By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
Canned classical music falls lifelessly amid the rows of empty red velvet seats of the Majestic Theatre. And as the curtain opens to reveal a stage set that looks like it was borrowed from a high school drama department, the applause is weak. As weak, some would say, as the performance which follows it. It's opening night of Ballet Dallas' Coppelia, the last production of the 1994-95 season. Traditionally the best attended evening of a series, tonight only a third of the seats are filled.
A ballerina wearing a crisp white tutu sits perched on a balcony overlooking the square of a tiny European village. Still as a mannequin, Coppelia fixes her gaze on a book she's reading as the recording of Leo Delibes music swells beneath her pointed toes.
Suddenly, an impish man wearing chunky shoes with oversized buckles, a ragged jacket and a pince-nez reaches around from behind her and, giggling, turns her book around, revealing that she'd been holding it upside down.
The man is Dr. Coppelius, the town's slightly mad alchemist, played by Ballet Dallas' artistic director Thom Clower. In the 19th-century French ballet, Coppelia, danced by Kristen Ayers, is a puppet, one of the many that Dr. Coppelius keeps in his studio, and winds up to perform precisely the way he wants them to, exactly when he wants them to.
At troubled Ballet Dallas, critics complain that a real life Coppelia has played out again and again, year after year, in the crumbling studios on 309 1/2 South Pearl St. downtown. Here, too, the man with the windup key is Thom Clower. And even he sees the obvious allegorical connection.
"It's very important that as a director that I'm not totally making them my puppets, but that I'm drawing the artistic ability out of them," says Clower, who at 35, still dances in some productions despite a right foot that's been broken two times, bursitis in his left knee, and a bad hip.
Critics of the ballet also see the parallel in a darker sense: to them, Dallas' manipulative Coppelius has destroyed a company that once had so much promise.
Ballet Dallas, which rose from the ashes of the debt-ridden Dallas Ballet in 1988 (the name was transposed to symbolize a new beginning), has been hobbled by problems since its resurrection: a dated, often too ambitious repertory; no cohesive style; and some say, dancers with precious little talent.
Ballet Dallas officials argue that budget constraints are to blame for any artistic voids. But people close to the company say that Ballet Dallas' wounds are self-inflicted, the result of an artistic director whose too-fragile ego purposely keeps the company from rising above mediocre because average is something he can control.
"He's killing the company," says Krista Welch, a former Dallas Ballet dancer. "I think Thommy Clower, as talented as he is in some areas, wants to keep the company underneath the level of what it could have been. If it gets to the level it could be, they'd get rid of him."
Thom Clower has changed from his Dr. Coppelius costume into a dark suit and Reeboks for an opening night reception at the Majestic Theatre following the performance of Coppelia. His parents drove in from Gainesville for the opening night performance and party, as they have for every one of their son's performances for nearly 20 years. His mother tells him to get some rest; his father looks at his tennis shoes, laughs, and gives his son a hug.
After his parents leave to make the two-hour drive back home, Clower stands at a podium before a small crowd of Ballet Dallas board members and their friends.
"We are a very specific company," he tells them in a thick-as-sorghum East Texas drawl. "If you like stories and 19th-century classics, we're your company.
"If you like Balanchine, we're not your company," he adds, making an obvious reference to the new Fort Worth Dallas Ballet, known for its sleek, contemporary look; mostly dancing pieces from choreographer George Balanchine.
"The reason that Dallas is still dancing is standing right here," he says, gently placing a hand on Carlet Sleeper's shoulder. She smiles but doesn't say a word. "She doesn't want to talk," Clower says.
But for seven years, as executive director of Ballet Dallas, Sleeper did nearly all the talking. Along with her husband, Bill Jensen, who was president of the board, the pair pretty much ran the company as they saw fit, from long-term finances to the day-to-day operations.
Sleeper resigned earlier this month, and although she has explained vaguely that she's departing to help small communities establish their own ballet companies, no one seems to know why she's leaving at this particular time or where, exactly, she's planning to go. Sleeper declined to be interviewed for this story.
Yet her departure couldn't have come at a better time for Ballet Dallas. Having "mom and pop" management hasn't helped the company's bourgeois image, which has been panned by the critics. (It was compared as "beer and soda pop" to Fort Worth Dallas Ballet's "champagne" by Dallas Morning News dance critic Margaret Putnam in an October 1, 1992 review.)