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The show will go on: the New York City Ballet.

OK, OK . . . for Now

Members of Save the Ballet are pleased, but cautious, following the March 31 decision by the board of directors of the Saratoga Performing Arts Center to bring back the New York City Ballet in 2005 for what will be its 40th consecutive year at the amphitheater.

Pleased, said committee spokeswoman Lisa Mehigan, because “the board’s decision gives us the opportunity that we’ve all been working to achieve.” The one-year reprieve will allow SPAC management to launch new money-raising efforts to assure the ballet’s continuing summer residency beyond 2005. Save the Ballet stands ready to help SPAC work on marketing and promotion, Mehigan said.

However, committee members, including John De Marco, co-owner of the Lyrical Ballad Antiquarian Bookstore in Saratoga Springs, are cautious because the SPAC board stated that the ballet’s long-term residency depends on “financial viability,” which, according to Herb Chesbrough, president and executive director of SPAC, translates into a need for increased attendance.

Chesbrough has said SPAC must draw 70,000 to 75,000 people to the ballet each year for it to be viable. Last summer, 55,496 people came to 21 performances, an increase of 7.6 percent over the 51,558 attendance in 2002.

DeMarco said, “We don’t think 70,000 is doable in such a short time. Our goal is to reach attendance of 60,000 in 2004, which would represent a 10 percent increase over last year, and then to move up from there. Any business owner would be thrilled with a 10 percent increase in one year.”

A member of the ballet orchestra, who declined to be named, said, “Compared to our New York City seasons, the summer is a short season. We do seven concerts a week in Saratoga, and 75,000 people is not possible.”

The ballet has been selling out its 2,700-seat house at the New York State Theater in Lincoln Center every night during its winter season, which ended in February. The SPAC amphitheater holds 5,100 seats. The ballet had record attendance (between 70 and 80 thousand) at SPAC in 1978 and 1979, when Mikhail Baryshnikov danced here, and again in 1991, when Peter Martins’ new production of Sleeping Beauty had its upstate premiere, but attendance has remained around 55,000 for the past several years.

Supporters of the ballet say SPAC has not been actively marketing and promoting the ballet. For example, SPAC does not advertise its season in The New York Times (as Tanglewood does); nor does it place ads in the programs of Jacob’s Pillow, the Egg, Proctor’s or other regional venues.

SPAC marketing and public relations director Helen Edelman said her ad budget for the ballet is $85,000. About advertising in the Jacob’s Pillow program, she said, “We get a report from the box office that includes the zip codes of ticket buyers. We don’t have many people from the Berkshires in our audience. I can’t justify advertising there.”

De Marco, State Assemblyman Jim Tedisco and others are concerned that SPAC is trying to redefine the issue of who is responsible for managing the arts center by putting the burden on the community to increase attendance instead of aggressively meeting its own responsibilities to promote the ballet and to raise enough money to bridge the gap between ticket sales and production costs.

Tedisco said he is disappointed that the SPAC board would only commit to keeping the ballet through 2005. At a candlelight vigil March 30 in Saratoga’s Congress Park, Tedisco said he would offer a resolution in the Legislature to honor founding choreographer George Balanchine “and to keep the ballet at SPAC for another 40, 50, or 60 years.”

SPAC has claimed that the ballet’s production costs exceed revenues by $900,000 each year. At a recent meeting, board members pledged to contribute $300,000 of their own money toward the 2005 season. Earlier, New York State Senate Majority Leader Joseph Bruno offered $300,000 in “member money” in a $1 for $2 match with funds that SPAC is challenged to raise by July 2005.

As part of their ongoing campaign to save the ballet, committee members have gathered more than $150,000 in pledges to buy extra tickets. Also, balletomanes have sent more than $20,000 in donations to Save the Ballet, which is holding the money in a special account pending its official designation as a 501c3 charitable organization, expected by the end of this year. Money donated to this account will go to SPAC only if the ballet’s residency is continued beyond 2005, according to Dee Sarno, director of the Saratoga County Arts Council.

In the meantime, SPAC has extended to April 15 its offer to the public to buy discounted tickets for classical performances. Also, Chesbrough said SPAC will work to raise $100,000 from SPAC members and will look for an extra $50,000 from increased profits from its 2-year-old Wine and Food Festival. So far, according to tax reports, the fundraising festival has lost money each year.

A Save the Ballet benefit dinner at Hattie’s Restaurant in Saratoga Springs netted more than $20,000, including proceeds from a silent auction. De Marco said a few more fundraisers are scheduled, including a May 9 event at the Wayside Inn, Greenfield Center (call 587-4167 for information); also, there will be a sale of special label “NYCBallet” New York-made champagne by the Saratoga Wine Exchange, and dance photographic prints by Lawrence White at the Celeste Susany Gallery in Saratoga Springs.

—Mae G. Banner


Macbeth, Zulu Warrior

One of the most consistent things about performances by Skidmore College’s theater department is the way it has made experimentation practically a mandate. (Granted, that’s a lot easier to do when you’re not depending on ticket sales to keep your doors open.)

For this spring’s seminar production of Macbeth, which opens today and runs through April 25, director Lary Opitz sets his tale of ancient Scotland on the stage of a modern-day South African people’s theater. In this telling, Shakespeare’s overreaching general becomes a Zulu warrior, and native African music, rituals, and culture inform the play’s design. The three weird sisters are transformed into Sangomas, or African diviners, who prophesize by the throwing of bones and listening to ancestors. But the production is not emphasizing the supernatural, Opitz is quick to point out.

“It’s emphasizing the power of suggestion,” he explains.

And even though it is inspired by the kind of mixed-race “story theater”-style productions that emerged in South Africa’s black townships during apartheid’s waning years, Opitz says this Macbeth is not ultimately meant to be a political statement—“other than that Macbeth is a tyrant blinded by ambition.” What it tries to show is how South Africans today, still struggling today with crime, poverty and overcrowding, are doing their best to combine their many cultures, black and white.

Unlike his Merchant of Venice a few years back, where Opitz in the title role inserted a few lines of Yiddish into the text, Macbeth won’t attempt to use any African dialects. Not only is “part of the project is to celebrate Shakespeare’s verse,” the director explains, but the sheer number of languages in the country and their nature—the Xhosa clicking language, for one—make it too difficult to integrate into the Bard’s text.

However, Opitz says he did work to overcome the challenge of putting together a mixed-race cast from the largely white Skidmore student body. Although some of his 14 cast members have never been on a Skidmore stage before, the process of working on the play and learning about South Africa has helped develop a strong sense of company, he feels, that is “very tight knit and supportive.”

Opitz and his wife Barbara, a movement teacher, run Skidmore’s Shakespeare Programme every fall in London, but this will be the first Shakespearian tragedy to be produced at the school in the 30 years he’s been there. That means a lot of battles, murder and mayhem—and a lot of opportunity for the students to practice their combat techniques—but don’t expect a spectacle along the lines of Roman Polanski’s blood-drenched 1971 film version.

“The violence is real, but there’s really no blood,” Opitz says. “I didn’t want it to be gory, I wanted it to be exciting.”

—Kathryn Ceceri

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