Starless Nights : Can companies such as American Ballet Theatre survive at the box office without the drawing power of a superstar like Baryshnikov?

Diane Haithman is a Times staff writer

That king of ballet longevity, Rudolf Nureyev, 52, worried in February that his fans might take the title of his current vehicle--"Nureyev and Friends: the Farewell Tour"--as a sign of his impending retirement. Not so, Nureyev announced. The dancer will follow his American farewell tour with another farewell tour of Scotland and England, finally leaving the "world stage" in London in April.

Whether Nureyev's long goodby will grow still longer remains an open question. Yet the fact that every Nureyev tour begins with speculation it might be his last emphasizes a nagging truth: Classical ballet's superstars have become an endangered species.

Ballet's legendary Soviet defectors of the 1970s, Alexander Godunov and Mikhail Baryshnikov, have moved into their 40s and the movies, and in Baryshnikov's case, modern dance. Natalia Makarova, 50, has retired.

Other superstars of that era included New York City Ballet principal dancers Suzanne Farrell and Peter Martins. Farrell recently retired and Martins has succeeded the late George Balanchine as artistic director of the company.

And the bluntest reminder that ballet's star era may be winding to a close: Dame Margot Fonteyn--who appeared on stage until she was in her 60s, died Feb. 21 at age 71.

Stanley Holden, a former principal dancer with Royal Ballet of London and director of a prominent dance academy in West Los Angeles, has always despised the star system--but is not sure ballet will survive without it. 'Either the cycle's got to come around again, or we have to think of something else," he says. "If they need the big superstars to sell the tickets, I think it's very sad and pathetic. But they've allowed it to happen, and you have to pay for it somewhere along the line--which is right now."

The early 1980s "ballet boom"--that burst of public interest in classical ballet primarily fueled by the populist appeal of American Ballet Theatre's former guiding light, "Misha" Baryshnikov--is over.

"I think it's safe to say that," drawls ABT executive director Jane Hermann with massive understatement.

If that reality had not yet sunk in for ABT's dancers, they knew for sure the boom had gone bust in the dismal autumn of 1990, when the nation's only grand-scale (84-member) classical ballet touring company celebrated its 50th anniversary by almost going out of business. A protracted dancers' strike over wages led to a standoff between dancers and management in which the company's board of directors wielded the authority to disband the company, already $4 million in debt, if the two sides could not come to terms. At the 11th hour, they did.

"It was close, and people didn't believe it," principal dancer Cynthia Harvey observes now. "I don't even think the dancers believed it, certainly not the majority of the corps. And it's always close. It's still close."

In the arts, it's tough all over in this sluggish economy. But aside from the obvious blow to ticket sales dealt by the recession, ballet faces more than the financial challenge in the 1990s. For better or worse, ballet enters the '90s without superstars--and must

figure out a new way to face the future.

Ballet has not begun the new decade without great dancers, notes Hermann, who took over after Baryshnikov's abrupt resignation as artistic director in September, 1990, and who brings her company to the Orange County Performing Arts Center Tuesday through March 24.

Principal dancers coming to Orange County include Argentine Julio Bocca, already a popular icon in South America ("He's like Pele--they love him," Hermann says); Colombian dancer Ricardo Bustamante; Italian ballerina Alessandra Ferri; Susan Jaffe, who hails from Washington and worked her way up from ABT's junior troupe to one of the company's most popular dancers, and reigning Swan Queen Cynthia Gregory, a Californian who recently celebrated her 20th year with the company.

While these dancers have won recognition among balletomanes, however, none have achieved the high-gloss pop appeal that surrounded the flamboyant Nureyev and, later, Baryshnikov, who managed to become not only a ballet star, but also movie star in 1977's ballet soap opera, "The Turning Point." Baryshnikov continued to reign during the 1980s, gaining status with a non-dance audience that was busy flashdancing and aerobicizing its way through the decade.

For a while, it seemed the only way for a woman dancer to gain any ballet mystique was to dance with Baryshnikov. Gelsey Kirkland did, as well as ABT corps member Leslie Browne, who temporarily grabbed audience attention onstage after starring as Baryshnikov's partner in "The Turning Point" after Kirkland turned down the role. "I think that the emphasis on the male dancer was good, because it made ballet a male sport," says Miriam Golden Hailparn, a former ABT soloist who danced in the company's first performance--Jan. 11, 1940, at the Rockefeller Center Theatre--and now resides in Beverly Hills.

