Armadillos In Toe Shoes

Austin Ballet Theatre performs at Armadillo World Headquarters, where the high and the low cultures meet.

October 1973By Comments

IT’S NOT YET DUSK, and already the crowd gathers in the October heat: Chains of old ladies holding hands, giggling and calling each other girl. Families with squirmy, sweaty kids. Clusters of teenyboppers. University types. Blacks, chicanos, and dyed-in-the-wool wasps.

They’ve come together with a common appetite, a newfound desire for culture—make that Culture. These believers make a monthly Sunday night pilgrimage to Austin’s Armadillo World Headquarters for an improbable brew: Ballet and Beer.

This ritual took shape a year ago when Stanley Hall of Austin Ballet Theatre and the Armadillo’s Eddie Wilson discovered they needed each other. Hall and Wilson are an incongruous pair: Hall, a witty and vulnerable British-born dancer, veteran of Hollywood musicals and the Sadlers Wells Ballet, a University of Texas dance professor and artistic adviser to Austin Ballet Theatre; Wilson, a teddy-bearish cross between Fidel Castro and Gene Shalit, the ambitious, loquacious manager of The Armadillo, an armory-turned-rock hall which is fast becoming known nationwide as the Fillmore East of Country Music.

The two proposed an unlikely marriage, a merger between Wilson’s massive barn, some of today’s proletarian rock, and Hall’s classical ballet, a high-culture art form which developed out of the formality of the French court of Louis XIV. “We were as different as night and day,” Wilson confessed, “but we were perfectly suited for each other.”

Austin Ballet Theatre was homeless. Having spurned the traditional approach to twice-a-year social soirees at the uptown auditorium, the company wanted a stage for regular repertory performances. Armadillo was broke. Having exclusively courted the freak-rock trade, the hall desperately needed a broader audience. As Wilson puts it, “One band of renegades found another,” and monthly ballet at Armadillo was born.

Probably nowhere in the United States is a ballet company performing monthly in a rock barn. ABT might be called the Boston Pops of the dance world, a pioneer in the introduction of ballet into the mainstream of mass culture.

Inside the cavernous Armadillo gloom, the audience gropes its way to its seats. A polite offer of assistance to the elderly Mrs. Walter Prescott Webb, widow of the renowned Texas historian, is refused with a firm, “Honey, I know the way. I come here to rock shows all the time.” The regulars have already staked their claims to the cable-spool tables in the rear. The kids flop to the floor, the grannies find folding chairs. There’s a run on the bar for nachos and beer to last through the opening ballet.

The premiere performance was something of a fiasco, from a programming point of view. “It was an experimental year, and I made some mistakes,” Stanley Hall conceded in his Anglophile accent. “I was in a quandary. I made the mistake of catering to the regular Armadillo audience. The first program was terribly top-heavy.”

By top-heavy, he meant serious, profound, and even modern. The program opened with “Molecules,” choreographed by student dancer Ricardo Garcia (since turned pro and gone to Manhattan). “Molecules” featured oozy, coagulating movements, sudden couplings and organic formations. Intriguing, yes, but very modern. By the end of “Molecules,” the audience was thirsty for more beer—make that light, not dark. Unfortunately, the next ballet on the bill was “Dante,” Hall’s stunning but darkly spiritual depiction of Beatrice among the demons of Hell. “We lost some of our audience right there, families, children, that I hadn’t expected to attend,” Hall said. “I think by now they’ve come back.”

Indeed. As the season developed, Hall added some standard favorites—”Cinderella,” “The Nutcracker”—but held onto “the heavies,” his more contemporary works. This balancing act paid off, and an increasingly loyal and knowledgeable audience began reveling in anew and rich experience.

Ballet at Armadillo became an ongoing thing. Month after month, the loyalists returned to watch their favorite dancers develop—maybe Rosemary Thomas (the company’s sole black dancer) as the undulating Arab in “Nutcracker” or as the undying swan in the hilarious “Facade.” Or Terri Lynn Wright, the golden-haired highschooler who strengthened and lengthened her line into an exciting “Le Corsaire” at season’s end. Or the lissome Jone Bergquist, only 16 and already looking like pure Balanchine, and Byron Johnson, the phenomenal jumper.

Some dancers the audience may not have noticed, the amateur but eager participants from the Austin community. Like Dave Larson, president of ABT, who’d step onstage here to support a ballerina, or upstage there to fill in a crowd. Not bad for an over-30 accountant who gave up basketball for ballet because he found it “much more physically demanding than I’d imagined.”

While the Armadillo audience watched these dancers alternating in the same roles—eureka! the same steps somehow looked different—they also watched the progress of dance works as they took on shape and clarity through repetition.

Take “Rosenkavelier Waltz,” a real sleeper. It started off slow, all those dancers in filmy costumes hardly doing anything, just walking and playing London Bridge (I could do that). But it kind of grew on the audience, and by season’s end they were crazy for it, hollering and clapping and such.

And then there was “The Rites of Joseph Byrd.” “Joseph Byrd” has been added to the program at audience request. The lights dim, and that weird electronic music wells through the darkened Armadillo. Onstage, a transparent sac, an embryo, rises to reveal a clump of bodies. They begin to move in the imperceptibly changing patterns (like one of those toy kaleidoscopes with colored rocks) that mark the best of Stanley Hall’s choreography. The program notes, “The children that represent the new generation believe they will change the world,” and on stage they’re surrounding a figure moving in boundflow, a rigid sort of superhuman Atlas Shrugged. And now he’s a Christ, a Buddha, a rockstar, the dancers knotted about him like a fist. And from this tension, this unbearable concentration of bodies, escapes one dancer, like a butterfly, looping free, and you’re thinking, my god, this is brilliant—and it’s over.

