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In late 1996, Robert "Ricky" Weiss answered an advertisement placed by J. Ward Purrington in Dance magazine, seeking a person of vision to start a new ballet company—in Raleigh, N.C.

After 10 years, the Carolina Ballet has become an institution 

The first decade

Click for larger image • Eugene Barnes and Jan Burkhard rehearse Peter and the Wolf.

Photo by Jeremy M. Lange

Click for larger image • Eugene Barnes and Jan Burkhard rehearse Peter and the Wolf.

Cinderella & Peter and the Wolf
Carolina Ballet
Progress Energy Center
Nov. 21 and Nov. 23-25

In late 1996, Robert "Ricky" Weiss answered an advertisement placed by J. Ward Purrington in Dance magazine, seeking a person of vision to start a new ballet company—in Raleigh, N.C. Purrington, a Raleigh attorney, was spearheading the creation of a professional ballet company for the state's capital.

Weiss was out of work at the time, having fallen out with the board of the Pennsylvania Ballet, where until 1990 he had been artistic director for eight years, since his retirement as a dancer with the New York City Ballet at age 33. When Weiss interviewed for the job, he was told the nascent organization had $300,000 in the bank, and could probably get to $1 million. Weiss told them they needed at least $2.5 million in the bank for the first year.

"When this came up I really didn't think I wanted it—I thought it would be too small and that they wouldn't understand the vision I have," says Weiss, who this year oversees the 10th anniversary season of the Carolina Ballet, about the beginnings of the Raleigh company. "What intrigued me was that if they were truly serious, this was the chance for me to have the company I really wanted."

Apparently to his surprise, Weiss was offered the job and, despite his reservations, he took it. After a year spent fundraising, in early 1998 Weiss put out a call to dancers and held auditions around the country. In October 1998, 21 dancers and apprentices from around the world appeared on stage in Raleigh, with Weiss' wife Melissa Podcasy as prima ballerina. In less than two years, a professional classical ballet company of considerable polish and huge potential had been formed in a small Southern city. It was an enormous accomplishment.

Would it last? Could the Carolina Ballet survive? One heard the discussion among arts insiders and patrons at the performances. Would an arts organization that needed so much funding be able to wrest it from the ever-shrinking sources available? Would new sources appear to support it? As dance followed dance, and season followed season, questions about the company's survival abated. But as the sheer joy and amazement of having a real ballet company right here in the Triangle began to fade, and as the area became home to huge numbers of culturally sophisticated new residents, other questions began to emerge.

In 1998, Weiss had told Susan Broili, writing for Dance magazine, that his vision included "an eclectic repertory with the best of the past and, at the same time, forward-looking." Over time, however, some viewers began to feel that the repertory was neither eclectic nor forward-looking enough. When the live music for the dancing suddenly stopped, more than a few felt the diminishment keenly. And what was the deal with so many dancers leaving from year to year?

According to Weiss, "even in New York" about 10 percent of any company leaves every year. The changes at Carolina Ballet have more to do with the dancers' desires, he says, rather than his having changed his mind about their fit into his company, which in its 10th season retains eight founding members—all of them now either principals or soloists. (Of the 19 younger dancers in the corps de ballet, three are in their first year with the company.) "Change can make it more interesting," Weiss says, "but the more stable the better, since I am promoting and teaching a certain approach."

That would be the George Balanchine approach, which Weiss learned from the man himself, and he frequently reminds audiences of his connection to the iconic "Mr. B." Weiss' Balanchine-infused aesthetic (itself a synthesis of older styles) is now itself historical, classical and may not suit viewers looking for the next new thing, or even a more recent thing, but it is Weiss' refusal to deviate from his artistic vision that has made the Carolina Ballet an institution. When you go to see this company, you know what you will get: classically styled ballet performed with the Balanchine technique, whether or not the work is a story ballet, and whether the work is brand new or a 20th-century classic. And whether or not Weiss choreographed it, any work danced by his company bears his very particular stamp.

Click for larger image • Robert Weiss oversees the dance company he built from scratch. - PHOTO BY JEREMY M. LANGE

This aesthetic single-mindedness contrasts sharply with the state's other professional ballet company, Charlotte's North Carolina Dance Theatre. This company, led by two other former Balanchine dancers, injects some "shock of the new" into almost every program and performs wide-ranging work from diverse choreographers (although it too relies on bread-and-butter ballets like the Nutcracker and Cinderella). Among others, the N.C. Dance Theatre has performed work by such contemporary masters as the Spaniard Nacho Duato, the ex-Alvin Ailey dancer Dwight Rhoden and the grand dame herself, Twyla Tharp.

Any evaluation of a ballet company's programming quality will depend upon whether the viewer prefers enjoying the known or exploring the unknown, and any judgment of its adventurousness must take into account the necessity of paying its bills from ticket sales and donations in its home community. Triangle area contemporary ballet aficionados can only wonder how a Memorial Auditorium audience would receive the inventive, mind-shaking work of a pyrotechnic 21st-century stylist like Rhoden.

Weiss asserts that the Carolina Ballet now is "a better company than I had in Pennsylvania in the '80s," and says, for the most part, he's accomplished what he had in mind, although he still wishes for more dancers, more work, more money and more music.

"We've created work that I believe will last in the ballet literature. We are doing something unique, creating a body of new work, that no other company in the U.S. is doing," he claims, adding that the Carolina Ballet, with a budget of between $4-5 million, has created more than 60 new ballets—only 15 fewer new works in the past 10 years than the New York City Ballet, which has a budget of $58 million.

As for the music, it was the last thing cut when fundraising reality set in—after dancers, staff, weeks of work. Nearly every ballet company in the country has been forced in recent years to make the same difficult decisions about music and now relies wholly or in part on recorded music for performances, which diminishes the audience experience. The costs of live music have risen about 25 percent since 1998 and could easily exceed $750,000 per season (the tab for 66 N.C. Symphony musicians and a conductor for five performances and the associated rehearsals now stands at $90,000), but the real issue, says Weiss, is that "we could never afford the live music, and we did it anyway—and had a deficit."

Deficits are next door to death for any arts organization. The Carolina Ballet has erased its shortfall, which bodes well for the future. But it still cannot pay its corps de ballet dancers a living wage and does not pay its apprentices at all. (You may see members of the corps working at the mall, or teaching dance or yoga in local studios.)

Click for larger image • Jan Buckhard, center, plays the bird in Peter and the Wolf. - PHOTO BY JEREMY M. LANGE

The company has begun to build an endowment and receives $250,000 from the City of Raleigh and its Arts Commission and nearly $2 million in corporate, foundation and individual support (N.C. Dance Theatre receives nearly $1 million in base funding from the Arts and Sciences Council of Charlotte and Mecklenburg County alone) to augment its approximately $2 million in ticket sales.

Still, the Carolina Ballet is an institution on a shoestring.

Says principal dancer Margaret Severin-Hansen, who has been with the company since the beginning, "The arts in Raleigh are still slow-growing. It's amazing we've been able to keep it afloat for this long."

Kate Dobbs Ariail has been covering dance since 2002 for the online critical journal Classical Voice of North Carolina.

The Carolina Ballet will reprise its Cinderella and debut a new version, by Weiss, of Peter and the Wolf, Nov. 21 and Nov. 23-25 in Raleigh Memorial Auditorium. Visit www.carolinaballet.com.

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