Francia Russell was a soloist and ballet master with the New York City Ballet. She and her husband Kent Stowell moved to Seattle in 1977 to become Co-Artistic Directors of Pacific Northwest Ballet, a job they famously held for 28 years. Though semi-retired since 2005, Francia continues to stage the works of George Balanchine, and to teach ballet around the world; the couple has worked in Moscow, Amsterdam, Milan, Nice and Paris in recent years. At the moment, Francia is reviving two Balanchine ballets that PNB will take to New York in February.
Valerie Easton: What books are open on your nightstand right now?
Francia Russell: I’m re-reading War & Peace. Many years ago I found it a slog, but this time I feel I am living in 19th Century Russia and am savoring every word. I like to have both a fiction and a non-fiction book going, so am also dipping into the inspiring speeches and essays of Vaclav Havel.
Any book you’re read lately that caught your imagination, inspired you, or changed how you look at the world?
In Europe by the Dutch writer Geert Mak did all that. He tells the history of the 20th Century in Europe through the stories of people, famous and unknown, living in both urban and rural communities that played significant roles in world events. I recommend Mak’s book to anyone who likes history and good, clear writing.
Have you read a truly great book lately? One you’d unhesitatingly recommend to friends and colleagues?
I’m not sure this book is for everyone but I believe Train Dreams by Denis Johnson is a masterpiece that should have won the Pulitzer Prize last year.
It’s very potent, not a book to breeze through. The background and the story are very different than what I usually read. It’s about a railroad laborer and logger in the woods of Idaho during the early days of the 20th Century, beautifully and economically written. I was very touched by the character.
Any well-reviewed or popular book you didn’t feel lived up to the hype?
Although the subject intrigued me and the reviews were excellent, I found David Mitchell’s The 1,000 Autumns of Jacob de Zoet self-consciously written and irritatingly confusing. I agree wholeheartedly with Nancy Pearl and no longer finish a book I don’t like. Two other British authors I find disappointing are Ian McEwan and Martin Amis, with some works admirable and others simply showing off.
You and Kent work around the globe…do you enjoy reading travel books?
Not travel books so much, but I do enjoy books about trips and places by good writers. I love Michael Gorra’s book The Bells In Their Silence: Travels Through Germany and Italian Days by Barbara Harrison.
Do you read books about dance and dancers?
Reading is my escape to other worlds so I seldom read books about dance. But the best is Balanchine’s Tchaikovsky by the Russian musicologist Solomon Volkov; he ran into Balanchine at a New York meat market, and because both men were from St. Petersburg, Balanchine agreed to talk with him. It’s Balanchine on the page: his voice, his approach to art and life. I’ll read it the rest of my life. I also admire Apollo’s Angels for an excellent, if opinionated, history of dance by Jennifer Homans, a former PNB dancer.
You and Kent brought Maurice Sendak’s work to life in the Nutcracker, which has become a Seattle classic. Any stories about working with Sendak?
Knowing and working with Maurice was a great experience for our whole family. A lot of Nutcracker was conceived at our dining room table with our eldest son contributing ideas and the two younger ones pretending to be waiters. Grumpy and cranky as Maurice could be with adults, he related instinctively to children and always showed them respect. He and Kent were like a couple of kids themselves, firing rockets of ideas back and forth, reaching a meeting of creative minds.
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