Why Dallas Can't Dance
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.)
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."
Clower says the board felt that bringing the Flindt name back might not be a good idea for a company that is trying to put its past behind it. Plus, he says, Flindt "wanted to come in as my equal."
But board president Donna Reed says the board never discussed the matter.
"I believe Thom had a grievance with Vivi Flindt," says Fran McNulty, a former Dallas Ballet board member who has no ties with the new company but has watched it struggle."He didn't want anyone who would be a threat, who could take him out of the limelight," she says. "We could have had something wonderful, and he turns away from all people who are excellent. How can you serve the people of Dallas if you're so self-serving?"
Kent Whites, a former Dallas Ballet dancer who was also a principal with Los Angeles Ballet, Fort Worth Ballet, World Company of Japan, and the Opera of Teatro Reggio Emilio of Italy, and taught and choreographed for a number of other companies, including Manhattan Opera Lincoln Center NYC, Ballet Du Nord de France and Puerto Rican Dance Theatre, was resident choreographer for Ballet Dallas for two years but eventually quit in disgust.
"It was a fiefdom and he [Clower] did not want to be challenged," says Whites. "Thom was threatened by me. But I didn't want his job; I just wanted to go in there and be the weirdo creative guy that I am. But the better my ballets got, the more he sat on me."
But even Whites has to begrudgingly praise Clower, if only for a stubbornness that has kept dance alive in Dallas.
"He's doing valid stuff in the sense of putting pieces on stage and paying artists," Whites says. "That's what it's all about."
Dennis Marshall, who flew up from Houston to teach master classes at Ballet Dallas for two summers, is teaching this summer in Brussels instead. Marshall, who danced for ten years with American Ballet Theatre and eight with San Francisco Ballet, says that he wanted to do more for the company, as ballet master, but Clower refused his help. Although money was never discussed, Marshall says Clower insisted that it was a financial problem.
"I said many times, 'I'm willing to work for whatever, but the bottom line is I want to help you,'" says Marshall in a phone interview from Houston.
"I wasn't interested in taking his job or anything like that; I was interested in teaching."
When Dallas Ballet closed in 1988, Thom Clower was out of a job. He'd been a corps member for 11 years, and when the company closed, he had risen to ballet master, help- ing artistic director Flemming Flindt produce and rehearse the ballets. Clower was an energetic dancer and teacher with a photographic memory for choreography, adept at setting other choreographers' works on a group of dancers; that is, recreating the choreography, staging, and direction of the production as the choreographer had originally intended.
But when the company finally failed, the 27-year-old dancer found himself working at a Blockbuster video store on Greenville Avenue to pay for insurance and gas for his tomato-red Chrysler convertible. To save money, he lived with his grandmother in Terrell, and drove the 45-minute trip back and forth each day.
Although Clower says he was approached by Atlanta Ballet, the State Ballet of Missouri and Garden State Ballet in Newark, New Jersey to join their companies as a member of the corps, he had quite a few injuries, and a couple more years of dancing was probably all his body had left.
And, for Clower, dancing was inseparable from Dallas and his family. As a boy, he would accompany his mother and sister to Miss Patty's Dance School in Mesquite, where the two took dance class twice a week in a garage studio at the back of the house. When they needed a boy to dress up in a cowboy costume for all the girls to dance around in a recital, six-year-old Clower got the part, and as a thank-you, was given tap, jazz and ballet lessons from Miss Patty. Soon, Clower was hooked on dance.
"I loved it," he remembers. "We used to do jazz to the Osmond Brothers and Michael Jackson."
George Skibine, the artistic director of Dallas Civic Ballet, spotted nine-year-old Clower at an audition and asked him to join his school. Upon graduation from Terrell High School in 1978, Clower did. By then the company was professional, and the name had been changed to Dallas Ballet.
When Skibine later died and Flemming Flindt was hired as the artistic director, Clower stayed on.
After Dallas Ballet folded in 1988, Flemming Flindt returned to Denmark; his wife, Vivi, stayed behind in Dallas with their three children, two of whom were still in school.
The ballet school associated with the defunct company survived, with Vivi Flindt as director. An accomplished dancer and teacher, Vivi, like Flemming, infused the school with a great deal of sophistication and style, along with the Danish Bournonville dance technique.
Ultimately, Ballet Dallas would be born out of the remnants of the Dallas Ballet school, then called Dallas Ballet Academy.
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.
Clower claims that Marshall, who wanted to be ballet master, and the others were turned down because they didn't fit in with his "vision" for the company, which he says is detailed in a ten-page document that he declined to make available. He'd only reveal that his vision is to "provide a professional, classical ballet company for Dallas, to present 19th-century full-length classics along with new choreography."
But Shelia Applewhite, who retired last April after dancing four years for Ballet Dallas, and also danced with Dallas Ballet and American Ballet Theatre, says the reason for Clower's shunning outside help has nothing to do with the company's "vision."
"He is threatened by people who have the potential of overshining him," she says. "He was afraid that they'd try to take his position, or that it would become evident to management that there were other people who are more capable of doing his job."
Yet Clower hired Jacob Sparso, another Dallas Ballet alum, whose credentials outshine those of anyone else in the company, including his own. Sparso, one of Flemming Flindt's proteges, began his training in Copenhagen at the age of 10 at the Royal Danish Ballet. When Flindt was hired in Dallas as Dallas Ballet's new artistic director, he brought Sparso with him. After the closure of the company, Sparso danced three seasons with the Royal Ballet of Flanders in Belgium and performed for the King and Queen of Belgium and the Queen and Prince of Denmark.
