“There are more good dancers in the world right now than there have ever been,” Christopher Stowell told me soon after he arrived in Portland a few years ago to take over Oregon Ballet Theatre.
He wasn’t talking about great dancers — those streaks of lightning and passion who come along every now and then and rearrange our assumptions about the possibilities of the human body. He meant good dancers: well-trained, devoted, flexible, athletic, intelligent, capable of realizing the complexities of a choreographic mind. And he was right.
God knows why. You don’t strike it rich as a dancer — in fact, even if you work for a modest-sized professional company, chances are you’re waiting tables or slinging drinks in your off-hours to help pay the rent. But dancing, which like acting was once considered not much more than a variation on the world’s oldest profession, has become an honorable goal, even a noble one. And even as dance companies are struggling to keep their audiences and pay their bills, they are flooded with aspiring young dancers eager to join their ranks.
You can see the evidence all over town — and all over most towns of any size. Something important and time-honored is going on, something that feels like the best parts of the old medieval guild system: Those who have mastered the skills are passing them along to the next generation of artisans.
Stowell brought Damara Bennett from San Francisco to run OBT’s school, which does triple duty: developing new dancers for the company, preparing dancers to go on to other companies and schools, providing training for amateurs who will become the backbone of the future’s dance audience. Sarah Slipper has once again brought together several leading choreographers and young dance professionals for her summer intensive Northwest Professional Dance Project. The highly competitive Jefferson Dancers high school company continues to scatter alumni into professional companies and elite college programs across the country.
And in a small but handsome studio in Portland’s Hillsdale neighborhood, tucked between the farmers’ market and the feisty Three Square Grill, home of the flourishing Picklopolis culinary empire, The Portland Ballet continues to put its own spin on the city’s dance personality, quietly sending forth young dancers into the larger world. Founded under the name Pacific Artists Ballet in 2001 by husband-and-wife Nancy Davis and Jim Lane, Portland Ballet attaches “Academy and Youth Company” to the end of its name, and that’s a precise description: This is a school for young people who want to make dancing their profession.