AMERICAN BALLET; Save our ballet -- again
San Francisco — It looks so easy. The ballerina flows between the two dancers, passed back and forth, hands twinkling on the ends of arms that move like ribbons. Her long, thin legs look so relaxed that her toes couldn'tm be touching the floor, yet she's going so fast she's fluttering all over. This dance is easy to look at: You don't have to think about what she's doing, just let her frolic across your vision.
Her partner seems happy just to hold her up or catch her or occasionally take off himself on an arc across the stage, landing weightlessly and reaching out for her to alight, again, on his arm. The dancing is so light and free you think you must be dreaming.
She is beautiful and dark, he is beautiful and blond, and they seem to exist only to twinkle and gleam onstage, and across the country, because "The Tempest, " with which they have the sellout crowd at the San Francisco Opera House eating out of their hands, is also on live public television before an audience of about 3 million.
They are Tomm Ruud and Evelyn Cisneros, and like any ballet dancers that ever got up that high in the air, they have paid their dues.But the San Francisco Ballet is brimming with that same effortless, artless-looking charm, an ease one associates with the West. And these are two very Western dancers. Tomm Ruud grew up in Wyoming, where he would have been "punching cows," he says, on his grandfather's ranch, if it hadn't been for a reclamation project and if he hadn't happened to see "Coppelia" performed by Willam Christensen's Theater Ballet Company at the University of Utah. He went there for college, majored in dance, and ended up in Willam's brother Lew's company, the San Francisco Ballet. Evelyn Cisneros is a young Mexican-American woman from Huntington Beach, Calif., who kept working at her dancing even when she was told her feet were too big, because "I'm very determined."
The choreography doesn't seem to take itself too seriously, even though the production cost about $500,000. Michael Smuin, choreographer (and co-artistic director of the ballet company with Lew Christensen), has mixed classical ballet with a very appealing, entertaining idiom that falls between night club revues and musical comedy (and well it might, since he is up for Tony awards for best director and best choreographer for work he did on Broadway's hit "Sophisticated Ladies").
This shows especially in a long "masque" in Act II, which, the program announces, features not only appearances by Juno, queen of gods and goddesses, and Neptune, king of the sea, Ceres, Bacchus, and assorted satyrs, rainbows, and naiads, but also a series of four dances by gold-clad women representing Corn, Wheat, Barley, and Rye.
Each dance is more resplendent than the last. Rainbows are made by ballerinas in blue, whipping red ribbons around in great wheels and spirals. The dancing is lush and there are some virtuoso passages among the silks and flounces, though one feels one is watching a very choice variety show. It doesn't take the plot anywhere, and at least one critic described the second act as "interminable," but this great display is also a display of master showmanship. However much it resembles a Ziegfeld Follies for the '80s, the technique is solid. There's a fascination in watching the expert amid the brouhaha and the solid pointe work that holds up the hip swivels of the grain nymphets.
The choreography puts the dancers on display and revels in their strength and number (40, plus whatever senior members of the San Francisco Ballet school are needed). And it is an undeniably appealing spectacle. The San Francisco Ballet looks happy with itself. It should be.
Though the future is rocky for all ballet companies, the San Francisco Ballet has been in the black for six years, after surviving near-bankruptcy. There are plans to build a new building behind the Opera House, whose space the ballet shares with the city's opera company, and, until recently, the symphony. The new building would hold classrooms and ballet offices; a real, official headquarters, instead of the garage and two apartments they now occupy far from the Opera House.
The school is burgeoning -- 600 students, starting at age eight, are studying classical technique. They are adjudicated three times a year. Those who make it through the training emerge as ballet dancers who go everywhere, including into the company. Seventy percent of the current company members went through the school. And the dancers' and choreographers' performing lives are about as sunny as a demanding job can be.
All according to plan. The president of the organization that put this dreamlike "Tempest" on stage and on public television is Dr. Richard LeBlond, who says, "You're running a good administration if you help create an atmosphere in which the artists can be artists. If they're not doing that, you're not doing your job."
Having a plan is admirable in a ballet company; following it is revolutionary. The San Francisco Ballet has already been through ups and downs suffered by the Pennsylvania and Boston companies, and come out on top. For one thing, it is 21 years older than the other companies.For another, San Francisco provides a proud, arts-loving audience without the temptation to pop off to New York for a weekend of ballet. There have been struggles, but the company has come through them and emerged triumphant -- for the time being. Now, with the threatened halving of National Endowment for the Arts funding, the lack of state monies for the arts, and inflation everywhere, Dr. LeBlond's job looks even harder than when he took it, right after the company had folded because it owed
There was a time when Dr. LeBlond's job -- president of the ballet, with pay -- didn't exist. In the early 1970s the ballet had fallen on such hard times that there was talk of bankruptcy.
