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New frontier in Houston.


As I leaned over a balcony and looked down into the lobby of the Hyatt Regency Hotel in Houston last spring, I saw a veritable sea of dancers, some 1,500 attending Regional Dance America's first national festival. All were attractive, well groomed, quiet, yet singularly alert young people. I thought for a moment of all the dreary newspaper articles and television shows about off-the-track adolescents. If only representatives from every news medium in the country could have been in the presence of these young dancers and--more important--watched them perform. If only the arbiters of opinion could have attended the ceremony initiating the festival's nine performances, perhaps the National Endowment for the Arts would, once and for all, be rescued from its limbo.

How it glittered, and yet there was a gentle tinge of nostalgia. The emcee was Robert Barnett, former artistic director of Atlanta Ballet. As he sketched a brief history of each of the five associations comprising Regional Dance America, the artistic directors of the member companies, more than a hundred strong (some have more than one director), filed proudly on to the stage. At the center of the front row, in a wheelchair, was Alexi Ramov, who cofounded the Northeast Region in 1959. The adjudicators who had selected the works too their places. They were followed by thirty-five festival teachers and accompanists, the association's national board members, the festival hosts, and special guests. Barbara Crockett, cofounder of Sacramento Ballet, shaped the event.

A spirited and tenacious segment of America's dance history was assembled on the Houston stage. Some had been involved in the regional movement since its 1956 inception. Others had founded their companies as recently as the eighties and early nineties; more than 70 percent of the directors were women. All shared the desire to present quality dance to their communities.

The national festival marked a true milepost for RDA, an organization that has faced essentially the same challenge that faced our nation's forefathers: the balance of power. At the very first festival, in 1956 at Atlanta, an informal national advisory board was assemble with Dorothy Alexander, founder of Atlanta Ballet, as its first chairperson. She was adamant at the oar represent but not dominate regions as they formed. At her suggestion, each region had an elected representative on the board.

By 1964, three of the eventual five regions were flourishing. The name, "National Association for Regional Ballet," was selected and registered in New York State, chosen because it was the home of many national funding sources and of other national service organizations. NARB thus acquired an expanded family. The sixties and seventies were such halcyon days for the arts in our land that June Arey, director of the NEA Dance Program, suggested that NARB open a national office to coordinate the activities of the regions, maintain a clearinghouse for information and records, and reaffirm the stature of regional dance (or regional ballet, as it was then called).

In 1971, Nancy Hanks, the immensely gifted NEA chairperson, offered me a choice between two jobs: directing the NEA Dance Program, which was then without leadership, or becoming the first executive director of NARB. I opted for the latter. The following January, NARB opened its first office in the landmark but somewhat decrepit Palace Theatre Building on Broadway. A telephone workers' strike forced administrative assistant Beverly D'Anne and me to take turns finding pay phones. It was fun; so was riding down Broadway in the cab of a truck hauling our second-hand furniture. (NEA budget restrictions didn't allow for new items.)

Our first hurdle was the NARB image. The arts and funding worlds thought of regional performances as dance school recitals, and since there were some member companies of questionable merit, projects had to be devised to raise standards. We didn't want regional dance to be only a bright hope for the future; it had to be a firm reality. Two projects with the most potential were the National Choreography Plan (1976) and the Artistic Directors Seminar (1986). The original NCP was very different from today's version. The national office paid the choreographers' fees and transportation to the companies. With the aid of the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation and several state and regional arts agencies, forty-six companies received ballets.

One symptom of the decentralization challenge began to emerge. The member companies paid dues to their regions. Part of these dues went to the national office, but it amounted to only 4 percent of the budget. To help offset this, the national board was vastly strengthened, and the associate membership grew. The NEA was still a bulwark.

The entire dance field was gradually changing. So much stress was being placed on administrative stability that administrators began to take precedence over artistic directors. The first Artistic Directors Seminar was organized in 1986 with the assistence of the Mellon Foundation and the L. J. Skaggs and Mary C. Skaggs Foundation. A group of directors convened for two weeks at Sarah Lawrence College, and a roster of experts was imported to work with them.

With the onset of the Reagan administration in 1981, a drastic decline in federal funding began. The atmosphere of NARB board meetings began to sour, and there was a widening rift between the administrative-fiscal thinkers and the regional representatives. A new board member, who was a troubleshooter for business firms, offered to lead a weekend of long-range planning. The advice that emerged was disastrous. He felt that the regions had too much autonomy and that the national office should exercise a stronger hand over them. He did not comprehend the dynamics of decentralization so important to the growth of this country, as well as to the arts.

At an August 1987 board meeting, the national office was dissolved. It took twenty minutes to set aside fifteen years of work. A new board was formed, consisting only of company directors from the five regions. A new name, "Regional Dance America," had previously been registered in New York State. The new board had retained that name but had let the New York registration lapse. It was eventually registered in Texas. A casualty of the reorganization was the Professional Wing, which had, under Nicholas L. Grimaldi of the national office, met semiannually to hammer out criteria for professionalism and to define their needs. Fortunately, Dance/USA has now filled the gap left by its demise. Since 1987, the development of RDA has been evolutionary rather than revolutionary. Lila Zali and Barbara Crockett, two dedicated members of the original board, have remained active until this year.

