"
For me, Fort Worth/Dallas has been exciting and great fun.
I lost my temper only once!"

 

 

An Interview with Bruce Simpson
Outgoing Ballet Master in Chief, Fort Worth/Dallas Ballet
May 18, 2002

By Toba Singer

 

 

During a recent trip to see the Fort Worth/Dallas Ballet production of Romeo and Juliet, I had an opportunity to interview outgoing Ballet Master in Chief, Bruce Simpson. [Fort Worth/Dallas Ballet is currently without an artistic director.]

Alun Jones staged the Fort Worth production. Jones was a founding member of the New London (UK) Ballet, and is currently Artistic Director of the Louisville Ballet Company. Bruce Simpson will leave Fort Worth to take over the Louisville directorship next season. Mr. Simpson staged the fight scene in Romeo and Juliet. It was one of the most adept, yet spirited I have seen on stage, and I opened our discussion by complimenting Mr. Simpson on his work.

He responded by saying that he was “most fortunate” to have been involved with the work of the State Theatre Ballet in Pretoria, South Africa, since 1970, where Romeo and Juliet was performed in double-story sets. “The dancers would fight up and down 20 stairs and onto the galleries. As we progressively got better and better at doing this, I learned that as much discipline and care are required in the rehearsal of a fight scene as in a pas de deux or variation,” Simpson said.

I asked Mr. Simpson to tell me what the experience at Fort Worth/Dallas has been like for him. “For me, Fort Worth/Dallas has been exciting and great fun,” he said, and joked, “I lost my temper only once! I came in a year ago last February to do Swan Lake, with a company that had never done a full-length Swan Lake. Four or five of the girls had done the second act. The majority of dancers have danced Balanchine or ‘ballet in a box,’ but they had no experience with mazurkas and so forth. Then we did Ben Stevenson’s Dracula. I was able to take 30 years of experience with a stable international company and compact it into five weeks of rehearsal. From there, I took them to a season at the Joyce [Theater] in New York. Then we did Carmina Burana [staged by Kent Stowell and Patricia Barker] this past September. Its earthy quality really prepared the company for the same kind of earthy qualities in Romeo and Juliet.


"One must recognize that the only constant in dance is the floor."


“I am so proud of the fact that the dancers have listened well. I have seen so many productions of Romeo and Juliet, where there is not enough character delineation between, for example, Mercutio and Tybalt, or Lord and Lady Capulet, or the peasants in Act I, as opposed to Juliet’s friends. The dancers have risen to the challenge. They were enthusiastic to use this opportunity to broaden their acting skills and stage craft.”

Simpson’s having said that he has had a “wonderful time in Fort Worth,” and that everyone there had been “very, very generous” with him, prompted me to ask him why it was that he had decided to leave. He said that the Fort Worth/Dallas two-year search for an artistic director (there has been no artistic director since the departure of Paul Mejia) didn’t work out. Mr. Simpson is also excited by the fact that Louisville Ballet will celebrate its 50th anniversary in February 2003, and that in the twenty years of their tenure there, Alun Jones and Helen Starr have succeeded in establishing a company “grounded in the classical tradition.” Mr. Simpson credits Jones and Starr as having been “icons of mine from when I was a ballet student in the sixties in Britain.” He said, “I know I’m going to a company where I am not going to be an alien creature, nor will the dancers be either.”

Three Fort Worth/Dallas dancers, Mariano Albano, Bettina Sarmiento and Robert Dunbar, will also leave to join Louisville Ballet. “I pride myself in my ethics. I didn’t approach these dancers at all. All three dancers have auditioned and will be going.” [Editor's note: In addition to the above three dancers, James Gotesky, a corps de ballet member who danced the principal role of Romeo and the son of interviewer Toba Singer, has signed a contract with Pacific Northwest Ballet in Seattle for next season.]

