A World Without Tutus

Civic boosters are proud of the Twin Cities' theaters, orchestras, museums, and literary centers. so what happened to the ballet?

Traditionally, everything is beautiful at the ballet. And big. And expensive. Despite ongoing attempts to update and streamline this 17th-century European art form, ballet thrives on spectacle and codified ritual. Mounting a full-length ballet--whether the revival of a 19th-century classic or a new work--adds up to big bucks: A recent production of the venerable Don Quixote by Ballet Met in Columbus, Ohio cost upward of $370,000. And that's relatively cheap. Production expenses and dancer salaries can run into the millions.

Yet given the number of major regional ballet companies, wall-to-wall swans gliding across a stage would seem to have become as valid an expression of civic pride as 22 guys in helmets knocking each other unconscious. In fact, Ohio alone has four regional ballet companies with annual budgets of more than a million dollars, and cities such as Columbus, Seattle, and Pittsburgh support organizations with budgets in excess of five million.

What accounts for the allure of this courtly European art form, especially in America? Professional ballet hovers somewhere between a religion and a science. Acolytes begin at a young age (around eight or nine), training rigorously for at least ten years. Their bodies must be systematically programmed to perform a series of precise shapes and movements as exactingly as, say, a gymnast negotiating the uneven bars. Without the correct execution--turned out legs, carefully positioned torsos--the movement is not properly ballet. The medium's complex artistry depends on the interplay between a fixed vocabulary and expressiveness---rather like working in sonnet form while speaking in tongues.

"New York didn't need another ballet company and Minneapolis did": James Sewell
Courtesy of James Sewell Ballet
"New York didn't need another ballet company and Minneapolis did": James Sewell

Twentieth-century neo-classical choreographers like George Balanchine and William Forsythe stretched and distorted classical conventions, adding extremes of flexibility and speed and rhythmic complexities inspired by both jazz and folk idioms. The Americanization of ballet has led to dances that incorporate cowboys, filling stations, even circus elephants (Balanchine's ballet for Ringling Brothers Circus). On an institutional level, this wave of creativity led to a proliferation of regional ballet companies across the United States during the 1970s and '80s. Typical of such companies is Ohio's Ballet Met, with an annual budget of $5.4 million, a company of 27 dancers, a repertory of more than 100 ballets from classical to contemporary, and a loyal following of about 125,000 a year.

So why have the Twin Cities never added a ballet company to their roster of major arts institutions? Minnesotans are known to go weak in the knees at the very mention of phrases like "flagship institution" (the Guthrie Theater) and "internationally renowned" (the St. Paul Chamber Orchestra). Yet civic pride has never produced a major ballet troupe. Is dance just the poor relation of theater, music, and the visual arts--shortchanged by the Cities' male boosters? Or have the Twin Cities, with their reputation for creativity and innovation in dance, bypassed a monolithic ballet company in favor of smaller, more experimental troupes?

John Cowles, former publisher of the Star Tribune and a prime mover in the development of the original Guthrie Theater, speaks of the mania for arts expansion that infected Minneapolis in the 1960s. He describes himself and others, like Ken and Bruce Dayton and Philip Von Blon, as "a bunch of relatively young businessmen who believed that the arts are an important part of the fabric of a community. We all felt that in order to hold bright young people and attract new businesses, there must be a vibrant arts community."

The ensuing combination of strong community leadership and financial support from wealthy individuals and business led to the founding of the Guthrie Theater and the Minnesota Opera, and new facilities for Walker Art Center, the Minneapolis Institute for the Arts, the Children's Theatre, and the Minnesota Orchestra (then the Minneapolis Symphony).

Dance never became a part of the local 1960s arts expansion. But forces operating in other parts of the forest were shaping the Twin Cities into a nationally recognized center for modern dance. Pioneers such as Nancy Hauser, Gertrude Lippincott, and Margret Dietz formed schools and established companies in the 1950s and '60s. During the 1970s, Sue Weil, Walker Art Center's director of performing arts, brought in cutting-edge dance artists like Twyla Tharp and Merce Cunningham, making it possible for them to spend significant chunks of time here. These residencies helped expose local artists to revolutionary innovations in dance. Since that time, modern dance companies have proliferated here as foundations such as Dayton Hudson, Jerome, and McKnight have provided seed money to innovative artists.

"This has always been a modern dance town," says Gary Peterson, a dance activist who is currently the executive director of the James Sewell Ballet. "There just haven't been the individuals of means in this community to make a major ballet company happen and to sustain it over time. Enough money--jut not enough interest."

 

Ballet has hardly been invisible on the state's arts scene. Yet its history is a convoluted one, dominated by a few dynamic artists who lacked the business savvy--and perhaps the desire--to build institutions that could survive their charismatic leadership. After World War II, Lorand and Anna Andahazy, former members of Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo, moved to St. Paul and started a school. In 1952 they founded Ballet Borealis, which became the first local dance company to perform at Northrop with the Minnesota Orchestra.

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