ARTS: Dance Lessons

The Texas Ballet Theater, formerly Fort Worth Dallas Ballet, spent six years struggling. But thanks to Ben Stevenson, the company is back on pointe.

SHALL
WE DANCE: Artistic Director Ben Stevenson has created a company with
beautiful turn-out. Texas Ballet Theater’s second season under
Stevenson opened last month.

A STIFF WADDLE LONG AGO replaced Ben Stevenson’s limber grand battement.
The 68-year-old choreographer seems more grandfatherly fisherman than
pirouetting prince, and at 5 feet 9 inches and 220 pounds, he’s more
comfortable in khakis than tights. To look at him, the Englishman seems
an unlikely candidate to lead a company of lithe young dancers to the
top of their trade, but like a former NFL player turned doughy head
coach, his physique belies an impressive career and considerable
talents. And those gifts have answered Dallas balletomanes’ prayers.

As principal for the Royal Ballet and London Festival Ballet in the ’50s and ’60s, Stevenson danced the lead role in Swan Lake, Sleeping Beauty,
and every other classical ballet favorite. During his younger days, he
also performed with such stars as Judy Garland and Ella Fitzgerald for
British television’s Sunday Night at the Palladium. His
dancing talents are still there; when he spins on his toe, chin lifted,
arms skyward, to demonstrate a foot position for a male dancer at a
rehearsal, you can see traces of his extensive training. Stevenson has
an international reputation as a teacher. When he speaks, softly and
with a lilting English accent, he seems not just genteel but almost
dainty. And he commands great respect from the 31 dancers at Texas
Ballet Theater, formerly the Fort Worth Dallas Ballet.

It
wasn’t the first name change for the 43-year-old company, and Stevenson
isn’t its first acclaimed artistic director. In the ’90s, ballet in
Dallas flourished. Under the direction of Paul Mejia, a student of the
famed George Balanchine, the Fort Worth Dallas Ballet rose from
relative obscurity to national acclaim. The small company’s classic
concerts were well-attended, the dancers were renowned, and the board
was happy.

But in the summer of 1998, Mejia walked away from
Fort Worth Dallas Ballet. After a dancer accused him of sexual
harassment, he left to become the artistic director of Metropolitan
Classical Ballet (formerly Ballet Arlington). The company nearly
crumbled.

Ben Houk, Mejia’s replacement, lasted less than three
seasons. He left before the end of the 2000-01 season, citing “artistic
differences in vision and quality.” Next up was South African
choreographer Bruce Simpson, who, in March 2001, became ballet
master-in-chief. Though not the official artistic director, he
conducted classes and rehearsals.

Many thought Simpson was doing
a good job, and he was a strong contender for a permanent position. But
in 2001 the company suffered serious financial setbacks. Critics called
performances “wildly inconsistent,” and community interest waned.
Contributions and ticket sales dwindled until, in January 2002, to
avoid a budget deficit, three programs were dropped from the ballet’s
spring schedule, leaving dancers without a stage and on the dole.
Shortly thereafter, Simpson decided to join the Louisville Ballet as
artistic director.

The same week that Simpson announced that
he would leave at the end of the season, a handful of ballet board
members followed suit. With the ballet in financial straits and a
yearlong search for an artistic director ongoing, some board members
were getting restless. A consortium of investors (mostly board members’
husbands) said they would put up the cash to cover the rest of the
season and part of the next, as long as the board reorganized and the
ballet kept looking for an artistic director—for as long as it took.
Three longtime board members vocally opposed the proposal and walked
away, saying it had already taken too long to fill the job.
Nevertheless, Executive Director David Mallette and a majority of board
members supported the idea and raised a $1.3 million band-aid to cover
expenses.

The ballet had money but still no permanent artistic
leadership. Mallette, who had been accused of overstepping his
authority and meddling in artistic affairs, insisted that the board
would continue to take its time filling the vacancy. Patience paid off.

MALLETTE
SPENT THREE YEARS in the late ’80s as company manager in Houston, where
he developed a working relationship with Ben Stevenson. The ballet
board wanted the artistic director for Houston Ballet to be a temporary
advisor for Texas Ballet Theater and help find a permanent artistic
director. Mallette approached Stevenson, who in only two months found
one: himself.

