The London City Ballet: 'a great little company' makes it on its own

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The man from Cincinnati unwrapped several bunches of golden daffodils from a newspaper and snapped elastic bands around them. As the dancers came down- stage to bow to the audience, he hurled a bunch past the seven-piece orchestra, just missing the pianist's head.

The ballerina smiled down at him.

"A great little company," he said to me. "I've been watching them for some time now -- they've got some good dancers." And he stopped to pick up another bunch of flowers.

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The "great little company" was the London City Ballet, performing for one week at the Wimbledon Theater in Southwest London. It is one of several ballet companies in England that, unlike the Royal Ballet, lacks a permanent base.

Instead, the dancers must tour, sleep, in "bed and breakfast" rooms, rehearse under strange and often uncomfortable conditions, and dance on stages they don't know, to a far more varied audience than the one that can afford the steep prices at the Royal Opera House at Covent Garden.

In other words, they must dance for the masses, and they must have programs that appeal both to the new- comer and to the balletomane.

"Ours is a very happy company," remarked Harold King, artistic director- founder and himself a former dancer, in the foyer of the faded, turn-of-the-century suburban theater. Around us, schoolgirls, families, young couples, and elderly people bought chocolates and candy before entering the auditorium.

The London City Ballet was founded in April 1978 by Mr. King when some small companies were failing and several of his friends were out of work.

With nine dancers, the company offered a series of lunch-hour ballets at the Art Theater Club in Leicester Square. "We could fit in 250 people but the stage was so small," Mr. King recalled.

Later they toured the United Kingdom, and now, with a company of 25, they have their own studio in Highgate Village "in an enormous church hall."

"One of our dancer's husbands is a carpenter," said Mr. King, "He has built ballet barres, and we've just bought mirrors so we can study our form as we practice."

The company does not have an Arts Council grant, so it must rely heavily on box office takings. It makes arrangements with theaters in advance -- "Normally 75 percent, which means we pay dancers the minimum of between L120 and L140 a week," Mr. King said. Every penny is precious.

A life came when the company won the Festival Fringe First Award at the International Festival in Edinburgh. It performed "Sunny Day" -- a short, flowing ballet with three men and one girl dancing to the music of Claude Debussy.

At the Wimbledon Theater on opening night, the quartet had trouble with the stage and constantly slipped during turns and pirouettes. But on the whole, the company's technique was good, although arms needed to be more fluid and graceful.

One dancer in particular stood out favorably: Marian St. Claire, the wife of the director. She proved most versatile, dancing with great humor and elasticity in her husband's modern ballet "Killing Time," playing to the audience (and setting off a series of raucous laughs from the young man several rows behind me.) It was a dramatic change of mood from an earlier classical pas de deux from the Russian ballet "Spartacus."

Having seen that particular ballet several times at the Bolshoi Theater in Moscow with several leading dancers there, I was ready for the worst. But Miss St. Claire and her partner Michael Beare gave a splendid performance, full of emotion and oneness with each other.

The whole company strived to give the somewhat meager opening night audience an evening's entertainment.If everyone went home with as much satisfaction as my neighb or from Cincinnati, it succeeded.

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