseen incredible growth, adding over 50 new pieces, increasing the size of the company, taking it to perform at the Kennedy Center. What are you most proud of? What do you see as your legacy?
Christopher Stowell: The search committee and board that hired me gave me a particular assignment, which is actually why I took the job. I’m most proud of pursuing that assignment, which was to make a more classically oriented company that was more in line with ballet companies in other major cities and more connected to the national and international dance world—to really emphasize technique and form and physical ability. I don’t know if you ever accomplish that, but I guess my legacy is that we really pursued that and got really far.

More specifically, the company can handle a whole different level of choreography now and a wider variety of styles and can do things like put on huge productions of major classics and also attract choreographers like Christopher Wheeldon or Nicolo Fonte to come here and make works on us.

This is all happening so quickly. There was just a restructuring in which new vice president positions were created that would report to you in September, right?

And now it’s just a couple of months later. What happened between then and now that's caused you to leave?
There was an awful lot of attrition from the board and a shift in leadership there. That automatically, not surprisingly, caused a change in the directions of conversations about the organization—a somewhat concentrated conversation coming from the board about wanting to change the business model and feeling like we are relying too much on, particularly, contributions in a community and a climate that is not reliable. And it would be better to reshape the organization and align its mission more with more conservative financial goals. 

What does that mean? What would that organization look like?
That’s actually a question for the board. We began a conversation about that, and I realized it is a real shift and it will be a new chapter in the company’s history, and that’s not going to be successful without a new leader that has a different set of values, ideas, a fresh set of eyes.

I was not interested in that assignment of reconfiguring the organization. I was interested in the assignment I was given initially. We began the conversation, and I’ve given them some ideas about ways they can reshape things and contract a little, but it’s not my responsibility anymore. They’re going to need to take my proposal and see if that’s the direction they want to go, and they’re going to need to look for a new leader to align with the direction they have in mind.

Why wasn’t that assignment interesting to you?
It’s going to have to be smaller both in size and scope. It’s sort of like taking chunks out of something you’ve worked on. It’s an interesting project, potentially, but not for person who created the original model.

What caused the attrition on the board?
I’m not exactly sure actually. I had a hip replacement a couple weeks ago and this happened when I was in the hospital and recovering.  I’ve never gotten a complete explanation on exactly why people had left the board. 

Then that initiated this conversation over the last couple of weeks?
I should say we are experiencing financial challenges like a lot of organizations. The conversation of what we look like in the future or where we are financially was inevitable. But I didn’t know what direction that conversation was going to go exactly.

The Oregonian reported that a 2011 audit found the company saw increased revenue, lower debt, and more than a $134,000 surplus. But you say financial challenges. What changed?
We had a surplus at the end of last season, too. But it’s more complicated than on-the-books surplus. There’s needing to be able to spend enough money to bring in the revenue you’re counting on, there’s making sure you’re paying off debt. Rightfully, you need to be talking about it in a longer term, broader context than ‘did we end the year OK?’

Bob Hicks reported that The Body Beautiful concerts fell roughly $50,000 short of projections. True?
Yep. About $50,000 short of what we’d projected, and we had thought that our projection was relatively conservative. Things like that when you are already lean initiate immediate conversation about: what’s the answer here, or what’s the problem, or what are we going to do about not making our goals.

Your decision to leave seems so sudden? Take me through your decision process.
I guess it was sudden. But it was not a knee jerk reaction. It was just a realization of what I’ve already said: the organization has decided it needs to go in another direction and make some changes, and it’s best for them to have a new leader who’s part of this shift.  I see this as the natural next step in my career, to do something more aligned with my particular interests and talents.

Why not stay on through the end of the season?
My contract says in both directions it’s a 30 days notice. I was following that. I don’t think anyone would kick me out any sooner, but what I realized is: if I know I’m going to be leaving, and I want to figure out what I want to do for the next step in my career, then I want to have time and energy to put towards that. Also, I’m available and happy to come in here and help out putting the rest of the season on. So in a way it’s the best of both worlds for everyone. The artistic staff here is perfectly capable of getting the rest of the season on. I can come in and help them, but I can also start putting feelers out and exploring what I want to do next.

