The ballet and the beast

A renegade choreographer made news this fall when he eschewed a likely offer to run the New York City Ballet. Christopher Wheeldon left the historic troupe to cull his own dancers and build Morphoses/The Wheeldon Company, where vision reigns over all — including legacy, following, and funding.

Starting a ballet company is a risky venture in a time when the fight for grant money is the new gold rush. The one-year-old Alamo Arts Ballet Theatre, a professional ballet company and school in San Antonio, was thrilled to receive the $14,000 grant it requested from the local
Kronkosky Foundation.

Spawned from a shared cultural breeding ground, Morphoses and Alamo Arts were born of necessity and desire. Founding member and former Houston Ballet prima ballerina Lauren Anderson saw the same potential to achieve high art and community outreach in San Antonio that Wheeldon procured in New York.

Compared to New York City Ballet’s $58-million annual budget, $14,000 seems to afford no more than a few second-hand tutus. Wheeldon’s precarious shadow looms over fledgling ballet companies like a groundhog en pointe, forecasting their success or failure. Positive reviews and a prosperous first attempt to secure funding tell favorably of Alamo Arts’ future, but the same skeptics who question Morphoses’ viability cast doubt on the long-term impact of other start-up companies.

The age-old tension between patron and public surfaces even in a company like Alamo Arts that executes modern dance as assuredly as a classical repertoire. The company’s premier performance in 2006 announced its fearlessness as it choreographed dances to Stravinsky and
Zeppelin in the same breath.

But the Sunday performance of Fire and Ice seems to revert to caution. Pieces by 19th-century Russians Glazunov and Rimsky-Korsakov confess uncertainty that its loyalties lie not with the audiences in need of outreach but to its donors. The music selections, while art-music at its highest, cater to audiences in search of Ballet Proper and who might believe that deviation is vulgar. Stranger still is the 17th-century baroque “Terpsichore” by Praetorius for the children’s ballet. “Terpsichore” surely stands up to the musicologist’s magnifying glass as a gold mine of historical insight, but it doesn’t persuade young people that ballet is an evolving and
contemporary art form.

Yet Alamo Arts is unquestionably doing all the right things for the community. Championing community service, the theater performed for more than 3,000 children in underserved and low-income public schools last year and will perform a matinee for school kids this Friday. For Fire and Ice, it collaborates with Flamenco dancers from San Antonio Dance Academy, reasserting that the company can think outside the classical box. The organization also insists on professional training and invites professional dancers and choreographers to teach master classes.

Balancing artistic independence and financial stability is often a matter of luck and politics, appeasing the beast. Who knows if a dance troupe less dedicated to classical ideals would win the favor of a generous endowment? But one year ago, Alamo Arts emerged out of the shadow, hopefully predicting for itself, and other newborn companies, a springtime where vision and funding flow freely.


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