Browne is now a principal dancer with the company. Kirkland, who left ABT after struggling back to dance from a painfully well-publicized bout with drug addiction and anorexia, has written books about her life and dance and has become a noted guest artist and ballet coach; she is planning to start her own company.

Harvey recalls partnering Baryshnikov in "Swan Lake" in the early 1980s during company tours; she acknowledges that she only got the chance because the company's star ballerinas didn't want to be bothered dancing in the smaller cities. "Mainly, people were coming to see him ," she said. "It was mainly the middle-aged female population who was coming to ballet and idolizing the male dancer."

But ballet's bloom began to fade again after 1986, acknowledges Pat Turk, general manager of New York City Ballet--the same period in which Baryshnikov was often injured and had begun to favor roles in ABT's modern dance works over bouncing through the roles of young princes in the classical ballets. "I think there was a downturn--we're not at the point where we were say, five years ago, although our (ticket subscriber) base is higher than it was in 1975, or 1976," Turk said.

No dancer, male or female, has yet come along to take Baryshnikov's place. Harvey believes that perhaps no one will. "We've been there; we've done that," she says. "I don't think it will happen again for a while.

"Especially in ABT, we had all these dancers, Mishas and Natalias and Gelsey Kirklands and Cynthia Gregorys, and the level of difference between them and the rest of us at that time was totally exciting (for the audience)," Harvey continues. "I think what has happened since is, thankfully, the level of dance (among the rest of the company) has come up to theirs."

Harvey, as well as others in the ballet business, agree that the era of glasnost has eliminated another sure-fire formula for creating a ballet star: a dramatic defection from Russia. "The best thing that ever happened to Russian dance was the Cold War," Hermann says. "Not that it made the dancing any better; it just made the salesmanship better."

Now a Soviet dancer can appear here with an American company and then go home again. The Soviet companies as a whole have lost a little of their drawing power here too, says Douglas Worthington, general manager of the Shrine Auditorium. When the Kirov danced at the Shrine in 1986--its first Los Angeles appearance since 1964--the cavernous auditorium sold all 6,300 tickets for each of six performances. By 1990, when the Bolshoi came to the Shrine, they sold out none of their 14 performances, drawing between 3,000 and 4,000 for each show. (The Bolshoi had been to Los Angeles in 1975, and had appeared at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion in 1988.)

New York City Ballet's Turk says greater exposure to the Soviet company also reveals flaws. "I think the more the Russian companies come to the United States--particularly if they continue to charge their outrageous prices--the fascination will diminish." she says.

Would Nureyev and Baryshnikov, then, not have become superstars had they not defected from Russia but come from Texas? Even with her criticisms of Soviet ballet, Hermann says yes. "I think every now and then there is someone born who is absolutely unique, and Rudolf is one of them," she says. "I have a feeling that nothing would have held him back. Misha had a level of technical acuity that has never been surpassed.

"And don't forget. . . both Misha and Rudolf are very sexy-looking men," Hermann adds. "So you had a following that developed into movie stardom."

Hermann hopes that a lingering tendency to prefer the imports will soon end. "Every Russian dancer who can possibly stand up tours the United States, filling our theaters with junk," she says. "That is definitely eating into our box office, no doubt about it.

"There were two Russians in (ABT) within the last 24 months--(Faruk Ruzimatov and Andris Leipa)--both of whom have gone back--they can't take the discipline," Hermann continues. "The Russians that defected came because they were so highly self-motivated. Misha and Rudolf and Natasha (Makarova) were absolutely self-motivated, they worked endlessly. They had a huge thirst for knowledge, and they were highly intelligent.

"For a bunch of (performers) to come out of Russia where they dance two or three times a month, to be thrown into a repertoire where they're rehearsing six or seven ballets at the same time with different partners--it's a much more rigorous routine than they are used to. In a way, I think it was very painful for them."

Hermann is also fuming because the persistent lure of imported goods caused some media attention when Parisian ballerina Sylvie Guillem, heavily promoted as a guest artist for ABT's visit to Orange County, bailed out because she reportedly feared traveling by plane in the midst of terrorist threats during the Gulf War. (Guillem announced last week that she will honor her commitment to dance with the Royal Ballet at Kennedy Center this month, where she's been scheduled to appear since November--the same dates she had been scheduled to perform in Orange County.)

