Weathering Storms 

Tornado canceled "Swan Lake"

Tornado canceled "Swan Lake"

Late on Friday, April 17, Nashville Ballet’s managing director Jane Fabian was awakened by a phone call. It was bad news: Surveying the damage from the previous day’s tornadoes, city officials had to renege on their plan to reopen the downtown area on Saturday. They had been too optimistic about clearing away the glass and debris, and broken windows continued to spew dangerous shards faster than workers could repair them. The Tennessee Performing Arts Center was deemed unsafe, forcing the ballet to cancel its spring production of the full-length Swan Lake.

As people all over town emerged from their homes and businesses, gaping in disbelief at their mangled surroundings, the local ballet company tried to recover from its own devastating financial losses. The company had spent three years preparing for what many consider to be the quintessential classical ballet. This show was going to be a testament to the company’s artistic growth; it was going to garner new fans; it was going to put Nashville Ballet on the map. The dancers were ready; the Nashville Symphony was ready; the sets, costumes, and lighting were ready. Prince Siegfried, as is his custom, was going to betray the fragile swan princess Odette.

By Monday, however, the only music was the incessant sound of ringing telephones at the ballet offices and the depressed sighs of staff members. The dancers and musicians have already been scattered by gentler winds, and Fabian is now faced with paying bills on a production that never happened. When all the debts are tallied, the company’s losses on Swan Lake will likely run upwards of $75,000 and may even reach the triple digits.

April’s unpredictable calamity is only one of many that the bullet-ridden arts organization has endured in the past seven years. Ironically enough, before the tornado hit, the company’s artistry and quality of performance were at a seven-year peak. It seems like the Nashville Ballet can’t catch a lucky break.

The organization’s present predicament can be traced back to the summer of 1991. Artistic director Dane LaFontsee, with several principal performers in tow, hustled off to Milwaukee to head that city’s ballet troupe. Nashville Ballet hired Eddie Myers from Pennsylvania Ballet as its new artistic director and moved its studios to their current location on Sidco Drive.

“When we moved into this building, there was no venture capital involved, no capital campaign, no preparatory financial base for the extensive work that was done,” Fabian says. “The space [for the dance studios] was reconfigured with lights, dance floors, HVACs, and mirrors. It was very expensive, and we’re still paying for it.”

In fact, today the organization continues to carry a $165,000 debt on its studio and office space. That debt likely would have been retired earlier were it not for a confluence of events. Myers—who was universally beloved by the dancers, staff, and community—died of AIDS in February 1993, a year-and-a-half after moving to Nashville. Around this same time, managing director Terry Demas resigned, leaving in his wake an enormous stack of unpaid bills.

When Fabian was named managing director, she first had to address the problem of settling all the arrears, which she did by siphoning off money that could have been dedicated to long-term debt. For her successful efforts, the Nashville Ballet was honored with the Marvin Runyon Leadership Award for fiscal turnaround.

Meanwhile, back at the studios, the dancers were holding their own in a necessarily unimaginative season led by ballet mistress Elaine Thomas and by ballet master, now resident choreographer, Paul Vasterling. Looking back, Nashville Ballet personnel refer to 1993 as “the year of pause.”

Janek Schergen, artistic director of the Choo-San Goh Foundation, assumed the reins as artistic director during the 1993-94 season. From the outset, Schergen and Nashville were a bad fit. Whereas Myers was open and articulate and dedicated to community outreach, Schergen was more introverted, more focused on celebrity guest choreographers and issues of artistry. Because he didn’t approve of principal dancers, he mixed and matched pairings and shuffled well-known soloists back into the corps.

The following year, principal heartthrob Barry Gager retired from dancing, and married couple Charles Flachs and Rose Marie Wurzer moved to Massachusetts. Meanwhile, Schergen’s relationship with the administrative staff and ballet board began to fray. Finally, he threatened to resign, and the board took him up on his offer.

In the midst of so many organizational hassles, the dancers began to feel neglected. They were experiencing a large number of injuries and had been sent on some body-numbing tours to the Texas hinterlands. Returning disgruntled and angry, several of the dancers contacted the American Guild of Musical Artists (AGMA), the union that represents professional dancers. After some discussion, the troupe ultimately voted to “go union.” A long period of often acrimonious negotiations with the Nashville Ballet board continued through the end of the 1996-97 season.

In 1996, when current artistic director Ben Houk arrived from Seattle and the nurturing environment of Pacific Northwest Ballet, he entered an arts organization frazzled from the top down. Ebullient and optimistic, he forged ahead of the storm, revamping and expanding much of the outreach that had dwindled under Schergen’s stewardship.

When the Nashville Ballet opened its 1997-98 season, faithful patrons had no clue what to expect. Talks with AGMA were on hold, a majority of the company members were brand-new, and the ballet staff had set a season of wild and woolly contemporary dances, including works by Vasterling and local bad-boy Mark Dendy. Surprisingly, the Fall Series, a repertory that included Dendy’s Ritual and Vasterling’s Firebird, was met with resounding enthusiasm by the audience. Unfortunately, ticket sales were below projections, and Nashville Ballet took a $5,000 hit.

