Ballet Theatre of Chicago's Hot Start
After lengthy delays and considerable skepticism, budding ballet impresario Mario de la Nuez finally launched his Ballet Theatre of Chicago this month, and the result was surprising--surprisingly good, that is. Bucking subzero temperatures, BTC actually drew crowds to their first production, Giselle, and managed to turn a small profit. Better still, Giselle earned plaudits from the critics. The Tribune said the production contained "indescribable magic," while the Sun-Times claimed that "every aspect of this production is first-rate."
"I expected the quality to be there, but what I didn't expect was the overwhelming support we received," says de la Nuez. His surprise is understandable because ballet has long been a tough sell here. For several years de la Nuez and his wife, dancer Meredith Benson, worked with Ballet Chicago and watched that organization struggle to build an audience. After more than six years, Ballet Chicago still has a spotty track record and no company of dancers. But de la Nuez didn't think the obstacles were insurmountable. His admitted frustration with Ballet Chicago prompted him to start his own troupe; he hoped to demonstrate that a company with vision and leadership could not only survive but thrive, even without major financial backing or a heavy-hitting board of directors.
His crusade began about a year ago, when he first announced his intention to present Giselle last fall at the Athenaeum Theatre. That game plan, however, proved unworkable when de la Nuez learned that former American Ballet Theatre principal dancer Ivan Nagy, his first choice to stage the ballet, wouldn't be available. Rather than settle for a second choice, de la Nuez opted to wait for Nagy, which meant that Giselle would have to go looking for an audience in the dead of winter. In the meantime, he busied himself with raising money to underwrite BTC's debut. All told, de la Nuez brought in about $80,000, including grants from the Elizabeth F. Cheney and Hulda B. and Maurice L. Rothschild foundations as well as numerous donations from individuals willing to back a relative newcomer. He then hired Carol Fox, a former marketing director for Hubbard Street Dance Chicago, to handle BTC's sales strategy and retained local designer Thomas Fleming to design the lighting for Giselle. He amassed a large company of 35 dancers, almost all from the Chicago area.
But there were unexpected hurdles in the final weeks before the debut. A set stored in a New York warehouse suffered severe water damage during the major snowstorm that hit that city last month, and de la Nuez had to search for a substitute. He eventually found a replacement at the Indianapolis Ballet Theatre, but the cost of renting another set threw a wrench into the budget and prevented him from hiring a live orchestra. Despite the budget crunch, de la Nuez was determined not to skimp on rehearsals, allowing four weeks for Nagy to work with the dancers.
According toAthenaeum general manager Fred Solari, some early visitors to the theater's box office assumed that Giselle was a Ballet Chicago presentation, and box office personnel took pains to explain that it was being staged by a new company. Yet de la Nuez says ticket sales were right on target in the days prior to opening. The real rush came after the reviews appeared in the daily papers. "The Athenaeum box office was swamped like it had never been before this," he says. All told, BTC sold about 1,643 tickets to its four performances, more than enough to convince de la Nuez that his new company has a future. He toyed briefly with the idea of bringing back Giselle for additional performances next month, but ultimately didn't want to risk incurring a deficit and instead decided to direct his energy to planning a more ambitious subscription series next year. For next season, de la Nuez is talking about five productions with performances in October, December, February, March, and May. A full-length Romeo and Juliet is already penciled in as one of BTC's major projects. A subscription drive will start in the early summer, just before the company launches a tour of southern states.
Music and Dance Theatre Bounces Back
A source close to the proposed $33 million Chicago Music and Dance Theatre says a new financing arrangement has been worked out that's expected to meet with the approval of top executives at LaSalle Bank, the main lender for the project. A deal had been delayed for several months because of LaSalle's concern about who would gain control of the building and its Cityfront Center lot in the event of the theater's financial collapse. LaSalle representatives and Music and Dance Theatre executives were to meet earlier this week to go over details of the new proposal. Final approval of the deal could come as early as next week. But now the new facility probably won't open until late winter 1998; the opening had been scheduled for fall 1997.
Don't invite former Chicagoan David Dillon and Los Angeles theater critic Charles Marowitz to the same soiree. When Dillon's play Party moved to an off-Broadway theater last spring after a long run here, the New York Times gave it a rave review. But Marowitz had a decidedly different reaction when the play opened recently in LA. In the February 5 issue of Theater Week, Marowitz wrote, "Every so often, the theater produces a monument to insipidity which thoroughly enthralls the lowest common denominator and brings herds of chortling bozos thundering into the playhouse....But the central repugnance of Party is not in the obviousness of its construction, the brittleness of its wit, or the banality of its characterizations, but in the fact that it blithely reasserts the crudest and most obvious sexual stereotype and, in so doing, is an aggressive insult to millions of gays and an equal number of heterosexuals who know, from first-hand social intercourse with them, that such a characterization is as shallow as it is contemptible."
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo / Randy Powell.