But personal reasons brought Sparso back to Dallas. Now, having danced three seasons with Ballet Dallas, he's tired of people asking him why he's still here.
"Sometimes it would be nice to get more exposure or be appreciated more, but I do my best regardless of dancing in Denmark, Waco, or Dallas," Sparso says over a cup of coffee. "Sometimes I think, why do I bother--it doesn't pay what it used to. But I love to dance."
Sparso says much of the criticism of Ballet Dallas is well-founded, especially that of highlighting the company's youthful inexperience. But the attacks on Clower are not. "He's done a great job," says Sparso. "He is a believer and he has enormous enthusiasm. I don't have a problem with Thom."
But in a way, Sparso's talent and experience are a problem for Ballet Dallas. As Sparso slides through the air in his grand jettes with cool confidence and grace, the contrast between him and the rest of the company is hard to miss.
Unfortunately, the city's high profile balletomanes have chosen not to wait and have turned to Fort Worth Dallas Ballet instead.
According to Bruce Calder, an ex-Dallas Ballet board member who is now president of the Dallas Supporters of the Fort Worth Dallas Ballet, the governing body for the company's Dallas performances, about three years ago he, along with arts supporters Sis Carr, Juanita and Henry S. Miller, Shelia Grant and Jeremy Halbreich, president and general manager of The Dallas Morning News, decided that Ballet Dallas simply wasn't doing a good enough job.
"It wasn't a company of enough talent and excellence to be representative of Dallas," Calder says. The group started having meetings, he says, to decide what could be done. It came down to either committing to help the struggling Dallas company or throwing it over for the well-established Fort Worth Dallas Ballet. A third option--merging the two companies--was explored at several meetings, but neither company was interested.
"We decided to go to Fort Worth rather than Ballet Dallas because Fort Worth was a much more professional company," says Carr, who began supporting ballet in Dallas in the 1970s with George Skibine's Dallas Civic Ballet. "They had danced in New York and Tokyo."
Calder and Carr admit, though, that attendance is still low at the 3,300-seat Fair Park Music Hall, where Fort Worth Dallas Ballet performed just two repertories and The Nutcracker this past season with only about a third of the seats filled, and they acknowledge it will be at least two to three more years before their organization is well enough known to fill the house.
In about the same time frame, the Ballet Dallas' new, self-described board president-elect says her company will be "the most successful, most well-renowned ballet company in the United States."
Leslie Ann Crozier, 36, who owns Crozier & Henderson Mortgage Services Inc., just joined the board in February, and now introduces herself as the incoming president, although she's not even been nominated for the position. Crozier's rhetoric and bubbling enthusiasm seem to veil an underlying naivete about the company she so passionately claims to embrace. But she's nothing if not enthusiastic.
"I'm making a pledge of surrounding myself with board members in the next 12 months and we'll commit to raising half a million dollars," she says. "In addition, if I raise an additional $250,000, then I told the dancers that they get to put on a private performance for the board and all of their friends."
That could be one hard-to-keep campaign promise. Last year, the Ballet Dallas board didn't even come close to collecting $750,000: it raised less than $75,000; the year before that, only about $43,000.
And Crozier, admitting ignorance of Ballet Dallas' budget, sidesteps what that massive, though unlikely, infusion of money would be spent on.
"Cash always provides opportunities, as you know, in any organization," she says. "It's the lifeline."
What Crozier does discuss, incessantly, is the "new guard," a group of younger board members ages 2840 she'll recruit to help her. "Our advisory board will be composed of Dallas' most well-respected and powerful leaders of today," she says. "I've probably had 20 to 25 of the city's most powerful arts patrons approach me."
But Crozier won't name names. "I think that's a little premature," she says.
Boxes of sunlight stretch over the scarred black marley floor in the studio at 309 1/2 South Pearl Street, every now and then framing a dancer stopped in motion. A sharp, twangy accent slices through the oppressive humidity hanging in the air like a fuzzy blanket.
"Arabesque, lift, then tombe," says Clower to Ballet Dallas dancers for the last class of the 1994-95 season. "Reach, reach, reach, reach, reach, reach, reach, and liiiiiift," he says, demonstrating the arabesque position by shooting his right leg behind him, parallel to the floor.
Clower snaps his hands together, signaling the pianist to begin. An out-of-tune rendition of the pop song "Dancing Queen" fills the room and some of the dancers mouth the lyrics as they dance.
"More, more, more, more...!" shouts Clower, circling the dancers like a mad dervish, prompting them to reach further into their arabesques.
Drenched with sweat, he sits for a few seconds, rubs his knees, then he's up again.
A straw-thin dancer with deep-set eyes fumbles a double piroutte. And again. Exasperated, she walks off the floor, ties a filmy short skirt around her waist and tries one more time. Another fumble. She sighs aloud. An older dancer, wearing black sweatpants over her leotard to disguise a pot belly, frowns as she lags behind the rest of the corps. Her out-of-shape body, it seems, can no longer keep up with her still-adept feet.
Clower takes no notice.
Two claps. The music begins again, and the next line moves forward. For a moment, a square of light captures him as he grabs hold of the barre and bobs up and down in time with the music.
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