For the Dallas Black Dance Theatre, a Cold Shoulder from ATTPAC

Daniel Fishel

We can be proud of our glittering Vegas-scale Arts District and still be honest about how it came to be. Right? I hope so, because maybe if we look at that history frankly and think about it for a bit, we will be better equipped to gauge what's going on behind the scenes right now with the Dallas Black Dance Theatre.

In spite of its stellar reputation — as a feted and celebrated international touring company that was chosen to be part of the London 2012 Olympics — Dallas Black Dance Theatre is getting pushed out of the Dallas Arts District. They are one of this city's few truly indigenous contributions to the district. Almost everything else is bought and brought here. If DBDT does go, we need to ask ourselves what will be left, exactly.

In the 1970s, wealthy white people in Dallas led a successful effort to pull most of the city's major cultural institutions out of a black neighborhood in South Dallas, reconstituting them in lavish new quarters on what was originally cheap land farther north, closer to where wealthy white people live. The land was cheap because it was another black neighborhood. So in the overall process, resources were pulled out of one black neighborhood and another black neighborhood was expunged.

Before a shovel broke the ground, a number of speculators made very substantial profits when values shot up. George Rodrigue, now managing editor of The Dallas Morning News, did a great piece for D Magazine in 1982 in which he recounted how the late Trammell Crow made $9.5 million just by snatching up a parcel in the future arts district and sitting on it for three years.

The story recounted how Margaret McDermott, a Dallas rich lady who was chairwoman of the DMA board, led the campaign to move everything north, buoyed by a 1977 consultant's report conveniently confirming that the previous home of the art museum in South Dallas "was a poor location for a facility whose patrons came primarily from North Dallas."

Dallas Black Dance Theatre was founded in 1976 by Ann Williams, right in the middle of all that sturm und drang. She's one of those rare one-off visionary empire builders who truly have made Dallas what it is today, a city built of powerful, eccentric dreams. Beginning with a handful of dancers and some temporary rehearsal place, she launched a company that has been compared favorably in The New York Times and Washington Post with the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater in New York.

In 2007, DBDT raised $10.3 million. Together with $3.26 million from 2003 city bond funds, the money paid for a wonderful renovation of the old Moorland Y at 2700 Flora St., in the northeast corner of the district. The history of the Moorland Y goes back to the first years of the 20th century, when it was a community gathering place for black people in a harshly segregated city, and extends forward into the 1960s, when it was a center of black politics and the civil rights movement in Dallas.

Somehow DBDT was able to convert the building into useful office and rehearsal facilities while preserving spaces like the gracious meeting hall and kitchen that served as a community center for three quarters of a century. It's a power place. You should ask for a tour. The walls of this building whisper some of the city's most fundamental secrets. And today, of course, it's home to an internationally respected dance company that carries all of that history and character and culture out onto the stages of the world.

But maybe not the stages of the Dallas Arts District. Even though promoters of the district have always described DBDT as a "resident company" in publicity, especially when asking voters to approve generous allocations of public bond money for the district, the people who run the district are now quietly squeezing DBDT out of its performance venues.

It started, for me anyway, with a story in The Dallas Morning News. The story gave the impression DBDT was in trouble because it'd been sloppy in its business dealings with the AT&T Performing Arts Center (ATTPAC), which since 2009 has been the operator of the district's main performance venues — Wyly Theater, Winspear Opera House, the Meyerson Symphony Center and others. ATTPAC, through a spokesman, even acknowledged to the paper that bookings can be a challenge "when groups don't schedule well in advance."

I sent DBDT a query asking, not in so many words (and perhaps not as genteelly as possible): How come you screwed up and forgot to book your dates?

I got back a long, very emphatic email from Georgia Scaife, president of the DBDT board, telling me they didn't screw up anything or forget to do anything. Because DBDT often must book its tour dates five and six years ahead, it was DBDT that for years had pressed ATTPAC for a longer commitment to booking dates settled further ahead of time. They had repeatedly asked for but been refused a 10-year booking contract, she said.

On a strictly year-to-year basis, Scaife said, the company had always been able to book three solid weeks in the Wyly Theater for its home season. But late last year that changed. "DBDT," she wrote in that email, "was advised that the three weeks we had used for the last four years in the Wyly Theater under our historical block of dates were no longer available for the next season (2013/2014) and for the next 10 years."

To that insult, other injury was added. DBDT had asked again this year for a 10-year contract and had been told no such long-term agreement was available. Later, DBDT learned why neither its traditional dates nor a long-range agreement was possible: While ATTPAC was telling DBDT that 10-year agreements were impossible, ATTPAC was granting exactly that to other arts groups.

DBDT learned so much at a meeting on March 14 of this year. At the meeting, ATTPAC president and interim CEO Doug Curtis was asked if he'd made a 10-year agreement with the Dallas Theater Center, which puts on plays at the Wyly and the Kalita Humphreys Theater on Turtle Creek Boulevard. According to a transcript of the meeting, Curtis conferred with ATTPAC board member Howard Hallam, also at the table, and the two men agreed that such a contract had been issued to DTC in March 2011.

It gets worse. In giving the 10-year deal to DTC, ATTPAC also gave them a "right of first refusal" on all dates, according to the transcript.

Oh, wait. It actually gets a little worse than that. In an email from just a few days before, in which Curtis offers DBDT some consolation dates far off from their usual season, he portrays the dates being offered as really good ones: "So we are highly confident that if they are properly marketed, they may prove to be quite successful," he writes.

But in an email Curtis sent a month earlier to DTC, he laid out several problems with the same dates, telling DTC: "This is typically a time when ticket buyers go on vacation for Memorial Day, or then focus on getting kids out of school and leaving town for summer vacation.

"Programming around this time frame usually does not perform (from a ticket sales view) very well," Curtis tells the other group.

And, may I say, it even gets a bit deeper than all that. When I asked about all this, ATTPAC explained in a statement: "Providing long-term scheduling stability for Dallas Black Dance Theatre is so important to the Center, we offered to secure those dates on the calendar for the next 10 years, something we have not done for any of our resident companies." So I went back to DBDT. They said no way. They were never offered 10 years. The other groups were.

I went back to ATTPAC at the end of last week, asking about the apparent contradiction between the version in the ATTPAC statement and the one portrayed by the transcript of the meeting. ATTPAC didn't get me an answer by press time for this article. To be fair, I was asking my question just before a long holiday weekend.

But let's pause, breathe into a paper bag and reflect on all this. What do we have? Is it a concerted conspiratorial campaign aimed at running DBDT out of the arts district totally and for good? I doubt it. I am assuming the end of this story will be some sort of accommodation.

No, the bigger and more revealing story here is about values and priorities. Given the full narrative of DBDT, its origins and history, an argument could be made that ATTPAC should have gone to DBDT first, before anyone else was approached, and said, "What can we give you, what can we do to make the Arts District a bounteous home for you?"

Oh, hell, forget origins and history. If ATTPAC just wants to look good, to be truly impressive, to make the city itself impressive — or, heaven forfend, actually contribute to a thriving arts climate in Dallas — then it should be focused first and foremost on this very successful indigenous company. It's not like they'd be stooping or supporting bad or second-rate art.

Yes, the Dallas Arts District is vast and glittering and Vegas-like. But it is us. It's Dallas. And it's cool. I thought we wanted Dallas to be cool? What? Do we have to hire a coach for that?

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