As the curtain rose on the final performance of Ballet San Antonio‘s inaugural season at the Tobin Center for the Performing Arts, I will admit I had a case of sympathetic butterflies in the pit of my stomach. The first piece on the program was the much-anticipated “Donizetti Variations,” choreographed by the legendary George Balanchine and set on the company by Philip Neal of the Balanchine Trust. As the dancers took the stage, the butterflies melted away.
Originally choreographed in 1960, “Donizetti Variations” is typically described as sunny, cheerful, and effervescent. Balanchine often tends to run in fugues, with no two elements in place at the same time. Until they suddenly are, and then the vignette must be perfectly composed or the pudding is ruined. The footwork is lightning fast with the bodies above flowing elegant and unhurried.
This is quite a trick to accomplish, but the complex kaleidoscope of dancers moving from trios, quartets, duets (and seemingly all possible compositions in between) were fresh and carefree. The cast of 11 dancers seized the material with a self-assured aplomb, belying the fact that this was their first presentation of a work by the acknowledged “Master of the American Ballet.” They delivered the precision and dexterity of footwork as well as the required fluidity of épaulement necessary to properly carry off any performance of a Balanchine work. The individuals became one intricately connected organism, the definition of success. Particularly pleasing was the pas de deux work of Jayson Pescasio and Kate Maxted. Technically, they aced their roles.
Pescasio’s trademark leaps and turns continue to defy gravity with nary a fumble. He nails every move with bravuro and ease. He is a most generous and reliable partner, guiding and supporting Maxted through multiple pirouettes and lifts as if he were lifting a delicate flower. Maxted – recently plucked from the corps de ballet especially for this role – is a natural. She proved her mettle in this challenge. She is not only lovely, but quick and strong, her hops en pointe light as a feather. The audience was moved to applause on several occasions throughout their performance.
Past the Balanchine, the program continued with two new works from Artistic Director Gabriel Zertuche, “Butterflying” and “Arvo.” It was refreshing to see the choreographer working in a contemporary vein, primarily because I am most familiar with his “Dracula,” a dramatic story-ballet with all the traditional trappings of costume and sets. It is also great to see the dancers set free in another direction after all of the heavy lifting that they’ve done in the past few seasons with the premieres of Ben Stevenson’s “Cinderella” and “Romeo & Juliet.”
“Butterflying” is a very lyrical piece showcasing dancers Lydia Relle, Crystal Serrano, Carol Tang, and José Gonzalez (with the occasional addition of a lovely women’s ensemble). The dance is in three movements with music by Philip Glass, Alexandra Gardner, and Elena Kats-Chernin. The lighting and artfully draped mobile set piece contributed to the air of mystery and grace, almost lending another character to the story.
In contrast to the staccato Balanchine, this piece was all about fluid line. Zertuche effectively utilizes gravity and the escape from it, the dancers not exactly somber, but in seeming deep reflection. This was an excellent vehicle for José Gonzalez, in his first season with the company. Accustomed to dancing leading roles in his native Columbia and in the United States, Zertuche was wise to snag this seasoned professional. We shall look forward to seeing more from him.
“Arvo,” on the other hand, is a great big piece in every way. Named for the composer Arvo Pärt (Tabula Rasa: Ludus), the whole company is utilized in a complex web, a quick and challenging work with changing patterns and movement. A favorite passage was when principal dancer Sarah Pautz was handed from partner to partner in a chained series of lifts across the back of the stage, in high relief to the dancers in front. The company made masterful use of the full stage in big, bold patterns. Wasting no time, this piece ended almost as soon as it began for the audience, leaving us in a whirl. The costuming was vibrant but simple, the lighting – as in “Butterflying” – dramatic.
Between Zertuche’s two works we were treated to “Nokturne,” choreographed and danced by Principal Dancers Sarah Pautz and Ian Morris. Short and sweet with music by Chopin, the piece showed the couple to best advantage, although not overtly virtuosic. A sort of remise en bouche, if you will, leaving us pleasantly cleansed.
All in all, a very fine finish to a successful season in which Ballet San Antonio continues to raise the bar for themselves. A season in which they proved their worth to our community not only with world-class performances at The Tobin, but with outreach such as their “Learning That Moves You” program and their recent “Ballet In The Park” at Travis Park with more than 1,000 in attendance. All this, and yet I am let down.
The most disappointing aspect of this performance was the audience. Or, I should say, lack thereof. According to Ballet San Antonio, the audience count was approximately 400 – 500 for each of the three performances. This is unfortunate considering that the capacity for the H-E-B Performance Hall is 1,850 seats. Disappointing because all remaining tickets for these performances were a very reasonably priced $29. Disappointing because Ballet San Antonio relies on ticket sales for 30% of their operations budget. Disappointing because I am seriously wondering if San Antonio deserves this ballet company.
Yes, San Antonio, I am calling you out.
It is widely understood that a vibrant arts scene is not only important to the intellectual and cultural fabric of a great city, but it is also an essential element of drawing business to the community and keeping it. When I chatted with Sir Ben Stevenson (currently the Artistic Director of Texas Ballet Theater) back in February, we reminisced about the monumental development of Houston Ballet during his nearly three decades at the helm of that institution.
