If you didn’t see it with your own eyes, you would swear it couldn’t have happened.
One of Austin’s major ballet companies performed at the Armadillo World Headquarters — the scruffy music venue where hippies mingled with rednecks in South Austin — not once, not twice, but virtually every month from Oct. 1, 1972, to Dec. 7, 1980.
“You can’t really think about ballet at the Armadillo without thinking of the humor inherent in that partnership,” says Caroline Sutton Clark, who recently earned her Ph.D. in dance history from Texas Woman’s University in Denton. “Every review of the company until 1978 mentions the phrase ‘beer and ballet.’ It became a meme.”
While researching her dissertation on the incongruous subject of Austin Ballet Theatre’s long reign at the Armadillo — the hall opened in 1970 and closed in 1980 — she heard about the customary rush to scoop up beer and nachos before the ballet began.
“Tickets were $1 to $3,” Clark says. “Armadillo regulars would buy a ticket, and when they got in, they’d ask what was playing. When told it was ballet, they said, ‘Cool.’ And then just hung out.”
High dances with low
Clark, who grew up in Austin, danced with Austin Civic Ballet — the 1970s rival to Austin Ballet Theatre and the direct predecessor of today’s Ballet Austin — from 1978 to 1983. She played several roles at Ballet Austin as it professionalized from 1983 to 1986. After that, she explored dance in Minneapolis and New York City and then picked up dance degrees at the University of Michigan and University of Hawaii.
How did she rediscover ballet’s role alongside musical acts such as Etta James, Jerry Lee Lewis and the Texas Flatlanders, a story that has always hovered on the margins of Armadillo lore? (Expect a book out soon by founder Eddie Wilson on the venue’s vaunted history.)
“One of my favorite experiences was to sit one-on-one with another dancer over coffee and talk about our lives in dance,” Clark says. “I heard a lot of fascinating stories from lot of famous retired dancers in this city, as well as people who are not famous but have dedicated their lives to dance and have a lot to say. I was rather in awe of this.”
While volunteering as an oral historian at the Austin History Center in 2008, she interviewed Kate Warren, who has been involved with Austin’s modern dance community since the 1970s.
“She knows everybody,” Clark says. “We were talking about something else entirely when she mentioned as an aside: ‘That’s when Austin Ballet Theatre was performing at the Armadillo.’ That statement just stopped me in my tracks. A spark went off. I thought to myself, ‘Ballet at the Armadillo?’ Because I’d never been (there), but it’s such a storied institution in Austin. I knew its reputation was for music, hippie culture and all sorts of infamous activities — and certainly not where I’d expect to find highfalutin ballet.”
Like any good scholar these days, she first looked online to see what had already been published on the topic.
“I discovered just one magazine article from 1973 in Texas Monthly from Suzanne Shelton, titled ‘Where the high and low cultures meet,’” Clark recalls. “I immediately knew that something really interesting had been going on but knew almost nothing about it. I discovered that the ballet performed there almost every month for eight years. This was not some sort of fluke.”
Something singular was clearly going on in the ’70s.
Clark thought: “How is it that something so successful in such an iconic Austin venue could be virtually forgotten? Their attendance ranged from 800 to 1,200 people every month.”
Putting it together
Clark next lined up key sources, including Greg Easley, who had inherited the estate and papers of Stanley Hall (1917-1994), the British-born artistic director of Austin Ballet Theatre.
It is crucial to pause for a little background on the birth of this, the second of Austin’s major ballet companies.
The older group, Austin Civic Ballet, which traced its roots to the early 1950s, fired Hall as artistic director in 1972. Many of his supporters believed it was because Hall was gay.
“On the record, I like to say that Austin Civic Ballet and Hall ‘parted ways,’ because he did resign during a board meeting at the same moment he was being dismissed,” Clark says. “I interviewed several people who were there. Officially, he was let go for ‘artistic differences’ — presenting ‘Cinderella,’ the British Christmas ballet, instead of ‘The Nutcracker,’ the American one.”