Fort Worth/Dallas Ballet experienced serious financial setbacks in its 2001–02 season. Consequently, an eleventh-hour, three-week layoff was imposed, reducing the number of contract weeks from 32 to 27. Two programs were dropped from the season’s repertoire, and dancers there were concerned when no artistic director was hired, even though at least three prominent candidates had been considered for the position, including Mr. Simpson. While anxious about the future of the company, lack of disposable income due to low pay and the layoff, posed an insurmountable obstacle to dancers who wished to audition for other companies. An anonymous donation made it possible for former chairman of the Board of Directors David Mallette to assume the post of Executive Director of the company. Novel fundraisers, including a masked-ball gala in anticipation of Romeo and Juliet and a skeet shoot event at the former Ross Perot estate, raised additional funds to help pave the way for a solvent 2002-03 season.

I asked Mr. Simpson what lessons could be learned from the experience at Boston Ballet (which underwent a similar funding shortfall, coupled with the Board of Directors’ failure to hire an artistic director, two seasons ago) and Fort Worth/Dallas about the funding and financial structure of a ballet company. “At end of the day, even an artistic director is a cog in a wheel. Artistic directors — wonderful directors — produce phenomenal works, but are often frustrated by the funding system. The events of September 11th forced ballet companies to take stock, and rightly so, because everything that happens within an economy financially, also happens to us. We are a part of this economy, no matter what we say or don’t say. We were fortunate here, in that donors came forward to make substantial contributions to our funding for next season.

“My experience is limited with respect to the American landscape. I came from a situation in South Africa where the company was semi-funded by the state — from 1965 up until two years ago. Fort Worth is different from Tulsa, which is different from Kansas City, which is different from San Francisco. One of the great secrets, perhaps, is to be in situations where there are certain specific endowments for new works or building improvements — protected money — so that fear of a murderous financial situation does not become so terrifying. A ballet company must be run like any good business: that is, to avoid crisis management as much as possible through a policy of long-term planning. I like to look ahead three years down the line: This dancer is great to do a traveling player this season, but I hope that three years later, that guy will be a wonderful Albrecht. You have to look at the repertoire in the same way.”

Born in Glasgow, Scotland, Mr. Simpson has worked in Europe, South Africa, Hong Kong, and in the United States. Given that he has such broad international experience in the dance world, I was interested in knowing Simpson’s thoughts on the globalization process, and the internationalization of companies. “I love the fact that I worked in South Africa, which for years during Apartheid was so isolated, and then ten years ago [after the fall of Apartheid], there came a cultural explosion, when American works started coming into the repertoire.” In South Africa, “we had 42 nationalities, with 11 languages spoken. Now with globalization and the Internet, you can’t whistle there without everyone in the US knowing it. I just love that. I love that because of the Internet and the globalization, dancers can’t feel that they work in isolation. You have to have a global outlook.”

I noted that sixty years ago, the Soviet Union and France were seen as the ballet capitals. Then Britain gained more stature, and then Cuba, and now the Pacific Rim countries — Korea, Japan, China, Australia, and South Africa. “With the advent of Nureyev and Baryshnikov, there was also disco, and even aerobics in the local gym. There was an explosion in dance interest. It crossed over the Atlantic from Britain to the United States. It may be very much of a cliché to say, but we live in a global village. If you look at the extraordinary list of San Francisco Ballet nationalities, you realize that their dancers come from all over the world. And all that doesn’t include the state ballets, such as the Royal, La Scala and Paris Opera.

“That is what so impresses me about Stephen Jefferies’ Hong Kong Ballet. It really has an eclectic look, with dancers from China, the Pacific Rim, Europe, Australia, and South Africa. And the thing is that these are the demographics of any American city. The challenge for me is that the demography of any city today is no longer the same as 40 years ago. We have got to pay attention to the audience coming towards ballet. To attract that audience, we must have a company that looks like them. We simply have to have a global-looking company.”

Referring to the Sasha Anawalt book Joffrey Ballet: Robert Joffrey and the Making of an American Dance Company, I asked Mr. Simpson whether he thought that Joffrey’s mission to build an expressly American company, in contradistinction to those in the European tradition, was still valid today. Is there still the basis for such a company?

“Yes, I have often heard it said, especially in South Africa, and I am sure that you have heard it here in America too, ‘Why can’t you dance more like The Royal?’ or ‘Why can’t you dance more like the Bolshoi?’ While not upset by that kind of question, I am a little concerned that people don’t realize that companies dance like the cities they’re in. In Paris, there is a chic quality. New York City Ballet dances with a New York City kind of energy. Royal Ballet dances aristocratically. Fort Worth/Dallas has a kind of Texas breadth of movement. The dancers cover the stage because we’re here in big sky country, and we subliminally take on the atmosphere of the place we’re in.

