Four years after Baltimore's Alvin Ailey Dance Theater Foundation presented its first performance, members of the cultural community are struggling to find ways to salvage bits of the internationally acclaimed ensemble's presence in Maryland.
The foundation, created to bring New York's Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater here for performances and to develop outreach programs including summer dance camps, last month quietly folded -- director-less and in debt.
Now, leaders of local arts circles are looking for ways to save the summer camps. And there's a flutter of talk about forming a new partnership with the New York company -- so that the dancing can go on.
Next week, the board of directors of the Maryland Council for the Arts will discuss the possibility of continuing the Ailey summer program. "If we can preserve the camps then maybe the other will follow, but the camps are what most people are concentrating on right now," said James Backus, who heads the council.
"Part of our mission, even when we do outreach, is to always bring it full circle back to the dance concert, so it is vitally important to us not to have something like the camps in isolation from the main Ailey company," said Barbara Hauptman, executive director of the dance theater in New York.
"We can't announce anything at this point, but there are other committed individuals in the area who might be interested," she said.
Despite the glimmer of hope, the reasons behind the foundation's downfall remain the subject of hot debate -- and the source of bittersweet regret for many.
"I remember the first dance concert. It was packed, there was an excitement and an exchange between members of the audience that was terrific," said Sue Hess, director of Maryland Citizens for the Arts. "I just don't know what happened."
Depending upon who's talking, "what happened" ranges from inexperienced leadership to lack of corporate backing to a poor financial arrangement with the New York dance company.
The only statement that meets general agreement is that the Ailey dance theater brought something special to Baltimore.
"It was incredibly exciting," said Marsha Jews who, citing personal reasons, resigned as executive director of the foundation six months before its collapse. "It was one of the few cultural experiences where you could see almost an equal balance of all parts of our community."
When the non-profit organization folded, its budget was about $800,000 and its deficit $129,000, according to Richard Hackney, chairman of the foundation's board of directors.
Its mission was to sponsor annual appearances of the main Ailey company at the Morris Mechanic Theatre and to raise money for education programs offered throughout the state.
It also planned tours of the Alvin Ailey Repertory Ensemble -- a company made up of apprentice-level dancers -- and organized the AileyCamps at Morgan and Frostburg state universities for disadvantaged middle-school students.
Though it received money from the Abell Foundation, the state Arts Council and the National Endowment for the Arts, the foundation also relied heavily on donations from corporations. That was where it ran into trouble.
"What was glaringly missing was a prime list of private supporters that we knew we could depend on for substantial amounts of money for more than one year," said Mr. Hackney.
From the beginning, Ailey fund-raisers had difficulty drumming up financial support for performances given by a group that wasn't truly local.
"You might say we didn't have enough of the product to keep going," said board member Merrell Hambleton. "Without having them present in the community it's awfully hard to raise money. There was much too much overhead for what was actually going on."
There were other problems.
Some insiders point out that the foundation's board was chosen to be culturally diverse, not financially savvy.
"This was the first board I've ever been asked to serve on which was truly diverse and representative," said one board member, who spoke on condition of anonymity. "The downside was a lack of experience. I don't think a lot of people saw this [collapse] coming."
That diversity formed the basis of the late Alvin Ailey's vision for modern American dance. In 1958, he founded a company to provide greater opportunities for African-American choreography and to reach out to broader audiences.
"This was something that we were very proud of: We had representatives from a cross-section of the community," said Mr. Hackney, a principal partner at Alex. Brown & Sons. "So, yes, it was not an all-business board and it was not as heavy a fund-raising board as it would have been if you had a less culturally diverse group."
Others privately criticized Mrs. Jews, the last official executive director, as being an excellent saleswoman, but a poor business manager.