A World Without Tutus

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

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.

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:


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.


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.

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.

Sands and Pierce-Sands, an original MDT dancer who currently teaches and directs rehearsals there, are outspoken about what they regard as a lack of standards in the Twin Cities dance scene. "There is so much mediocrity tolerated here," says Pierce-Sands. "Schools like MDT create an environment of standards in both ballet and modern dance, and a sense of coming from a tradition, of being mentored and honed." In a similar vein, both stress the importance of Ballet Arts, a school that trains both professionals and a diverse array of students to perform contemporary and classical works.

The couple is also concerned about funding priorities for dance here, which they believe favor new, innovative work by emerging choreographers. "This community nurtures everyone getting a little bit of something," says Pierce-Sands. "Funders feel justified giving to the creative end, keeping a cap on the funding, which makes long-term development by talented and experienced artists difficult."

"We don't have a major ballet company because we don't want one," insists Ballet of the Dolls' Myron Johnson. "We like having lots of stuff here."

Sands disagrees, passionately advocating a "joined arts community" that might support both ballet and modern dance. "There's too much division in the dance community," he insists. "How wondrous it would be if all the dance organizations in the Hennepin Center for the Arts just pooled their resources, bought the building, and built a great big company with several artistic directors."

Any funders prepared to second that motion?

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