ARTS TO DANCE FOR DALLAS

Though he is "nobody in the dance world," Jessie Ramirez is determined to take up where the Dallas Ballet left off.

The word went out to all of Dallas and Fort Worth through newspapers, college bulletin boards, and phone calls: Jessie Ramirez, artistic director of the Dallas City Ballet, was looking for dancers. A dancer himself, Ramirez needed a cast to join his company’s production of the seasonal classic, “The Nutcracker Suite.” But when audition day rolled around, only about fifteen people trekked up the six flights of dingy stairs to the little dance studio in the Undermain Theatre building in Deep Ellum. Some came from local dance companies, some came from Richardson and Fort Worth, a few even came from Houston. Each of them wanted a chance to dance the Nutcracker now that the Dallas Ballet had left an empty spot in Dallas. But even this paltry showing was a beginning for Jessie Ramirez’s dream.

Born and raised in Bryan, Texas, Jessie Ramirez is a true Texan with a slight Spanish accent that hints at his family’s Mexican heritage. At thirty-one, he has been dancing for some eight years and has toured the country, but considers Dallas home. Like many others in this city, Ramirez wants to stay and work here, and that’s where his dream begins. Although he considers himself “practically nobody” in the dance world, he firmly believes that a love of dance, combined with a lot of hard work, will bring a thriving ballet company to Dallas. “I’m not afraid to try anything,” says Ramirez. “I want to keep doing the classic works because that’s my basic love, but there’s always room for something new. It’s getting to be that time again, as it was back in the late 1800s, when dance got very stale and new artists and dancers came out and brought in a new era.”

The Dallas City Ballet was formed about two years ago by Ramirez and a group of dancers for the Dallas Opera. They found a space at the Undermain Theatre building and began doing small shows at junior colleges and art festivals. Today, they want to be Dallas’s official ballet troupe. Ramirez promises that he will deliver the Nutcracker in the grandest of styles to the Majestic Theatre December 19-24. The Nutcracker, of course, is but the first step in a plan to fill the toe shoes that were left empty when the Dallas Ballet folded last August amidst turmoil over budget problems and accusations of mismanagement.

Ramirez wants a ballet that reflects Dallas. “I want to utilize as much as possible the local talent we have here,” he says. “There are a lot of good dancers and choreographers who have the same qualities it takes to dance in New York or Europe but they choose to stay here. They have strong root ties.” Griff Braun, who danced with the Dallas Ballet, is a good example. He, along with two other members of the company, took a job with the Royal Swedish Ballet Company because there was no longer a place for him to dance in Dallas. But Braun grew up in Dallas, and he’d like to see ballet return here.

The company that Ramirez heads is made up of sixteen dancers and six apprentices from the Dallas City Ballet, the Houston Ballet, the Texas Ballet in Houston, and the Tuzer Ballet of Texas in Richardson, as well as a few from some of the local dance companies. In pursuing his goals, Ramirez will be fulfilling a dream of many local dancers-to be able to dance for Dallas.

Ramirez has been methodical and deliberate in his attempt to form a bigger company. The first step was an appearance in front of the City Council in which he eloquently (and nervously) outlined his grand dream. “I got more phone calls from that three-minute speech in front of the council,” Ramirez says, “and the response has been fantastic.” But despite smiles and polite nods from the council, Ramirez won”t receive any money from the city. Even the money that was earmarked for the Dallas Ballet before it folded was given to the Theater Operating Company, which manages the Majestic Theatre and the Music Hall at Fair Park. The operating company figured it stood to lose $110,000 to $120,000 in office and hall rental and performance profits when the Dallas Ballet pulled out. So, according to Phil Jones, division of cultural affairs manager, the operating company was given about $97,000 to help cover the losses. To date, however, the Majestic has filled about 70 percent of those lost bookings.

The Dallas City Ballet can apply for city money next year through the proper channels, but that doesn’t do a struggling company any good now. So Ramirez has turned to the private sector. Since September, he has gone from corporation to corporation, from arts supporter to arts supporter in search of money and any kind of help they can offer. Though its budget for the 1988-’89 season is only $500.000-the Dallas Ballet’s ’87-’88 budget was a whopping $4.2 million-that’s still a half-million dollars to raise in tough times. Ramirez is counting on private funding (he’s hoping to raise S200.000) as well as proceeds from the Nutcracker to carry them into a spring season. Corporate donations are trickling in: Dean Witter Reynolds Inc. hopes to give funds to the company in the spring, and the seed has been planted in many others.

