Baltimore's best talent dancing out of town

THE BALTIMORE SUN

The arts festival Vivat! St. Petersburg was created to trumpet Baltimore's cultural accomplishments to the world. It also has unwittingly highlighted a major area where the city falls short.

The three-week celebration of Russian culture, which ended last week, featured 106 art exhibits, theater readings and concerts in the Baltimore area -- and exactly one dance troupe. The Ballet Theatre of Maryland, an Annapolis-based dance company, made its Baltimore debut March 1 and 2, when it performed three original pieces set to Russian music.

Granted, Vivat featured lectures about dance and an exhibit of costume drawings of the famed Ballets Russes. Still, that seems paltry, given St. Petersburg's stunning achievements in ballet. The roster of ballet greats who emerged from Russia's cultural capital includes Petipa, Nijinski, Diaghilev, Balanchine and Baryshnikov, among others.

"Three years ago, when they started planning Vivat, all of the major presenters from Baltimore got together," said Carol Bartlett, artistic director of Peabody Conservatory's dance program. "Dance wasn't even brought into the conversation."

She acknowledges that this oversight is understandable; Baltimore audiences are underserved when it comes to dance.

Unlike such other midsized, blue-collar cities as Pittsburgh, Indianapolis, and Milwaukee, Baltimore has no professional, resident, midtier ballet company with a $1 million to $6 million budget, a sum that would support roughly 30 dancers performing three or four programs a season.

The state's largest troupe, Ballet Theater of Maryland, has a $500,000 budget and 12 dancers. The state's best-known modern dance groups -- the Liz Lerman Dance Exchange and Eva Anderson Dancers Ltd. -- are in Takoma Park and Columbia respectively.

"It's not only that we don't have a major resident dance company," Bartlett said. "We also don't present key professional touring companies from around the U.S. We really need to turn that around."

Rightly or not, Baltimore has a reputation as a city that doesn't appreciate dance, a reputation fueled by very public failures of flagship troupes.

A sad history

If there was a golden age of ballet in Maryland, it was the 1970s, when the Maryland State Ballet was at its peak. Although never a top-ranked company on the order of the American Ballet Theater or the New York City Ballet, its members won medals in prestigious European competitions and the troupe landed high-profile world premieres.

But, in August 1979, a fire destroyed the company's offices on St. Paul Street, including its sets, costumes and subscription lists. The troupe never fully recovered, although a downsized version, renamed the Baltimore Ballet, limped along until 1985.

The next year, Harbor City Ballet was created by local choreographer Philip Carman. Despite a name change to the more geographically-appealing Maryland Ballet Theater, it couldn't attract the corporate support it needed and folded in 1993.

So, it has been 10 years since Baltimore had a resident ballet company. And visitors haven't fared much better.

The Washington Ballet has made determined but unsuccessful forays into Baltimore. The company performed a regular season here from 1986 until it canceled the series in 1992, citing low attendance as the reason.

"I was baffled," said Elvi Moore, former general manager of the Washington Ballet. "I never really could figure it out. I was in Baltimore two to three times a week for three years, and I tried my darndest to get the community behind us. We even changed our name to the Washington-Baltimore Ballet, or the Baltimore-Washington Ballet, depending on which city we were performing in. I think there was a feeling that we were carpetbaggers, that we weren't really from Baltimore."

In 1991, the internationally renowned Alvin Ailey Dance Theatre, a modern dance troupe with an African-American sensibility, started a residency program here that included a week of performances annually and summer camps for disadvantaged students. In addition, Ailey's apprentice company toured the state. At the time, it was touted as Baltimore's chance to get instant cachet in the dance world by affiliating with a world-class troupe.

That, too, lasted just three years before collapsing with a $139,000 deficit.

Education leader

These missteps are particularly puzzling because Baltimore enjoys a solid reputation nationwide for dance education.

The University of Maryland, Baltimore County dance department has sent its students to such well-known modern troupes as Pilobolus and the Paul Taylor Dance Company, both performing this year at the Kennedy Center.

