The future of American ballet

Ballet may be a venerable discipline, but in America it's a product of the 20 th century. In the '30s, when the newly arrived George Balanchine was, essentially, inventing American ballet, he had one school, the Littlefields' in Philadelphia, from which to draw dancers to start his first company. Now there are ballet schools all over the country. The creme de la creme graduate to regional companies (there are about 200, according to the National Association for REgional Ballet), which in turn grow up to become national companies.

And they're not dancing just for exercise -- a Louis Harris poll shows that last year 1 out of 4 Americans saw live dance, up from 1 million in 1965. That year the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) was created by an act of Congress , and the "dance boom" began.

American dance has had a period of great creativity, with audiences there to watch. The astonishing growth in America's ballet fans has a lot to do with the quality of American ballet, and something to do with the interest in physical fitness. People who work out know what goes into the gazelle leaps and eye-blurring twirls they see onstage. Tomm Ruud, who in his seven years with the San Francisco Ballet has seen the Opera House fill up with people in blue jeans along with the patrons in furs and diamonds one usually associates with highbrow culture, thinks this is a sports crowd in search for something more.

"In a way, they're tired of contact sports that are offense and defense. We don't do offense and defense. Ours is a group working together to make a total picture."

But the total picture is changing. The dance boom is subsiding. Inflation and higher fuel prices have made touring too expensive for all but the most prosperous companies. This is hard on the whole dance community, which grew up mobile in the '60s and '70s. If the National Endowment for the Arts is cut in half,as the Reagan budget proposes, the burden of financing the arts is supposed to fall on corporations. The corporations, spurred by the NEA's challenge-grant program, have been supporting the arts all along, and few believe they will pay much more than they do now.

"If the endowment gets cut, the ripple effect wil be devastating, as state and city funds are cut," Rhoda Grauer, director of the NEA dance program, says."The high-visibility companies will continue to get money from the private sector . . . ," but the smaller groups that cropped up in the '60s and '70s may be mown down by '80s austerity.

Outside New York, when ballet administrators, choreographers, and artistic directors talk about support, they aren't looking at corporations. They talk about their audiences and their hometowns. It is increasingly important to fill houses, both for the ticket money and to flag the attention of local donors. The local audience will be courted, and will find itself an important part of the bigger picture, on the paying and receiving end.

New York, long the center of dance and especially of ballet in the United States and perhaps the world, is a difficult place to come home to. There are literally hundreds of small modern-dance companies vying for public attention, not to mention four major ballet companies. And New York is an expensive place to have a show. Many New York companies had been touring to cheaper houses in other parts of the country. Their loss may be the non-New York companies' gain. With fewer glamorous visitors, audiences in Philadelphia, San Francisco, and Boston may be more interested in their own companies, an advantage local ballets will have to press if they are to survive.

"DEcentralization seems to be one of Mr. Reagan's themes," says Dr. Richard LeBlond, president of the San Francisco Ballet, " and as overwhelmingly as he was elected indicates that the counrty is interested in the decentralization of certain things. I think it becomes insanity to keep ballet tied up in New York."

Ballet companies that grew up outside New York but scorn the "regional" label will find themselves thinking more about what sells in Philadelphia, Boston, Houston, or San Francisco than ever before. Keeping the audience in mind is not a bad thing in itself. A lot depends on how the company sees its audience. For some companies, this could mean a lowest-common-denominator approach.

James Kittendaugh, general manager of the Boston Ballet, says that "some of your market for Nutcracker' is the same market as the Ice Capades." If a company is trying to pull people way from the Ice Capades, it makes for an entertaining "Nutcracker" but not for an evening of artistic peaks.

Benjamin Harkarvy, artistic director of the Pennsylvania Ballet, feels that "the audience has grown in self-confidence. often there are no program notes. The general audience has finally gotten the idea that you can just watch, just as at a concert you can just listen and get something." So the Pennsylvania Ballet may continue to offer the same thought-provoking works to an audience it has taught to just watch.

For all ballet companies, big and small, artistic and commercial, less funding means a need for cagey administration. Marketing departments will get stronger. Whatever the company has to offer, luring the public in to see it will take precedence. Like any advertising, this could be good or bad, depending on how the company sees itself and its public.

It was simpler at the beginning.W. MacNeil Lowry, then- vice-president of the arts at the Ford Foundation, began traveling around the country in 1957, finding out where the best young dancers were being trained, seeking out their teachers, and watching hours of regional dance festivals, in search of the people who were running dance companies and would keep them going, no matter what the obstacles. People with "that compulsive, hair-shirt business of giving force to a collective," he says.

He emphasizes that his (and his foundation's) brand of philanthropy was not to create something that wasn't there, but to "find people who have compulsion and drive, and shorten history for them." He did so.

By 1963, he -- with the advice of George Balanchine and others -- had found eight hair-shirt types with collectives that he believed in. The Ford Foundation invested $8 million in them. Those investments have, to a great degree, paid off.

