Boston — IT sounds like the plot of a romantic ballet. A man finds a lost work by a beloved choreographer. He and his wife go to Salt Lake City to direct a small ballet company. Nine years pass. The company learns the lost ballet and performs it for its city. Tough New York critics are charmed. The company goes to Washington, D.C., to make world dance history. The story is true. The ballet is ``Abdallah,'' choreographed 130 years ago by August Bournonville, a Danish choreographer whose work is enjoying a new vogue among ballet mavens. The company is Ballet West; the man is artistic director Bruce Marks. The happy ending this week at the Kennedy Center is also a promise for another company. On June 1 Marks becomes artistic director of the Boston Ballet, which, just now, is a little like Cinderella before the ball -- moping beautifully in the background.
Though he wears a blue blazer and sits at a work-laden desk for an interview, Marks looks like a romantic ballet character in disguise. Maybe not Prince Charming. Lean, tan, and black-bearded, he's more dashing -- a pirate, say, or a sheikh, his role in ``Abdallah.'' Most of his dance career is behind him now. But there's still a touch of theatricality in the way he crinkles his eyes at you when he wants you to get excited. It works.
He's talking about his plan for the Boston Ballet to produce more avant-garde works. ``Boston likes to say it's very conservative. But I think if we give them a chance to be a leader here, they'll support me.'' Crinkle. It may be that the Boston Ballet's sheikh has come.
Not a moment too soon. The ballet ended its season with ``Swan Lake,'' dancing well but with the vivacity of a troop of Boy Scouts picking up trash in a public park. Even the Swan Queen looked thoughtful to the point of moroseness, nearly ignoring the prince.
There was a lot to think about. The company had had three artistic directors in the last year and a half. Marks had already told five dancers their contracts wouldn't be renewed next year. And as the others took their bows, they faced five months of unemployment before the fall season due to a lack of engagements. This is a company that needs to get excited again.
Bruce Marks, said a member of the ballet's board of trustees, ``is a man for the times.'' He has been a principal dancer for American Ballet Theatre and the only American principal dancer in the Royal Danish Ballet. He served in the National Endowment for the Arts. He has brought Ballet West to a point where it has to turn engagements away and where not only New York critics fly to Salt Lake City to see it, but The Times (London) was planning to cover the Washington opening of ``Abdallah'' this week.
Regardless of where they perform, however, they still dance as if they come from Utah, and even that may be Marks's doing. Many non-New York companies -- Boston Ballet included -- consider themselves national, but Marks doesn't feel the term ``regional'' is a putdown. ``I think the San Francisco Ballet looks like San Francisco.'' he says. ``It's glitzy. It loves any kind of controversy and newness; it's just like its city.
``And then you see Ballet West, and they're all dancing with this big open style, wide-eyed. No one puts their nose in the air. You go to -- excuse me -- New York companies sometimes, and you see people with their chin lifted just that little bit higher that says: `We're the best. We live in New York.' ''
He can't describe Boston as neatly as the others -- and this, he feels, is its problem. ``Boston Ballet has always been one of the hardest companies in America to . . . look at. . . . Each company has to find its own face, and that's hard to do in this day and age when everyone's dancing the same repertoire.'' He aims to get his new company to look like Bostonians.
Lee Provancha Day, a principal dancer in Ballet West, says the company ``is known for that Western spirit. It's alive and it has a lot of energy and that comes a lot from Bruce.''
``I think Boston Ballet will become what it is,'' says Marks -- or what he makes it. His idea of using young choreographers like postmodernist Mark Morris, will, he hopes, identify Boston with new ideas. On the other hand, he's interested in re-creating dance dramas such as ``Abdallah.'' Ballet West has a freshness to match Bournonville's unworldly style.
Marks sees another possibility in the maturity of two Boston ballerinas, Elaine Bauer and Laura Young. Young has danced in the company since it evolved out of E. Virginia Williams's ballet school in Malden, Mass. ``I can't wait to do `Fall River Legend' next year because they'll probably do it so well,'' he says. Agnes de Mille's ballet about the Lizzie Borden murders (which happened just south of here) requires a strong persona that an ing'enue couldn't provide. It teeters on the edge of melodrama, but, when danced with command, it's chilling and sad.
Marks also aims for a ``Boston Ballet look.'' That means further changes in the now-dissimilar corps de ballet and the reorganization of the Boston School of Ballet.
The day after his appointment was announced, he began negotiating with Sydelle Gomberg, a ballet teacher whose students he has admired. She is now director of the school. Within five years, he hopes to have dancers onstage trained by Gomberg. ``Obviously we're [Marks and Gomberg] going to decide how the arm closes, so that onstage when everyone closes we're not going to have someone doing this and some people doing that. Everyone's going to go . . .'' -- and he floats his arm gently downward.
Dancing like Bostonians isn't just for sentiment or aesthetics. It's a financial necessity. ``I've got to have the city being part of this company,'' he says. The company is in the black, but it earns 70 percent of its budget by selling tickets, which means ``we're not doing our fund raising.'' John Humphrey, chairman of the trustees, says the percentage raised at the box office has come down and that the board faces plenty of fund raising.
In Salt Lake City ``we raised $500,000 when we tried to do a $380,000 ballet called `Abdallah' because it caught people's imagination, . . .'' recalls Marks. ``Once I had the first $125,000 -- after a 20-minute discussion -- it was then easy to say, `People are supporting this. Look what it could mean.' The development department did a wonderful job in selling this ballet. In fact, the Saudi government has invested in it.''
Marks sounds like the beneficent sheikh he plays in ``Abdallah,'' who appears at the end of the ballet and drenches everyone in riches. But it will be hard to hire new dancers for the coming short season. He will have to deal with a board that has been known to meddle in artistic decisions -- though John Humphrey quotes board member Harry Woolcott as saying, ``There's a man who can inspire me to do what I ought to do.'' Boston's 4,200-seat Wang Center for the Performing Arts is hard to fill with anything but ``The Nutcracker,'' so the board will have to be content with smaller crowds for newer works.
``Everybody is kind of waiting,'' says Boston principal dancer Marie-Christine Mouis. Mouis, who may have danced the Swan Queen distractedly because she was also searching for jobs with other companies over the five-month layoff, is nonetheless returning next year. Marks, she says, ``seems to have the situation in his hand.''