Bruce Marks is recognized for his embrace of inner-city youth

Boston Ballet Artistic Director Earns Kudos for 10 Years of Inclusiveness

THE future of dance is in the streets, and the hope for the country's youth is art.

That's the message Bruce Marks, artistic director of the Boston Ballet, conveys in his programs at the airy, almost posh seven-story Center for Dance Education.

''As soon as you don't have a cultural link, you can hurt each other,'' he says of kids in the inner cities who engage in violence. ''Cultures that have connecting forces have art in them.''

This vision, as well as his success in turning around Boston's struggling ballet troupe during his 10 years at the helm, earned Mr. Marks the 44th annual Capezio Dance Award, presented this week. Honoring his ''significant contribution to dance in the United States,'' the award places Marks among the ranks of dance greats such as Martha Graham and Merce Cunningham.

''Bruce Marks is a leader in many aspects in dance,'' says Marian Horosko, associate editor for education for Dance Magazine. ''He is open to new ideas out of a generosity to the future, at a time when so many [artistic directors] are locked in on the present.''

The key to Marks's success, though, has not come so much from his dance philosophy as his ability to bring in the big bucks.

''From my perspective,'' says C.C. Conner, the managing director of the Houston Ballet, ''he's done a fabulous job ... with fund-raising. Many people are very impressed with where that company has gone in the last 10 years. The whole operation has absolutely blossomed with him in charge.''

Even Marks has his critics, though. His tendency to micromanage and his sometimes prickly ambition have not always won praise.

''He is known more for his chutzpah than for his tact,'' says Bruce Caldwell, ballet master at Ballet West, a regional company in Salt Lake City, where Marks was artistic director for seven years.

''He brought a lot of energy and enthusiasm to Ballet West,'' he says. But he also had an inclination ''to be enamored with the new kid on the block at the expense of people who put in their time and in some cases are more reliable,'' Caldwell says, reiterating a criticism leveled at Marks during his tenure at the Boston Ballet.

Marks, stroking his grizzly beard in his spacious but sparsely furnished office, sloughs off his detractors.

''I'm the architect of what goes on here,'' he says. ''Not the builder. I don't put the mortar on the bricks. I'm much more in the mold of the bigger picture.''

The son of a Brooklyn truck driver, Marks joined New York's American Ballet Theatre while in his 20s and became the first American principal dancer with the Royal Danish Ballet 10 years later.

At the close of his directorship of Ballet West in 1985, he and his late wife, principal dancer Toni Lander, received rave reviews for their re-creation and staging of ''Abdallah,'' a lost 1855 ballet by choreographer August Bournonville.

Marks is well-known for his dedication to making dance more inclusive a mission inspired by his own humble childhood. ''Kids like me should have a chance,'' he says. ''The art form will change as we include more people.''

A five-year-old dance education program called Citydance, which brings about 400 inner-city kids off the streets and into the studio, is the centerpiece of this conception.

Citydance is seen as a model program that successfully addresses what is arguably the most important challenge to the art form right now: creating a future audience.

Through the process of inclusion, dance can become more relevant to more people, Marks says. Students' families will begin attending the ballet. And as these students grow up, they will choreograph work that's meaningful to themselves and their communities.

''They will change what ballet is,'' Marks says.

He says the answer lies in not diluting ballet to make it more palatable to patrons. ''My theory is that if you're inclusive as an organization, people will come,'' he says. ''That will generate a new audience.''

In the meantime, Marks prepares for Boston Ballet's performance of ''The Taming of the Shrew,'' the final ballet of his 10th anniversary season. A new ballet for the company, choreographer John Cranko's version of the Shakespeare comedy opens tonight and continues through May 21.

Marks is animated when speaking of his next decade with the Boston Ballet. ''The challenge of the next 10 years is really harder than the first 10 years. It was obvious what we needed to do then. Now we need to make a contribution [to the arts ] with the new works we will create.''

And Marks continues to be outspoken about the role of government in funding the arts.

''It's hard for the arts community to continue to defend itself,'' he says, adding that ''Scientists don't have to constantly say, 'Life without physics is meaningless.'

''It's so clear to me ... that a country without an active and encouraged arts program is not a country at all,'' he says. ''We're turning our backs on our nation's pride.''

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