"I'm so proud of them," he says of his two driving ladies of the dance world, E. Virginia Williams, the teacher who started the Boston Ballet, and Barbara Weisberger, the founding mother of the Pennsylvania Ballet.

Investments in the Houston Ballet, The Pennsylvania Ballet, the San Francisco Ballet, the Utah Civic ballet (now Ballet West), the National BAllet in Washington (now defunct), and the New York City Ballet were also investments in their hometowns. Mr. Lowry remembers how the late Mark Ethridge, then publisher of the Louiseville Courier- Journal and a Ford Foundation board member, said to those on the board who objected to "investing in toe-dancers": "Boys, I don't know how it is in your town, but in my town it's all ballet and basketball."

The foundation ended up giving ballet companies around $15 million at first, and from 1971 through 1979, when most companies were having their growing pains, off. This year the foundation has turned its attention to social causes and will only make arts donations on an individual basis.

When the National Endowment for the Arts came along, there was a governmental stamp of approval for aspiring dance companies and a touring program that sent ballet dancers trooping into previously un-danced-in communities."The '60s and ' 70s were a time of opportunity," in dance as well as in the rest of American life, Rhoda Grauer says.

The National Endowment definitely fueled the boom. And not just financially. "Yes, the dance boom is largely attributable to some of the work of te endowment , but it was as much organizational perceptual work as financial," Miss Grauer says. The NEA gives only 1 to 5 percent of most funded companies' budgets. The maximum is 10 percent. The endowment's best contribution, Miss Grauer thinks, is a national overview of dance companies:

"We have a national overview of commerce and highways and everything else, why not the arts?" she says. By getting dance companies to assess their own needs and putting them in touch with one another, the NEA fostered from what was a "disparate, separate, chaotic" scene 15 years ago, a healthy artistic community.

"The National Endowment was the only place that evaluated support in terms of the needs of the artists' priorities as defined by arts groups themselves," she says. "They now have the responsibility of defining how they need to be supported" and getting that support themselves. Most important, she fells, is maintaining the lines of communication they had through the NEA.

All that was accomplished in 15 years, and whatever happens financially, "we are notm going to go back 15 years," she says. She hopes artists will pull together and ask for what they need, and perhaps even work together on one another's behalf. But nothing encourages her more than the appetite of America.

"Americans have shown they don't give up things. When beef got expensive they ground it up and added it to rice. Dance has truly established its position" in American tastes.

With the leadership of the Ford Foundation gone, the NEA cut, and Balanchine's tenure as ballet master of America coming to a close, the choice about what survives is up to the tastes of the American people. the question is: How does American ballet get ground up, and what will it be added to? Will it be fluffed out with tutus, turned into large moneymaking but artistically empty spectacles? Or will the spending deescalate to the point where a handful of dancers appear, after a day's work as bank tellers and waitresses, in simple leotards on a bare stage in a church basement?

Peter Anastos, a ballet choreographer and critic who works with many non-New York companies, sees small, shoestring theater groups cropping up all around, but admits it's hard to run a shoestring ballet company.

"You can produce Shakespeare in your living room, but not 'Swan Lake." With less than 40 girls, it's impossible." Which suits him fine.

"'Swan Lake' was somebody's good idea," he says. "But you can't dress it up a lot," making different glosses on the same theme. Noting that it costs about a quarter of a million dollars to produce a ballet of that size and elaborateness, he suggested, "It would be really nice to declare a 15-year moratorium on new 'Giselles' and 'Swan Lakes.'"

What he fears is not the inflation caused by companies wanting more money at the box office and creating vast spectacles from the 19th century which cost more and require even morem money to come from the box office. He sees an inflation of intellectualism in choreographers who use Balanchine's ideas as a formula.He predicts that American ballet will enter a rather boring "age of Balanchine."

"I just think the era of Balanchine will be an era of great mediocrity. Everyone wants to copy him and nobody wants to do anything else. . . . The formula says that if you get a serious piece of music which has never been danced to before and you make a sort of wispy kind of abstract ballet -- you know, pastel colors -- you have a modern American ballet on your hands. The audience will love you. And this has all come true. It's the age of Balanchine and now they're going to do it and think that's what it is."

Balanchine's contribution to American ballet is huge, and, like Picasso, he keeps breaking his own mold and doing something new. "For a country that had the modesty to know that it did not have a tradition in that department, he gave them, right away, a pedigree. An instant pedigree ," says Violette Verdy, a former Balanchine ballerina and now co- artistic director of the Boston Ballet. Interestingly, the fast, almost athletic, unsentimental style that this Leningrad- trained choreographer began working with in a field in White Plains, N.Y., when he arrived here from working with the Ballets Russes de Monte Carlo, was immediately embraced as American.

Mr. Harkarvy, the Pennsylvania Ballet artistic director, thinks this is because Balanchine was responding to what he saw in America.

"He has brought us so much from the past, but I think he fell in love with Americans: their straightforwardness and honesty. We are eternally in his debt for relieving us of the responsibility of a story. He exposed to the world the immense American gift for dancing."