Even though Guillem also appeared in Orange County as a star of the Paris Opera Ballet in 1988, Hermann says: "The general public in Orange County doesn't know Sylvie Guillem, by and large.

"Your press is so nut s--I don't believe an extra 2,000 people are going to run to Orange County because Sylvie Guillem is on. Putting her on was not for ticket sales; it was a completely artistic decision."

What does sell ballet tickets, then? Although Hermann says a handful of ABT's principal dancers have developed their own coteries of fans in selected areas, both she and Thomas P. Kendrick, president and chief operating officer of the Orange County Center for the Performing Arts, say casting makes no significant difference in ticket sales these days. Today's "stars" of classical ballet, they say, are the ballets themselves. And some are bigger stars than others.

Kendrick said that, as a rule of thumb, America's major performing arts centers, including Lincoln Center, Kennedy Center and Los Angeles' Music Center, expect the full-length, story ballets--"The Nutcracker," "Swan Lake," "Sleeping Beauty," "Romeo and Juliet"--to recoup an average of 75% of their costs through ticket sales. A mixed-repertory program is expected to cover only 65% of presentation costs in ticket sales. Somewhere in between, Kendrick says, lie full-length, but lesser known full-length classics such as the two ABT will present in Orange County--"Coppelia" and "La Bayadere."

Kendrick said the decision to present two full-length ballets was provoked by the recession. "We could see that this might be a difficult year, and we were trying to be realistic here," he said. "We are doing the mixed repertory, but we are also doing not one, but two, story ballets. We believe that the fact that 'Coppelia' is new to this center, and 'Bayadere' is Makarova's 'Bayadere,' will stave off the fact that they are slightly less well-known."

Kendrick says that the stature of the ballet company, how frequently and how recently it has danced in Orange County, and whether it is bringing a ballet new to the Performing Arts Center all affect ticket sales. In mixed-repertory programs, casting makes more difference than in the story ballets, but the effect remains minimal in the absence of a superstar. Subscription tickets also minimize the effect of casting, which is not announced until after the tickets are purchased.

Kendrick says that even the ghost of Baryshnikov sells tickets. When American Ballet Theatre brought Baryshnikov's new staging of "Swan Lake" to Orange County in December, 1988, all performances sold out--even though Baryshnikov did not dance in them. "Baryshnikov and 'Swan Lake'--that's a powerful combination," he says. He admits some ticket buyers may simply not have realized that Baryshnikov was not in it.

There are those who like the idea that ballet's superstar era is over.

"Let's face it, I think that some of the (other) talent may have been set back a bit by the aura that surrounds the Baryshnikovs, the Nureyevs," says Betty Ferrell, booking promotion manager for the arts at El Camino College. Ferrell spent most of her career working for impresario Sol Hurok, who brought many Soviet companies to the United States. "The classic example of that is Fernando Bujones--I think he got lost in the advent of Baryshnikov's Ballet Theatre, and Bujones is a brilliant dancer." (Bujones left ABT after a feud with Baryshnikov, but now appears occasionally with the company as a guest artist.)

Hermann says that "ensemble chic" has replaced the so-called "star system" for the moment in ballet--but grumbles that the critics and the audience can't seem to make up their minds whether they like it or not. On the one hand, the absence of media stars causes critics to complain of "blandness" at the ballet (New York magazine's Tobi Tobias described American Ballet Theatre's current dance style as "technical proficiency delivered neat and clean and without a trace of individual spirit"). On the other--"God forbid I should bring anyone new into the company," Hermann exclaims. "The minute I try to promote somebody, I'm accused of breaking down the ensemble nature of the company. No matter what I do, somebody's going to get mad."

Hermann believes, despite any company's attempts to control it, however, the very nature of classical ballet will always--eventually--create at least a few shooting stars.

"It's much easier to handle an ensemble company, because they can't talk back to you," Hermann muses. "You're not dealing with people who want individual recognition.

"(But) when you expect people to deliver over the footlights and make a highly original, personal stamp on the audience, and take very high personal risks on the stage, they also have to get the recognition for it. They're going to be more tempestuous, they're going to be more demanding, and not as easy to manage. And the amount of difficulty is totally commensurate with the talent. Otherwise, they don't stay."

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