As it happened, Stevenson had just  announced
his retirement from the Houston Ballet when Mallette called. After 27
years there, Stevenson was ready to pass the baton. “I thought I would
teach a few classes, put on a ballet here and there,” he says, leaning
back in a chair in his tiny office. “But I wasn’t relishing the idea of
retirement, of life in a rocking chair without even a Cuban cigar.” In
June 2003, Stevenson became artistic director of TBT.

It was
rough at first. Stevenson’s approach was different from what the
dancers were accustomed to, and some didn’t like the new way. Three
followed Simpson to Louisville. Another departed for Seattle. Two
simply quit, and another was denied a new contract. The dancers who
remained had to make the difficult transition from the restrained style
of neoclassical ballet to dramatic dances, ones that incorporate
theatrics, novelty, and self-expression. And the dancers who remained
were behind the curve compared with the six replacement dancers
Stevenson brought in from Houston. It was veterans versus the new
guard, and the Houston dancers got the plum parts. “We weren’t trying
to take over,” says 20-year-old Houston import Carrie Judson, “but
that’s how it appeared.” At the end of the 2003-04 season, six more of
the company’s original dancers decided to leave.

Stevenson calls
his first season with TBT “explorative.” Part of the process was the
weeding out of dancers who didn’t see eye to eye with the new director.
His second objective was to establish the personality of the company
through three Dallas and four Fort Worth productions. With the
exception of an atrocious showing at John Travolta’s appearance at the
Majestic Theatre, TBT awed audiences with straight-from-a-storybook
concerts marked with what critics called a “wonderful combination of
inspiration and craftsmanship,” not to mention the elaborate sets and
costumes that were a far cry from ethereal classical fare. If there was
tension among the dancers or hostility toward their leader, it didn’t
show, and if critics, subscriptions, and board opinion are any
indication, it was a triumphant year. The trick, now, is to make it
last.

STEVENSON SAYS THAT THE FUTURE OF TBT lies in dancer
training. A ballet can either recruit great dancers or make them, and
he believes firmly in the latter. When he took over the Houston Ballet
in 1976, Stevenson told Dance Magazine that he planned to
grow talent. He did that by establishing a world-class ballet school,
and he intends to do the same here. Currently, TBT rehearses in a tiny,
unassuming studio in a West Fort Worth strip mall. The company has to
share the cramped space with troupes of student dancers, often giving
up one of its two rehearsal studios to a class bumbling 6-year-olds.
There is simply not enough room for any ballet company, let alone one
struggling to reestablish national acclaim.

But in May a
partnership formed by members of the TBT board purchased a historic
building near downtown Fort Worth. The ballet plans to buy the building
and convert it for a proper ballet school. There is talk of something
similar in Dallas. “The new school is everything,” Stevenson says.
“With a school you can develop artists. You can grow a dancer into a
principal.”

As Stevenson grooms future dancers, it seems he’s
also training his replacement. In 1997, when Tim O’Keefe was a
principal at the Houston Ballet, Stevenson created the title role of Dracula
for him. Now it appears that he’s readying his 44-year-old protégé for
a new job. O’Keefe still dances, but as assistant to the artistic
director, he also frequently serves as the eyes and voice for
Stevenson.

Should the board—recently joined by Ray Nasher,
Janine Turner, and Booz Allen Hamilton’s Harry Quarls—offer to extend
Stevenson’s contract past 2006, he says he will consider staying on,
but with a possible successor in place, no one can begrudge him if he
decides to follow through with his retirement. One objective of the
company is to divide its schedule evenly between Dallas and Fort Worth,
with five productions in each city, packing not only Bass Performance
Hall but also Winspear Opera House when it opens in 2009. Stevenson has
brought that goal within sight.

Margo McCann, a 38-year-old
dancer who came to TBT in 1986, hesitates when asked if Ben Stevenson
has saved Texas Ballet Theater. Though season ticket sales are up 11
percent from last year, McCann thinks it’s too soon to call the
director a messiah. She will say, however, that “in name alone, Ben has
brought stability to the company.”

And for this company, stability is a remarkable achievement.

Photo: James Bland

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