A World Without Tutus

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


To some dance observers, the missed opportunities have proven to be a blessing. While big ballet institutions may be receding into the past like luxury ocean liners, their traditions have created rich mulch where new forms of dance can germinate and thrive. Locally, three chamber-sized ballet companies have emerged over the past decade or so: the revitalized MDT, a repertory company with a major school that performs works by both classical and contemporary choreographers; the James Sewell Ballet, a community-friendly troupe showcasing accessible-yet-edgy ballets; and Ballet of the Dolls, a sui generis dance theater presenting the eccentric oeuvre of artistic director Myron Johnson. Artistically redoubtable and administratively solid, these organizations have forged distinctive identities--though none enjoys a high national profile.

The James Sewell Ballet (JSB), an eight-member company that relocated to Minneapolis from New York in 1993, could be a model for the kind of arts organization that funders love to back.

"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

Fiscally responsible, artistically adventurous, and community-sensitive, JSB has made a statewide impact through careful planning and judicious programming. Over the past nine years, it has built an in-state touring program that brings Sewell's work to dozens of smaller communities throughout Minnesota. Presenting between 30 and 95 performances a year, the company has increased its budget from $46,000 in 1993 to $623,000 in the last fiscal year.

Sewell, a Minneapolis native who started his company in New York, moved back home because, as he puts it, "New York didn't need another ballet company and Minneapolis did." Sewell sees his group as a kind of ecosystem where each dancer is a soloist who helps determine the artistic shape and vitality of the organization. "Audiences want to see us pushing boundaries," he says. "We don't need a 50-member company to do that." In this vein, the Sewell Ballet's current show at the O'Shaughnessy-- running through Sunday, April 28--features virtuosic contemporary ballets with accents of vaudeville, ragtime, and tango.

Like Sewell, MDT's artistic director Lise Houlton-Gilliland believes that smaller is better. "We're not aspiring to be a big company," she says. The daughter of Lloyce Houlton, Houlton-Gilliland left MDT in the 1970s to become a featured dancer with companies around the world. She resuscitated MDT after her mother's death in 1995, showing a determination to let go of the past while carrying on the MDT legacy. Primarily, this involves presenting a broad range of works and supporting a school.

"I won't have a company without a school, or a school without a company," the artistic director insists. But neither does she want the burden of building and maintaining a large organization. "We want to focus on sustaining work for the dancers we have, presenting a mix of classical and contemporary works by American choreographers that will bring in new audiences who are not necessarily dance audiences." MDT's revival of Houlton's Nutcracker is again playing to capacity audiences, and last February the nine-member company drew enthusiastic audiences to see the work of three African-American choreographers at the Fitzgerald Theater. Next week, MDT opens its fifth staging of Houlton-Gilliland's popular Rumblings, a blues ballet with live music, at the Southern Theater in Minneapolis.

Myron Johnson makes no bones about his connection to classical ballet, describing himself as "the most ballet-oriented choreographer" on the scene. The troupe he founded in 1986, Ballet of the Dolls, currently comprises 12 dancers, who perform Johnson's wigged-out deconstructions of classical ballets. The versatile Dolls also tackle pop-culture cabarets skewing everything from gender roles to suburban malaise, and his spiritual forays into death and dying. Johnson seeks out dancers who might be trained in classics or hip hop--a provocative mix of the young, the middle-aged, the pregnant, the bald.

The Dolls tend to show up everywhere, popularizing their style by performing in lofts, nightclubs, and funky theaters like the Ritz in Northeast Minneapolis, which they are currently renovating. Johnson has introduced runs of several weeks--typical in theater but rare in dance--giving audiences an opportunity to get to know the dancers and to follow the unpredictable development of his highly entertaining work.

"It's ballet in your living room," says Johnson, who actually laid out a leopard carpet and appropriately louche furniture on Second Avenue and Fourth Street one Bastille Day, inviting passersby to watch the Dolls hang out.


These three companies undoubtedly have brought ballet up front and personal to diverse segments of the community. But are the grand-scale mysteries of love, death, revenge, and redemption--the traditional themes of ballet--ultimately sacrificed to downsizing and accessibility?

"Not having a large ballet company is like losing part of the library," says Lou Fancher, a choreographer and rehearsal director for James Sewell Ballet. "We have the current, exciting work, but not the classics."

"Those traditional ballets touch our lives," says Uri Sands, currently a dancer and the resident choreographer at MDT. "Like Lord of the Rings, they play with the imagination and fantasies we all have."

Sands and his wife, Toni Pierce-Sands, are African American dancers who relocated to Minneapolis after performing with the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater in New York. Both are adamant about the value of their early ballet training.

"Besides rigorous training, it gave me a sense of humility, guidance, and etiquette," says Sands. Yet he feels equally strongly about challenging the outmoded conventions of ballet: That it is exclusively an art form of thin, white dancers with perfect bodies. "How about turning a stereotype on its head by asking a dancer of European descent to demonstrate syncopated rhythm on toe shoes--with attitude," he quips.

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