Oregon Art Beat

Oregon Ballet Theatre artistic director aims to empower dancers’ creative choices

By Geneva Chin
April 3, 2024 1 p.m.

Dani Rowe says her journey from classical ballet to contemporary dance was liberating.

Dance is not just a profession for Dani Rowe — it’s a necessity.


“Without dance, I notice my mood shift. I’m not as patient,” says Rowe, the first woman to be named permanent artistic director of Oregon Ballet Theatre in its 35-year history.

According to Rowe, the impulse to dance begins in the womb, where the heartbeat sets the initial rhythm.

“I think as children, we dance from within, we dance because we have to,” she says.

“Any child moves their bodies pretty much when they hear music. They dance with no embarrassment, no question.”

Yet, as we grow, we often unlearn this innate instinct to move, she says.

Dani Rowe landed a position at the acclaimed Nederland Dans Theater. She calls the transition to contemporary dance from classical ballet "liberating."

Dani Rowe performed with the acclaimed Nederlands Dans Theater. She calls the transition from classical ballet to contemporary dance "liberating."

Rahi Rezvani / Nederlands Dans Theater

Rowe’s Journey From Ballet to Contemporary Dance

Rowe’s journey through dance has been transformative, transitioning from the disciplined poses and lines of classical ballet to the freer-moving world of contemporary dance.

Dani Rowe dancing in Houston Ballet's Sleeping Beauty in 2011.

Dani Rowe dancing in Houston Ballet's Sleeping Beauty in 2011.

Nerio Photography / Houston Ballet

After years of training and performing with the Australian Ballet and Houston Ballet, Rowe landed a job with Nederlands Dans Theater, “arguably the best contemporary dance company in the world.”

“I felt like I had to strip away everything that I had been training for and start all over again,” says Rowe. “But in the end it was the most liberating experience, almost like a snake shedding its skin and starting all over.”

While ballet aims for perfection, contemporary dance allowed Rowe to explore movement from a more internal, instinctive place. A place that children know.


“I had to relearn dance from that place.”

Balancing Tradition and Innovation at OBT

OBT has a history of presenting both modern pieces and timeless classics like Nutcracker, Cinderella, and Sleeping Beauty. The classics are a staple for many ballet companies, in part, because they are profitable.

Rowe hopes to continue to attract a wide range of audiences by striking a delicate balance between tradition and innovation.

Rowe’s vision is to “appreciate and respect tradition” while also presenting innovative and thought-provoking works that tell new, relevant stories.

OBT Artistic Director Dani Rowe coaches Carly Wheaton during a rehearsal for Swan Lake last fall.

OBT Artistic Director Dani Rowe coaches Carly Wheaton during a rehearsal for Swan Lake last fall.

Stephani Gordon / OPB

Rowe’s Impact on OBT

OBT dancers say they appreciate Rowe’s emotional intelligence and attention to detail.

Principal Dancer Carly Wheaton highlights how Rowe created space for her to dive into the artistry of her princess role while rehearsing for OBT’s performance of Swan Lake last fall.

“She’s really helped me focus and pay attention telling the story and to actually believe what we’re saying, whether it’s a port de bras (arm movements) toward the prince or a feeling of fear, feeling frightened as the swan. She really brings that real feeling out of you,” says Wheaton.

Calling it exciting but challenging, OBT’s John-Paul Simoens danced the lead role of Siegfried for the first time in his career. Siegfried is the handsome prince, who is beguiled into falling in love with a cursed swan princess.

He says Rowe was an excellent coach and “knew exactly what to say to help me bring it to another level each time.”

Creating a Sanctuary for Artistic Expression

“I hope that I leave the dancers with a joy, this pure love for what they do,” says Rowe.

She strives to make the studio a sanctuary, where dancers can focus on their art and shut out everything else.

Rowe hopes that supportive atmosphere inspires the dancers to “get on the stage and produce work that’s absolutely incredible. And that our audiences are completely blown away and moved.”

OBT is performing a ballet choreographed by Rowe called Wooden Dimes. It spotlights a tumultuous relationship between a 1920s chorus girl and her husband. Rowe’s piece shares the program with two other works April 5-13 at Newmark Theatre in Portland.