Arts & Culture

May 25, 2014

TBT’s ‘Swan Lake’ takes a step in the right financial direction

After years of dancing to recorded music, the weekend performances will include music played live by the Fort Worth Symphony Orchestra.

In 2008, when artistic director Ben Stevenson announced a long-discussed, financially driven decision to his Texas Ballet Theater company — that live music would have to be cut for the foreseeable future — it was devastating to the dancers.

“It was bad. No one liked it,” says Stevenson, who had never had to dance or choreograph without live music for the major ballet companies with which he has worked in his storied career.

But there was no other choice in an economy that was quickly moving into recession, creating nervous funders.

“It was either get rid of the orchestra or die,” Stevenson says.

The dancers weren’t the only ones upset. There was a public outcry, and the local musicians union, then led by outspoken Ray Hair, went on the rampage, protesting TBT performances with picket signs and a giant, inflatable rat that didn’t remotely resemble the less-intimidating rodent leader in the perennial holiday favorite The Nutcracker.

“It was devastating news for [our] organization [too],” says Amy Adkins, who was vice president of development for the Fort Worth Symphony Orchestra at the time, and is now president and CEO. “It was a temporary end to a 20-year partnership, but we worked very hard and rose above our disappointment to maintain our relationship. There’s no replacement for live music.”

Well, not a suitable replacement. The ballet scraped up enough funds to feature live music in one performance in the 2008-09 season, but from the 2009-10 season up until the final performance of the current season, the company has danced to canned music.

The move saved TBT roughly $400,000 in live music costs for the 2008-09 season and a projected $750,000 in 2009-10, the Star-Telegram reported in May 2009. Meanwhile, the loss of the TBT contract meant the loss of $360,000 in potential revenue for FWSO, the same Star-Telegram report said.

(A cash-strapped TBT took other major steps in 2008 to regain its footing, including reducing dancers’ contracts from 38 to 35 weeks and a grassroots fundraising effort called Get Behind Your Ballet.)

Things seem to be getting better.

Swan Lake, the most famous non-holiday story ballet, Tchaikovsky’s tale of love and jealousy, has five performances this weekend featuring the FWSO. The news came as a welcome announcement last spring to fans of live music. The appearance of the orchestra is possible thanks to underwriting from the Crystelle Waggoner Charitable Trust.

There are signs of further improvement: The 2014-15 season, announced a month ago, has two story ballets — The Sleeping Beauty in October 2014 and The Merry Widow in February 2015 — with the symphony.

“I’m hoping it’s the path to the right road,” Stevenson says.

But everyone involved is still cautious about suggesting that an entire near-future season for Texas Ballet Theater would feature live music, especially with more than 20 performances of The Nutcracker in Dallas and Fort Worth.

Indeed, funding sources for the music in next season’s Beauty and Widow have yet to be secured, although Stevenson and Adkins both say it’s something that donors and funding organizations, growing ever more confident as the economy increasingly shows signs of improvement, can get behind.

“Whenever you have live music, it’s something that will go into the budget, and everything in the budget, you have to raise money for that,” Stevenson says.

“We know we’re moving in the right direction,” says Adkins. “The ballet and I had secured the grant [for Swan Lake] together. The hope is that it will inspire the ballet board to take the reins from there.”

But in the still-dicey world of arts funding, nothing is definite. The Fort Worth Opera, which also is accompanied by the FWSO, announced it would cut the world premiere of A Wrinkle in Time from the 2015 season. Adkins says she is just glad that the musicians will make up for losing that work by gaining the ballet.

“This is the story of the arts,” she says. “It’s one step forward and one step back, but at least there’s starting to be stability.”

Of course, bringing live music back to the ballet isn’t just a matter of pride; it’s necessary for the art form. Texas Ballet Theater wasn’t the only major ballet company that had to make the same tough decision at the beginning of the recession, and as far as Adkins knows, it is one of the few that is slowly bringing it back.

The Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra performed for the city’s major ballet and opera companies, both of which had to cut live music. Thanks to a patron’s donation, both companies are using the symphony again.

As for the dancers, becoming complacent with recorded music is dangerous.

“For one thing, you get used to a recording and it’s the same all the time,” Stevenson says. “The best dancers know that when you have to listen to the music and you get to work with the conductor, it’s better for everyone. Every performance should be different, like the first time it has been performed.”

“It’s a lesser art form when you’re not performing together as a group,” Adkins adds. “When they’re following the music as a recording, they don’t have the opportunity to interpret or breathe.”

The fact that Stevenson’s principal dancers have stuck with him through this period (the company is hiring more dancers this season, and longtime principal Lucas Priolo announced that his retirement would begin after Swan Lake) may speak to the respect he has in Fort Worth.

“I’m so lucky, more than anywhere I’ve been in my life, to have the loyalty of the company,” he says. “I couldn’t appreciate them more. I love that they’ve stood by me.”

This report contains material from the Star-Telegram archives.

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