Ramirez also has many friends and fellow dancers who are eager to help him achieve this dream. The Richardson Symphony will accompany the ballet in its production of the Nutcracker, and Soili Arvola and Leo Ahonen of the Texas Ballet are offering some sets, costumes, and more than eighty years of dancing experience between them.

But Ramirez’s reception among the city’s seasoned dancers has been less than warm-especially from former Dallas Ballet members. “There were some really good dancers with the Dallas Ballet and I’d like to see them dance with us. but there’s some animosity there,” says Ramirez. “Basically all I’m trying to do is keep the dance going, and nobody else was starting anything or even attempting to, so I’m doing it. But it’s almost like the Dallas Ballet went under and they don’t think anyone local should step in and try to do anything. If the Dallas Ballet couldn’t do it, neither should anyone else.”

A couple of the former Dallas Ballet dancers have joined Jessie’s group, but others have stayed away, and for different reasons. Some have taken new jobs, some have started other careers so they can pay their bills, and others just aren’t ready to try ballet again in Dallas. Many members feel that it will be years before Dallas sees a booming ballet and they just can’t wait that long. “Each dancer individually will have to resolve his own problems,” says Sharon Garber, a former Dallas Ballet member. “Maybe it could have worked out if there wasn’t so much resentment and it hadn’t dragged on for so long.” Says Karyn Con-nell, another former Dallas Ballet dancer, “Everyone needs to get together to make that one thing work. We have one major symphony, one opera, one major museum, and that’s where all the money goes, to supporting that one group. With dance, everyone wants their own little feeding ground.” But despite this lesson on sticking together. Con-nell still remains a little bitter. “It would take a whole lot to keep me here just because of being involved in the whole Dallas Ballet mess. When you’ve been through it once, you don’t want to go through it again.”

But even Ramirez’s optimism can’t hide the fact that these are tough times for local arts groups. The Dallas Ballet placed most of the blame for its demise on the economy and the fact that people weren’t spending money on such “luxuries” anymore. Patricia Meadows, a Dallas arts supporter, agrees that this is not a good time in Dallas for cultural institutions. “Social services like health, education, crime, drug abuse, are out there asking for those same dollars. These [artistic] groups are hanging on by a thread, but people pass right by their pleas for help and go to the financial page.” says Meadows. But while the economic downturn has crimped entertainment dollars, others charge that the ballet’s choice of material also kept patrons away, making it difficult for the company to support its enormous budget. For a company that stayed mainly in the red, its budget was always high, rapidly eating up every dollar it made. “The Dallas Ballet failed, in my opinion, because they had a bad director,” says Margaret Putnam, Dallas Times Herald dance critic. “He [Flemming Flindt] wasn’t in sync with the spirit of Texas; he was too gloomy, too violent.”

But despite all of the problems and “what ifs,” Ramirez and a growing group of supporters believe that there is a place for ballet in Dallas given time and a few successful performances. “The further it gets away, the further it’s going to go down, and the harder it’s going to be to bring it back up,” says Ramirez. “Right now it’s like something small slowly building up and slowly building up. It’s going to go well, and what’s going to make it are the dancers, the choreographers, the people that make the commitment to dance, not necessarily as a business but as their lives.”

Philip Semark, who was executive director of the Dallas Ballet and who is now trying to launch his own arts venture, Dallas Great Performances, is cautiously supportive of the Dallas City Ballet. “A city the size and importance of Dallas can support a ballet of national stature… but my main advice to the company in this particular economy is to raise enough money up front to see them through the first six months.” Semark believes the group’s best bet is to bring in a director of national reputation whose direction matches the tastes and desires of the city. What Ramirez lacks in national reputation he will have to make up with a charisma that will energize the city, like the symphony’s Eduardo Mata and the Dallas Theater Center’s Adrian Hall have done.

So Dallas does have dance. Or does it? Just as we waited to see whether the Dallas Ballet would pull itself up out of the mire, we’ll have to wait and see if. with big dreams, a little money, and a lot of hard work, the Dallas City Ballet can rise to the top while avoiding the pitfalls that led to the Dallas Ballet’s demise.

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