What both Anastos (who is delighted to take on the responsibility of a story -- as long as he gets to make up the story) and Harkarvy love is the fact that Balanchine's dances are full of ideas. Harkarvy is appalled by what he calls the "nostalgia craze" for 19th-century works and the fascination of audience with stars. "An incredible amount of money and attention is being paid to superstars and an evocation of the past, and sentimentality which doesn't have a lot to do with today."

He feels American dance is essentially creative and vigorous. Modern-dance choreographers, he says, have taken much from classical ballet training and forms. Now he sees that ballet choreographers are taking a lot back, especially modern dance's insistence on invention.

"American ballet choreographers are moving out of the range of Balanchine. They often don't use steps that are nameable. They improvise the movement before it's set into a form. . . . I'm excited about what I think American dance should be and sometimes is: something evolutionary in which all the roots are visible."

The question is, who will pay for all this thinking and experimenting? Anastos feels audiences will pay to watch, and artists will work for less. He is enthusiastic about American audiences, which he feels respond intelligently to his works -- often more intelligently than the critics."People like everything. They like to come and see real dancers doing dificult things. It's more fun than the movies."

He feels that the threatened Age of Balanchine without Balanchine's genius will dawn if all the money available for ballet if given to "the big institutions." That will almost certainly be the case if all the funding is left up to corporations, big institutions themselves. Anastos doesn't think the amount corporations are willing to pay will make much of a difference, anyway. Besides, "Everyone still loves the little guy with the corner store. People always champion someone starting out small. . . . There are all sorts of iconoclastic modern people outside the big ballet companies. In New York there are hundreds of little dance companies, performing in lofts and people's garages. Every night there are 16 little concerts you can go to. It's all happening for some reason. If no one came, they wouldn't continue, but something's encouraging that. Somebody will come out of all that" with new dances.

Dr. LeBlond thinks that too much is made of goings-on in New York. "In dance , New York represents what has been, the West represents what's coming, and I'd rather be West. The future of this country is in the Sunbelt," he says flatly.

Referring to the Medici's patronage of Renaissance artitsts, he said, "The arts were in Florence because the bankers were there first. The arts have a way of following commerce, population trends, etc. You can see this back for thousands of years. As this country's emphasis shifts to the Sunbelt, we would be ahistorical and anti-intellectual were we to claim that this is not going to have effects in the arts. I see the San Francisco Ballet as one of the Northwest anchors of the Sunbelt. And that's our future. It's the future of this country."

Whether or not this comes to pass, one can look at the San Francisco Ballet, older than the Boston or Pennsylvania Ballet and stronger, as a bellwether. It is very much of its city. The choreographers are home-grown, developed from the ranks of the company. They are not geniuses, but have an ease of expression which is no doubt augmented by Dr. LeBlond's shrewd business sense, which keeps the wolf from the door and their minds on aesthetics. The popular, showmanlike style of Michael Smuin, artistic director, goes far to keep audiences coming.

But one also hears sanguine hopes expressed in one of the Northeast anchors of the frostbelt. Having made the transition from her digs in Paris to a Boston condo, Violette Verdy says: "If you think about what there is here of arts development, the fine arts, the symphony, the more modern museums, too. . . .I think that in this city there is more achievement than in any other city. In New York it is there, but it is sold in the supermarket already. You already get it on sale practically. You are already fighting for it. Here, it is still being done in the artisanalm [workmanlike] way, the slow way. It is being done properly." Thanks to her and, in a large part, what she says, is at its peak. But she sees the corps of the Boston ballet as a fine place to start making new ballet.

Whether they find themselves in Boston, San Francisco, Philadelphia, or based in New York with plans to travel to Cincinnati, New Orleans, and Leningrad, everyone from the ballet world I talked to is sure that he is in the right place to take part in the future of American ballet.

Ballet choreography may become more light and entertaining to make money, and the genius of Balanchine may have to last us for a long time. But he opened up such a great field of expression that anything could happen. Whether the big companies take over or fall apart, there will always be plenty of Mr. Lowry's "hair-shirt types" plotting new ballet companies and new ballets, and there will always be people who absolutely must be ballerinas or ballet dancers. Less money will, no doubt, hurt ballet on all fronts. "You only learn to dance by performing," Lew Christinsen, director of the San Francisco Ballet, says.

Ballet is by its nature expensive.It is said choreographing takes about three hours of works for every minute danced onstage. Christensen talked of making an image in the mind take physical form. "It's exactly like sculpture, except it moves, eats, and sleeps and you have to find money for it," he says.

Peter Anastos says the future looks bleak for an independent choreographer without a company, but he's prepared to take less money. After all, he's neverm been paid what he's worth for anything. "Well, have youm ?" he says when I laugh.

Even without the NEA cuts, ballet in America is going to change. And there's no telling where great ballet will break out next. (One also wonders how.) The way things are going, anyone could find they are living in a ballet capital. If your local company tries to convince you that you are, buy a ticket. It could be all advertising, and then again, they might have something there.

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