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Dance Lesson for San Diego : Expatriates From Failure in S.D. Help Salt Lake’s Ballet Succeed

This is a tale of two cities.

San Diego, the seventh-largest in the country, is home to myriad museums and arts institutions. A few have even begun to put the city on the cultural map. World-class dance troupes make regular stops in San Diego. But we have yet to muster a fully professional ballet company at the local level.

Compare San Diego to Salt Lake City. Utah’s capital is a compact metropolitan area surrounded by mountain ranges that peak at 11,000 feet. It has no Tony Award-winning theater troupes on its home turf and no major presenters importing internationally known dance companies.

What it does have, however, is a respectable professional ballet company, an ensemble known simply as Ballet West. The company boasts a broad repertory of full-length classics and contemporary works, 40 full-time dancers on contract for 46 weeks of the year, and a budget of $3.5 million. Ballet West performs for more than 200,000 people annually, during five seasons in its own theater and on national tours.

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A pamphlet published by the Salt Lake Convention and Visitors Bureau touts “internationally acclaimed Ballet West” ahead of the city’s symphony, opera and the Mormon Tabernacle Choir on its list of local cultural treasures.

The media in the Salt Lake City area regularly give the troupe rave reviews. And even revered dance critic Clive Barnes admired “the freshness of its approach and the spontaneity of the dancing” in a New York Post review of a performance.

What did it take for ballet to hit the heights in Salt Lake City?

“You have to have a group of dedicated people with an interest in the cultural life,” John Hart, Ballet West artistic director, said in an interview in his handsomely appointed office. “And you need a good repertory.”

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Hart inherited the reins of Ballet West in 1985, when the company was $1 million in the red. The company is on firm footing now as it begins its 26th year in Salt Lake City.

Ironically, Hart was head honcho of the San Diego Ballet Company when it went belly-up--and he’s not the only member of the Ballet West staff to arrive by way of San Diego. In fact, you could almost call Salt Lake’s Ballet West San Diego Ballet East, since there are several ex-San Diegans comfortably ensconced at the company now that Hart is running the show.

How did Hart succeed in Salt Lake after failing to keep the San Diego Ballet alive?

“I don’t have a quick answer,” he said. “It’s not just a matter of money. You need sufficient energy and determination, and we didn’t have that in San Diego. It’s a tragedy. San Diego is the sixth-largest city and Salt Lake City is only a small community of about 900,000.

“But you need reasonable support and public interest,” he said. “A ballet company can’t do it on its own. We can provide the product, but support must come from the cultural milieu. The Mormon community is very strong on ballet and music. In fact, we normally perform with a full orchestra from the Utah Symphony.”

Hart said he has been relieved of much of the burden of fund raising.

“We got our first (National Endowment for the Arts) grant for $2 million, which we have to match with $1.5 million,” he said. “Choreographers and artistic directors are not suited to be fund-raisers. It doesn’t work when the artistic director must worry about raising money. Here, the responsibilities are divided.”

Hart, a veteran of Sadler’s Wells and the prestigious Royal Ballet, recently celebrated his 50th anniversary as a dancer. Although most of his administrative experience was with state-supported British dance troupes, he has become conditioned to living within a tight budget.

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“We’re terribly efficient here. You have to run a ballet company like a business. If you look at the budgets for San Francisco Ballet, Houston Ballet and the Pennsylvania Ballet, they all range from about $9 million to $10 million. We’re only at $3.5 million, and we have one of the longest contracts for our dancers.

“When I came here, this was not one of the top companies, but we keep adding weeks to our season and increasing our repertory. We’re up to 46 weeks now and longing for 52.”

Ballet West holds nationwide auditions, and its roster includes dancers from all over the world, including Canada, the People’s Republic of China and Italy. Hart’s wife, Marrie Hadfield, a former San Diego Ballet dancer and student of Hart’s during his tenure in the dance department of United States International University, pointed out that only one dancer in the troupe is home-grown.

“We never use imported principals,” she said. “John is opposed to the guest artist theory.”

“Dancers want to come here because where else can they dance ‘Romeo and Juliet,’ ‘Giselle’ and ‘Anna Karenina’ in the same year?” said Hart. “Everything is not perfect here, but the city is very proud of its ballet, and they support us. When we had that save-the-ballet campaign in my first year here, one-third of the funding came in $10, $20 and $30 denominations.”

Another Ballet West advantage is the Capitol Theater, an old-fashioned, 1,800-seat house the ballet shares with the opera company. The city passed a bond issue 10 years ago to refurbish the Capitol.

The dancers were in the midst of a company class, led by former San Diego Ballet mistress Elaine Thomas, when Hart and Hadfield led a visitor through the theater. Among those dancers preparing for a performance of “Romeo and Juliet” was California Ballet-trained Kevin Engle.

During a brief break, Engle discussed his reason for trading the spotlight at Cal Ballet for the corps at Ballet West.

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“You can make a real good living here,” Engle said. “That’s why I came here. I wish there was professional ballet in San Diego. I’d love to come home. But this was a good move for me. There are 40 good dancers in this company instead of maybe 10 in San Diego that can really dance. And this company has money and community support. It all boils down basically to that--money.”

Hadfield no longer does pointe work, but performs with the company as “queens and moms,” she said with a laugh. She also reconstructs the classic ballets and records them in dance notation for the troupe.

Hadfield maintains close ties with San Diego, and regrets the demise of the ballet company that nurtured her. But she is cynical about the city’s attitude toward locally produced ballet.

“John and I have talked about what happened in San Diego, and we have no explanation. The city is just more interested in companies imported from the outside than in having their own ballet company,” she said. “They’ll buy season tickets to the opera and the Old Globe, but they don’t take pride in a ballet company.

“We get a lot of support in Salt Lake City. A radio and television station donated 80 hours of technicians and made us two commercials, which they aired free on the CBS affiliate,” she said. “A young business group in the community generated a gala performance for us and raised $50,000 in one night. Ninety percent of those people had never been to a ballet before, but they’re going to do it again this year. That’s the kind of support we get here.”

How does Ballet West fare at the box office?

“We’re usually sold out,” said Hadfield, “or at least 80%. We just got back from Buffalo. We did five performances of ‘Giselle,’ and they only expected 50% attendance, but we had 60% to 70%"

“Our repertory programs start out a little slower than the full-length ballets,” Hart said, “but we have a subscriber base of at least 30%, and we’re trying to build up the subscriptions.”

Despite his years at the Royal Ballet, Hart was determined to create a company “that knows what it’s about,” not a carbon copy of his British alma mater. “We do a lot of big ballets, but we also have a strong repertory.

“You can’t build a company in the image of the Royal Ballet. We wanted a uniquely American company with the best Crankos, the best Balanchines, the best Ashtons,” he said. “We like a balance. We’ve even included Caulfield’s ballet to an electronic score, and we have other contemporary works.”

Hart and Hadfield are satisfied with their accomplishments in Salt Lake City--and their success on the road. So what’s next for the pair of San Diego transplants?

“I would love to bring the company to San Diego,” said Hart. “We’ve appeared at Kennedy Center and all over the country, but we have yet to appear in San Diego.”


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