When Hall left the older company, he took with him many of its dancers, academy instructors and board members. They formed Austin Ballet Theatre the next day. The two companies were in direct rivalry until the day Austin Ballet Theatre folded.
“It was a huge rivalry to the people involved,” Clark says. “And the competitive situation likely spurred the improvement of both companies. … The main point is that people often ask me if Austin Ballet Theatre is now Ballet Austin, and it is not. They were rival companies. The divided ballet community ‘buried the hatchet’ when Hall was asked to be Drosselmeyer for Ballet Austin’s ‘Nutcracker’ in 1989, but I doubt many understood the symbolism of that particular performance.”
Back to the Armadillo research: Easley served as a gatekeeper for Clark, introducing her to other folks in the know.
“He knew everybody who had been involved,” Clark says. “The first time I interviewed him about Hall in his home, Greg said, ‘He’s right behind you.’ There was large painting of him.”
The company’s records were all over the place. It took months just to find out how Austin Ballet Theatre got started.
“Finally, I found out, really just through living in Austin, taking a yoga class at the Y,” Clark says. “A classmate asked about my research. She turned to a man near her and said, ‘Ken, didn’t you dance with them?’ It was Ken Owen. He knew the story.”
Clark found a newspaper fragment in which Hall tells the same story.
“One of the dancers, Sarah Wisdom, who loved to hang out at the Armadillo to hear the music, said that when Austin Ballet Theatre was first formed, it was renegade group with no money and no place to play. Wisdom offered: ‘Well, how about the Armadillo? I’ll call Eddie Wilson.” Hall’s response: ‘You must be out of your mind. I’ll get contaminated!’”
The company, which produced classically inspired works as well as lighter entertainment at the Armadillo, was a labor of love and volunteerism.
“They had no money,” Clark says. “Yet they put on a new show every month. Sometimes they repeated some work but always circulated in new pieces. They rehearsed only on the weekends. And some of the pieces were not well rehearsed.”
Clark’s next discovery was extraordinary. It is almost impossible to re-create historical dances without extensive notations and experts to interpret them. Not, however, when you have met and talked with Judy Thompson-Price, longtime Austin dancer and choreographer.
“She’s got a God-given talent of being able to memorize choreography perfectly,” Clark says. “It’s very rare. She not only knew her own steps, but everybody else’s. She’d actually tell people what to do if they couldn’t remember. Stanley relied on her a lot. That freed him up to do more creative work. When I was interviewing her in her home, she took me to a room and showed me index cards. Every step of every ballet was on these index cards. It struck me very poignantly that the company folded in 1986, but she couldn’t throw them away, they were too meaningful. And without Judy, there’s no way they could have put on a new show every month.”
The common touch
Despite his initial response to the Armadillo opportunity, Hall came with plenty of experience in performing in nontraditional spaces for nontraditional audiences. During World War II, he danced with Sadler’s Wells — renamed Royal Ballet of London — which put on shows in cafeterias and air raid shelters to lift people’s spirits.
“Austin Ballet Theatre made the most of their situation by making ballet accessible to what they called the ‘common man,’ to people who might not ever see the ballet anywhere else,” Clark says. “It was a place where you could hang out, feel comfortable, wander around, go to the beer garden if you didn’t like the piece, and come back for the next piece.”
It made Clark think a great deal about the loss of audience freedom as the American version of high culture developed during the late 19th and early 20th centuries.
“After that, you sit down, shut up, stay in your seats and watch the show,” she says. “How you attend to the art is all about cultural customs. But once again, things are loosening up more and more.”
The low ticket prices and freedom of movement — drink, talk, move around — allowed Austin audiences not only to learn about ballet but also to learn that they were free not to like certain dances, and to come back and see the next one.
“Oftentimes today, people see one ballet, not like it, and never come back,” Clark says. “Back then, it only cost a buck or two to get in — and 35 cents for a cup of beer. You were not out $90 for not liking it.”