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Book City: Former PNB Artistic Director on working with Maurice Sendak

Francia Russell is working her way through 'War and Peace' and has a weakness for Balanchine.

By Valerie Easton

December 20, 2012.

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.

Why?

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.

The underside of Maurice’s brilliant artistic and intellectual gifts was a sadly depressive nature. But he was also witty and funny and deservedly proud of his work and, to the end of his life, he was an unmatched and beloved friend.

What were your most cherished books when you were a child?

My absolute favorite was The Little White Horse by Elizabeth Goudge. My family lived in England for the year I was eleven and I wrote her a fan letter. Her sweet response is still in my battered copy of her book. Another vivid memory is the excitement my sister and I felt each time our father came home with a new Oz book. He was a baritone, radio announcer and read to us every night, dramatically and in a rich and beautiful voice I can still hear.

Can you think of a particularly powerful passage from a book that’s stuck with you?

Any sentence on any page of The Complete Essays of Michel de Montaigne. Sarah Bakewell’s book last year, How To Live: Or a Life of Montaigne in One Question and Twenty Attempts at an Answer was for me pure joy.

Do you have a book or two you’ve re-read over the years?

Two of my very favorite authors: William Maxwell and Janet Lewis. I have no hesitation in saying that Maxwell’s They Came Like Swallows and Lewis’s The Trial of Soren Quist are great novels. Both are superbly written, with a power and beauty that moves me every time I read them.

Do you get books from the library, buy them, download them?

I am addicted to buying books — for myself and for friends and family, especially our grandsons. I’m committed to supporting independent booksellers, like Peter Miller Books in Seattle and Moonraker on Whidbey Island. I use a Kindle when I travel, but a book in my hands is what I love.

I remember being so impressed that you have bookshelves built into the hallways of your home on Whidbey.

I can’t imagine living in a house without books, I think they’re beautiful, and make a house look lived in.

When and where do you settle down to read?

Anywhere and everywhere. But best of all is reading in my study surrounded by the books that are my friends.

Do you read poetry?

I am ashamed to admit I am an uneducated and intermittent poetry reader. David Orr’s Beautiful and Pointless: A Guide to Modern Poetry is on my nightstand, so there’s hope.

Are there authors you turn to for comfort or to cheer you up?

Austen, Dickens and Trollope.

What book are you going to read next?

I have a pile of six that I desperately want to read soon. Kent and I recently heard Jon Meacham give a terrific talk about his new biography of Thomas Jefferson, so maybe that. But first there is the second half of War & Peace.

Valerie Easton started her career as a librarian shelving books at Lake City Library when she was in high school. Now she writes full time, and has authored five books, including The New Low Maintenance Garden and her newest title Petal & Twig. She writes a weekly column and feature stories for Pacific Northwest magazine in the Seattle Times.

View this story online at: http://crosscut.com/2012/12/20/arts/112085/book-city-former-pnb-artistic-director-working-mau/

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Printed on December 20, 2014