Goucher students are represented in the Israeli Ballet, New York's Metropolitan Ballet, and the South Carolina Ballet. In addition, Goucher grad Amy Marshall is making a name as a choreographer in New York.

The small, cutting-edge arts organizations that add such variety and vitality to a city's cultural life tend to spring from universities and their bright, energetic graduates. But while a talented young cello player could hang around Baltimore after matriculating at the Peabody Conservatory and start a chamber music quartet with three friends, or a visionary twentysomething actor / director could form his own company and perform in a church basement, gifted ballet dancers often go professional before they're out of high school. The only way they can hone their skills is to find a place in an existing company.

"We have a student right now, 15 years old, who is a really lovely young dancer, and who will study at the School of the American Ballet this summer," Peabody's Bartlett said. "The absence of high-level productions locally for her to dance in is a real problem for her."

Carol Hess, chairwoman of the dance department at UMBC, puts it more bluntly: "We're training people to leave."

It doesn't have to be that way. Experts say that developing a thriving local dance troupe -- and the audience for it -- is by no means impossible. But it would require a fresh approach.

"The old, traditional way for a ballet company to come into existence is to found a school and build from there," said John Munger, director of research and information for the trade organization Dance / USA.

"That's how the Atlanta Ballet, the San Francisco Ballet and, in a number of ways, the New York City Ballet got started. That's the way it worked in the '30s through the '70s. The thing is, it doesn't seem to be happening that way anymore."

Buying a company

Some municipalities are taking up an approach perfected in the sports world -- "buying" franchises that were founded elsewhere. (Think of the Indianapolis Colts or Atlanta Braves.)

In 1995, a group of moneyed Chicagoans persuaded the Joffrey Ballet to relocate to the Windy City, which lacked a major resident dance company. The Joffrey was based in New York, but had bounced around from theater to theater, which inhibited audience growth. One of the attractions of Chicago was a 2,500-seat theater that was eager to give the ballet a performing home. "That was key," said Harriet Ross, the company's artistic manager.

In 1985, a group of civic-minded Miami residents raised enough money to lure Edward Villella, a former New York City Ballet star, to Florida with the promise of enabling him to start his own company. In just 15 years, the Miami City Ballet has become world renowned.

A venture of that magnitude might be out of the reach of a midsized city like Baltimore. But the Joffrey's Ross thinks it would be easy to find an ambitious and energetic, if smaller, ballet company that would be willing to relocate if the funding could be arranged. "There are several quality groups out there who are poverty-stricken," she said.

She warned that for such a venture to succeed, Baltimore would have to provide the new company with a centrally located, 500- to 1,000-seat theater, which the city currently lacks.

UMBC's Hess said that the primary stages for the city's modern dance troupes are Theatre Project, which seats about 150, and the Baltimore Museum of Art, which can accommodate 360 ticketholders.

She speaks wistfully of venues elsewhere that are shared by, perhaps, a midsized dance company, a theater troupe and a chamber orchestra. These facilities are large enough to enable the groups to make a small profit, but don't require them to fill thousands of seats. In addition, she said, such a facility could attract tours of such top-flight national companies as Pilobolus, further whetting Baltimore's appetite and enthusiasm for dance.

"Baltimore is in a rut when it comes to dance," Hess said. "It's going to take a little rattling of the cage to get things going here again."

Perhaps that's why several Baltimore dancers have their hands on the bars -- or barres.

On April 26, Baltimore dancers will present a dance summit at the Mechanic Theatre. There will be master classes in the morning, a matinee featuring the area's most skilled high school-age dancers, and a free, evening performance by local adult modern-dance ensembles.

The event is designed to build support for the local dance community, and to refute what Hess and others see as a myth -- that dance just won't flourish here.

"Baltimore has an inferiority complex about the arts," she said. "But I believe that the audience is out there. Look at Artscape -- their dance performances always draw a crowd. It would be fabulous to see dance really take flight here. And I think it will. Hopefully. Someday."

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