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Boise, Idaho, and Eugene, Oregon, share a ballet company

It's Wednesday, April 11, in Boise, Idaho. In the main studio in the Esther Simplot Performing Arts Academy, Toni Pimble, artistic director of Ballet Idaho, is conducting--at the top of her voice--the first run-through in costume of 2001: A Dance Odyssey. Inspired by the photographic images captured recently by the Hubble telescope, Pimble's 2001 challenges the production staff to create a stage atmosphere suggesting outer space and costumes that make the dancers look like celestial bodies shooting through it. It is set to a major portion of Gustav Holst's The Planets, with some additions from contemporary composer Petris Vasks. [] The work is to premiere ten days later at the Hult Center for the Performing Arts in Eugene, Oregon, along with a reprise of Pimble's 1999 Slipstream and a company premiere of Paul Vasterling's Seasons.

On Sunday, April 22, in Eugene, Oregon, the curtain has just rung down on the matinee performance of the Eugene Ballet Company's concluding concert of the 2000-2001 season. It has been a grueling two-day run--all three works demand non-stop dancing and finely tuned technique, and at Saturday night's premiere, there had been some infuriating production glitches. The twenty dancers strip off their costumes, scrub off their makeup, and race for the vans that will transport them to the Portland International Airport: It's back to Boise via San Francisco that night, where they will become Ballet Idaho and perform the same concert the following weekend.

This has been the pattern since fall of 1994, when the two companies inaugurated an alliance to share facilities and production costs and, just incidentally, save their financially strapped organizations from the looming specter of collapse. But the company has a triple identity: When in Boise, it is Ballet Idaho; in Eugene, the Eugene Ballet; when touring, Western Ballet Theatre. This month, the dancers are being rehearsed by Anna-Marie Holmes for Don Quixote in Boise, where it will open at the Morrison Center after its premiere in Eugene next month.

The alliance had its beginnings in spring of 1993 in a bar in Albuquerque, New Mexico, where Riley Grannan, managing director and, with Pimble, co-founder of the Eugene Ballet, and Betty Sinow, at that time managing director of Ballet Idaho, were taking a break from a booking conference. They were crying into their beers about the high price of producing ballet. "We were both going broke," Grannan said. "Their artistic director was leaving; they loved Toni's work, so it seemed like a good idea to get together."

At a time when other such arrangements have collapsed (most recently Cleveland/ San Jose Ballet), and considering the significant cultural differences between the two cities, it is remarkable that the alliance, whose

terms are renegotiated annually, has lasted so long and functions so well. There are, of course, the inevitable glitches and bones of contention, but on the whole it seems to be working. "We need one another," Grannan said over coffee. "They have the skeleton, we have the muscle."

Each company shares production costs, while maintaining separate administrative offices, boards of directors, and educational outreach programs. The dancers, who have thirty- to thirty-four-week contracts, live in Boise. Pimble, a passionate gardener, maintains her home in Eugene, though she spends about twenty weeks of the year in Boise.

With a population of 170,000, Boise is the capital of a state known for its excellent potatoes and its conservative politics. Eugene, with a population of less than a quarter of a million, is a university town, just as well known for its laid-back lifestyle and left-to-radical politics.

The two companies also have rather different histories. Ballet Idaho, in its various incarnations, is older than the Eugene company. Founded in Moscow, Idaho, in 1972 as the Ballet Folk of Moscow, Inc. and associated with the University of Idaho, by 1980 it had ten full-time professional dancers, had changed its name to American Festival Ballet, and in 1982 relocated to Boise, where it opened its first school. Eleven years later, the name changed again to Ballet Idaho, and the organization, along with the city's opera company, moved into the Simplot Center, which boasts in two buildings five state-of-the-art studios. Esther Simplot, a former opera singer and the wife of the man who invented the frozen French fry, not only built the facilities, but endowed them for maintenance and upkeep. The ballet company, school, and opera enjoy their use rent free.

The facilities--distinctly lacking in Eugene--were one of the major attractions for the Eugene Ballet, founded in 1978 by Grannan, a Eugene native, and Pimble, whom he met and married while both were dancing with opera-house companies in Germany. By 1994, the couple--now divorced--had built a company of twenty dancers and a balanced repertoire of classic story ballets and contemporary work, much of it by Pimble, but some by such choreographers as Lynn Taylor-Corbett, Vasterling, Jill Eathorne Bahr, and the late Dennis Spaight.

What the Eugene Ballet had to contribute to the alliance was a well-established repertoire built by experienced directors, who had a vision of their role as a regional ballet company that included the kind of outreach and touring they had seen presented by Ballet Folk of Moscow in the early seventies. That meant a shared artistic vision, essential if such alliances are to work.

Today, Ballet Idaho has a 20-member board of directors, 600 subscribers, and an annual budget of $1.2 million. The school, directed by Jeff and Catherine Prescott Giese, is developing dancers for the company--an apprentice program has just been put in place--and last fall sent young Benjamin Griffiths to the School of American Ballet. The company's executive director, Candace Pellinen, resigned in June, and at press time Ballet Idaho was looking for her successor.

Under the guidance of Karla Bodnar, there is an extensive, multicomponent outreach program. It includes school shows, a scholarship program for the company school, family shows that occur a day or two before concerts (in which the adults in the audience often participate, and a program that takes a pas de deux couple to rural areas of the state. In Stanley, Idaho, population 66, Bodnar says, "A man who looked like a mountain man told me after the show that if he had seen it as a kid it might have changed his life."

