TO MANY MEMBERS OF Baltimore's dance community, the disclosure last week that the Maryland Ballet had canceled three performances scheduled for this weekend and laid off its 12 dancers because of financial troubles is more than just another sign of the effect of the economy on local arts organizations. Rather, it is an ominous signal that the city's fragile dance scene may be on the verge of cracking once again.
"It's difficult to get funding for a dance company, period," says Kathy Wildberger, artistic director of the Path modern dance troupe. "It's usually a little easier for a ballet company. If you can't keep a ballet company going, you have very little hope of maintaining a modern dance company."
Ironically, the consternation about the future of dance in Baltimore comes as tickets are going on sale for three mid-February performances by the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theatre, part of a long and highly sought-after residency here. The Ailey residency, the core of which has been delayed from this month until the spring because of scheduling problems, was conceived as a galvanizing force on the arts in general and dance in particular. But local companies are split over whether the Ailey company will stimulate support of their efforts or siphon it off.
And although Maryland Ballet officials say the company hopes to resume its schedule in March, its announcement raised the sad specter of the old Maryland Ballet. That organization was put out of business in 1979 when a fire destroyed its property. The troupe then resurrected itself as the Baltimore Ballet, which folded before the scheduled start of the 1985 season, leaving subscribers in the lurch.
Daniel Kane, co-founder of the current incarnation of the ballet and its acting executive director, concedes the company is concerned about the impact of its decision on dance-goers. "It's one more bit of negative information about dance," he says. "People can get the philosophy, 'That'll never work.' "
Many observers argue that there is a limited audience for the handful of small local companies, which perform sporadically at scattered sites in and around the city. "We have a well-versed community who enjoys dance," says Claire Braswell, executive director of the Downtown Dance Company, presenter of the modern "Dance on the Edge" series. "But many want to go see the best companies at the Kennedy Center or up to New York. Not too many of those people support the local dance companies."
But others point to the recent success of the Soviet Union's Donetsk Ballet, which drew more than 23,000 to the Lyric Opera House for 11 December performances of "The Nutcracker," as evidence that Baltimoreans will support dance -- provided it is of high quality and presented in a prestigious venue.
"We have built up some very loyal supporters," says Elvi Moore, general director of the Washington Ballet, which has been performing here since the demise of the Baltimore Ballet and is performing for three weekends this season at Goucher's Kraushaar Auditorium. "I think there is a dance audience in Baltimore. I'm amazed a company has not survived in the city."
To some, the problem is that the dance performances here have been too meager for too long to nurture a regular audience. "I don't think there's enough dance here," says Helene Beazeale, associate dean for the College of Fine Arts and Communications at Towson State University, who headed the school's dance program for 18 years. "How are you going to develop a discriminating audience if you don't saturate them with dance?"
But Path's Wildberger, whose company is performing this year at the School for the Arts, complains about the lack of a good, central location for dance performances. "If there's no place to perform, how can you perform more?" she asks.
Some are looking for the Ailey residency, which will include workshops as well as performances by the main company and junior troupe, to spur interest. "The more exciting things you have, the more exciting it is for everybody," says Dottie Fried, artistic director of Kinetics Dance Theatre. To build on that excitement, Ms. Fried has added two April performances by the Ailey junior company to Kinetics' schedule at the Howard County Center for the Performing Arts in Ellicott City.
Others suggest that the world-renowned Ailey company may whet the local appetite for dance -- but for first-rate dance by name companies, not local troupes relying on underpaid dancers.
Even before the Ailey residency was announced, the Maryland Ballet had trouble attracting the kind of large corporate or foundation gifts that can make a real difference: Its current budget of $325,000 (compared to $2.6 million for the Washington Ballet) includes just two gifts of $5,000 or more.
Ballet co-founder Kane points out the company has grown considerably since 1986, when it began with a budget of $68,000. But he admits the ballet may not have been "brazen" enough to capture the attention of the public. He wonders whether it might be better off performing at the 2,500-seat Lyric rather than the Baltimore Museum of Art's Meyerhoff Auditorium, which seats 363.
He also wonders aloud whether the company needs to tackle such favorites as "Swan Lake" -- rather than the little-known works it now performs -- but notes in the next breath it would cost $200,000 to successfully stage such a production. "If you can't do it properly, why do it?" he asks.
"We can't operate the way we have been," he acknowledges. "It's just a question of how we come back. What the answer is, I don't know."