Many arts organizations survive year after year operating on a shoestring, but what happens when the shoestring breaks? Two years ago Ballet Theater of Chicago burst onto the scene with an ambitious, low-budget production of Giselle that won raves from local critics and drew healthy crowds. But now its production of Bournonville’s La Sylphide, originally scheduled for six performances in May at the Athenaeum Theatre, has been canceled, and its tireless founder and artistic director, Mario de la Nuez, has been ousted as executive director of the Lexington Ballet, for the past year Ballet Theater’s sister organization.

From its inception Ballet Theater has made the most of its affiliation with other dance troupes. The company began in 1994 when Ballet Chicago canceled a tour of Daniel Duell and Gordon Peirce Schmidt’s Hansel and Gretel; de la Nuez, then a dancer with the company, negotiated the rights to the ballet and put together a troupe and a six-city tour to feature his wife, Meridith Benson, a principal with Ballet Chicago. In March 1997 de la Nuez was named executive director of the Lexington Ballet and Benson became associate artistic director. Ballet Theater of Chicago, it was agreed, would share staff, talent, and repertoire with the Lexington Ballet.

At that time de la Nuez said the Lexington Ballet was in the black, but he now says, “The problems of the company were much worse than I was led to believe.” He claims that ticket sales increased by 35 percent during his tenure, but the company was still running a $65,000 deficit on an annual budget of half a million dollars. Laura Boison, board president of the Lexington Ballet, would not comment on developments, but apparently the board decided on a management shake-up. De la Nuez was ejected by a vote of 10 to 8, though for now Benson remains as associate artistic director.

“Right now [Ballet Theater] is not folding,” de la Nuez promises. The production of La Sylphide, he explains, had to be scrapped when Lexington canceled some of its season, but this only proves how much Ballet Theater depended on the Lexington troupe’s resources. Despite consistently good notices for its work, Ballet Theater had reportedly sold only about 100 tickets for the early May performances. “I haven’t decided if I might take a job with another company,” says de la Nuez, “or get out of the business altogether.”

Judging a Booklet by Its Cover

Last spring the state tourism office irritated some when it unveiled “Cultural Chicago,” a booklet produced in partnership with American Express. The booklet was designed to sell Chicago’s arts and entertainment scene to tourists around the world, but the cover may have projected a lack of confidence in our arts institutions. It featured the Art Institute’s famous Seurat, Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grand Jatte, partially blocked by the superimposed figures of ballplayers supposedly studying the painting.

This year the ballplayers have been dropped from the 32-page brochure. The cover of “Front Row Chicago” features an Auditorium Theatre seat, a Mies van der Rohe chair, a stool with a guitar propped against it, and a park bench advertising Weisberg’s campaign to bring visitors downtown on Thursday nights. Explains Toby McCarrick, marketing director for the tourism office, “We were trying to suggest that Chicago is a very doable city, and that everyone can have a front-row ticket to the arts and entertainment in this city.”

Whatever its artistic merits, the booklet is a commercial success. “Last year’s booklet produced the highest response rate of any that American Express has done,” says McCarrick. Yet the high ad rates discourage advertising from the small and medium-size arts organizations it could benefit. Most of the organizations running ads in “Front Row Chicago,” including the Museum of Contemporary Art, the Art Institute, and the Museum of Science and Industry, used state grants to pay for the space.

Northlight Loves Jones

Don’t be surprised if you find B.J. Jones hanging out in the produce section. “A lot of our potential customers really do decide whether or not to buy a ticket based on what they hear from their friends while they’re pressing the melons in the Jewel,” he says. Jones, a veteran actor and director, was named artistic director of Northlight Theatre this week, and he wants to win back the affluent, well-educated, young to middle-aged people who’ve given up on Chicago theater. “From what I’ve heard, they just don’t like a lot of the shows that are being done anymore.”

While Jones has never held a management position in the theater, he’s been itching to run Northlight for more than ten years. When Michael Maggio resigned as artistic director in 1986, he urged Jones to pursue the job. The board chose Russell Vandenbroucke, but when Vandenbroucke departs at the end of this season, Jones will finally have his shot. “I’ve been waiting and waiting for a job in the theater that would allow me to support myself and my wife and three children,” he says, “and now I have it.”

Keeping it will be even more difficult: the board wants Jones to move quickly, boosting the company’s sagging subscriber base and wooing single-ticket buyers. In his first two or three seasons Jones hopes to present challenging, high-visibility plays filled with “beautiful language spoken beautifully.” Already announced for next season are Terrence McNally’s Master Class (possibly to star Dixie Carter), a country-music show called Cowgirls, and Paula Vogel’s 1998 Pulitzer Prize-winning How I Learned to Drive.

Meanwhile, Richard Shavzin, a candidate for the directorship at Northlight, is stepping down as artistic director of Strawdog Theatre Company at the end of the season in August. Shavzin says he wants to direct elsewhere and devote more time to casting and film work, but he wants to remain a member of the 14-person ensemble, who will decide among themselves who should succeed him.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Mario de la Nuez.