Then came the big blow. In late November of last year, Moscow State Ballet rented the Grand Ole Opry House, setting its production of The Nutcracker head to head against the Nashville Ballet’s own staging, scheduled a few weeks later. Fans flocked to see the out-of-town holiday production, which had enlisted 60 local schoolkids to join in the dancing and had aligned itself with two worthy not-for-profit organizations—Tennessee Voices for Children and People First of Tennessee—thereby guaranteeing some degree of local corporate support.

Butting up against Moscow State Ballet and an Amy Grant Christmas show, the Nashville Ballet played to half-full houses and came up $100,000 short. It was a case of especially bad timing: Every year, the company depends on The Nutcracker to shoulder around 20 percent of its ticket-sales burden.

“We support presenting other companies here,” Houk says, “It’s just [competing against] the same production that’s painful.... I’d love to see [Moscow State Ballet] bring one of their Russian classics here. And we fully support those touring companies like Alvin Ailey and American Ballet Theatre—in fact, we’ve helped cosponsor them.”

Still licking its Nutcracker wounds, Nashville Ballet came out fighting with its February Winter Series. Vasterling’s This Heart, which included a live performance by Nanci Griffith, resulted in explosive standing ovations and soaring attendance.

The ballet’s rebound was continuing with Swan Lake. Before the mighty winds stopped them in their tracks Thursday morning, ticket sales had reached $70,000 and climbing. In fact, Swan Lake was on track to be the troupe’s highest grossing spring production ever. Unfortunately, Nashville Ballet wasn’t insured against performance-stopping catastrophes.

Given the huge financial pounding, Fabian has asked patrons to donate their unused tickets to the company. Most people, however, have requested refunds. Others have already thrown their tickets away, meaning that neither a donation nor a refund can be accounted for. Explains marketing director Andrea Dillenberg, “If someone is going to donate a purchased ticket to the ballet, we have to have the ticket in hand in order to acknowledge it as a tax-deductible gift.” If patrons dispose of their tickets, however, “the money can’t be accounted for.... So there it sits with no means of extracting it from the Ticketmaster pool.” Currently, all ticket money is being held in escrow for an indeterminate amount of time.

The damage caused by an unmaterialized Swan Lake digs even deeper. During spring performances, the company sets up tables in the lobby to promote season subscriptions for the upcoming year. As thrilled patrons exit the show, many of them impulsively purchase advance season tickets. Likewise, star-struck girls and boys often convince their parents to sign them up for lessons at the School of Nashville Ballet. Those opportunities have been lost.

Even before the Swan Lake debacle, Nashville Ballet administrators were making difficult structural changes to rectify financial problems: Four dancers have not had their contracts renewed, whittling the company down to 14 members. The apprentice program won’t be offered next year, meaning that only trainees and students from the ballet school will augment the corps. In addition, the dancers’ contracts have been shortened by three weeks; many of the staff will have to condense their work-weeks; and the season has been shortened to three, rather than four, productions.

“We had our hands full before the tornado,” Houk says. “But the dancers have kept their chins up and their spirits high throughout. They’ve been very gracious and resilient. It’s a testament to the chemistry we had going that they’ve continued to [support] each other.”

Self-analysis is particularly tough in the midst of crisis. To a person, however, Nashville Ballet’s staff is proud of the new and innovative works it has staged, proud of its dancers’ skills and accomplishments. Where the company went wrong, Fabian says, is in not making allowances for unanticipated problems. “We didn’t have any wiggle room,” she says. A $1.6 million organization this season, Nashville Ballet will shrink its operating budget to $1.275 million next year. Included in that budget is retirement of the $165,000 long-term debt.

Vasterling suggests that the revolving door of artistic directors over the last seven years has also been a factor. “You can’t really blame anyone, but because of that the company hasn’t had as strong a focus as we needed,” he says. “And that’s something that’s just going to take some time to get over.”

Rebuilding begins in September 1998. Although plans are subject to change, Vasterling is currently choreographing a full-length ballet based on Robin Hood to the music of legit German composer Erich Korngold. He is also working on a new piece called Rogues, set to the Irish tunes of The Chieftains. Houk may choreograph a ballet to Ravel’s “Bolero,” and the troupe may reprise the comic Yes, Virginia, Another Piano Ballet and Balanchine’s Stars and Stripes.

“When you take away the emotional part of it, it’s really business,” Vasterling says of the company’s belt-tightening moves. “And the group we have is hanging together really well. I think we’re going to have a really great company next year.”

When choreographing a new dance, Vasterling is often inspired by a single idea or thought that applies to the story he’s telling. As he creates the steps for Robin Hood, he is focusing on a phrase he recently read: “Heroism is nothing more than acting charitably toward people.” For Nashville Ballet, a little heroism would come in handy right about now.

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