“There was a phenomenal board to start with, so we had a lot of really important people in the city behind it. You can’t have a ballet company with all money and no talent, and you can’t have a company with all talent and no money. So, really, it’s having that balance that enables you to go forward,” Stevenson said.
He went on to add that Houston Ballet (founded in 1955) was started by a group of women who wanted a world-class ballet company, and were very determined and focused on that goal. “They were great friends of the Ballets Russes who came to Houston every year. So, there were certain people in the community that really stood behind me, and when we needed something, they wanted it because we wanted it. Or we needed it, so they needed it. I was very lucky to have a strong board and the most amazing guild. It was really fabulous.”
I’ll note here that Stevenson joined the Houston Ballet organization as Artistic Director in 1976, and it was under his leadership that the company grew into the juggernaut that we recognize it as today. Also, Sir Ben has gone beyond simply being a guest artist of the company. He also sits on the advisory board of Ballet San Antonio.
“They know I am on their side and that I want the company to succeed. So, whatever I can do from that point of view, I think it’s sort of terrific. I think the arts are so important and like everyone gets behind their favorite sports team, you have to get behind your arts, as well. Just think, we would never know anything about Egypt if it weren’t for the pyramids or the paintings on the walls.”
To that end, President and Executive Director Courtney Mauro Barker has accomplished much in a few short years side-by-side with Zertuche. As they are the resident ballet company of the Tobin Center for the Performing Arts, there has been a generous influx of seed money from public and private benefactors like H-E-B Chairman and CEO Charles Butt, the Tobin Endowment, the Kronkosky Charitable Foundation, H-E-B, the City of San Antonio, Bexar County Commissioners Court and numerous others. However, keep in mind that some contributions are one time gifts. Kimberly Harle, H-E-B Manager of Public Affairs, issued this statement in an email:
“Charles Butt’s generous contribution to Ballet San Antonio was a one-time gift in honor of the inaugural season of the Tobin Center for the Performing Arts. H-E-B fully supports the communities that we serve and we have an unwavering commitment to help fund the arts. Ballet San Antonio is a shining example of the fantastic talent that is offered in our city. We’re so proud to support them and all that they do.”
So, allow me to back-pedal a bit and give my fellow San Antonians the benefit of the doubt. Could it be, perhaps, that the great majority of people in the city, including many of our movers and shakers, simply have no idea of the gem that they have in their midst?
Let’s look at it from Zertuche’s perspective:
“I think people really enjoy it. So many times I will sit in the audience and just listen, and the thing that I always hear is, ‘I can’t believe that we have this ballet company in San Antonio. Who are these dancers? Are they bringing them in?’ What they don’t realize is that these dancers live and breathe right here in San Antonio. So, that has been a challenge I think for San Antonio to get behind the idea that we have a professional company here. It doesn’t get a whole lot better than what we have here. We are bringing in incredible artists, our dancers are evolving into great artists.
“We face a challenge here in that people still think that they need to go to Houston or New York or Santa Fe to see good ballet, and that’s just not true anymore. In terms of funding and support I have to say that we have gained quite a bit of foundation support, but I still feel that the individual supporters aren’t quite there. Every day we work hard to tell people our story and what we are doing here in San Antonio, and hopefully that will come in time. In order to keep going we need that support. We have pushed ourselves to the limit.”
Looking at the budget of Ballet San Antonio, you very soon realize that we get a lot of bang for the buck. The 2014-2015 season has been a high water mark with an operations budget of $1.6 million. The company employs 22 dancers with an administrative staff of 10, and as Zertuche is fond of saying, “everyone wears 10 different hats.”
“Courtney and I have just adapted — we just do it. But it’s tough because we delegate a lot to our staff just to get everything done. When you look at what our company is accomplishing in a season, consider that similar companies are operating with a budget that is 6 or 7 times greater than ours,” Zertuche said.
“I am proud of the people we employ, the dancers and administrative, and the incredible work that we accomplish. We end our day in the studio at 3:30, so many of our dancers can pick up second jobs as necessary. The reality is that this is typical of dancers across the nation. Dancers work during the day and at night just to survive. It’s unfortunate that dancers spend their entire lives, they devote their youth and young adulthood to this artform and they are the least paid of the symphony and opera. For me, it is hard to take, knowing what these dancers give up (for their art). It’s important to me to raise the standard of living for our dancers and staff. I think we will get there, hopefully sooner rather than later, but we need the support,” Zertuche said.
Now, let’s get it straight here. This is my opinion and I will be very direct with you, Dear Reader. In the grand tradition of our city, we can accomplish this. If some of us give a lot more, and a lot of us give a little more, we can sustain a burgeoning star like Ballet San Antonio – or any other of our fine arts institutions, for that matter. Or, we can just let it wither away from neglect. Which has been – unfortunately – another great San Antonio tradition.
Ballet San Antonio recently announced their 2015-2016 season, with season ticket packages starting at $99. Remember, at The Tobin, there’s not a bad seat in the house. Or, perhaps volunteering is more your speed. Contact the company website to find out how your or your company can get involved. The ball is in your court.
*Featured/top image: Sarah Pautz and Ian Morris in their creation “Nokturne.” Photo by Alexander Devora.