Out of step

Dallas dance companies struggle to find an audience in a city that trains many dancers but can't seem to keep them here


A professional classical-dance company is often the crown jewel in any city's community of dance. Dallas used to have its own, and Mallette would argue that it still does. Yet before Mallette and a group of Dallas leaders got together to unify the pointy-toed life of the cities under one classical-dance company that started in Fort Worth, Dallas had a troubled past vis-a-vis ballet.

First there was Dallas Civic Ballet, founded in 1957 with nonprofessionals and students, which became Dallas Ballet when it turned pro in 1975. When the respected Dallas Ballet was staring down $1.8 million in debt at the end of 1987 because of what most insiders say was the European-bred extravagance of artistic director Fleming Flindt, the company went belly-up. Flindt, who had learned his trade in state-supported ballet companies in Europe, spent lavishly on sets and costumes and an ever-growing company of well-paid dancers. The professional school arm of the Dallas Ballet regrouped as Ballet Dallas and for two or three years ran a respected training program before introducing one annual performance of traditional classics such as Swan Lake and Sleeping Beauty to what should have been a dance-starved Dallas public. But Ballet Dallas couldn't build momentum or sell tickets either during the '80s economic bust.

Mallette, from his perch high atop the successful Fort Worth Ballet, and a handful of Dallas leaders whose support he enlisted looked strategically at the Dallas dance situation in January 1988, when Dallas Ballet bowed out, and saw an opportunity. He says his organization took a pragmatic approach to filling a cultural void and by December 1988 had struck a deal with the Dallas Opera to put The Nutcracker on stage at the Fair Park Music Hall. "Our relationship with that small group of Dallas leaders is what formed the nucleus of what we now call the 'Dallas Supporters of the Fort Worth Dallas Ballet,'" Mallette says.

In 1993, the Dallas Supporters spun off into its own nonprofit organization. "Then we spent a little more than a year working out a six-year plan to serve both sides of the river," Mallette says. "Obviously our biggest concern was to address the financial side, since Dallas had seen two companies go out of business." Mallette says there were enough Dallas resources to underwrite the fledgling Dallas season, and the Fort Worth Dallas Ballet carefully constructed a plan to ensure that Dallas audiences and philanthropists would pay for the Dallas season while the Fort Worth contingent would pay for its own. The dual-city season debuted in 1994, and Mallette says most of the goals of the six-year plan have now been realized, including season subscriber parity. "For the 1999-2000 season, we have 1,900-plus subscribers in Dallas and 2,800 in Fort Worth," he says.

Most of Mallette's statistics reflect steady growth for the bi-city company. In fiscal year 2000, the company's budget was $4.2 million from Fort Worth plus the Dallas Supporters' $1.2 million. Mallette says the budget for the first year of the unified approach was $500,000 in Dallas and $2.6 million in Fort Worth. Another area he's proud of is the ratio of earned revenue to contributed revenue. "Currently, 65 percent is earned income," he says. Fort Worth Dallas Ballet's staff of professional dancers has grown to 30, plus two apprentices and three trainees.

Mallette won't discuss salaries, although Dance Magazine reported an average wage of $400 a week for a non-union professional in the metroplex. "We have made a very deliberate effort, especially over the last two years, to increase our dancers' salaries and our benefits package for all of our employees," Mallette says. "We're paying on the same par with other companies with a like-size budget." By comparison, Texas' well-known Houston Ballet is three times as big as Fort Worth Dallas, with a $12 million annual budget and a unionized company of dancers.

Parity between the number of performances in Dallas and Fort Worth isn't quite there yet. Dallas loses out on Fort Worth Dallas Ballet presentations by an average of three to one. Mallette says they're working on that too. He's about ready to announce the ballet's first fall performance in Dallas, to be held at the Majestic Theatre in November. Mallette won't divulge the offering, but expect something snazzy from the company's new artistic director, Benjamin Houk, along the lines of his novel Rite of Swing that got balletomanes and neophytes alike fairly hot on Houk and on ballet last year.

Dallas' other professional dance company, its modern-dance complement to Fort Worth Dallas Ballet's classical tradition, is Dallas Black Dance Theater. Founder Ann Williams says she modeled her company on the internationally acclaimed Alvin Ailey Dance Theater. Ailey was a talented black dancer who grew up in rural Texas and burst on the New York scene with an inventive approach to choreography, pop culture, and soul and R&B music. Williams remembers meeting the company's founder in 1968 at Bishop College, where she founded the dance program. "He said stay small," she recalls. "Never get over 16 dancers, so they can go anywhere." She believes that much of her small company's success comes from its ability to play in any hall, no matter how small.

Dallas Black, as locals call it, produces modern, contemporary dance pieces by David Parsons, Paul Taylor, and Ailey. Williams says the company also performs choreography to the music of young composers or modern artists like Marvin Gaye. Dallas Black, it seems, has built a bridge between populism and elitism. It maintains all the trappings of a professional dance company while still giving its audiences an approachable art form set to popular music. "We have a spiritual suite with music by Aretha Franklin and a full production of Porgy and Bess with music by Miles Davis," she says. "When you leave our performance, you will have seen artistically very good dancers, plus you will have seen dance that you as an audience participant can identify with."

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