Stage & Dance

Kentucky Ballet Theatre's first decade is a triumph

The lobby of Kentucky Ballet Theatre's National Avenue building is decorated with castoff furniture that could have been there the day it opened a little more than 10 years ago.

And many of the faces are the same, including the board chairwoman who bankrolled much of the operation and the principal dancers who were victims of an arts-administration meltdown.

The walls reveal that there hasn't been much time for painting during the past decade.

But those walls also are populated with pictures of productions past, photographic proof that although this troupe has had to endure some lean times since fall 1998, it has managed to put some beautiful productions onstage.

Some of those productions will form the program for Decade of Dance, a concert this weekend of KBT's favorite pieces from the past 10 years.

“The key element was stupidity,” Jan Foody, president of the Kentucky Ballet Theatre board, says, only slightly in jest. “I certainly didn't know anything about running a ballet company. Probably, if everyone had a lot of hindsight, we would have said, ‘How do we have the nerve to try to do this?'”

KBT was a sort of Phoenix that rose from the ashes of Lexington Ballet.

In spring 1998, Foody was on the Lexington Ballet board, dancers Norbe Risco and Rafaela Cento Muñoz were in the ballet's 14-dancer company, and Xijun Fu was the associate artistic director.

When the company fell more than $100,000 into debt, the board disbanded the professional company, leaving the dancers jobless.

Some dancers left to find work elsewhere. But the remaining dancers formed Ballet Theatre of Lexington, a name that eventually was changed to Kentucky Ballet Theatre.

From the beginning, it was a hardscrabble effort, and there have been moments when bills and payroll came due with no money in sight.

“Something would fall out of the sky and we'd be able to pay our bills,” Foody says.

Muñoz, now 37, says, “We always knew how to adapt.”

Risco says part of that comes from his and Muñoz's Cuban heritage.

“We know what it's like to have nothing,” says Risco, 38. “So we can take a situation where we might not have a lot of money and still figure out how to make something out of it, because we know what it's like to have nothing.”

The biggest adaptation might be in Risco's career path.

When the company started, Risco was a principal dancer under Fu, the company's first artistic director. When Fu left, Risco became the artistic director. When the company ran into a financial roadblock in getting a show it wanted, he became a choreographer.

That show was Dracula.

Early in Risco's tenure, he decided that he wanted to present the legendary vampire story for Halloween. KBT found a choreographer in Washington, D.C., who had created a Dracula ballet, but he wanted $16,000 to set it. That was too much.

That set Risco and Muñoz, who have been married for 15 years, to watching movies to get familiar with the Dracula story, which they say was not big in Cuba, to create their own production. It has now become a perennial crowd pleaser.

In KBT's earliest years, it presented many ballet concerts with several pieces, including several drawn from Fu's native China. But in the Risco era, ballets with familiar titles, including The Wizard of Oz and The Phantom of the Opera have dominated the season schedules. Risco even created a ballet called Hoops to capitalize on Lexington's obsession with basketball.

The familiar fare hasn't meant that the Lexington Opera House is filled for a ballet the way Rupp Arena is for a University of Kentucky basketball game. But the directors think the ballets based on well-known stories have attracted bigger audiences than traditional European titles might.

“We'll probably never pack the Opera House for ballet,” Foody says.

Risco has a different take: “Oh, give us another 10 years.

There have been challenges beyond revenue and building an audience.

Particularly in the early years, there was a lot of contention between KBT and Lexington Ballet, which has continued as a school and has tried a few times to restart a professional company. Friction has subsided under Lexington Ballet's current artistic director, Luis Dominguez, who was hired well after the troupes' travails. Lexington Ballet bills itself primarily as a school, using its oldest dancers and visiting professionals for public productions.

During the past decade, the ballet groups have been told by former Lexington Arts and Cultural Council director Dee Fizdale and current LexArts President and chief executive Jim Clark that they need to merge. In 2000, the arts council even offered to pay $5,000 for a mediator to help merge the troupes.

KBT and Lexington Ballet directors have vehemently rejected merger calls KBT directors say they have different missions: KBT as a professional performing company and Lexington Ballet as a school.

KBT hires its professional dancers on 22-week contracts. Sometimes it expands the contracts if there are more performances to present, and the number of company dancers has varied over the years. The ballet now employs six company dancers and one apprentice. It also has a ballet academy with more than 100 students.

In the first year of what would become KBT, Risco and Muñoz were commuting between Lexington and Chicago, where they were dancing in the ballet company of Lyric Opera of Chicago. Then, they dropped that and focused on Lexington.

“I like challenges,” Risco says. “We always liked Lexington a lot. … I could have stayed in Chicago or gone somewhere else. But, to be honest with you, I was 27 years old. I had danced a lot already. So there was nothing like, ‘Oh, I need to do Giselle, because I did that when I was 19.' So, it wasn't going to cut my career, even if I just stopped dancing and became a teacher or a director.”

Now, Muñoz and Risco have a home and a child in Lexington, and they're confident that the company will survive the current economic crisis that has so many arts groups panicked.

“We've been in a recession 10 years,” Foody says.

Risco says, “In the next year, you may see some other groups go away, but we will survive. We've been doing it for 10 years.”