Why Dallas Can't Dance

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

Enrollment at Dallas Ballet Academy was fewer than 80 students. But two of them, Alyssa and Jessica Sleeper, had a mother who didn't want to see the school close. Carlet Sleeper teamed up with Vivi Flindt to save the school. Sleeper appointed herself managing director, organized a board of directors, and filed for non-profit status. The school's name was changed to Dallas Conservatory of Ballet. To raise money for the struggling operation, the company sold "memberships" for $50 apiece.

Flindt was teaching most of the classes, but asked Clower to teach a couple--at $20 a class.

In December 1988, Clower helped stage a mini-version of The Nutcracker for Dallas Conservatory of Ballet students at the Dallas Museum of Art. By year's end, Vivi Flindt resigned as a result of the criticism she and her husband had received over the collapse of Dallas Ballet.

Clower was asked to take Flindt's place as the new director of the school. He wasn't offered a salary, but was able to teach a few more classes. He had to continue his job at Blockbuster.

That spring, Vicki Lee, also a former Dallas Ballet dancer, asked Clower to help her stage the ballet Coppelia for the Corpus Christi Ballet. Clower and Lee danced the lead roles, Swanilda and Franz.

When he returned to Dallas, Clower thought he'd try to do Coppelia here, with sets and costumes borrowed from the Corpus Christi company. As dancers, he'd use the Dallas Conservatory of Ballet students. With 40 dancers, all students, Clower set Coppelia and they performed at McFarlin Auditorium that fall.

In the lobby, the students' mothers sold T-shirts which read, "Dallas Conservatory of Ballet presents Ballet Dallas." (Although the name wouldn't become official for two more years, until July 1991.)

The phone immediately started ringing, recalls Clower, from people wanting to buy tickets to The Nutcracker, even though there were no plans for a performance.

But Clower figured if he had an audience, he'd find the dancers. He staged two performances of The Nutcracker at Lewisville High School, again using only students from the ballet school and paying them with receipts from the shows. "It was very exciting," says Clower. "We'd say, 'What's the budget? Where's the petty cash box?'"

They went on performing wherever they could find an audience, and for the next two seasons, Clower scraped together enough money to pay ex-Dallas Ballet dancers Kent Whites, David Rodriguez, Shelia Applewhite, Lisa Owen and Vicki Lee on a per-performance basis, for $250 a show. He filled out the corps with students.

But it wasn't until the third season, in 1990-91 when Ballet Dallas hired dancers, that the company was truly professional. Seven former students from the school were hired at $200 a week on 24-week contracts.

This past season, Ballet Dallas had 18 dancers on contract, on a pay scale of $150-$400 per week. The company's budget, $160,000 the first season, is now nearly $900,000. This next season, for the first time, 20 dancers will be on salary, with benefits, for 27-week contracts. Grants came in from the City of Dallas, The 500, Inc., Texas Commission on the Arts, TACA, and the Meadows Foundation. The latter recently gave the company $75,000 to help relocate the school from downtown Dallas to Plano or a North Dallas location; the company believes a more residential locale would help boost its 80-student enrollment.

So far, no plans have been made to move, but when the school goes north, so will the company. Ballet Dallas will continue to perform in Dallas, says Clower, but like its rich cousin, Fort Worth Dallas Ballet, its home will be somewhere else--and its name will likely reflect that. "It will be something like 'Dallas Conservatory of Ballet Studios at Plano,' or wherever," says Clower.

David Wiley, Ballet Dallas treasurer and board member, says the company's greatest accomplishment is that it has remained completely debt-free--unlike its predecessor, Dallas Ballet, which closed its doors against a heap of debt.

Yet while the company remains financially secure and struggles to make strides creatively, the criticism stays sharp. Lawson Taitte, a Dallas Morning News critic, in his review of the company's performance of The Nutcracker on December 17, 1994: "Ballet Dallas ought to be on its knees thanking God for the genius of Tchaikovsky. If it weren't for the magic of the beloved score, the company's The Nutcracker...would easily be seen as the frail, creaky thing that it is. The current production is tone-deaf, putting dance climaxes out of sync with the music. While Ballet Dallas should request a decent version of this cash cow from Santa Claus, here's another item for the wish list: how about some ballerinas for the company?"

In a March 4, 1995 review Putnam wrote, "It would seem self-evident that if you don't have a ballerina who can dance the Swan Queen, you don't do Swan Lake. Apparently, the powers that be at Ballet Dallas--which offered a triple bill of Swan Lake Act II, Caprice Viennois and The Firebird Friday night at the Majestic...figure otherwise. Else how else to explain its current Swan Lake--dull, lifeless, flat."

Clower feels that much of the criticism, both from the media and former dancers, is mean-spirited and given without considering the company is still in its infancy. His plans for Ballet Dallas are solid, he says, and while it may not look like it to some, everything onstage is going according to plan.

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