"What was happening [from 1968 to 1973] was that the company was sort of drifting, I suppose. Drifting toward a crisis," says company manager Tim Duncan , a third-generation San Franciscan who started with the company in 1968 and has recently returned after a seven-year absence.
A group of problems threatened: Lew Christensen, the company's artistic director, had health problems that prevented him from leading them; the company played out-of-the-way theaters, since the opera and symphony (which now has its own hall in the Civic Center) had the Opera House booked solid; touring was strictly "truck and bus" around California, which didn't do much for the company besides extend the dancers' working seasons. "We'd get through a year and so what?" Mr. Duncan says. "We were not really making important art." Finally, "the board got serious" and hired Michael Smuin in 1973 to give Lew Christensen the help he needed to direct the ballet.
Smuin's vigorous, fresh style was apparent from the beginning, and he and the ballet should have lived happily ever after. But the management wasn't very cagey, and, Duncan reports, they did too much too soon.
"They mounted a full-length 'Cinderella' and almost a full-length 'Don Juan.' It was a gorgeous production and the creative ball got thrown and everyone was off and running but no one had straightened out and strengthened the management. No one had straightened the board and got rid of the deadwood. I left just as that season began. It was a big artistic burst, they had their first season back at the Opera House, and then they fell over."
The company ended the year with an $800,000 deficit. The board fired the manager (and three more managers after him) and began talking about bankruptcy. And perhaps there wouldn't be a San Francisco Ballet today, if it had not been for the dancers and the "Save Our Ballet" movement.
The board was talking about folding the San Francisco Ballet, says Mr. Christensen, a tall, handsome, white-haired man with a twinkle in his eye who danced the title role in Balanchine's "Apollo" in 1936. "I thought we were dead." What brought them around, he says, was the dancers. "The dancers wouldn't leave. They said, 'We'll raise the money,'" and launched their own crusade after the board announced it was folding the company.
Damara Bennett, who remembers dancing "Don Juan" to an audience of 100 in the Opera House, says Mr. Smuin's arrival had inspired them to keep going. "We all felt so good about the company and felt it had so far to go. There's no other company in the world where dancers would do that." They got ballet auxiliary members to sell used toe shoes, autographed by dancers, in Union Square, to raise money (a ploy still used in San Francisco and other companies).
Company dancers pirouetted in store windows. They went to Marine World and danced "Beauty and the Beast" with real elephants. Ballerinas stormed corporate offices --"We'd go to the top floor of the Bank of America Building and go in the president's office and cry," Miss Bennett says. Late one night, she and a group of dancers decided to drive to Los Angeles, "because we figured that's where the money was." They lived in the trailer of a friend, bathing in the swimming pool, and visited people like Henry Mancini and Lloyd Bridges. Dustin Hoffman gave them $5,000. "The first day we found out the company was folding we sent telegrams to everyone who ever danced on film -- Gene Kelly, Fred Astaire, Ray Bolger. . . ."
This guerrilla approach to fund raising may have been unorganized ("We called anyone who had ever given money to the ballet or the opera or the symphony or any rich person we could think of," Miss Bennett remembers), but the company suddenly became more visible than they had been for years in the second-string theaters they had played in. The story of "Save Our Ballet" made national television news.
"Nancy [Dickson] and I were dancing in a store window and up comes Walter Cronkite and talks to us," Miss Bennett recalls. They got an anonymous donation of $50,000, and an elementary school in Poughkeepsie, N.Y., sent $5 in loose change. The fund raising went on for two months, until they had made up the $ 800,000 deficit. They did it to get the board to work harder, Miss Bennett explains. "We showed the board what we could do. If five dancers with no connections could do all this, surely they could do something." They also acted out of love for the company. Arts organizations were folding all around, and they didn't want it to happen to them.
"It was a breakthrough for me," Miss Bennett says. "If you ever want to do something, just do it." The company didn't fold, and they did their "Nutcracker" that Christmas, raising enough money to buy time to reorganize the administration. ("That 'Nutcracker' has pulled us out of more bad spots than you can shake a stick at," Mr. Christensen says.)
