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So long, SPAC: NYCB’s Peter Martins. Photo: Teri Currie

Unhappy Feet

Opposition is building to the Saratoga Performing Arts Center’s plan to end its 38-year-old relationship with the New York City Ballet. SPAC made the announcement Friday (Feb. 13) to cancel the ballet’s annual summer residency effective at the end of the troupe’s 2004 season. At least two separate petitions are circulating at downtown businesses in Saratoga Springs in protest of the decision.

NYCB, founded by George Balanchine, is regarded as the best ballet company in the nation and, arguably, the world. This year, the ballet celebrates the centennial of the late choreographer’s birth. The company will dance his masterworks, including Apollo, Jewels, and The Four Temperaments in what may be its final summer at SPAC.

SPAC president Herbert Chesbrough said that NYCB, which inaugurated the newly built amphitheater in July 1966, has become too expensive to produce. He said he is looking at less-costly companies to replace the ballet. “I’m looking at all the companies big enough to play here. I intend to narrow the field to three companies for [one week each] in 2005. I’ll have a decision in weeks, not months,” Chesbrough said, adding, “I’m looking at 2006, because some companies may be already booked for the summer of 2005.”

Chesbrough said that dropping NYCB from SPAC’s roster “is an opportunity to diversify our dance offerings. If we have more variety, people will come more often. Also, I would hope to reduce ticket prices.”

The Times Union has speculated that replacement companies might include the Dance Theatre of Harlem, Miami City Ballet, or Paul Taylor Dance Company. DTH is headed by Arthur Mitchell, and the Miami troupe is directed by Edward Villella. Both men are former NYCB dancers, trained by Balanchine, and both companies include Balanchine dances in their repertoires.

However, compared to the 85-member NYCB, these nonunion companies have between 30 and 60 dancers. Moreover, they perform to recorded music, in contrast with NYCB, which travels with its own 70-piece orchestra. Ballet aficionados say that, though the other companies are good, replacing NYCB with any of them would yield a diminished aesthetic experience.

Chesbrough said the SPAC board voted unanimously to sever relations with the ballet beginning in 2005. He said that about half the board’s 23 members attended the meeting.

SPAC has left the door open to bringing NYCB back in 2007 and again every three or four years, if schedules allow. Chesbrough said that Peter Martins, ballet master-in-chief, seemed willing to consider such an offer.

Metroland has obtained a letter written Feb. 11 by Martins to Charles E. Mather III, chairman of the SPAC board, and received before the board’s meeting. In it, Martins says, “We hope that when your fortunes improve, you will invite us to return and perform again before the audience that we so love on a stage that we have come to think of as our own.”

Supporters of the ballet began circulating petitions as soon as the surprise announcement about SPAC cutting ties with the company hit local dailies last Saturday. According to a report Tuesday (Feb. 17) in the Times Union, Martin Mittelmark, a Malta resident, has drawn up a petition calling for the reinstatement of the ballet’s residency and a study of ways to make the residency financially viable. The petition can be found in the Lyrical Ballad Bookstore on Phila Street in Saratoga Springs.

Lyrical Ballad’s owners, John and Janice DeMarco, said their business would be directly affected by the loss of NYCB. “I can’t believe how many people come here because of the ballet,” Janice DeMarco said. “They buy classical books, prints, history. The [members of the ballet] orchestra buy music books. It’s a great group of people.”

DeMarco, like a growing number of Saratogians, is concerned about the city’s apparent shift from the arts toward gambling. This month, hundreds of video slot machines were installed at the Saratoga Raceway. “We’re gonna become a gambling place and nothing more,” she said. “It’s a degeneration of the life of the city.”

Lisa Mehigan of Saratoga Springs began a separate petition drive online; her Web site is http://gopetition.com/online/3702.html. A staffer at Uncommon Grounds on Broadway said an anonymous petition placed there over the weekend had two and a half pages of signatures as of Tuesday evening.

New York City Ballet was the only classical company to show an increase in attendance and ticket sales in 2003 over the previous year, according to a SPAC report issued in August 2003. Ballet attendance in 2003 was 55,496, up from 51,558 in 2002, an increase of 7.6 percent. Ballet ticket sales rose to $1,239,171 compared to $1,097,446 in 2002. This represents an increase of 13 percent. The Philadelphia Orchestra, which, like NYCB, has performed in the amphitheater since 1966, saw a decrease in attendance in 2003 to 36,147, down from 38,832 in 2002.

However, in spite of increased ballet revenues in 2003, ballet ticket sales covered only about 60 percent of the $1.7 to $1.8 million fee that NYCB charges SPAC for its three-week season.

From its point of view, NYCB already was doing its part to become more affordable. In a process that labor unions call “givebacks,” the ballet took a 12 percent cut in its fee for the 2003 season. In effect, the dancers were asked to pay to play. In his Feb. 11 letter, Martins noted that “New York City Ballet has for many years raised special funds to subsidize our appearance in Saratoga.”

Martins’ letter continues, saying that when Chesbrough met with NYCB in January, “he opened the meeting by telling us that he saw no place for New York City Ballet in SPAC’s future plans.” According to Martins’ letter, SPAC asked the ballet to accept a further cut of its fee by 35 percent, or see the end of its residency.

Martins writes, “Since our funding of the Saratoga residency over and above ticket sales is already double that of SPAC itself . . . it would be irresponsible of New York City Ballet to consider further cuts of this magnitude. In fact, granted our performance at the box office last summer, we had hoped that some of our past concession would be reinstated.”

In a memo to the press, Robert Daniels, NYCB’s director of communications, wrote, “We are terribly sad to learn that the Saratoga Performing Arts Center is not able to support our engagement after this year. Balanchine began this relationship forty years ago, and we know how much Saratoga meant to him—and continues to mean to all of us. . . . Despite the joy accompanying the world’s celebration of Balanchine’s centennial, this is a very unhappy day.”

—Mae G. Banner

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