New Dance Troupe Leaps Onto the Scene/No Laughing Matter: Actors Exit En Masse/Metcalf's Spring Thing | Culture Club | Chicago Reader

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New Dance Troupe Leaps Onto the Scene/No Laughing Matter: Actors Exit En Masse/Metcalf's Spring Thing

Can Mario De La Nuez's new dance compnay get a leg up on Ballet Chicago?

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New Dance Troupe Leaps Onto the Scene

With Ballet Chicago's future in question, Mario De La Nuez, a dancer who appeared with the company for the first time last season, has recruited a corps of 20 dancers to form a new company, Ballet Theatre of Chicago. Among those in De La Nuez's company is his wife Meridith Benson, a former Ballet Chicago principal dancer touted as one of that troupe's brightest stars. For its first performances the group will present a six-city tour of Hansel and Gretel, which Ballet Chicago debuted last spring. Ballet Chicago was originally scheduled to perform Hansel and Gretel this winter in 11 cities, but the tour was scrapped.

Sensing an opportunity, De La Nuez negotiated with Ballet Chicago artistic director Daniel Duell for the rights to Hansel and Gretel and then set about establishing Ballet Theatre of Chicago. "I wanted to see if a company could succeed at a smaller level," says De La Nuez. Most of the tour expenses will be covered by fees from the presenter at each stop, but De La Nuez did raise $35,000--most of it from individual donors--to help underwrite the tour. "There's quite a bit of support for dance in this city, despite all the problems," he says.

Ballet Theatre of Chicago isn't the first ballet company De La Nuez has organized. In 1991, when he was with the Cincinnati Ballet, he formed Summer Flight, which tours Ohio, Indiana, and Kentucky for eight to ten weeks every summer. De La Nuez describes it as a "small-budget company" with a "wide-ranging" repertoire of traditional and new ballets. He says it succeeded because he thought a lot about what audiences might want to see rather than what the dancers and the company's artistic director wanted to present.

Gordon Peirce Schmidt, formerly Ballet Chicago's resident choreographer, believes De La Nuez's company could fill a void in the local dance scene. Says Schmidt: "All I really know is that Mario sees an opportunity to start something, and taking on the road is a means to an end." However De La Nuez is still uncertain what will happen when the tour ends on February 26. He doesn't rule out the possibility that some Ballet Theatre of Chicago dancers may sign contracts to appear in Ballet Chicago's Coppelia, scheduled for April at the Shubert Theatre. Despite the rumors of Ballet Chicago's merger with the New York-based Joffrey Ballet, De La Nuez appears to have lost faith in Ballet Chicago's ability to grow and prosper. "No one has been held accountable at Ballet Chicago," he says, though he concedes that if he returns from the Hansel and Gretel tour and finds he cannot get enough support to give Ballet Theatre of Chicago a fighting chance, he won't hesitate to call it quits.

No Laughing Matter: Actors Exit En Masse

Neil Simon's Laughter on the 23rd Floor, now at the Briar Street Theatre, lost the majority of its nine-person cast last Sunday when five actors rejected a new contract offered by producers Michael Leavitt and Fox Theatricals. "It [the contract offer] didn't work for me," says Matt DeCaro, one of the five who left. (A sixth, William Brown, leaves later this month.) However Leavitt maintains the contract was not the issue: "My reading of the situation is that it wasn't so much terms as it was [the actors'] personal agendas."

Leavitt and Fox's first offer was a six-month contract with a "no-out" clause preventing performers from leaving the production early. Rose Abdoo, another of the departing actors, says none of them wanted to renew on those terms. Abdoo had previously appeared in Leavitt and Fox's long-running production of Lost in Yonkers but was allowed to leave early in the run when she landed a role in a television series. When the producers sensed the six-month contract wasn't popular, they offered a four-month contract with the same no-out restriction; that deal was also rejected by the actors.

Sources say another factor that influenced the departing actors was the minimal additional salary--$1 a week--the producers offered to compensate for the no-out clause. Actors' Equity stipulates that its members must receive at least $1 a week extra in such situations, but sources say other producers have offered as much as $50. "Based on what was offered to the actors, the scales just didn't even out," says Paula Muzik, an agent with the Geddes Agency who represents five of the six actors. Muzik says this is the first time in her career that so many actors have opted to leave one show at the same time.

Leavitt and Fox were left with no alternative but to look for replacements. "It's been tough on the stage manager, but fortunately we have a great stage manager," says a spokeswoman for the show. (The stage manager traditionally rehearses cast replacements in long-running productions.) In December when Mike Houlihan, an original cast member, left the show to spend more time with his family, Leavitt had to fly in an actor from out of town to replace him. Leavitt then informed Actors' Equity of Houlihan's early departure. Though Houlihan says he gave the producers six weeks' notice, Leavitt insists he broke a contract. If Equity awards Leavitt monetary damages in the matter, Leavitt says, he will donate the money to Season of Concern, the local theater industry's AIDS fund-raising organization. "We don't intend to profit from this," says Leavitt.

Metcalf's Spring Thing

Another Steppenwolf play hits Broadway this spring. First presented in Chicago in the summer of 1992, My Thing of Love, Alex Gersten's tragicomedy about a marital breakup, will mark the Broadway debuts of actress Laurie Metcalf and director Michael Maggio. Barry and Fran Weissler, currently represented on Broadway by the revival of Grease, will produce. Capitalized at $750,000, the New York production begins previews on or around April 17 at the Nederlander Theater, considered less than desirable by some because of its location on 41st Street, somewhat removed from most other Broadway houses. The play is now slated to open on May 3, close to the deadline for this season's Tony Award nominations. Though it's an unusual tactic for a nonmusical production, Fran Weissler says the show's ad campaign will include television commercials, no doubt to capitalize on TV viewers' familiarity with Roseanne regular Metcalf.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Photo/Peter Barreras.

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