RDA's national festival in Houston, in addition to offering a widened perspective, has turned the members to thinking about their future needs. This festival, with its $356,000 budget, was accomplished with relatively little outside assistance: Capezio, Ballet Makers Foundation, Compaq Computer Corporation, Hill and Knowlton, the Cultural Arts Council of Houston, the Houston Chronicle, the Houston Endowment, Houston Ballet, and Target.

To many, the festival was something of a miracle. But miracles are often the result of diligent effort. Willing to commit themselves to the challenge were Glenda Brown, Peggy Girouard, and Brown's daughter Vanessa. With her shock of blond hair and hearty laugh, Brown gives the initial impression of being a "party girl." She is much more. Her dedication and her executive ability both run deep, and her associates diligently backed her up, as did the regions.

Brown and Girouard are artistic directors of Allegro Ballet of Houston; Vanessa Brown is associate director. The company is the performing arm of Houston Youth Symphony. Brown is also president of Regional Dance America, chairperson of the organization's summer Performance/Choreography Conference, and presiding officer of the Southwestern Region. While one might perceive this as benevolent despotism, it did not prevent her from structuring a festival that epitomized the American slogan, E pluribus unum, and set a substantial pattern for future events.

When asked about her teaching process, the late Bessie Schonberg, mentor of choreographers, said, "I meddle." This is in essence what adjudicators do. Their "meddling" is vital to the festivals. Adjudicators (the term originated in Canada) are dance experts whose task is to select the strongest companies and the most interesting choreography and to combine them in balanced programs. It's a hard job, for the adjudicators travel from company to company, usually in the dead of winter. It's also a uniquely rewarding experience.

This time the adjudicators were so close in taste that there was a remarkable, and in a way alarming, homogeneity within the programs. Each region was allotted an evening performance for its stronger companies an a matinee for the less experienced ones. (The Mid-States Region unwisely opted for a single evening performance.) The performing atmosphere was on a consistently professional level, and the technical direction and stage management of Buddy Combs (Jones Hall) and Bill Kickbush (Music Hall) added immeasurably to the quality of the event.

In early festivals the choreographers rarely ventured outside of the nineteenth century in their choice of music. It was gratifying to note a change. Now the majority used twentieth-century composers, with Philip Glass and Henryk Gorecki turning up more than once. There were also forays into folk and improvised accompaniment. In the early days, artistic directors saved money by creating their own ballets. This time there were only nineteen by company directors. Guest choreographers and a few resident choreographers made up the vast majority.

Here are a few of the highlights of the nine festival performances. The Southwestern Region, adjudicated by Bill Evans of the University of New Mexico, opened the festivities with Leslie Jane Pessemier's Les Chansons, a setting of four of Canteloube's Chants d'Auvergne for Allegro Ballet of Houston. It had the inner urgency that differentiates choreography from step making. The climactic pas de deux for Keathe Hosemann and John Marshall Sharp was performed with nicely sustained tenderness.

Dianne Maroney's Apotheosis for Louisiana Dance Theatre (Shreveport) contrasted standing and recumbent figures, along with dervishlike turns, to create a rapt, ceremonial tone. It was strongly performed.

Dallas Metropolitan Ballet presented beautifully trained, meticulously rehearsed dancers. Ann Etigen and Bill Atkinson's Let's Dance, while reminiscent of Robbins's I'm Old Fashioned, had great panache.

The second evening was devoted to the Pacific Region, adjudicated by Maria Grandy of Juilliard [see page 78]. Sound training and theatrical taste marked Ballet Yuma's Duendes del Fuego. Codirector Jon Cristofori was responsible for the stylish choreography with Iberian overtones.

Sacramento Ballet's second company brought an alabaster polish to Danielle Martinelli's The Exit, a series of variations on a circle; the title was, however, unclear.

The population of American Fork, Utah, is modest, but observing the members of Utah Regional Ballet, lined up twenty strong in their blue unitards, one would have placed them in a major metropolis. Directed by Jacqueline P. Colledge, the dancers soared through Robert Kelley's Night Tides and just as effectively reined in their energy for its rubato passages.

On the third evening, the Mid-States Region, adjudicated by Sally Bliss of Dance St. Louis, presented its omnibus program. There was gentle refinement in Dace Dindonis's Elegiaque Variations, and she made poetic use of the dancers from Alexandra Ballet (Chesterfield, Missouri), with their harmonious port de bras.

