If Ballet Under the Stars were a ballet, it might feature a dancer in the woods gracefully moving across stage while all manner of knives, swords and other lethal implements land around her and lines of dancers rush to and fro to bigger destinations unknown.
For more than two decades, the annual late-summer dance festival has maintained its place on the calendar in the first week of August and on the stage in Woodland Park, while other attractions have moved on and diminishing city funds have threatened to make a dance concert seem frivolous. This weekend will see the 23rd edition of Ballet Under the Stars, and for the second straight year it will feature Lexington's two professional ballet companies, Kentucky Ballet Theatre and the Lexington Ballet, and a performance of Snow White by area student dancers.
"A lot of people tell us they look forward to this and wait for this every year," says Amber Luallen, cultural arts director for the Lexington Fayette Urban-County Government, which has presented Ballet Under the Stars through the Division of Parks and Recreation since 1998. "When Parks took it over, we were very committed to keeping it in Woodland Park. We like that nostalgic quality of it being one of the last things out there."
There was a time when Ballet Under the Stars was part of what was practically a summer-long lineup of activities in Woodland Park, including the Lexington Shakespeare Festival and a concert series.
In 1997, the Shakespeare Festival moved out to The Arboretum on Alumni Drive, seeking a larger venue and space to accommodate bigger audiences and where emergency vehicle sirens, ice cream truck bells and occasional interruptions by park dwellers weren't concerns.
The concert series faded away, and now Ballet Under the Stars stands as the single performing arts event held in the park near downtown. (It is still home, however, to one of the city's biggest visual arts events, the Woodland Art Fair, on Aug. 20 and 21 this year.)
"The biggest inconvenience is that it used to be we would build that stage and it would be up all summer," Luallen says. "Ballet Under the Stars piggybacked on those other events. Now, we put it up for one week, and then we take it down."
There was a time when, she says, there were plans and ideas to present other events in the park on weeks preceding Ballet Under the Stars to make the stage construction, including hanging lighting, have greater utility. But then the economy started to tank and city coffers shrank, sometimes even making Ballet Under the Stars something of an iffy proposition.
Municipalities across the country have scrubbed Fourth of July fireworks and other events because of dissipating funds. In Lexington, numerous marquee events have closed because of funding concerns, including the Lexington Shakespeare Festival, which shuttered in 2006 and was replaced the next year by SummerFest, which just completed its fifth season in The Arboretum. More recently, a proposed Spotlight Lexington festival to succeed the hit downtown event staged during last year's Alltech FEI World Equestrian Games was cancelled as a result of fund-raising woes.
"In the past, we have been asked to present budget scenarios with certain percentage cuts to show what we could and could not do with those percentages," says Luallen, who says the budget for Ballet Under the Stars is about $20,000, not including the pay to full-time Parks and Recreation staff who help put on the event. "One thing that has helped keep it on the schedule is that with the $5 admission, many years it has (covered) or has come close to covering its expenses."
And $5 is a lot less than you'll pay to see the ballet companies at, say, the Lexington Opera House. That in part explains why the event attracts crowds in the thousands. Luallen says last year's shows attracted 6,500 over four nights. That is important to the ballet companies, which usually see crowds that large only in December, for performances of The Nutcracker.
"It's really important because it brings the ballet and performing arts to people who usually don't see them," says Kentucky Ballet Theatre director Norbe Risco, who has participated in every Ballet Under the Stars since 1997.
Another change in the summer outdoor arts scene has been the addition of venues in the area, including the MoonDance at Midnight Pass amphitheater in Beaumont Circle and at Equus Run Vineyards, which will present the Lexington Ballet next weekend.
The Lexington Ballet had not participated in Ballet Under the Stars from 1997, the year before a financial meltdown rocked the company, until they were invited back last year. Lexington Ballet artistic director Luis Dominguez likes the other opportunities to perform, but he appreciates the opportunity his company has in Woodland Park.
Looking at other venues, Dominguez says, "There is no comparison because Ballet Under the Stars is such a tradition."