BalletMet: a renaissance in Ohio.
They applied for a seed grant and received $200,000 from the Battelle foundation to help make the transition. BalletMet, then comprised of twelve dancers and three staff members, was incorporated as Columbus's first professional ballet company in July 1978. Shortly thereafter it hired an artistic director, Wayne Soulant (who died last year at the age of fifty-two), and produced its first Nutcracker that December.
Since then, BalletMet has experienced almost nothing but steady growth. The company's first annual budget was $300,000; this season it will be $4.8 million. It has more than doubled in size, with the roster for the 1997-98 season at an all-time high of twenty-five full-time dancers. The BalletMet Academy, under the institution's umbrella since 1980, has an enrollment of 1,000, and its summer workshop attracts 170 students from around the world. The troupe, which has toured twenty-two states and three countries, now divides its season at home between the 750-seat Capitol Theatre and the 2,900-seat Ohio Theatre. And it has maintained a long-term relationship with the Columbus Symphony Orchestra, which provides music for most performances.
In fact, as it heads into its twentieth-anniversary season, the company appears to be successfully bucking today's alarming trend of declining fortunes for dance. It continues to enlarge both its offerings and its audiences. For instance, attendance at repertory programs has increased an astonishing 100 percent in just the past three seasons. And, to aptly celebrate two decades of dance in Ohio, the company plans to perform more than ever next year: it will offer its dancers thirty-five weeks of work, give forty-seven performances at home (a 60 percent increase since the 1994-95 season), and present the world premieres of two fully staged, evening-length story ballets.
Much of the company's recent success is due to David Nixon, artistic director since September 1994. These positive statistics may be surprising to anyone familiar with the company's condition just a few short years ago. Nixon, a former principal dancer with National Ballet of Canada, assumed direction of BalletMet at a critical juncture, the most difficult moment in the institution's history. In the spring of 1994, the company had gone through a very public, wrenching divorce from its artistic director, John McFall. After disagreements between him and the board of directors, his contract was not renewed. About half the company resigned, including most of the strongest dancers; the remainder unionized. (McFall is now director of Atlanta Ballet.) Attendance immediately following McFall's departure was pitifully small. Spirits were further dampened during this period by the death from lymphoma of ballet mistress Violetta Boft, a former prima ballerina with Stanislavsky and Nemirovich-Danchenko Theatre Ballet in Moscow, who had strengthened the company with enlightened coaching of the classics and an attentive eye to detail.
Despite the bad publicity and angry feelings surrounding McFall's ouster, development director Nancy Strause, who has been associated with BalletMet almost since its inception in 1977, says, "I never thought the institution was in danger of dying. I don't think we could have predicted how tough the transition was going to be. But we had a healthy and diverse contributed revenue base that was retained over that period." (As the power behind the throne for years, Strause is considered one reason for the company's reputation for fiscal responsibility.)
With Nixon, BalletMet may have found the person who could become the salvation of professional ballet in central Ohio. "David is certainly my hero," said board chairman Stephen J. Rotella, executive vice president of Chase Manhattan Mortgage Company. "The successful turnaround of the company after our problems was a concerted effort by the board, the staff, and the artistic side. But clearly the motivation behind that and the reason we have been able to pull together is that we all had faith in David's vision for the company and felt incredibly good about David as a person and as an artistic talent."
Nixon's impact on BalletMet was initially delayed because he had just signed a one-year contract to serve as ballet master with Deutsche Oper ballet in Berlin. Although BalletaMet appointed him director in the fall of 1994, he and his wife, former Joffrey Ballet and National Ballet of Canada ballerina Yoko Ichino, were unable to move to Columbus until the following April. Nixon made the intercontinental commute at whenever possible during the season to keep tabs on things via phone, but neither the company nor the community was able to get a real idea of his personality or style until just a little more than two years ago."David has a tremendous passion for what he is doing, and that is infectious," says Strause. "He asks so much of himself that it inspires others to do more."
A native of Windsor, Ontario, who trained at the National Ballet School of Canada, Nixon began his career in 1978 at the National Ballet and quickly moved up the ranks to principal. From 1985 to 1990, he danced with Deutsche Oper and made a series of guest appearances with London City Ballet, Bavarian State Ballet in Munich, and National Ballet of Canada.
Once he settled in at Columbus, Nixon threw himself into reviving BalletMet. His track record there would be hard for most people to match. By the end of next season, he will have choreographed six new full-length ballets for BalletMet, along with restaging McFall's Nutcracker production. For three of the new ballets -- Dangerous Liaisons, Butterfly, and Beauty and the Beast -- he had to assemble the music himself, since no appropriate scores existed. All the while, he was fulfilling the other responsibilities of running a company and its school.