Dancer Jacquelyn Sanders can look both young and ancient. She used this chameleon skill to fine advantage in a touching solo called Shades, which she also choreographed under the auspices of Kalamazoo Ballet. The subjugation of women in the Middle East is a subject that choreographer Susan O'Connell might easily have turned into melodrama. Instead, as the dancers manipulated and then fiercely discarded a large veil, their fury became almost icy. Called Veils of Anger, the ballet was authoritatively danced by Salt Creek Ballet (Westmont, Illinois).

During her decade as director of Grand Rapids Ballet, Charthel Arthur steered the company toward full professional status. Thus choreographer Patricia Kavanagh had the benefit of eight well-matched dancers for her poetic Array of Green.

Photographs of Interlochen (Michigan) Arts Academy look quite rustic, so it was a happy surprise to see the sleek members of Interlochen Dance Ensemble in The Gift of Balance. Staged by Sharon K. Randolph, it was a skillfully constructed classical essay for three couples.

The Saturday evening program belonged to the Southeast, adjudicated by Barnett. Sometimes a seemingly unpretentious work can have a unique effect. The flowing, horizontal patterns of Lisa Collins Vidrovic's Folk Song Variations underscored the appealing lyricism of Carolina Ballet (Raleigh).

Amy Moore Norton, who directs Appalachian Ballet (Maryville, Tennessee) gave an endearing imitation of Charlie Chaplin in her With Chaplin. Her sequence of episodes in the life of the Little Tramp had the benefit of skillful timing.

At first, the title of Vineta Ziemelis Brannon's offering--On a Bimulous Night . . . When the Sky Is Like Lace--seemed rather overwhelming. But with Tudoresque sensitivity she devised an impressionistic sketch of young girls involved in their romantic dreams until a young man arrives to inject a note of reality. Louisville Ballet Civic Company performed it with great delicacy.

There was sweep and elegance in Victoria Vittum's Dvorak Romance, especially in the dancing of the principal couple, Linda O'Brien Thompson and Michael Hollier. The dancers were members of Gwinnett (Georgia) Ballet Theatre.

Lynn Cote, resident choreographer of Washington Ballet, staged Whispering at Sunrise for Fort Lauderdale Ballet Classique (Oakland Park, Florida). Depth and nuance characterize the company's training, and Cote used these qualities to full advantage. Featured were Kristen Keagy with Raul Salamanca, whose naturally flashy style is being intelligently shaped by director Magda Aunon.

Jeffrey Gribler, ballet master and principal dancer of Pennsylvania Ballet, adjudicated the Northeast Region, where an impressive contingent of new companies has bubbled to the surface. Notable are Pittsburgh Youth Ballet of Bethel Park and New Castle Parou Ballet (New Castle). The patterns of Ruth Leney-Midkiff's Figurations for the Pittsburgh company were clear and sharp, as was the impressive company style.

Vineland Regional Dance Company (Vineland, New Jersey) is a relatively strong company with an image problem. Director Maxine Chapman cannot decide between a jazz ensemble and a more profound approach. Cocoon, by Kimberly Chapman, reflected this dichotomy. It began provocatively with the dancers hovering on a structure resembling a jungle gym. As they descended, the action thinned into a jazz routine. Allegheny Ballet (Altoona), directed by Deborah Anthony, more than met the demands of Paul Gibson's Danse Macabre. Soloist Erin Long added a special radiance.

Central Pennsylvania Youth Ballet (Carlisle), guided by Marcia Dale Weary, has in recent years been the Northeast's flagship company. Rehearsal, rather than spontaneity, is its rule. The dancers are clone-precise; they are always beautifully groomed; and yet the motivation for this laudable perfection does not appear to come from within each dancer, but to be superimposed.

The matinees also produced strong ensembles. There was an intriguing pungency in Andrew Kuharsky's Impulse, staged for the promising Capital City Ballet (Atlanta). Dayton's Ballet de Jeunesse also has incipient flair, and Wil Turner's Conjunction and Opposition was a well-chosen challenge for its dancers. Merilyn Boyle's costumes contributed a touch of grandeur to Canton Ballet's The Promise of Hope, by Paul Abrahamson. The well-prepared dancers might have responded more openly to this thoughtful paean. A similar mood permeated Charles Maple's vibrantly danced Lachtro Dorm for Petaluma (California) City Ballet.

The dancing did not end with the performances. A block party found the young people cavorting to a disc jockey's choices and demolishing 450 pizzas. There was more dancing during a closing-night rodeo. This turned out to be the week's least meaningful event; after the calf roping, more than half of the dancers walked out.

Regional companies are a distinct and productive aspect of American performing arts, just as regional theaters and community orchestras are. They are even more important now than in the strongest days of the National Endowment for the Arts and its Dance Touring Program. With the arts virtually absent from elementary and high schools, and with national and regional touring so drastically diminished, the country at large is dependent on regional companies, professional and nonprofessional, for stimulation an inspiration. This national festival should not be viewed as a climax but as the harbinger of a new era. Pioneering is again in order.
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Title Annotation:Regional Dance America festival
Author:Hering, Doris
Publication:Dance Magazine
Date:Dec 1, 1997
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