Spanish Ballet Fights for Audience

Luis Fuente Dance Company competes with flamenco for the hearts of Madrid dance lovers

RUNNING a successful classical ballet company takes a lot of talent, money, and good effort.

In a country like Spain, where folk music and dance are revered - especially flamenco - it is an uphill battle.

But Spanish-born Luis Fuente wanted to try. His dream was to make classical ballet in Spain as well-liked as flamenco. So just over 10 years ago, Mr. Fuente returned to Madrid, along with his wife, Zelma Bustillo, and their two children, to establish a classical ballet company and school - called the Luis Fuente Dance Company.

Fuente arrived in Madrid with excellent credentials. In the 1960s and '70s he enjoyed a successful career dancing with leading US companies, culminating in 1983 with the Joffrey Ballet.

Along the way he did some choreography, and he studied and worked with some of the best in the business - such as George Balanchine, Robert Joffrey, and Margot Fonteyn.

But after more than a decade in Madrid, Fuente says he's growing tired of the constant struggle for funding.

``The money situation in Spain is awful. The grants are supposed to come this month, maybe next month,'' he says.

The Spanish government has given Fuente's company 3.5 million pesetas (about $25,000), but the grant, along with box-office receipts from 20 performances annually, isn't enough to cover expenses.

Fuente has had to beg costume and set designers and other choreographers to work for free, or at greatly reduced rates. He also borrows and makes up any shortfalls out of his own pocket.

In an attempt to boost quality and contain costs, Fuente in late November accepted into his company two dancers from Cuba's National Ballet ``because they will work for less money, and they are very well trained.''

Almost half the Cuban ballet company reportedly defected upon completing a Spanish tour last October.

The Communist Cuban government, which is under pressure at home due to a severe economic crisis, claims the dancers are remaining in Spain either to study or to fulfill outside dance commitments. When asked about the Cuban dancers' situation, Fuente merely shrugged.

The Spanish Ministry of Culture's director of dance services, Maria Jesus Gamo, praises Fuente for being a magnificent dancer with broad appeal.

But others say Fuente is destined to fail because classical ballet will never capture enough of a Spanish audience to be commercially viable. In Spain, it's flamenco that captures the public's fancy.

The flamenco style - recognizable to many non-Spaniards - originated in the southern regions of Spain and reflects the country's Arabian influence. It combines song and dance, in which the stamping of feet and the rattle of castanets are accompanied by throaty and passionate wails of a singer backed by a strumming acoustic guitarist.

Zelma Fuente, who handles the business end of the ballet company, says that more state support should be given to small troupes such as the Fuente company. ``It's impossible to train a ballet dancer overnight. Classical ballet isn't the same as flamenco or modern dance,'' she says. ``The [classical] technique is very structured, and if your foot isn't pointed, it's not pointed. You can't have someone on stage like that.''

Fuente admits that given the financial battles, he's thinking of giving up and going back to the United States. ``A door is open for anyone who really wants to work,'' he says of the US. ``There is always an answer, if you are creative.... There are people who see your work, your capacity, and they will help you.''

Fuente is now mounting a new series of ballets, which he hopes to take on a US tour. One is an ambitious combination of ballet set to classical Flamenco music. He smiles and says that Flamenco has never been performed ``on pointe'' (classical toe shoes) before.

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