Why Dallas Can't Dance

Ballet Dallas may finally succumb to years of self-inflicted mediocrity

Under Sleeper and Jensen, Ballet Dallas suffered from low attendance numbers at its performances, with only a third of the seats filled at most shows, and was shunned by the city's high-profile and deep-pocketed supporters, who, instead, have chosen to support the Fort Worth Dallas Ballet, which has been successful artistically and financially.

Though Clower publicly has lauded Sleeper and her tireless efforts to improve the company, board president Donna Reed says the time had come for Sleeper to leave.

"I think a new person will lead the company into the 21st century," says Reed, one of the founding board members of Ballet Dallas and a former Dallas Ballet board member. "I think it will erase this mom-and-pop image that we've had with Carlet and Bill, and I will suggest to the board that we don't have that type of situation again."

So far, no replacement for Sleeper has been named, but the company is searching nationally for a new executive director.

Many say Ballet Dallas' biggest problems are also its most obvious--what's on stage. "They're young, they don't have any experience and they're not given a good repertory," says former dancer Krista Welch. "It sucks. How many times are they going to do Firebird, Swan Lake Act II, and Coppelia? Gimme a break."

Clower admits that his repertory is primarily made up of full-length, 19th century classics, many of which were willed to him from the estate of George Skibine, the late artistic director of Dallas Ballet. And although he says he'd like to do more new pieces, brand-new costumes, sets, and choreography are expensive, and he won't go into debt to do so.

"As we move into the future, we will make sure we're financially responsible as we build our repertory, so we will have funds in the bank and dancers in the studio to do the pieces," says Clower.

To be fair, Ballet Dallas has done some new works--last season's Vampire Follies, choreographed by James Clouser, received favorable reviews--Kent White's Ma Mere L'Oye, Psychomachia, Concerto for Clarinet and Orchestra, Appassionata, Peter Anastos' Waltzes at Midnight, and Ballet Dallas dancer Jacob Sparso's Dancer's Persona. But beyond that, the same old standards have appeared on stage; worse, Ballet Dallas tackled many pieces that are too grand and required more roles than the tiny company could fill.

"At times I have been overambitious," admits Clower. "I think it's ambitious to do Swan Lake when you don't even have a full corps of ballet in your company, but the people who come to my shows want to see tutus on stage, and I don't think a ballet audience can be raised without seeing Swan Lake every couple of years."

Besides repertory itself, the company lacks a cohesive look and has no style of its own, unlike the Fort Worth Dallas Ballet's cool, lithe, Balanchine-trained dancers. Ballet Dallas, on the other extreme, offers a dancing hodge-podge--some men lanky and lean as string beans, others short as fireplugs, and women so muscular they were compared to fullbacks by critic Putnam. They range in age from teens to mid-30's and have been trained in an assortment of dancing styles, from Russian to the Danish Bournonville. While Clower insists, with ample evidence on stage, that he doesn't hire dancers based on body types, during the same interview he admitted that he didn't hire Welch because she was "too tall."

Welch, who danced with Clower at Dallas Ballet, and also danced with American Ballet Theatre and Royal Swedish Ballet, says she wanted to help Clower build his company.

Clower says besides being too tall, he didn't hire Welch because he didn't believe she would be able to dedicate as much time to the company as he needed, since he couldn't pay her what she was worth. She says money wasn't an issue.

Nevertheless, the Welch-Clower clash reveals one of the Catch-22s that has hamstringed the company. It doesn't have the budget to hire the quality of dancers it needs; without those dancers it doesn't have the reputation to attract dancers who are willing to sacrifice money to be there. Nor, for similar reasons, is the Dallas Conservatory of Ballet much help in feeding new talent to the company. For the school to attract gifted young dancers, there must be a strong company for them to look forward to joining.

So while the company appears to be stuck, "mired in mediocrity," as Putnam put it in a December 1994 column, it seems to remain so by its own choosing. Welch was just one of a number of talented dancers, choreographers, and teachers for whom Clower claimed he could find no room.

Last year, Vivi Flindt, who left the school and is now principal ballet mistress for the Royal Danish Ballet, called Clower and offered her help. "I saw everything going so badly," she said recently in a phone interview from Copenhagen, "and if I may say so without being too snobby about it, I had this international network, and he knows about the local community [only]. I offered to help keep it going."

But Flindt says that after her initial conversation with Clower, she never heard from him again. "He said he had to talk to the board, but he never called me back."

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