Minnesota Dance Theatre’s entire board steps down

  • Article by: GRAYDON ROYCE , Star Tribune
  • Updated: January 29, 2014 - 12:29 PM
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In this 2012 file photo, Lise Houlton, director of Minnesota Dance Theatre, hugged dance student Rita Tsapatsis during rehearsal for “Loyce Houlton’s Nutcracker Fantasy.”

Photo: Renee Jones Schneider, Star Tribune

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In a surprise announcement on Tuesday, the entire Minnesota Dance Theatre board resigned, saying “it is no longer able to serve the needs of the organization going forward.”

A statement signed by the board said “the organization remains solvent and critically successful. We hope that the company and school will continue to succeed in the hands of a new board and the artistic director.”

No one on the board was made available to comment Tuesday. Phone calls to the chairman, James Matejcek, were not returned.

In a statement Tuesday night, artistic director Lise Houlton thanked the board for its service and said she anticipates moving forward with the company, which was founded by her mother, Loyce.

“We will focus on serving MDT’s legacy celebrating the remarkable achievement of our Nutcracker’s upcoming 50th landmark, alongside our adventures into the wide range of dance dialects for our dancers, company and school,” the statement said. Houlton did not return a phone call.

Odd timing after opening

The dance company is best known for “Loyce Houlton’s Nutcracker Fantasy,” a holiday favorite with Twin Cities audiences for nearly 50 years. It was first performed in 1964 and had performances last month at the State Theatre in Minneapolis. The company had a fall show at the Cowles Center in Minneapolis — where it has offices and a school — and at other locations.

The highly unusual board resignation also is oddly timed, as MDT just opened a new show last weekend at the Lab Theater in Minneapolis. That show features “Rumblings” choreographed by Lise Houlton, as well as a new piece done in collaboration with Dominique Serrand, a principal of the Moving Company theater group.

“I was aware that something was happening, but I did not know the details,” Serrand said Tuesday. “I spoke with a board member after the opening Friday and told him that ‘I hope you do everything you can to keep this going.’ ”

Serrand added that he was “totally stunned” when he heard the news. “Rumblings” is scheduled to continue Wednesday through Friday at the Lab.

MDT has been financially challenged for many years — as are most dance companies. One of the largest dance companies in the state, MDT has an annual budget of roughly $1 million. Tax returns show that MDT ran a small surplus in the fiscal year that ended June 30, 2012, with revenues of $986,092. That was down almost $350,000 from the previous year.

‘A difficult enterprise’

Jon Cranney, a theater director and actor who is a former MDT board member, said he was not shocked at the news.

“It’s a difficult enterprise,” Cranney said. “I have no inkling of what prompted this. I know there has been a lot of turnover on the board.”

The most recent tax forms indicate a board with 20 members.

Lise Houlton’s mother, Loyce, studied with George Balanchine and Martha Graham in New York before returning home to Minnesota in 1949. She founded the company in 1962 as Contemporary Dance Playhouse, and two years later the company performed its first “Nutcracker Fantasy” at the Moppet Playhouse (which became Children’s Theatre). In 1965, the Nutcracker moved to Northrop Auditorium, where it was a fixture for 20 years. The company was renamed in 1969.

Turmoil between the board and the artistic leadership at MDT is not unprecedented. In 1986, the board fired Loyce Houlton and attempted a short-lived merger with Seattle’s Pacific Northwest Ballet. MDT went out of business until Loyce Houlton reincorporated the company in 1991. Lise Houlton, who danced with American Ballet Theatre for eight years, became artistic director one year after her mother died in 1995. Her daughters Kaitlyn and Raina are dancers.

Former New York City Ballet dancer Charles Askegard became MDT’s associate artistic director last summer, and he resigned that post in late November. "It became apparent it was not a good fit," he said on Wednesday. "My hope and desire is the company will pull through. I don't know what happened."

Graydon Royce • 612-673-7299

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