The Rise and Fall of the Lexington Ballet

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Far be it from us to be alarmists, but has anyone noticed a recent trend in the demise or restructuring of arts and cultural institutions in this town? Of course, Lexington Arts and Cultural Council director Dee Fizdale pointed out to the daily paper (and this is a definite paraphrase), that nobody would be sounding the alarm if a couple businesses went under, so there’s no need to run around as if the sky is falling just because a few arts groups are struggling and/or sinking. These reassuring comments were made in the wake of the recent…coup…at Actors’ Guild, whereby the reigning management collective was ousted and a director was appointed by the board in order to “keep the company from folding.” Everybody involved had their own version of events and both the daily paper and ACE covered those stories at some length.

Here we are just a few weeks later, and we’re reporting the demise of the Lexington Ballet. And you know what? Maybe the sky is falling.

Things didn’t look good when we got a last-minute phone call in April telling us that La Sylphide had been canceled in the wake of the firing of the Ballet’s executive director, and we had to pull a preview story on what we’d expected to be an inspiring performance. Then the official word came down at the Ballet Ball. The ballet school will still exist, but the Lexington Ballet, as an entity, is no more.

There’s no getting around the fact that this is a group that has certainly had its artistic ups and downs over the years (including times when the apparent artistic vision could be distilled to All Nutcracker! All the Time!, and one can easily recall dancers who fairly CLOMPED around as gracelessly as if they had somehow accidentally wandered onto the stage and found themselves in the midst of Equus: the Musical!). Most locals still recall the very public departure of former executive director, Sylvia Grace, in which both sides retained attorneys and most of the details were battled out in the press and over cocktail parties all around town.

Everyone associated with the Ballet obviously hoped that their troubles were behind them when they made the commitment to bring in a troupe of national caliber for 1997-1998. And indeed, this season, showed a pronounced artistic improvement and an apparent encouraging move towards increased professionalism.

With Mario de la Nuez as Executive Director, Xijun Fu as Artistic Director, and Meredith Benson as Associate Artistic Director, and a host of professional dancers, the Ballet seemed poised to take its place as a genuine artistic presence in this community-as ACE optimistically reported last fall.

Boy, when we’re wrong, we’re wrong. And just as with Actors’ Guild’s much-published problems, it appears to come down to money, money, money.

Heather Ferranti, one of two elected dancer representatives for the 1997-98 season (serving as liaison between the dancers and the board, the press, and the community) knew a storm was brewing very early. She cites the chronology in a very matter-of-fact manner, “First, we knew we were in trouble when our paychecks began to bounce as early as December. The second crisis came when our Executive Director was fired April 6. Third, La Sylphide was canceled. Fourth, as soon as the cancellation was announced, we asked if we would be paid the money that was owed us-and were told we’d be paid after the Ballet Ball [the organization's annual fundraiser.]” According to Ferranti, the dancers have now been told they won’t be paid after all.

She adds that the dancers weren’t even invited to the Ball, and when she attended as a guest, and was introduced as a dancer, she notes, “I might as well have been a waitress for all the interest anyone expressed in dance. [Love of the Ballet] is clearly not why they were there.”

Most distressing to Ferranti, seems to be the word around town, which she feels is being strongly advanced by the board, that the Ballet’s demise has something to do with the “unreasonable contractual demands of the dancers.”

Although Laura Boison, president of the ballet’s board of directors, phone-tagged with the ACE office through deadline, she was quoted by the daily paper on May 19 as saying that the decision to cancel the 98-99 performance season and dismiss the dancers was “the only choice.” Public support for continuing the school, the need to retire the company’s debt, and the dancers’ “demands” were cited as the reasons for what has been called a “hiatus,” estimated at about three years.

Ferranti explains that the only real deal breaker for them among their “demands” was the dancers’ request that a clause be removed which allows the company to avoid paying them if they become “insolvent,” (as they have so frequently been). According to Ferranti, the dancers were just asking for the “same protection any creditors” would be given. And with bounced paychecks under their belt, the dancers appear to have had some impetus for this “demand.”

The dancers have appealed to the public before to support the Ballet. There were also suggestions among varying board members that the company advertise the Ballet Ball, the company’s primary fundraiser-as a means of getting the company back on its feet financially-but this idea was shot down. Ferranti finds this goal of “exclusivity” indicative of the “elitist” sentiment among some board members that an “open invitation” might cut back on the snob appeal, or might attract the “wrong sort,” of people.

One board member stated outright at the Ball of the ballet, “maybe Lexington just doesn’t want this.”

Ferranti and the dancers don’t think that’s true, and don’t believe that the community has been given a chance to really make up its mind with less than one full season (at the current caliber) to evaluate.

Moving ahead with a new company, Ferranti and the dancers hope to inspire a grass roots effort that will prove that “ballet is fun…and it’s for everybody.” They hope to start a new company, tentatively known as the Ballet Theatre of Lexington. The inaugural fundraiser/performance will be Friday May 29 at the Opera House, and will include excerpts from the canceled La Sylphide.

A few conclusions about the bigger picture can be drawn here which will certainly deserve and receive ongoing examination by the community and the press.

Lexington was blessed this year by two arts organizations which mounted two very ambitious artistic seasons: Actors Guild (which included Angels in America) and the Lexington Ballet. Both seasons were critically lauded and both organizations are facing, to one degree or another, a certain amount of financial ruin.

On a not-even-remotely-related note, Garth Brooks managed to sell out Rupp Arena three nights in a row. Coincidence? We think not.

In other words, some hard questions need to be asked, like “do we get the arts and culture we deserve?” What’s the role of a board structure in any non-profit? What’s the role of fundraising? Should an entire city’s artistic vision depend on the whims or passions of one or two philanthropists. We’re sure not going to be hurting for Children’s Theatre anytime soon, for example, not that there’s anything wrong with that. Does that mean that’s all Lexington wants or deserves to see? Do we have to drive to Louisville or Cincinnati for everything else?

For Pete’s sake, this is a town where people will complain about a $500 price tag on original art, but won’t blink twice about spending that much to frame a Monet print, or a picture of a horse, or maybe a basketball player.

Stay tuned.

Tickets for the upcoming ballet performance at the Opera House are $15 and $20. Call 277-2227. Doors open at 6:30 and the show will be preceded by a silent auction. All tickets will be held at the box office. The performance will begin around 8 and last two hours.



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