FEMME PHAROAH: Julie Gumbinner dances the lead in Texas Ballet Theater’s Cleopatra this month at the Bass Performance Hall. photography by Ellen Appel

Texas Ballet Theater Debuts “Cleopatra”

The Texas Ballet Theater brings "Cleopatra" to Fort Worth. Now what about Dallas?

People outside Dallas-Fort Worth sometimes talk about the two cities as if they were one thing. Those of us who live in one city or the other know better. And those of us who dance in them both might know best.

The Texas Ballet Theater, which divides itself between Dallas and Fort Worth, tries to lure these rivals into an intimate pas de deux where they hear the same music in perfect complement. In fact, though, the company’s bilocation leads to uneven levels of performance and support. Fort Worth always uses the Bass Performance Hall, but Dallas splits between the Music Hall at Fair Park and the Majestic Theatre. While the two Dallas venues “have been fabulous to us,” according to Margo McCann, the Texas Ballet Theater’s interim managing director, their two locations and structural differences sometimes make them hard to use.

For Dallas ballet attendees, the Music Hall has neither the central location of the Bass, nor its airy graces. No grand entrance beckons, and the overall feeling of carpeting muffles most sweeping emotions. As Anna Donovan, principal ballet master of the TBT, says, “Fort Worth people feel like Bass Hall, a wonderful venue and beautiful place, belongs to them and their culture.” Does anyone say that about the Music Hall?

While Donovan loves the Majestic for its reminiscence of an old European theater, she admits that it’s tiny. Dancers exiting from one stage side who have to appear on the other side seconds later sometimes have to run through the street behind the theater. Otherwise, they must descend a spiral staircase, run down a corridor, and climb up more stairs to get back onstage.

Such spatial restrictions and other concerns mean lower attendance in Dallas. McCann says, “We’ve been performing in Dallas since 1989, but I feel like the majority of Dallas doesn’t know we’re here. Some people go to the Meyerson, but they won’t go to the Music Hall or Majestic. We think they’ll come to the Winspear. We’ve put some real thought into Dallas as a large, large part of our future. A brand-new opera house will bring in a new and different audience.” Doubtless the Winspear Opera House will relax the strain the TBT feels between the two cities and even within Dallas. The organization hopes, too, that the new performance space will generate more revenue.

Last summer, the TBT’s financial position got so dire that it was in danger of folding. So the dancers went door to door in Fort Worth to raise money. They performed in shopping malls and held a sale in a parking lot. As the economy continues to sour, the TBT will need to address its management issues, one of which is that it hasn’t had a full-time development director for almost four years. A search is on for one while board members continue to fill that role. What’s more, McCann says the company hasn’t had “the money to put towards marketing Dallas properly” as it has for Fort Worth.

During this last season at the Music Hall and Majestic, only The Nutcracker and Swan Lake were performed. Mozart’s Requiem and Cleopatra only appeared in Fort Worth. I was able to attend both the Requiem and The Nutcracker.

The Fort Worth Symphony Orchestra and Schola Cantorum of Texas, a Tarrant County-based choral group, accompanied the dance, which was something of a coup. At the Requiem—artistic director Ben Stevenson’s contemporary adaptation on America’s wars—the mist-shrouded male dancers wore gray body suits and dog tags. The TBT has had to cut live music due to costs, but in this case Schola Cantorum offered their services, and the orchestra found a donor to make its performance possible. For all the lack of set design, something truly moving came from that somber October experience.

Back in Dallas, ripe humor and gorgeous fanfare filled the Music Hall’s Nutcracker, with old people and young children falling about at the Stahlbaums in the first act and delicate dances gracing the Kingdom of Sweets in the second. But the piped music left much to be desired. Needless to say, the death of Jack Buckhannan, the company’s music director, days before the Dallas opening, dampened the performers’ spirits. Still, the dancers beautifully and graciously performed to a half-empty hall—a true present to those few of us there to receive it.

This season’s final show, Cleopatra, takes place at Bass Hall from March 27 to 29. Tutankhamun’s devotees can travel to our neighboring city for more Egyptian glory. Principal ballet master Donovan calls Cleopatra a “stunning performance. An Egyptian barge evolves into something else, and one scene, The Streets of Rome, is absolutely magnificent and breathtaking.” An arrangement of Rimsky-Korsakov’s music accompanies the work. Donovan credits Stevenson for the production’s high quality. “This is the kind of thing we are very blessed to have Ben Stevenson for,” she says. “He is a master of the theater, and it’s wonderful to watch his imagination come to life.”

Later this year, Dallas will be forced to pay heed to its ballet—if for no other reason than to experience the new Winspear. Let’s hope the TBT seizes the opportunity to gather greater momentum and force, making the beauty of that will-o’-the-wisp, dance, a little less ephemeral here.

Cleopatra runs March 27 to 29 at Bass Performance Hall, Fourth and Calhoun streets, Fort Worth. texasballettheater.org.


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