Do you have an idea of what that will be?
First of all, I’m looking forward to not working full time for a while, just because I’m tired. I don’t want to cloud the joy of that with too much worry about: “what am I going to do next?” B, I think it’s always interesting when someone who’s been completely attached and associated with an organization lets the world know that they’re no longer there, I think there will be potential projects for me to do or people who would like to work with me, so I’m curious what happens in that arena. Then I have to decide if running another ballet company is absolutely what I want to do. Probably, but they don’t come up all the time. I need to think of my career as a spectrum. I have a lot of skills. I can use them individually, or I can use them collectively, and that would be running another ballet company.

Most of these things require leaving Portland. Do you have a sense whether you’ll stay or go?
Right now I have no plans on leaving. Scott [Palmer, Stowell’s partner and the head of Bag & Baggage Theater in Hillsboro] and I are very happy here. But there is not going to be much work for me here. I could work freelance and travel, and then if it turns out that I want to lead another organization, that would not be here. But that’s in the future and who knows how that’s going to unfold.

You say that you’re not the candidate to move OBT forward.  Do you have a sense of who would be?
I don’t have a name. I think this is a great opportunity for somebody younger and less experienced than me, and who maybe has some more elemental connection to a younger generation in Portland, possibly. Here’s the things: there are a lot of dancers all over the world retiring from dancing. They can’t all get jobs afterward. It’s going to be an attractive opportunity for someone—someone who is really eager, probably a little naïve, I don’t—usefully enthusiastic, that sort of hunger. I think it’s going to be a great opportunity for someone, and they’re going to learn a lot about how to mold an organization and balance aspiration with parameters. It will be an interesting project for someone for sure.

Someone who’s naïve or usefully enthusiastic? Does that mean it’s not a doable job?
Not at all. No. Naïve isn’t the right word. It's the hunger for it—and possibly someone who has not run a dance company before but has a lot of the skillset and experience required for it would be good. But that’s only my opinion.

The mission you were given in 2003 to reconnect with the classical and emphasize technique, is that something the board is still interested in pursuing, or are they talking about a more contemporary direction?
They’re not that far into the conversation. I don’t think anyone would say they want to disband any of the work that’s been done. But I think they’re interested in thinking about what kind of company is right for Portland right now within certain financial parameters. What does that look like?

What’s your prognosis?
I don’t know. It’s a complicated conversation, but it can’t take too long. I don’t think they need to come up with all of those answers, but I think they need to begin the process for sure.

Diane [Syrcle, OBT's executive director] left earlier this year for the symphony, and then Trisha [Mead, the director of communications] left earlier this week. There’s been a lot of fast turnover and attrition at OBT these last few years. What do you attribute that to? 
It’s probably not unlike other arts organization. It’s stressful. It’s a lot of work. It’s hard to see that workload and stress load diminishing. I think people make shifts particularly on the administration side of arts organizations when they feel like they have—I don’t know if hit a wall is the right term—but they’ve done this amount of work and they know it will go on at the exact pace and rate. And of course in the arts world, there’s not a big opportunity for promotion and increases in salary related to how hard you are working, and they feel like it’s easier to do that with another arts organization. Sometimes the building of a department is easier than the sustaining of it. Or a different project anyway with different satisfactions. [Ed. Note: This quesiton was not originally posted with the interview because I ran out of time to transcribe it for our 4 pm newsletter deadline. It was added later that evening.]

How do you feel about leaving?  It’s the end of a significant era for you.
Part of me is incredibly sad, because I love working with all of these people, and I feel we’ve done really incredible and satisfying hard work together, which is very bonding. I also know absolutely that I made the right decision because it’s very hard to be so proud about the work and know that something about it is going to need to shift. I really think the person doing it needs to be excited about the project, and for me it would be a different project.

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