One of the great things about Southern Virginia University is the opportunity to take interesting topics courses in a close-knit environment with professors who are experts in their fields. This past semester, Dr. Debra Sowell taught her special topics class in dance history again and also served as visiting scholar at the San Francisco Ballet.
Last fall, representatives of the San Francisco Ballet contacted Dr. Sowell and invited her to come be a guest resident scholar at their two-day symposium.
“It was fabulous,” Dr. Sowell said of the experience. “It was very exciting because as a visiting scholar, I was taken inside the company; I got to tour their … state-of-the-art facility for ballet — one of the best in America. And the day of the opening night I got to watch a company class. The company takes their daily class on the stage of the San Francisco Opera House. [Being] backstage that [close to] the dancers was so cool.”
She also said that watching the company rehearse and perform was “nostalgic” for her because “it brought back memories of growing up and taking ballet for many years.” While she was there, she spoke to staff at the San Francisco Ballet and to students of the San Francisco Ballet School, as well as to parents, donors and members of the Christensen society. She discussed the history of the first full-length “Swan Lake” in America and the role of the Christensen brothers, about whom Dr. Sowell wrote the book “Christensen Brothers: An American Dance Epic.”
“[The Christensen brothers] were interesting because they were descendants of Mormon pioneers who became impressive pioneers themselves in the history of American ballet,” she said. “One of the pioneering projections on which they collaborated was the first full-length ‘Swan Lake’ in America. Before that, only excerpts from the ballet had been performed. When the Christensens took this production on tour from San Francisco to the Northwest, a critic in Seattle referred to it as Tchaikovsky’s ‘practically never-seen four-act toe tragedy.’”
After one of her speeches at the San Francisco Ballet School, she had a very meaningful experience with a member of the audience.
“A couple approached me, and the husband said that his grandmother had been in the San Francisco Ballet under Willam Christensen,” she said. “This man had been in a bookstore years earlier and had found my book on the Christensens. Opening to the index, he found his grandmother’s name and turned to her picture. Reading about that era in the company and the significant role his grandmother had played had brought her memory closer to him. It was a touching moment for both of us.”
In addition to speaking at the symposium, Dr. Sowell also stays active in her field in many other ways. Recently, she served as an adjudicator of the Founding Editors’ Award of Dance Chronicle, the leading journal in dance history. Dr. Sowell is also a member of the journal’s editorial board and regularly reviews manuscript submissions. Through her work with Dance Chronicle, she stays current on the latest research in her field, which in turn benefits her students by exposing them to a wealth of knowledge.
She also provides her dance history students with direct learning experiences outside of the classroom. When I took the class several years ago, she led us on a course excursion to see a professional production of “Swan Lake” in Richmond. This past semester, she not only took her students to a dance performance in Lexington, but also had a special guest dance instructor, Marin Leggat Roper, visit campus to conduct a three-day workshop on dance, movement, and theatre choreography.
Dr. Sowell truly exemplifies the university’s core value of scholarship. I’m grateful to have had the opportunity to learn from such a knowledgeable, passionate scholar during my time at Southern Virginia. I encourage all current and incoming students to find elective courses that interest you and expose you to new disciplines and new professors.
(Post by Hannah King ’13. Photos courtesy of Dr. Debra Sowell.)