Stage: Thursday, April 21, 2004

A primer on the world-class ballet in out midst.

By Leonard Eureka

Fort Worth is awash in good dance. With three major companies and a number of smaller groups vying for attention, you donít have to leave town anymore to see worthwhile performances.

This wasnít always the case. Texas Ballet Theater, formerly Fort Worth Dallas Ballet ó a.k.a. the one with the big budget ó went through a serious brush with mediocrity during the late 1990s. As the new century dawned, the company almost went under. In a last ditch effort, a small band of board directors took control, pledged more than $1 million to get out of hock, changed the name, and lured longtime Houston Ballet artistic director Ben Stevenson here to turn things around.

The move was magic. In two years Stevenson has put the artistic house in order, and the company could rightly be dubbed Houston Ballet North, although a more accurate title might be Royal Ballet West. Stevensonís dance roots run deep into the London tradition; sumptuous evening-long ballets in the grand manner are his trademark style. His Houston productions of The Nutcracker, Swan Lake, and Cleopatra will all be seen here next season.

Houstonís former ballet master, Li Anlin, now runs the Texas Ballet Theater School, and Houston Balletís one-time assistant conductor Jack Buckhannan is music director and conductor in Fort Worth. Several Houston Ballet dancers have found their way north, and additional funds have been pledged to bring in two (possibly four) Houston Ballet principals next season. ďItís difficult to find principals who will dance a lead one night and a secondary role the next,Ē Stevenson told me. ďAnd thatís what we need.Ē

Now that Texas Ballet Theater is running smoothly and appears to have a bright future, executive director David Mallette is stepping down at the end of next season. The timing allows him to pursue other employment without having to walk on eggshells, and gives the company time to find a replacement. A national search will be undertaken, but it may be that his successor is already here. Victor Mashburn, Malletteís assistant, has impressed a lot of people with his fund-raising abilities in particular. Stevenson calls him ďa strong contender.Ē

On behalf of Texas Ballet Theater, Stevenson also extended a long overdue welcome to modern dance choreographer and Metroplex neighbor Bruce Wood to create a piece for the former companyís popular Valentineís Day program next February. This yearís evening of short repertory works defied the conventional wisdom that says audiences prefer full-length ballets, more than doubling box office expectations.

Wood represents the other side of dance possibilities in Fort Worth. The Bruce Wood Dance Company explores Woodís extensive new repertory with a panache that regularly brings cheers. His choreography ignores the angst of Martha Graham and the obtuse jiggery of Merce Cunningham, and evokes wonderful visual images in an original, gentle dance vocabulary. His major talent is an unerring musical ear, which hears whatís happening on the surface of a score and whatís going on underneath, as he visually explores what the music says to him.

The company has had a rocky financial time, keeping afloat by national touring. BWDC used to dance in Bass Performance Hall, but it was too pricey and didnít offer weekend dates or rehearsal time. The company now performs in Will Rogers Auditorium, where Saturdays are open and rehearsal times are affordable and workable. In late July, the new space will host another one of BWDCís many commissions, this one for the U.S. Army in Columbus, Ga., called Follow Me, Brother. Itíll debut in the Metroplex a week earlier at the new Eisemann Center in Richardson.

BWDC has no executive director or business manager at the moment and depends almost entirely on volunteer help to keep going. With a projected New York City debut next season, things are expected to pick up. One of the mysteries of modern dance is why this company hasnít received national attention. Wood is certainly as interesting a choreographer as Mark Morris, the current divo of modern dance for whom a virtual palace was recently built next to the Brooklyn Academy of Music in New York to house his company. One can easily say Wood has more depth of feeling and musical perception than his colleague. Yet Morris thrives while Wood struggles. Go figure.

In between TBT and BWDC stylistically is Ballet Arlington, now calling itself the Metropolitan Ballet of Arlington and Fort Worth. What started as a rinky-dink group with a few good dancers six years ago has mushroomed into a major force. Performing both in Arlington and Bass Performance Hall, the company offers Balanchine ballets and Russian specialties, delivered by Russian-trained dancers of remarkable power and polish.

Co-artistic director Paul Mejia, a protťgť of Balanchine and former dancer with the New York City Ballet, lovingly mounts revivals of ballets in which he danced. The company recently presented Agon, the Balanchine-Stravinsky collaboration built on crushed-glass dissonance and spiky choreography that masks a romantic heart. The elegiac pas de deux section, as transparent and tender as anything ďMr. B.Ē ever created, was brilliantly danced by Olga Pavlova and Anatoly Emelianos.

Alexander Vetrov, the companyís other artistic director, staged Spartacus on the same program. The penultimate Soviet-era ballet, shortened here and ending with the gladiatorís triumph over the Roman Commander, the piece exploded with acrobatic dancing and dramatic acting of a kind seen only with Russian dancers. Itís this kind of exuberance, done with great technique and boundless energy, that sets the company apart. Emelianos was seen again in the title role, and while he doesnít get his leg up 90 degrees in stationary turns, his leaps and twists in the air are remarkable, as was a one-arm lift he managed, supporting his partner slowly across the stage overhead by the hip as she lay on her side parallel to the floor. No shakes, no wobbles, and not much to do with dance, really, but wonderfully effective.

With these companies growing and maturing literally before our eyes, the dance future here looks more than promising. As long as the money holds up and audiences continue to show up and cheer, the sky would seem to be the limit.

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