"I don't know whether they shamed the board or not, but all of a sudden [the board] said, 'They've gotta eat, too,'" Mr. Christensen says. They had danced their ways into the hearts of everyone -- the board, the donors, and, most important, the city.
"I've always been naive," Mr. Christensen admits. "I always thought everybody did what I did, and I thought it would all work out." What he did was to put everything he had into whatever company he was working for, and settle for whatever his fraction of the earnings was, however small. When he was with Ballet Caravan, George Balanchine's company which became the New York City Ballet, Christensen used to whistle Bach's Concerto in D minor for Two Violins, the music for Balanchine's "Concerto Barocco" during rehearsals of the ballet because they couldn't afford a rehearsal pianist. He choreographed "Filling Station," a classic comic ballet, and Eugene Loring made "Billy the Kid," another all-time American great, because "there was nobody else to do them." It is Christensen who forged the company's naturalistic, quintessentially American, style of dance. The role of Mac, the gas-station attendant in "Filling Station, " is coveted in the company, and Christensen won't give his permission for the American Ballet Theater to add the ballet to its repertoire because he says the company is too Russified.
When Christensen took over the San Francisco Ballet in 1952, there was someone to dance Mac, but he "never knew from one week to the next whether we'd have enough money to get the curtain up." Somehow it all worked out, in much the same cliff-hanging fashion as it always had.
But, he says, when the company hit bottom, he learned that there is another way to keep a ballet going. "I was doing all the administration myself. Now we have a complete staff, and from there on it began to climb. We invited Mike [ Smuin]; Mike came out and began to help me, the administration began to raise money, the budgets were met, the Ford Foundation gave seed money to the [ballet] school. . . . Now we're going to build our own building behind the Opera House, even though in real estate, you're not sure you're going to exist till you break ground."
At least, thanks to Richard LeBlond, he is now sure the curtain is going to go up, every time. "The situation looked very bad in terms of the past record of administration of this company," says Dr. LeBlond, though "the artistic leadership was just what it is now -- Michael Smuin and Lew Christensen. It isn't enough, in this day and age, to just be good. We had to put that whole machinery together." Dr. LeBlond organized a whole management structure. "It all happened very quickly," Tim Duncan says. "But it was totally, architecturally structured to build the company [management] from scratch."
The board became more actively involved with the company. Marketing and development departments were established, and mailing lists were drawn up. Dr. LeBlond established an open-door presidency, keeping the lines of communication open. But that was the easy part.
"We were successful in doing that, but it was in many ways a much more hopeful time and the dance boom was very much on," he says. "I think we've gone through some sort of a boom and there is going to be -- I don't know whether the word is 'recession' -- there's going to be a shakeout time."
He is referring to the proposed 50 percent cutback in National Endowment for the Arts funding (which includes an 80 percent cutback in the challenge-grant program which had encouraged corporate giving to the arts) and the general scarcity of arts money from other sources. Survival tactics for the '80s are necessary, he says, and arts administrators can no longer be "bumbling creatures who couldn't make it in the string violin section or something, and were doing administration on the side, reluctantly, as a second- or third-choice occupation. Arts administrators are now becoming more and more professional and skillful, and they are in many cases what's keeping the boat bailed out and the thing afloat, and they're running a very lean, survival kind of operation, which city hall has never had to face up to."
Richard LeBlond, who has a doctorate in sociology of the arts, has been a professor and head of the sociology department at Rider College. He managed, for a while, the Pennsylvania Ballet. He is a tweedy, professorial person with a bristly white and gray beard, glasses, and a good tan.
He is more bristly when he talks about city hall and the state government. He says the company is right now being hit with a "triple whammy." He counts on his fingers: "The National Endowment funds cut back. State funds either cut back or at least not growing at inflationary rates. And the rents we pay" for the Opera House. Rents that will probably go up, if the politicians have forecast correctly, and there is a $418,000 shortfall in the city's budget for the arts center.
Times are more complicated, Dr. LeBlond says. "They hit us with all four of those in one year." He smacks the hand that's been counting fingers. "It's just not reasonable. Politics in this country just somehow isn't reasonable. The pendulum swings wildly in one direction and then wildly another direction, and they ask why can't arts administrators do an intelligent job of planning? Who can plan in this morass?"
It's such a morass that a group of plucky ballet dancers probably couldn't get the company out of it. One of the San Francisco Ballet's problems is that it planned a building of its own (they were not included in plans for the Louise Davies Symphony Hall, where the offices of the opera and symphony are, because at the time no one knew if the ballet would survive), which requires a $10 million fund drive at this most inopportune of times. But Dr. LeBlond did a nice job of building up the ballet's fund-raising operation: "Hiring a development manager was about the second thing I did when I got here. We got a first-class person. . .." And they have the goodwill of the city.
