OBT staffer Claire Willett sits down with Anne Mueller to talk all things Christopher Stowell – how she met him, how she would describe him in three words (HINT: she can’t), her favorite Stowell role, how she’s grown as a dancer over the past few years, and the one time she got to dance with him.

by Claire Willett

CW: What was the first role you danced for Christopher?
AM: Well, the first rep was Duo Fantasy, which was a ballet of his father’s; Rubies; a Helgi Tomasson pas de deux called Twilight, which sounds weird now because of the vampire books but I think that’s what it was called; and then [Paul Taylor’s] Company B. I danced the “Pennsylvania Polka” in Company B. I also danced in the corps of Rubies, and I was second cast in Duo Fantasy, which was a trio. And I really liked Duo Fantasy, it was very much a kind of movement that I was really comfortable doing and liked doing a lot. But the first kind of featured role he put me in was the “Pennsylvania Polka”.

What’s your favorite thing you’ve worked on since Christopher got here?
I think my most favorite thing of my time with Christopher is the new works that he’s created. I absolutely love the process of the creation of new work, from all angles – I like it at the front of the studio, I like to be a dancer doing it, I just like everything about it. And his approach to how he wants us to work extends to his creation of new material, so I suddenly felt like I had this outlet and opportunity to bring more of myself to what I was doing. And it’s really exciting when you do that and somebody’s interested in it. It makes for – I hesitate to use the word “collaborative,” because it’s not a collaboration; when he makes work, it’s his work – but you as the paint on the canvas get to define a little more about where the paint goes. (Laughs) Not a perfect analogy. But you know what I’m saying.

What’s your favorite role that Christopher created on you?
Rite of Spring. Definitely. I feel like that choreography and dramatic tone and musical design, I think all of it captures who I am as a dancer and a person more perfectly than anything else I’ve ever done.

Anne Mueller and Lucas Threefoot in Christopher Stowell’s The Rite of Spring, 2011. Photo by Blaine Truitt Covert.

Did it feel differently doing it again? Was it more relaxed having it under your belt the second time, because you’d been there before, or do you like the adrenaline of doing it the first time?
Both times were an amazing experience. I think a lot of times with me, when I come back to something, I want more. I want more the second time around, like, this position needs to be bigger, longer, deeper, I just wanted to give it more volume. But I did dance with a different person the second time around, and that inevitably changes the process too. Which is a fabulous experience. But it wasn’t like returning to what it had been before – it was sort of inherently different.

What have you seen in terms of how the company has grown and changed since Christopher got here?
Well, when he got here, the group that he started with was an amalgam; some people were holdovers from the James  years, and then there were all these other people he had pulled together from various different auditions and places – some of them he knew well and some he barely knew at all. It was a real potpourri of people initially. I think it really helps to have a director that’s a choreographing director, because I think through the creation of work and through having the dancers dance the work of the director, we build an understanding of – I don’t want to say “style,” but, what is important in the vision of this director. I think that he chooses people that are performers. Not in a Broadway, jazz-hands kind of way, but I think he likes people to be exciting and in the moment and really give themselves to the performing experience, and not, like, be careful at all. He doesn’t want us to be careful. So I think generally we’re a group of people that really like to just get out there and put on a show. …. Christopher, he wants you to explore yourself as an artist, you know, so there’s a lot more freedom to interpret and be musical, for instance. He himself, you can tell, is an incredibly, incredibly musical person and performer, and he really increased my level of awareness about that and certainly opened up that as an area of exploration for me. He also encourages a really sophisticated use of the upper body – of port de bras and the upper body “epaulement” we call it, “shouldering.” So that’s something that’s very important to him, and you can see it in the dancers in the company.

So I think that we’re courageous performers, we’re musical, and we try really hard to have sophisticated port de bras. (Laughs) And, you know what? Even more than that, I think personality-wise, like, we have a lot of very funny people, you know? These things are important when you’re going to be in the studio with somebody for long hours and under lots of stress with them. It’s important that the working environment be a place that feels . . . I don’t want to use the word “comfortable” because that’s not the right word, but feels good and is positive and creates an environment in which we can excel.

Christopher Stowell choreographing for the world premiere of The Rite of Spring in 2009. Photo by Blaine Truitt Covert.

That you like coming to work with those people.
And he likes working with those people. And we like working with him.

And I think that comes through in the dancing. Like, I didn’t come here with any ballet background and it was astonishing to me, when I first saw The Concert, that ballet could be funny. It just wasn’t –
It wasn’t in your consciousness.

Right. And then all of a sudden you’re like, “This is hilarious.” And those personalities come through, so the dance can be funny, or sexy or compelling –
Or scary.

Or scary, yeah.
Any of those things.

Emotions that people who don’t know a lot about ballet don’t think of as –
As being part of the spectrum.

Yeah, as being something that ballet evokes.

What is Christopher like backstage on opening night? Does he get fidgety, or is he pretty calm?
You know, he’s really good about knowing when it’s time to step away and let the experience be in the dancers’ hands. It’s really uncomfortable for the dancers, once you’re dealing with the stress of even dress rehearsals, let alone opening night; and if someone’s, like, breathing down your neck, that doesn’t help. So he’s great about knowing when to just let it be in our hands. I’m sure he has an amount of stress or anxiety or anticipation or nervousness, but he does not put that on us.

Anne Mueller and Christopher Stowell backstage before The Stravinsky Project. Photo by Motoya Nakamura for The Oregonian.

He can sort of walk away.
Yeah. Which is great. (Laughs) Because you have your own to deal with.