Though she keeps a low profile, Ichino also plays a key role in Columbus. She dances the lead in Butterfly, a stunning, emotionally charged ballet version of Puccini's opera Madama Butterfly; directs the academy's preprofessional program, previously headed by Boft; and teaches two company classes a week. Nixon and Ichino's combined efforts, along with those of the very able artistic assistant Gerard Charles and ballet mistress Karen Brown, have brought the level of dancing up several notches in all areas.
"I would like us to be known as a classical company that has a superb ensemble," says Nixon. "I want to look, in a classical way, like a modern company." Rather than appealing to audiences through a startlingly avant-garde look, he is trying to bring back the glories of the nineteenth-century story ballets. By choosing easily identifiable subjects, maintaining the overall format of the tried-and-true repertory, and updating and reinvigorating content, he wants to reinforce the company's repertory with works that appeal to a cross section of the population, not just the die-hard dance crowd. He also hopes that BalletMet will ultimately be able to offer presenters outside the city a handful of works that can pack a house.
So far the artistic success of Nixon's new ballets has been mixed. One seasoned observer of the arts in central Ohio who declined to be named called the works "mawkish and sentimental, melodramatic rather than dramatic." Others wonder how often Nixon can go back to the same well -- that is, relying on popular stories and lavish productions to sell tickets rather than developing entirely new work or reviving the true classics. Nixon, however, is very conscious of what he is doing and why. He wants to give the community a company it can love, not just admire.
"There are not that many people who want to do story ballets and who can do them well," he says. "After I did the new version of The Nutcracker, I thought I should try another family ballet. Stories like Beauty and the Beast have a certain popularity and familiarity. There is a risk to that because people come with preconceptions. But I wanted to go with something that was already in people's minds. We wanted to marry two elements, an adult element and a child element, with enough things to entertain children and enough dancing for adults. If you can come up with the right pieces, maybe you can attract the public."
For Beauty, Nixon took an ancient tale and customized it, creating characters such as good and bad fairies that have equivalents not only in other fairy tales but throughout ballet history. He even invented roles, such as "pillows" that perform acrobatics, for the smallest and most adorable of his academy students.
The community responded enthusiastically to Beauty, which ended the 1996-97 season with sold-out houses for five out of the six Ohio Theatre performances. The company had never danced or looked better. Nixon's choreography, Carla Risch Chaffin's sets and Linda Pisano's costumes were inventive, filled with magical touches such as flying fairies and objects that come to life. One could certainly question the originality of this concept and the calculation of this marketing approach; in this era of declining audiences, however, it may be difficult to argue with popular success.
Nixon is also building up BalletMet's repertory by commissioning works while giving company premieres of such notable artists as Peter Pucci and Kathryn Posin. Susan Hadley, a former Mark Morris dancer who until recently had her own local company, and San Francisco Ballet's Julia Adam have recently had pieces premiered under Nixon.
Acknowledging the difficulty of bridging the gap between audiences that want to see only new dance and those that want popular traditional entertainments, Nixon has divided to conquer. New and experimental work is now performed at the Riffe Center's Capitol Theatre, a small downtown hall with a contemporary interior that makes it appropriate for things modem. The larger Ohio Theatre, a restored 1920s movie theater of neo-Baroque design with Asian touches, is reserved for the troupe's full-scale productions -- a perfect setting for Nixon's efforts to bring fantasy back to the ballet.
"We are delighted with the Riffe Center series," says Ray Hanley, executive director of the Greater Columbus Arts Council, which gives the company about $150,000 a year. "The use of the smaller venue for the development of new work is better for the choreographers, the artists, and the audiences."
BalletMet enters its twentieth-anniversary season with plans to commemorate its past while taking direct aim at its future. The board of trustees is talking advantage of the renewed momentum to inaugurate a five-year, $2.6-million fund drive to seed an endowment, commission new works, underwrite the development of touring repertory, and update technology at its home, the 33,000-square-foot Dance Centre. Board chairman Roteba says touring is the key ingredient in building a national reputation for BalletMet: "We are never going to be recognized in the same manner as New York City Ballet or San Francisco Ballet. But if we follow our strategic plan, we will gain national recognition because we will have established a unique repertory and developed the right kind of dancers."
Nixon adds, "Twenty years is a milestone. It says we've made it and we're going to be here for a while. We will be celebrating our future with new works and with increased visibility at home. We're performing in October, December, February, March, and April. People will feel our presence here as never before."
Yoko Ichino in David Nixon's Butterfly; the "stunning, emotionally charged" adaptation of Puccini is an example of BalletMet's new evening-length repertory. Opposite: Serenade, a Balanchine classic.