A World Without Tutus

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

Judith Brin Ingber, who was a student of the Andahazys, recalls the fireworks between "two Hungarians with temperaments"--Andahazy and Antal Dorati, then conductor of the orchestra. For several years in the 1950s these two mercurial artists filled Northrop Auditorium each June, collaborating on productions that mixed Andahazy's European esthetic with exotic Ballet Russe favorites like Schéhérazade.

The real fireworks on the local ballet scene began in 1962 when Lloyce Houlton, a Duluth native who had danced in New York, founded the Minnesota Dance Theater and school in Dinkytown. An artist who demanded maximum loyalty and energy from everyone around her, Houlton wore her passions on the sleeve of her elegant fur coat. She produced her own versions of classics, such as her popular Nutcracker, which was performed annually at Northrop Auditorium with the Minnesota Orchestra. Too, she imported contemporary ballet choreographers with international reputations (such as Glen Tetley) to work with the company.

Her original choreography, which dominated the repertory, was a hybrid of classical ballet pyrotechnics and Martha Graham-inspired dramatic modernism. At her best, Houlton inspired her company to Olympian heights with works like Crumb Trilogy, performed with the St. Paul Chamber Orchestra and described here in a 1978 Minneapolis Tribune review by critic Mike Steele:

"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

 

While most contemporary creators are grappling with time and space and generally groveling in the area of their navels, Houlton stands on a mountaintop hurling cosmic pictures our way. She creates the cosmos on the Orpheum Theater stage and sculpts images of metaphysical power to comment on it.

 

Houlton was by all accounts a pied piper who lured both dancers and funders into the maelstrom of her artistic vision. While she lovingly and rigorously molded young dancers and brought them into the company, she could also be intensely critical and destructive. One dancer recalls her waiting backstage to grab dancers as they exited and hiss at them, "You've ruined my ballet!"

By contrast, Diane Aldis, a modern dancer who took a class with Houlton in the early 1980s, describes her as "an incredibly eloquent and inspiring woman who came sweeping into class saying, 'today we're going to explore the 17th, 18th, and 19th centuries through my aesthetic.' "

She remembers Houlton, in pink-sequined sneakers, making her pedagogical points with some eye-popping analogies. During grands pliés (the deep knee bends which begin the ballet barre), Houlton asked the students to envision themselves giving birth to Zeus. For all her idiosyncrasies, she molded an impressive group of performers, including Erin Thompson, who won a Bessie Award for her dancing in New York, and Houlton's daughter Lise, who became a principal dancer with American Ballet Theater.

By the late 1970s, MDT was on its way to becoming a major regional ballet company. At one point it was the third-largest performing-arts institution in the state, with 22 dancers and more than 1000 students in the school. Houlton's lavish productions and charismatic presence created an aura of glamour and success. Yet this façade was eventually undermined by severe financial problems.

Even today, years after Houlton's death, people in the arts, funding, and business communities will only question the dance diva's administration off the record. According to one civic leader and dance aficionado, "Lloyce had the uncommon ability to outspend her budget and lean on board members to fill in the gaps, year after year." At the same time, she could apparently shake money out of trees, obtaining substantial commitments from funders and wealthy individuals, some of whom had vowed not to give her another dime.

By 1986, however, the company was deeply in debt. The board of trustees, at the end of its rope, voted to remove Houlton as artistic director. "It was like firing your mom," says Lou Fancher, a dancer representative to the board at the time. Even many of Houlton's detractors were shocked at the idea of a company's founder being removed from the organization she had created.

The board brought in Pacific Northwest Ballet, a major company based in Seattle, to establish Minneapolis as a second city (a popular arrangement at the time to broaden a large company's audience and financial base). What was supposed to be a merger of the two companies became a kind of corporate takeover, with all the MDT dancers getting fired. This community's movers and shakers didn't take well to being co-opted by outsiders, no matter how accomplished they were, and the venture failed within two years.

"Veins still pop out in people's necks when the history of MDT comes up," says Neil Cuthbert, a program officer at the McKnight Foundation who has followed the evolution of dance here for many years. "Some people feel what happened to Lloyce was tragic and uncalled-for. Others believe it should have happened sooner."

Whatever the case, MDT's fate has profoundly affected local ballet. Funders and community leaders felt burned and were unwilling to take a chance on emerging ballet companies. Many believed that Minneapolis had missed its only chance to develop a major regional company. Dale Schatzlein, director of the Northrop Dance Series, which brings in four international ballet companies each year, suggests that the arts landscape has become inhospitable to large ballet troupes. He cites the demise of the National Endowment for the Arts dance-touring program in the 1980s as one significant factor. Similarly, the increased costs of maintaining and touring a large company have significantly altered the economics of ballet.

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