"It's the most fulfilling thing we do," said Matthew Christensen, who has been performing such staples as the pas de deux from Don Q with his new wife, Jennifer McNamara. "We get instant feedback, double opportunities to perform, and do stuff we don't normally get to do."

The Eugene Ballet, which has a 16member board of directors, 912 subscribers, and an annual budget of $1.5 million, does its outreach (for which it has just received a $20,000 grant from the National Endowment for the Arts) rather differently. Last season, the company presented three different programs in elementary schools, community centers, and theaters throughout Oregon, including versions of Children of the Raven, a ballet Pimble based on Pacific Northwest Native American legends, 2001, and her surrealistic version of Beauty and the Beast. The number of dancers involved varies from seven for the Young Audiences in-school performances to the entire company for Hult Center presentations. At any given time, three different ensembles may be performing in Washington, Oregon, or Idaho.

The differences in the two communities can present problems for the alliance. Former Ballet Idaho director Pellinen said that if the programming deviates from the established tradition of opening with a story ballet in the fall, followed by The Nutcracker, a family concert in the early spring, and a season closer of new work, ticket sales suffer. "In 1999, we opened with a repertory show and tickets didn't sell well all season," she said. "But not only did Swan Lake sell out last fall, we had to turn fifty people away."

The logistics can be difficult? too. Production manager Jim Bridgeman is in charge of coordinating the scenery and props, stored in Eugene, with costumes, stored in Boise. To keep things together, he says he keeps "a Monopoly board on the wall with production details, which can become complicated. I need to make sure everyone is in communication."

Sonja Carter, Ballet Idaho's young and enthusiastic marketing director, told stories of miscommunications about photo shoots and a time when she thought they were doing one in Boise and her fellow marketing director in Eugene did it there. "The three names are confusing, too," she said. "And I wish we had one logo."

There are no direct Eugene-to-Boise commercial flights, so dancers--who make the trip seven times a year--start with a two-hour drive from Eugene to Portland, followed by a two-hour flight to San Francisco and then a three-hour hop to home base. For Nutcracker tours, which range all over the Pacific Northwest, the dancers are driven by van. The shuttling back and forth is wearing, but the dancers are remarkably good-natured about it. For Stephanie Parker, who was dancing with Pennsylvania Ballet at the time of its short-lived merger with Milwaukee Ballet, this is a breeze.

"[There] we had fifty-two-week contracts and random layoff weeks, spent six weeks in each place, and had to claim residency in one city or the other." While Parker too mentioned communication as a problem, she is glad the alliance was made. "I don't think we'd have a company without it," she said.

Boise native Matthew Hope, who trained at American Festival Ballet before stints wire a number of companies, including Hubbard Street Dance Chicago, loves the alliance. "It's made the organization stronger, and because of the two cultures, audience reaction is always different in Eugene from here. It's fun!"


Eugene Ballet Company P.O. Box 11200 Eugene, OR 97440 541/485-3992 541/687-5745 fax

Artistic Director: Toni Pimble

Managing Director: Riley Grannan

* 18 dancers

* 30-34 week contracts

* Non-union company

* Annual budget: $1.5 million

* Dancers live in Boise, travel back and forth between Boise and Eugene

* Venue: Morrison Center, Eugene

* Outreach Program includes elementary schools, community centers, and theaters

* Touring: On the roster of the Western States Arts Federation touring program, funded by the NEA. The Nutcracker tours the Western states (and, this year, British Columbia).

* Education programs include Young Audiences of Oregon, the Washington State Cultural Enrichment Program, and Artist-in- Education residency programs.

Ballet Idaho 501 South 8th Street Boise, ID 83702 208/343-0556 208/424-3129 fax

Artistic Director: Toni Pimble

Executive Director: Vacant at press time

* Dancers are members of Eugene Ballet Company

* Annual budget: $1.2 million

* Venue: Esther Simplot Performing Arts Academy, Boise

* Official school: Ballet Idaho Academy. Program includes ballet, tap, and modern, from the creative-movement level through pre-professional.

* Ballet Idaho Youth Company: Provides performance opportunities for intermediate and advanced dancers age 12 and older

* Apprenticeship Program

* Outreach Program includes school shows, scholarships, family shows, and rural performances.

THE EUGENE BALLET COMPANY AND BALLET IDAHO share artistic staffs while maintaining separate administrative staffs, boards of directors, and budgets. The companies' repertoire includes classic story ballets such as The Nutcracker, Swan Lake, and Cinderella, along with contemporary works by Artistic Director Toni Pimble (many of which have Western and Native American themes) and other choreographers, including Lynne Taylor-Corbett and Paul Vasterling.

Pimble's work has been acknowledged through fellowships from the Oregon Arts Commission, Idaho Commission on the Arts, and the National Endowment for the Arts. She has choreographed works for New York City Ballet's Diamond Project, Atlanta Ballet, Pacific Northwest Ballet, and Nashville Ballet, among others. She has been a member of the Dance/Aspen Festival faculty for the last five years.

Martha Ullman West, former co-chair of the Dance Critics Association, is a Dance Magazine correspondent in Portland, Oregon, and writes for the Eugene Weekly and Dance Chronicle.
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Title Annotation:two cities share ballet company
Publication:Dance Magazine
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Sep 1, 2001
Previous Article:To Create or Re-Create? This Season, There's No Question.

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