Not every ballet was a “Joseph Byrd.” There were ragged ones, let us all now forget. But as Eddie Wilson said generously, “Everything they did that was sloppy, they did it over again and improved.” He was right, and the Armadillo faithfuls loved it. They took to dropping by rehearsals to see just where the process really began. They signed up for classes at ABT’s Dancers’ School. They became balletomanes, dance freaks, an ABT Army, if you will.

The culture establishment’s reaction was noticeably cooler. Erik Stocker of the Texas Commission on the Arts and Humanities came to one performance (in safari regalia), sat through one ballet, pronounced it “tepid,” and made his exit. At season’s end, the Commission rejected ABT’s grant proposal on on grounds that it was “too ambitious.”

Then John Bustin, critic of The Austin American-Statesman, finally made it over to see what all the fuss was about and spent much of his review shrinking from the surroundings. Calling the Armadillo stage “a barely adequate rig,” he suggested that it “is clearly not much of a help for balletic diversions.”

Snorted Eddie Wilson, “You could land a B-29 on that stage and it wouldn’t shiver.” (To give Bustin his due, the stage is rather small, and it was enlarged over the summer.)

So what if Uptown Austin snubbed the dance scene at Armadillo? Business was booming, and as Wilson pointed out, “People love it because it’s happening at Armadillo and because it’s not at the auditorium with a lousy view, rotten sound, and snot-nosed ushers.”

Attendance during the 1972-73 season shot up from an initial 300 to 700-plus. If Austin Ballet Theatre wasn’t getting rich from $1.50 tickets, at least it wasn’t too far in the hole. Armadillo began to read the handwriting on the wall, adding a string quartet to its outdoor beer garden and discussing the possibility of a pops concert with the Austin Symphony Orchestra.

And long about spring, there were signs that Uptown was finally coming around. Ada Marie McElhenney sashayed in with the social set. Mary Faulk Koock brought her clan and pronounced the ballet “Absolutely darling.” As one Scholz’s stalwart put it, “I’m an old Austin hand, and I have to keep track of any innovation.”

Innovation, it is, the democratization of dance in a way that makes ballet as palatable as beer. But there are difficulties in bringing dance to the people on a regular basis. The 30 to 35 members of Austin Ballet Theatre spend afternoons, evenings, and every weekend in rehearsal. They are unpaid. Stanley Hall teaches dance classes at the University and at ABT’s Dancers’ School, then spends his weekends in all-day rehearsals. He accepts not a cent from Austin Ballet Theatre and has been known, more than once, to slip a few dollars to one of his dancers needing new toeshoes.

In addition, dancers alone do not a performance make. The strength of ABT and its democratic flavor derives from the galaxy of creative Austinites who get into the act as stagehands, costume designers, publicity flaks, and technicians. Earlybirds at Armadillo often glimpsed Kirsten Barrera or Betty Adams (better known as president of Austin’s Planned Parenthood) sweeping floors, stacking chairs, and wiping tables. Jane Koock (of that clan) signed on as publicity director. Kate Bergquist, an artist for the Austin Public Library , spent spare hours designing programs, posters, and ads, including the trademark, an armadillo in toeshoes.

There were others: Marguerite Wright, looking for all the world like a wardrobe mistress straight out of Carnegie Hall. Kathleen Harter Gee worked days in the University iconography collection, and moonlighted as designer of fantastical costumes and headdresses. Judy Thompson, a schoolteacher, assisted in rehearsals, while her husband Lee lent his television expertise in operating the sound system. These people participate in ballet at Armadillo because they’re dancers, frustrated dancers, parents of dancers, or simply hams. And also because of their fierce loyalty to Stanley Hall.

The man who inspires this devotion is enigmatic. Only heaven knows his age, and only a kamikaze pilot would ask. He’s an isolated man with a veneer of camp humor, a curious blend of movieland theatricality and genteel restraint. He paternally shepherds his dancers, this past summer taking four of them to Europe for the rounds of master classes, festivals and tryouts—grooming them for the big time, which is part of what ballet at Armadillo is all about.

“This gets into professional performing,” says Renata Sanford, director of the Dancers’ School and a seasoned pro from Broadway and the ballet world. “It’s learning your craft, learning it well. It’s the only way to become a dancer.”

Hall’s forte, choreographically, is broad comedy, but underneath this surface he’s developed a feel for delicate design and philosophical meat. The wonder of it all is that he’s only been choreographing since he came to Austin five or six years ago.

“Your tendency when you first start choreographing is to copy the choreographer you like most,” Hall admitted. ” A lot of my first ballets had Freddie Ashton in them, because I worked with him and with (Leonide) Massine. I think Massine’s influence is there because he used to make patterns, then they’d go through the steps. He would give you a sequence of, for example, three steps and say, that’s number one. Then he’d give you three steps more, and say, that’s number two. He’d give you about ten little variations, and then say, the people doing this major pattern do numbers one, three, and seven.”

“Les Patineurs,” Stanley Hall’s choreography after Frederic Ashton, fades from the stage. The house lights come up and the audience filters out of the Armadillo into the October night. Already, the stagehands are striking the sets, and Betty Adams wanders from table to table, picking up stray beer cups and crumpled programs. Eddie Wilson stands at the doorway, smiling at the prospect of another successful season of ballet at Armadillo. “It used to be that we were the lymph node on the counter-culture,” he is saying. “Now we’re the only culture in town.”

A few years back, the Association of American Dance Companies got to figuring and announced that in the past half decade the American dance audience had grown from one to six million. Of that audience, in 1964 70 per cent were New Yorkers. Today that ratio is reversed. Translated, that means decentralization of dance, creeping Culture…Next thing you know, your little boy in his Longhorn T-shirt will be dropping a bombshell: “Guess what I want to be when I grow up?”

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