Dance Matters

September 30, 2009



Alive & Kicking

Oregon Ballet Theatre fought tooth and nail to reach its Emerald year.


With joy tempered by caution, Oregon Ballet Theatre celebrates its 20th anniversary this month. The company performs excerpts from their signature pieces, plus the OBT premiere of the “Emeralds” section from Balanchine’s Jewels.


Before the close of the fiscal year in June, a $750,000 shortfall in the operating budget jeopardized OBT’s existence, though not for lack of audience support or artistic excellence. Christopher Stowell, named artistic director in 2003, has taken OBT to a higher level. Handsomely schooled dancers are performing both more Balanchine repertory, including his Nutcracker, and works new to the Portland audience by Robbins, Forsythe, Kudelka, and others. Stowell added a fourth concert series to OBT’s season and in 2006, mounted his own Swan Lake. OBT also received critical praise for its performance of Wheeldon’s Rush in the Kennedy Center’s Ballet Across America festival last year, and everything looked rosy.


Reality hit in December when unusually bad weather meant sparsely attended Nutcracker performances. And while ticket sales have held steady, by spring the company’s contributed income was down 50 percent. In response, the 2009–10 budget was cut from last year’s $6.7 million to $4.8 million, about the same level as when Stowell arrived. Live orchestra was eliminated, there were layoffs and pay reductions among the staff, and dancers’ contracts shrank from 33 weeks to a sliding scale of 15 to 31 weeks. When the shortfall made a bad situation desperate, dancers brainstormed ways to generate income when off contract. Encouraged by Stowell, they discussed new kinds of outreach and performances in informal venues.


With a 16-year performing career with San Francisco Ballet and enviable family connections (his parents are Francia Russell and Kent Stowell) on his side, Stowell quickly assembled Dance United, a one-night gala at the Keller Auditorium. On June 12, dancers from  San Francisco Ballet, the Trey McIntyre Project, Boston Ballet, New York City Ballet, Ballet West, the Joffrey, National Ballet of Canada, and Pacific Northwest Ballet rode into town like the cavalry, volunteering their time and talent. They joined OBT and BodyVox, whose co-artistic director Jamey Hampton emceed the evening. White Bird provided Minh Tran, while Linda Austin’s and Mary Oslund’s dancers performed in an unprecedented show of support from the modern contingent. By June 30, OBT had raised just over $907,000, with $157,000 left over for this season.


However, it’s not enough to restore live music or the dancers’ contracts, and OBT must raise $1.2 million by June 30, 2010. But when many companies are shortening their seasons, theirs will proceed as planned.


The fall opener on Oct. 10 includes film clips of former artistic director James Canfield’s work, plus excerpts from choreography commissioned during his tenure. OBT is the result of the 1989 consolidation of Pacific Ballet Theatre and Ballet Oregon, headed respectively by Canfield (now head of Nevada Ballet Theatre) and the late Dennis Spaight. Live performances of slices from Spaight’s Ellington Suite and Gloria, plus excerpts from Stowell’s work and choreographers he commissioned (Yuri Possokhov and Julia Adam among them) reflect OBT’s past and present. OBT School students close the program in Stowell’s “Garland Dance,” representing the future.


Stowell remains hopeful that the cuts are short term and that within two years, OBT will move forward. “What we have to figure out,” he says, “is not how to be cheaper, but how to be better.” —Martha Ullman West



The Dallas Center for the Performing Arts Opens

If everything is bigger in Texas, add the new arts center to the list.


Located in the heart of Dallas’ thriving downtown arts district, the country’s newest destination for dance, music, and theater opens to much fanfare. Gleaming, ultra-modern glass and steel buildings connected by sidewalks and expansive park space give the Dallas Center for the Performing Arts a small campus feel.


Looming above is its crown jewel, the Margot and Bill Winspear Opera House, with a shiny red glass dome and horseshoe-shaped auditorium. Inspired by the great opera houses of Europe, updated details include an outdoor plaza canopy to shade patrons on sultry Texas evenings.


Texas Ballet Theater, the Dallas Opera, and some TITAS productions will perform in the 2,200-seat theater, which boasts sophisticated acoustics, 12-karat-gold-gilded balcony fronts, warm neutral colors, and an elongated retractable tube chandelier as its centerpiece. Its restaurant and café are intended to draw patrons beyond the theater-going public. Across a walkway, Dallas Black Dance Theatre, Anita N. Martinez Ballet Folklorico, and Dallas Theater Center have a new home in the ultra-modern 600-seat Dee and Charles Wyly Theatre.


Both Fort Worth–based Texas Ballet Theater and the Dallas Opera previously performed in the cramped and outdated Music Hall at Fair Park. The Winspear’s expansive wings and backstage make it a dream for both performers and crew. An orchestra lounge and green rooms provide gathering places outside the dressing rooms.


“We’re just thrilled to be the resident ballet company of the theater,” says Texas Ballet Theater dancer Carolyn Judson, “especially after a season where we weren’t sure if we’d keep our jobs.” The company’s first performance in the new space will be its Nutcracker Nov. 27–Dec. 6.


While a civic dedication is planned earlier in the week, Morphoses/The Wheeldon Company inaugurates the new opera house in the company’s Dallas debut on Oct. 15. With the Dallas Opera Orchestra, Morphoses premieres a commissioned work (created during a residency here leading up to the perfor­mance). Also on the bill are Wendy Whelan and Albert Evans in Liturgy, Christopher Wheeldon’s poignant 2003 duet set to Arvo Pärt’s haunting score, and excerpts from his Fools’ Paradise (2007).


The 19-block arts district has emerged as a national destination for visual and performing arts. In the making for 30 years, the district houses several museums and galleries. Fundraising started for the new Arts Center in 2000; much of it (to the tune of $354 million) was raised before the 2005 groundbreaking, so the planning wasn’t severely affected by the current economic crisis.


The arts district is also home to the prestigious Booker T. Washington High School for the Performing and Visual Arts, which underwent an extensive $55 million renovation, completed last year. The Center will collaborate with the high school by holding master classes with visiting artists and providing students with discounted tickets. The new studios were tapped for rehearsal by TITAS’ Command Performance dancers (and for DM’s Aug. cover shoot) last spring, and are scheduled to host rehearsals for upcoming shows.


“We hope that a much larger audience is exposed to dance than ever before,” says Mark Nerenhausen, president and CEO of the Center. “The audience should have an easier time with everything from buying tickets to parking to seeing the dance itself.”


Artistic partnerships have begun to take shape, says Charles Santos, TITAS’ executive director, because the Center serves as neutral turf.  Innovative projects, new programming, and attracting hot artists are part of what lies ahead.  The Center, says Santos, is “a beacon for the future.” —Karen McDonough



Photo: Texas Ballet Theater’s Carolyn Judson and Lucas Priolo in Ben Stevenson’s
Esmeralda Pas de Deux. Ellen Appel, Courtesy Texas Ballet Theater.