That's the most important. "There's going to be a shakeout time. And some of the companies that are not well-organized are not going to make it. . .. I don't know that the choice as to which ones are going to make it or not is going to be made entirely in the quality of the product or in terms of good administration, probably some kind of a juncture of those two together, with a consideration of what kind of roots the companies have in their communities. . .. We've got good roots in our community and that's probably what's going to save us."
LeBlond's community has good roots in him. "I've only been here six years and in this time I've become a dyed-in-the-wool San Franciscan. . . Place can get to you." He points with pride to the city's longstanding arts consciousness. "Remember, Caruso was singing in this town the day the earthquake happened in 1906 and that was late in the day." Since the city had been importing talent since the Gold Rush, he has made a concerted effort to keep the ballet in touch with its city.
"We are spending $100,000 a year to relate to the community," Mr. Duncan says , "through educational programs and lecture programs and seeking out underprivileged people to bring to the [ballet] school. Which is just helping ourselves: we need body types, we don't need rich people. We need rich people, too, but for a different reason. On top of all that, Richard LeBlond, since his doctorate is in sociology, is well aware of the importance of man relating to man in society, and so we're all encouraged to be on other organizations. I've been asked to be on the San Francisco Bay Area Dance Coalition board," he says with a surprised chuckle.They run a United Way drive within the company, so they won't always be on the receiving end of funding drives. "We're pretty aware of our responsibility as citizens. . .. I've never been involved in that before. It does give you pause."
One small but important way the company relates to the city is through the small but serious Laura Leivick, who runs the Dance in Schools program and lectures about ballet all over the state. The Dance in Schools program offers 10 weeks of ballet instruction to any Title I (classified as underprivileged) school that requests it. About 1,500 children a year take classes that introduce them to movement. They can take a second round of more strict ballet classes if they ask.
"Our only problem is overenrollment," Miss Leivick says. "They just keep coming. Last year we had something like 40 girls and 20 boys in a public school between the ages of 8 and 11, in a school that was predominantly nonwhite, in one of the toughest neighborhoods in the city. And we got out of it five very beautiful scholarship children." Those children have now started the long, arduous road to becoming ballet dancers, with at least their classes paid for.
Miss Leivick, who is small and thin with a mop of curly hair, wears a loose, flowered dress. She studied ballet when she was young but gave it up when she was injured. Her mouth becomes a line of determination when she talks about studying ballet. "If you want to be a dancer, you better get down to it. And these kids know." I ask her if she expects children to get an aesthetic experience out of the program. She shakes her head. "My favorite thing is when I do a slide program, I show slides and say, 'This is a professional dancer.What's a pro?' She nudges them along until they respond that a professional dancer makes money. "You mean these people dance and that's their job?" The children are amazed. "I say, 'When she leaves home in the morning, says goodbye to her little girl, and says 'I'm going to work,' she's going to be dancing.'" The aesthetics step aside for these nuts and bolts.
In the studios, "Save Our Ballet" is a thing of the past.Dancers who related to the city by going out in the street with a hand out find themselves living here because they love San Francisco, and it's a good opportunity for them to dance for it. And now there's more time for that. There's a businesslike atmosphere, with classes going on in every room of the made-over garage the ballet lives in for the time being.
Ballerinas tote groups of toe shoes by the ribbons -- about seven pairs at different stages of wornness -- that look like catches of fish. Male dancers wear towels around their necks. It's silent, except for the teachers' commands, coming as slow as legs bending, and occasional wild humming from someone oblivious to the rest of the world who is listening to the music from a ballet he or she will dance to on earphones.
In the lounge, a ballerina who is to learn a role is studying it on videotape. In a rehearsal room, Michael Smuin is wondering aloud how they manage to drag women by the hair in circuses, since the ballerina he asked says it hurts too much to choreograph into a duet. Sun falls from the skylights on lean youngsters, absorbed now in their technique. These people dance, and that's their job. Meanwhile, Richard LeBlond and his staff do theirs: They take on City Hall, keep track of donors, and court the citizens of San Francisco. This is how the San Francisco Ballet will make it through the '80s.
What directions will American ballet go in in the next years? How will companies reconcile dwindling resources with burgeoning talent? What new vistas will choreographers be exploring? Maggie Lewis will look at the future of American ballet next week.m