“That is the reason that I am so excited by Louisville. There are the Victorian homes, similar to the ‘Painted Ladies’ in San Francisco. You wonder, ‘Who lived there in their prime?’ There is the river, the hills and dales, and the parks. There is an entirely different sense of romance about that city, and it will definitely be part of our landscape. American [resident] choreographers like Balanchine understood intrinsically what it meant to be American. Bearing in mind his imperial heritage and classical foundations, he showed an astute understanding of the American people, as exemplified by Stars and Stripes and Who Cares? to Gershwin music. That was also the case with great choreographers such as Joffrey and Martha Graham. Stephen Jefferies is so successful in Hong Kong, because as much as he is English, and from the Royal Ballet, he has a great sensitivity to Eastern taste. I saw this when I helped with his Bayadère production two years ago, and once again when I saw him on tour with Last Emperor, and the girls showed such an Eastern-inspired liquidity in their arms, feminine beyond imagination! There was a soft fey quality to the boys’ jumps: Never a sound, beautiful plié, yet masculine!”

I referred back to our discussion of company funding, and the use of the term, “protected money.” I wondered about the term “protected” in terms of repertoire, especially in light of the current conflict between Ron Protas and the Martha Graham dancers. I asked Mr. Simpson whether he thought it possible to avoid such conflicts in the future.

“One must recognize that the only constant in dance is the floor. Artistic directors change, dancers fall off the programs, styles change, and entire companies change. We don’t want to be a museum. We want to move forward. I danced Ashton’s La Fille Mal Gardée for 30 years, dancing every role, from back of the corps to The Widow. Each production was danced differently. There was a big difference between the 1972 production and the year 2000 production, and all the productions in between. Look at Swan Lake today! Ballerinas are fighting for the orchestra to play slower in order to accommodate new, higher extensions, much different than the old days when you only had to get the legs up to 45 [degrees]. There are so many wonderful dance projects in America now to sustain ballets on video.

“The worst thing would be to become complacent. I don’t mind if people hate my dancing. I worry more if there’s no reaction. Conflict is important. Artists function within the society in which they live. There has to be a chemical reaction with the audience because there are no words, and we have to affect people. As Artistic Director, I have to affect dancers, or they won’t affect the public and by extension, the society in which we live. That’s why conflicts within the art form make me hopeful, because if we get too comfortable or complacent, we just reproduce mirror images of what has been done before. One often longs for the original cast, but that was a piece of the time.”

As if he were balancing a line of dancers, Mr. Simpson weighed in on the other side of this question: “Now this may seem like a contradiction, but I am at the same time a traditionalist. I see myself as part of a 400-year tradition. Every day that I walk into the studio, I see myself as a custodian of classical ballet technique. I am hard on the dancers because I knew how hard it was on myself. Nothing is gained easily. But the rewards are extraordinary. If I have danced 85 roles, there were five performances that were spiritually illuminating for me, where I walked off the stage a changed person. That’s what makes it worthwhile. Were it in my power, I would do those 50 years all over again. Perhaps, here or there was a bad step, or maybe the tempi wasn’t correct, but I managed to transcend all that, and I don’t think I’m being patronizing when I say that last night’s performance [of Romeo and Juliet] was one of those times when they [the dancers] affected the audience in precisely that way. As I leave the Fort Worth, I am deeply satisfied with what this company achieved last night.”

The bell was ringing outside the dressing room, and the stage manager’s voice over the clear com announced that it was 10 minutes to curtain. Musing about the rest of the run, Simpson smiled broadly at me, and with a twinkle in his eye said, “I just hope these next three are as good as last night's!”

Even if someone took a wrong step or the tempi was off, it seemed hard to imagine that the dancers could dip below Bruce Simpson’s great expectations. In truth, it would be almost impossible, with so well-prepared and vigilant a custodian at the helm!

 

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Edited by Azlan Ezaddin


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