TO PARAPHRASE Bette Davis' memorable staircase salvo in "All About Eve": Fasten your seat belts, everyone -- it's going to be a bumpy decade!" That's about the feeling one comes up with in surveying the dance world as it edges into the '80s. In the wake of the upheavals of recent years, we're left with dozens of crucial questions and practically no answers. At the moments, the prospects seems to be for an era of deplosion, depletion, retrenchment, realignment and reappraisal.
The dance boom of the previous decade was real -- the figures regarding the mushrooming of attendance at dance events, the multiplication of dance companies, the number of performances, and the geographic and demographic spread of interest in dance have not lied, and the numbers continue to advance. But in many ways it was a surface phenomenon, as recent developments have tended to bear out. Perhaps the turning point was the unprecedented lockout of its dancers by American Ballet Theatre -- a standoff over a disputed contract renewal that lasted two months.
The resolution, toward the end of last December, gave the dancers substantially better future compensation and security, and also redefined the relationship between the "workers," i.e., the dancers, and board and management in ways that won't reveal their final effect for years. At the same time, the lockout itself inevitably took a toll, including the cancellation of ABT's four-week winter season at the Kennedy Center, and it was surrounded on either side by a series of traumatic happenings.
To gain perspective on these occurrences and to see them in sequence, it's worthwile recapitulating the key events. Perhaps the boat first began to rock back in the spring of 1978, when Mikhail Baryshnikov, the great Soviet dancer who defected to the West in 1974 and shortly thereafter joined ABT, announced that he was moving to the New York City Ballet to work with choreographers George Balanchine and Jerome Robbins, at the cost of a formidable reduction in salary. Two other events later that year effected additional changes in the ABT lineup: First, the Royal Ballet's Anthony Dowell was added to the roll of ABTstars, in an effort to help fill the Baryshnikov gap; and second, principal dancer Ivan Nagy, who had partnered most of the company's foremost ballerinas, retired from ballet permanently.
The cataclysmic year of 1979 began with 72-year old Lucia Chase, longtime director and patroness of ABT, announcing that she would step down from her official post as of the fall of 1980 -- it was rumored then and confirmed by her later that the board of trustees had pressured her into resignation. In June, Baryshnikov let it be known that he would leave NYCB and return to ABT, this time to take up the reins of directorship, while continuing to dance. In a magazine interview with dance critic Walter Terry a few months later, Chase threw the state of affairs into confusion by stating "I have no intention to leaving Ballet Theatre," and casting doubt on the feasibility of Baryshnikov's leadership -- "But one cannot be a star and a director too, can one?"
Meanwhile, the appearance of the Royal Ballet at Wolf Trap showed how serious the absence of first echelon principals in that company has become, despite the still superb example it sets in stylistic rigor. And at the Kennedy Center, the falloff in attendance for ballet companies from Stuttgart and Cuba seemed to mark the start of an era of lowered expectations. The highlight of August was the defection of Alexander Godunov from the Bolshoi Ballet, the first ever from that troupe. Not long thereafter, another two dancers, Leonid and Valentina Koslov, fled the Bolshoi in Los Angeles, and about the same time, the Kennedy Center announced what amounted to a demotion in rank and power for Martin Feinstein, former "executive director" now renamed "director of opera and ballet."
In October, Baryshnikov decided upon a "leave of absence" from the NYCB to recuperate from injury and ponder his future, and the ABT lockout commenced. That same mouth, Cynthia Gregroy and Godunov taped a "Corsaire" duet for an NBC variety show, but its airing has been twice postponed and has yet to take place (it's reportedly now scheduled for Feb. 26). November brought Gregory's third resignation from ABT -- this time, with her salary (according to her, already in the vicinity of $90,000 a year) as the hangup, it looked permanent. In an interview for New York Magazine she burned her bridges with cracks about Godunov, Markarova, board chairman Donald M. Kendall, and Baryshnikov ("I don't think he can handle the job"). Soon afterwards, Godunov, whose alleged $150,000 salary had been a bone of contention in the ABT lockout situation, announced he was leaving ABT to remove himself from the dispute. (He rejoined the company last week.) Then, at the last moment, Gelsey Kirkland, scheduled to appear with Godunov in his first post-Bolshoi stage performance for the Kennedy Center Honors Gala, suddenly said she couldn't do it. Finally, at the start of 1980, Kirkland unloaded a further bombshell -- she, too, was leaving ABT for uncertain whereabouts, in a squabble about her partners, her roles and her dancing schedule.
It's scarcely any wonder that ballet groupies are walking around in circles asking themselves and everyone else what it all means, or that rumors, both reasonable and outlandish, fly thick and fast daily. A flurry of stories about Godunov -- that he wants to return to Russia, for example -- have led to quick, exasperated denials. Fernando Bujones, the young ABT virtuoso whose long feet sometimes end up in his mouth, has recently been alleged to be leaving ABT also -- with Kirkland, the rumor has it (ABT denes this). Kirkland has been reported to be in Stuttgart with the ballet company there. Baryshnikov, who like most of these others is keeping his own counsel these days, is rumored (a) to be returning to dance with the New York City Ballet this spring, and (b) to be reconsidering his assumption of the ABT directorship next fall.
The fog is too thick to permit even rational guessing. One of the saddest aspects of recent events is the fact that ABT has lost its two leading American ballerinas, leaving only Natalia Makarova as a box-office attraction on the same level. Gregory left because of money; Kirkland, probably, in a tilt with ABT over her status relative to Makarova, who, so to speak, snatched Dowell from her arms in short order and seems to call the tune at ABT these days -- where can the two of them go that will offer opportunities commensurate with their gifts? All the comings and goings have completely muddied the control situation -- Baryshnikov isn't revealing his plans, nor Feinstein at the Kennedy Center. It's hard to say who's really minding the store at ABT for the moment, and the question of New York City Ballet's future beyond Balanchine, who'll be 76 this year and whose heart problems have restricted his activities, remains moot also. Then there's the dilemma of superstardom ecology -- there's only so many to go around; the ones we already know about aren't getting any younger and there are few, if any, replacements in sight. There are numbers of interesting young dancers at ABT and NYCB and the Royal Ballet and elsewhere, but none would seem on the brink of either greatness or fame. Even among the Soviets, who've lost the cream of several crops to the Western world, there are few remaining colossi.
The troubles aren't restricted to the giant institutions or "name" artists. The Joffrey Ballet, for example, has undergone a major fiscal overhauling for the sake of survival, in the course of which it is having to make do for a year with no New York season at all. Hardly anyone even talks about the problems of modern dance companies maybe because chronic instability has been with them so long that precariousness is nothing new, but the fact is that a dance pioneer and innovator of the caliber of Erick Hawkins -- to take but one example from many possible -- still walks around today wondering where his next penny is coming from. What's been happening on national and international levels has its regional and local echoes as well -- in Washington, for instance, where such creative centers as the Dance Project and the Dance Exchange are in danger of losing their space to the indifferent march of real estate, and where the unique Capitol Ballet hangs by the slenderest of threads.
For a decade and a half, the dance world has known the headly exaltation of a steadily upshooting spiral, in dance activity, in public enthusiasm, in patronage. Have we reached a point where there are possibly too many dancers and too many dance institutions for even a greatly expanded public to sustain? Can the momentum of the '60s and '70s be carried much further in the face of present uncertainties and imponderables? Is the tide turning? Watch this space for further bulletins.