So in terms of transitioning into your new role at OBT, what are you most excited about in the new dynamic of how you’re going to work with Christopher? I mean, you’ve been doing it –
Yeah. That’s exactly what I was going to say. What I really like about this is it’s NOT a new role. It’s an expansion of a role I’m already filling, so I don’t feel like I’m leaping into some great vast unknown. I work in the studio with the dancers, I set ballets, there’s a dynamic that’s established. And there’s a dynamic as to how I work with him on matters outside the studio that’s already established too. So I look forward to just doing that a lot more. I feel like I already have a pretty good level of involvement with the administrative staff, but I look forward to more of that, getting to know people better and work with them more closely and know more about what everybody does. (Laughs) That’s kind of a lame answer.

Tell me a funny Christopher story.
I got to dance with him one time, which was really a lot of fun for me. He was the surprise guest artist at Susannah Mars’ Mars on Life show one year. She wanted Christopher to dance, and he asked me if I would dance with him, and of course I was very, very flattered and said yes. And to make it even more fantastic and surprising, we did a dance choreographed by Yuri. So it was like in the middle of Nutcracker, Christopher and I were in the studio together as dancers with Yuri Possokhov, choreographing, I think it was Irving Berlin’s “Let Yourself Go.” It was hysterical. I think I was just trying to behave, and be what I was supposed to be in the moment, and the two of them, they have so much camaraderie, so I was seeing a side of their relationship that I’d never seen before. So that was surprising and new. And actually performing was a total blast. It was great. I feel like it never would have happened that we would have ended up in the same place at the same time dancing together, but I could tell even before that that he’s someone I would have loved to have had the chance to dance with. So that was very cool to do that.

So then the next year we went back, and he says “I’m not dancing again, I’m retired. So what are we going to do this year?” So we engineered a sort of audience participation number, which was just a hysterical good time. We made up some super basic vocabulary that anyone could do. We just met in the studio on one off day and made up about eight basic moves, and then we put the eight basic moves together in three different phrases. One of them was “Elf Walk,” one we called “The Sugarplum Fairy” which was a very simplified version of something the Sugarplum Fairy does in her variation, and then I think we did (she does a huge “jazz hands” arc) “Snowflakes!” They were fun, a little bit goofy, and very easy. So we designed this dance for I think nine people. We got nine volunteers from the audience and we taught them their material and cued them to do their material on the music, so it was like (snapping her fingers) “Group A, 6, 7, 8! Group B, 6, 7, 8!” And then we sort of marched them into a new, mixed-up pattern, so it was like ABA in the first line, then CBC in the second line, and then cued them to do their material. So it looked super fancy. It was great because we were showing the audience “This is how you make choreography – you start with these themes and then manipulate them in these ways.” But it was just absolutely hysterical; the audience was having a blast and the people dancing were having a blast. It was a really good time. I had a wand, I wore a crown, it was great.

And you’ve done Susannah’s show with him every time, right?
Right. And then this year Steven and I danced and he came and talked. Those were fun.

So if somebody came to you who had never seen anything Christopher had choreographed before, and was like, “What’s his choreography like?”, how would you describe it?
Well, I would probably pick a couple different ballets and say “Go look at these,” so they could kind of experience the range of where his work goes. I would pick something classical like Sleeping Beauty, and then I would pick something like Rite of Spring, and then I would pick something like Eyes on You. I think what I would say is that because he’s such an incredibly musical person, the work that he creates – the style of it – is absolutely defined by what the music is. He does not choreograph Rite of Spring the same way he choreographs Eyes on You, you know?

I’d think you’d get to know somebody very quickly when they’re making work on you and you’re collaborating in that way. Yes? No?
Well, within the confines of the studio. I mean, the way we work in the studio, you’re not sitting down having tea with someone, talking about the finer points of life. It’s a very mission-oriented time. I’m kind of thinking back on when he made Eyes on You. Adin was the first thing he choreographed on me, actually, but I was with a partner, a much more experienced partner who had been choreographed on a lot, and I think in that experience I kind of just responded to the dynamic that was happening between the two of them, so I was like, “Oh, okay, I see how this is going here.” And then for Eyes on You, when he first started it, I think the very first rehearsal for that piece was the two of us in the studio with just each other. And that can be a really intense situation – one dancer, one choreographer, nobody else around. It’s very vulnerable for everyone. But I think we got over the initial thing of, “Okay, this is a little weird,” pretty quickly. Once I realized that it was funny – that there was a sense of humor to the piece – once I caught on to that, we had a blast.

Anne Mueller and Karl Vakili in Christopher Stowell’s Adin, 2004. Photo by Blaine Truitt Covert.

I come at it from a background in theatre, so first rehearsals are often, like, everyone sits around and talks about their feelings.
Nobody talks about their feelings in ballet. It’s the opposite of that. Not that we stuff them away, but –

But it’s a whole different ballgame.
A whole different ballgame.

What are three adjectives that describe Christopher’s personality to you?
Curious. “Creative” is so generic . . . I don’t want to say that. Thoughtful, without being overly analytical. That’s not an adjective, but –

No, I’m with you.
Okay. And then – funny. Clever. Clever, but in a humorous kind of way. Not like Sherlock Holmes. (Laughs)

Can that be the title of this article? “CHRISTOPHER STOWELL: Clever, But Not Like Sherlock Holmes.”
(Laughs) Yeah.

Are you an Anne fan? What do you think is Anne’s most recognizable, iconic role? Post your thoughts below in the comments!

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