Armadillos In Toe Shoes

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

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,

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