Dancing in Debt

The cast walks after the Met gets mired in money woes

Another area arts group falters. In a recorded message, the Houston Metropolitan Dance Company cited the economic climate in canceling its November performances at the Wortham Theater Center. But there may be more than just Allison, Enron and 9/11 (the litany recited by the opera and symphony when announcing layoffs and budget cuts) behind Houston's second-largest dance company's dilemma.

"Even before 9/11, when we were getting lots of grant money, checks would bounce," says Kristie Kiser, the former educational director for the Met. "I had several paychecks bounce. More than I can count on my ten fingers."

Kiser also says several company dancers had not been paid this fall, and when they got together and added up what they were due, the amount was around $10,000. Other sources confirm it at $8,100. "We just thought it was like normal, just a few checks. We had no idea it was so much," says Kiser.

Kiser, executive director Michelle Smith and artistic director Dorrell Martin founded the nonprofit Houston Metropolitan Dance Center, Inc. in 1995. It comprised a school, a junior company and a professional company. Kiser finally got fed up with the financial situation and resigned on October 4. "And I really didn't do it for any other reason than myself. All the strife was hurting me artistically, and I just thought I would be better off out of there." But Kiser's resignation was the first step in a dance that would lead to the company's demise.

Martin says he and the dancers met with Smith and the board of directors twice in October. "After Kristie left, a lot of stuff started to come out," says Martin. "The dancers demanded to see the financial records, and they wanted an audit." Martin says that didn't happen and the dancers went on strike the last week of October, barely a month before they were scheduled to perform at the Wortham.

"They didn't know if they were going to have a job in January; all they could do was strike. I felt really bad because as artistic director they were asking me questions, and I couldn't answer them because I didn't have the information." Martin felt he had no choice but to resign as well. At that point the Met canceled the November concert and terminated the striking dancers' contracts.

The trouble, which Kiser says has been building over the past year, coincided with national touring dates for the company and attention from the national press. The little studio in the Museum District, known as a dancers' dance studio, has built a strong base of more than 600 students since Smith, Martin and Kiser took it over from Delia Stewart in 1995. Smith saw a need for a studio like New York's Steps, and she and Martin wanted a professional contemporary performing company.

Houston Metropolitan Dance Company gave Martin an outlet for his own choreography and -- until last year, when he decided to retire from the stage -- a chance to perform. The group was a staple at local events such as Dance Salad and Texas Weekend of Contemporary Dance. The company received national attention last August when it performed at Chicago's Jazz Dance Congress and recently began commissioning works from such notable dance-makers as Margo Sappington.

"Dance-wise we were there," says Smith. "Financially, we just weren't there." Smith admits some paychecks bounced. "The company was often dependent upon the school, and if tuition checks bounced, then we were in trouble." But she insists that both Martin and Kiser were present at executive board meetings during which the daunting financial problems were discussed. "I don't think they heard what they didn't want to hear. As artists we want to be visionaries; we don't want to see the worse-case scenarios."

Smith says grants were lost and the dancers' health insurance had to be cut after its costs tripled in one year. "A lot of them got angry. They made it personal." In the bitter dissolution that followed, the dancers and company turned against each other. But in the end, two companies have been formed.

Smith says six of her original dancers (half of the number under contract) have signed letters of intent for a spring concert. As for Martin and Kiser, they are creating a group called Fusion Contemporary Dance Company and also claim to have backing for a spring concert at the smaller Hobby Center for the Performing Arts. Still in dispute may be Martin's choreography -- Smith says the Met owns it because he made it under the auspices of artistic director; Martin says he never had a contract for that.

"I love her to death," Martin says of Smith. "I don't have anything against her, and business is business."

Jane Weiner, a contemporary who runs her own company, Hope Stone, credits Smith for her accomplishments. "Maybe those dancers were just ready to jump. But in the dance world there's a natural evolution that happens. There's a definite weaning-out process and a weeding-out process."

The addition of a new company may strain the resources for the area's contemporary dance scene -- a world Houston mainstream audiences have yet to embrace financially. Dominic Walsh of Houston Ballet began his own company this year, and longtime mainstay Sandra Organ still struggles to expand a major contemporary company.

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