WASHINGTON'S Capitol Ballet has acquired new faces, new bodies and a whole new look which portend significant strides for the city's dance scene.
At the heart of the change are: the engagement of a new ballet master, resident choreographer and associate director Keith Lee, former American Ballet Theatre soloist; the hiring of new dancers under a new seasonal contract; and a decision that the time has come for "a commitment to professionalism." With these innovations, the Capitol Ballet, along with the city's other professional ballet troupe, therecently revitalized Washington Ballet, may be able to fill the vacuum that has existed here since the collapse of the National Ballet in 1974.
Sonce the founding of the Jones-Hay-wood School of Ballet in 1943 by Doris Jones and the late Claire Haywood, followed by the establishment of the affiliated Capitol Ballet company in 1964, these two institutions have served as a haven for young blacks aspiring to rigorous training and career preparation in classical ballet -- the only such in a major city, except for Arthur Mitchell's Dance Theatre of Harlem in New York.
The need for such a haven is a grievously neglected scandal of the performing arts in this country. Alone among these arts, classical ballet has found scant place for black artists, the exceptions being, for the most part, all too obviously "token" in nature. Unlike major ballet companies in Germany, Cuba, Venezuela and elsewhere abroad, the preeminent troupes in the United States -- the New York City Ballet and American Ballet Theatre -- have never employed more than one or two black dancers at a time.
Keith Lee, who is black and who danced with ABT for seven years -- he had a leading role in Alvin Aliey's "The River" when ABT presented the premiere of the work for the opening of rhe Kenndedy Center in 1971 -- knows this situation at first hand. "I left ABT in 1975," he said in an interview last week, "partly because I wanted to choreograph more, but also because I felt I had come to a dead end with the company. I really felt I could have toire. They did put me in Balanchine's 'Theme and Variations,' and in 'Etudes,' and a few other things. Mr. [Antony] Tudor was especially helpful to me -- asking me to do the fifth variation in his 'Dark Elegies,' and encouraging me in my choreography as well.
"But for the most part, when I wanted to 'cross the line," so to speak -- I would've loved to have done one of the sailors in 'Fancy Free,' for example, or Hilarion in 'Giselle -- I couldn't. Generally I was type-cast as the heavy -- Alias in 'Billy the Kid,' as Othello in 'The Moor's Pavane,' and so on. I was doing the evil magician, von Rothbart, in 'Swan Lake,' and they took me out, they said, because the name 'von Rothbart means 'red beard.'
Lee believes that the ABT, like most other major companies, neglects many talented blacks. "Lucia chase," he says, is "a very strong person to have kept the company together all those years in the face of such adversity, and I admire her a lot.I'm also grateful for the chances I had with the company. But facts are facts. And if you ask them why they don't have two or three or four blacks in the company instead of one all the time, they tell you there just aren't any good enough black classical dancers around. They're wrong, they're just wrong. Or they'll tell you black bodies aren't suited to classical ballet, we've got big behinds. Sure, some of us do, so what? Nureyev has a big behind and that doesn't seem to bother anybody."
Lee was born in 1951 in the Bronx, but the family moved soon thereafter to Brooklyn. "I was brought up in Bedford-Stuyvesant, where all the gangs are. My grandmother -- my mom died when I was very young -- dragged me by my little diapers over to Flatbush Abenue to study singong, acting and dancing. You had to go with the gangs, thought, it was the only way to survive. The gangs used to tease me about the dancing -- in basketball, when I went up for jumpshots I'd do passes and entrechats ."
His stage career started early as a member of "The Twinkling Stars of 1955" for the old Saturday TV show, "Star Time." "Ben Vereen and I did tap numbers," Lee recalls. "Then he went off to the High School of Performing Arts, and persuaded me to follow him." While still in his teens Lee was accepted into the Harkness Youth Ballet, and as a high-school senior he danced with the Norman Walker company. Then is 1969 he joined ABT, where he was promoted to soloist rank the followint year. He created a ballet for the company in 1970, called "Times Past," with a Cole Porter score. After leaving the troupe in 1975 and giving up dancing to concentrated on choreography, he worked with such groups as the Geneva (Switzerland) Ballet, the Oakland Ballet and the Garden State Ballet. He also established his own troupe, Ballet of Contemporary Art, in New York, where it flourished foir a number of seasons.
A phone call this past summer from Doris Jones, and an invitation to help reorganize and direct the Capitol Ballet, set him and the company on their new course, from which the whole of the Washington arts community seems likely to benefit before too long.
It is to foster talent like Lee's that the Capitol Ballet and the Dance Theatre of Harlem have persevered so long. From the Jones-Haywood School and the Capitol Ballet have emerged such notable dance artists as Louis Johnson (choreographer of the movie version of "The Wiz" and the Metropolitan Opera's "Aida," among others), Chita Rivera, Sylcester Campbell, Sandra Fortune, Hinton Battle and numberous others.
But there's an irony in Keith Lee's arrival as the Capitol's ballet master. So far is Lee from being obsessed with "blackness" that he generated considerable friction with the company's board of directors when he proposed hiring a mumber of white dancers for the troupe. Lee's major concern is artistice excellencer; and while he feels the company must maintain its historic mission, he still wants quality to be the foremost criterion for his dancers. The Capitol Ballet troupe has beemn integrated since its beginning. The newly reorganized company, while still predomiamong the present core of 10 professionals.
When the decision was made to "go professional," it soon became apparent that the troupe would have to expand recruitment beyond Washington, a step the Washington Ballet had taken two years before in a similar effort to raise its standards. About half of the new Capitol Ballet dancers are Washingtons -- holdovers from the former troupe and others -- and the rest, auditioned in New York, come from a vatheir new contract, they are engaged for a 34-week period at a base slary of $200 a week (again, comparable, and even superior, to the terms of hire for Washington Ballet dancers inrecent seasons). As a result, the trouipe faces an unprecedented and formidable fund-raising challenge. The board, however, has mapped out a tight and detailed budget ($137,000 for the year), along with new strategies for meeting the goal from combined ticket sales, membership drives, and public and private support.
In repertory, the Capitol Ballet is going a similar route to the Washington Ballet, and it is a wise one. Both troupes will draw the major works of their repertory from the creative output of resident choreographers -- at the Capitol, Keith Lee and Doris Jones. Both groups have an older upon, including pieces by George Balanchine. Both have commissioned balck choreographers on the local scene -- Louis Johnson and LaVerne Reed, for ecample -- to make contributions. and both are encouraging young, relatively unkonwn but promising choreographers from beyond Washington's borders.
Audiences can judge their success this Thursday, Friday and Saturday at the Washington Project for gram of works by co-directors Lee and Doris Jones.
In their coming season, which eill include concerts at Lisner Auditorium in February and April, as well as the imminent WPA- PERFORM,ANCES, THE Capitor troupe will stabge new ballets by Walter Raines and Hinton Baeele; and Lee is working on settings of scores by Beethoven and Carlos Chavez.
The WPA programs will contain three ballets by Lee: "Conversations in Lotus," with a score by John McLaughlin and Graxian Moncur III, based on meditation and yoga and fusing movements from Indian Kathakali and Bharata Natyam traditions with classical ballet; "Seacoast Sketches," an impressionistic setting of the Four Sea Interludes from Benjamin Britten's opers, "Peter Grimes"; and "Nearer to Thee," a series of solos and ensembles to Paul Robeson recordings of spirituals and other songs. Doris Jones' splendid setting of Stravinsky's "Ebony Concerto" will round out the fare.