Tennessee Dance Theatre is dead. It may seem like small potatoes in the grand scheme of Nashville arts and entertainmentafter all, it was a modest company consisting of two artistic directors, a handful of dancers, an executive director, and a board. But these people left something important behind, something that spoke to our time, our place, and our culture.
Nashville should mourn “the loss of one of our great treasures,” says Richard Boyd, executive director of the Tennessee Arts Commission. Founded in 1985, TDT was “one of our preeminent dance companies who contributed to the history of our state” by presenting works that grew organically from the Southern soil. Paul Vasterling, artistic director of the Nashville Ballet, says, “I do hope it’s not truly their end, because TDT enlivened the passion for dance in this community.”
The tale of TDT’s demise does not present any real surprises. Although it’s full of individual twists and turns, the scenario has been repeated by many other artistic enterprises over the years. Ever since modern dance was born in America during the 1920s, companies have come and gone. Most of these companies survive, barely scraping by, then go defunct; except for the Martha Graham company’s recent breakup, little notice is taken when they disappear. At least for Nashville, though, TDT was different. It was closely bound to the cultural fabric of our city, and co-founders Donna Rizzo and Andrew Krichels always sought to create works that spoke to a real sense of place.
It was obvious a year ago that the company was having problems. Its fall schedule for 1999 was virtually nonexistent. This past February, Rizzo and Krichels, interviewed for a story in the Scene, confessed that they were pulling things back together after a period of inactivity. They seemed enthusiastic about working together on a big new project. Instead, the June premiere of The Ghosts of the Civil War sounded the company’s death knell.
Already that spring, things were going very badly. A highly prestigious appearance in New York had to be canceled for lack of funds. Rizzo took no pay for two months so that the dancers could be paid; Edgardo Cora, the executive director, also worked without salary for a while. Ghosts of the Civil War was produced on a shoestring, with Rizzo sewing the costumes herself. The company was so hedged in by budget restrictions that the performance hall could only be hired for one day and night, which necessitated a dress rehearsal and technical run-through on the same day as the performance. Ticket sales were minimal, because there was no money for publicity.
Sometime in May, Andrew Krichels had turned in a letter of resignation to the board effective June 30, but he offered to help the company in other ways, by serving as an artistic advisor or as a board member. He seesawed back and forth about his decision, even at one point wondering if it might be possible to resurrect the company himself; by that time, though, Rizzo told him it was too late. According to Cora, when the board asked Rizzo what she wanted to do, she replied, “I don’t want to do this anymore.” At its May meeting, the board tabled further action until sometime in July. In the meantime, according to Krichels, the board began to prepare a press release to announce the demise of TDT. Rizzo was warned by the board not to speak about these matters to the dancers or to anyone else, for that matter.
Several days after their season contracts had expired, the dancers met with Rizzo and Cora. For his part, Cora remembers talking about the necessity of a restructuring; he told the dancers that the board “would meet in July and see what to do next.” He acknowledges, however, that no one told them Krichels had resigned or that Rizzo had expressed her desire to quit as well. What’s more, he says, no one told the dancers of the possibility that the company might fold. On the contrary, the upcoming season’s schedule for the fall 2000 was printed and posted for all to see.
Throughout July, Rizzo continued to agonize over the company’s future. But finally, after a brief retreat to her ancestral homelands in the mountains, she made up her mind. “It’s over,” she told the Scene last week. “I’m tired. It’s been an unbelievable 15 years of hard work, and you can tell everybody that Donna Rizzo is tired.”
Company members, meanwhile, had expected to start up again with new contracts in August. Several of the dancers, including Saimir Avdyli and Cari Barfield, had turned down high-paying jobs out of loyalty to TDT. So everyone was stunned when Cora telephoned the dancers one by one on Aug. 11 and, with few explanations, informed them that TDT was closing. Rizzo remained muzzled by the board until the press release was to be sent out. The dancers, too, were asked not to talk publicly.
At this time, the board has voted to defer business for a yearthe press release calls it a “sabbatical.” The company’s studio has been closed and its belongings removed. Paul Vasterling has generously offered studio space to the TDT dancers so that they have somewhere to take class and stay in shape.
It is naive to believe that an artistic product, no matter how worthy, alone determines the success of a creative enterprise. Tennessee Dance Theatre’s choreography and dancing earned rave reviews from critics, including Anna Kisselgoff of The New York Times, yet the company, like the proverbial prophet, was without honor in its own country. As a result, certain factors, such as audience development, played a strong role in the company’s fortunes as well. Rich Boyd points out that TDT had no home and never stayed in one place long enough to create one. Shabby venues, such as the funky (and now-defunct) Ace of Clubs, only contributed to the company’s loss of audience support.
Fund-raising was yet another problem for the company. Krichels speaks of the bare-bones, $150,000 annual budget, of which TDT was only able to raise $75,000, most of it skewed toward “soft money” grants. Meanwhile, the board presented another set of problems; Cora points out that some members were unavailable to attend meetings during these critical last few monthsa time when real leadership and guidance was needed. There were other problems as well, but there’s no use in finger-pointing. “Everyone has got to share the responsibility,” Boyd says.
May Tennessee Dance Theatre rest in peace. “Quilts,” its signature piece, and “Signs,” a piece that dealt with snake-handling, were extraordinary artistic events. TDT provided me with some of the most exciting dance I’ve seen anywhere in the world, whether in New York City, Chicago, San Francisco, Paris, London, Bangkok, or Bali. Now these memories will be treasured and turned over in my mind for years to come.
Bravo, Donna and Andrew! We will miss you.
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