Baltimore's best talent dancing out of town

Lack of interest, added to history of failure, leave a glaring gap in otherwise vibrant culture of the city


March 09, 2003|By Mary Carole McCauley | Mary Carole McCauley,Sun Staff

The arts festival Vivat! St. Petersburg was created to trumpet Baltimore's cultural accomplishments to the world. It also has unwittingly highlighted a major area where the city falls short.

The three-week celebration of Russian culture, which ended last week, featured 106 art exhibits, theater readings and concerts in the Baltimore area -- and exactly one dance troupe. The Ballet Theatre of Maryland, an Annapolis-based dance company, made its Baltimore debut March 1 and 2, when it performed three original pieces set to Russian music.

Granted, Vivat featured lectures about dance and an exhibit of costume drawings of the famed Ballets Russes. Still, that seems paltry, given St. Petersburg's stunning achievements in ballet. The roster of ballet greats who emerged from Russia's cultural capital includes Petipa, Nijinski, Diaghilev, Balanchine and Baryshnikov, among others.

"Three years ago, when they started planning Vivat, all of the major presenters from Baltimore got together," said Carol Bartlett, artistic director of Peabody Conservatory's dance program. "Dance wasn't even brought into the conversation."

She acknowledges that this oversight is understandable; Baltimore audiences are underserved when it comes to dance.

Unlike such other midsized, blue-collar cities as Pittsburgh, Indianapolis, and Milwaukee, Baltimore has no professional, resident, midtier ballet company with a $1 million to $6 million budget, a sum that would support roughly 30 dancers performing three or four programs a season.

The state's largest troupe, Ballet Theater of Maryland, has a $500,000 budget and 12 dancers. The state's best-known modern dance groups -- the Liz Lerman Dance Exchange and Eva Anderson Dancers Ltd. -- are in Takoma Park and Columbia respectively.

"It's not only that we don't have a major resident dance company," Bartlett said. "We also don't present key professional touring companies from around the U.S. We really need to turn that around."

Rightly or not, Baltimore has a reputation as a city that doesn't appreciate dance, a reputation fueled by very public failures of flagship troupes.

A sad history

If there was a golden age of ballet in Maryland, it was the 1970s, when the Maryland State Ballet was at its peak. Although never a top-ranked company on the order of the American Ballet Theater or the New York City Ballet, its members won medals in prestigious European competitions and the troupe landed high-profile world premieres.

But, in August 1979, a fire destroyed the company's offices on St. Paul Street, including its sets, costumes and subscription lists. The troupe never fully recovered, although a downsized version, renamed the Baltimore Ballet, limped along until 1985.

The next year, Harbor City Ballet was created by local choreographer Philip Carman. Despite a name change to the more geographically-appealing Maryland Ballet Theater, it couldn't attract the corporate support it needed and folded in 1993.

So, it has been 10 years since Baltimore had a resident ballet company. And visitors haven't fared much better.

The Washington Ballet has made determined but unsuccessful forays into Baltimore. The company performed a regular season here from 1986 until it canceled the series in 1992, citing low attendance as the reason.

"I was baffled," said Elvi Moore, former general manager of the Washington Ballet. "I never really could figure it out. I was in Baltimore two to three times a week for three years, and I tried my darndest to get the community behind us. We even changed our name to the Washington-Baltimore Ballet, or the Baltimore-Washington Ballet, depending on which city we were performing in. I think there was a feeling that we were carpetbaggers, that we weren't really from Baltimore."

In 1991, the internationally renowned Alvin Ailey Dance Theatre, a modern dance troupe with an African-American sensibility, started a residency program here that included a week of performances annually and summer camps for disadvantaged students. In addition, Ailey's apprentice company toured the state. At the time, it was touted as Baltimore's chance to get instant cachet in the dance world by affiliating with a world-class troupe.

That, too, lasted just three years before collapsing with a $139,000 deficit.

Education leader

These missteps are particularly puzzling because Baltimore enjoys a solid reputation nationwide for dance education.

The University of Maryland, Baltimore County dance department has sent its students to such well-known modern troupes as Pilobolus and the Paul Taylor Dance Company, both performing this year at the Kennedy Center.

Goucher students are represented in the Israeli Ballet, New York's Metropolitan Ballet, and the South Carolina Ballet. In addition, Goucher grad Amy Marshall is making a name as a choreographer in New York.

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