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Exporting Montana

Rocky Mountain Ballet Theatre digs its way to China

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There’s a sullied side to artistic production that rarely gets discussed, especially in the ballet world. Under the prettified sheen of exquisite costumes, elaborate backdrops, episodic music, plasticized smiles and perfect lines of choreography are the sudden challenges—from sprained ankles to spiraling budgets—that can cripple a company. Producing even the simplest showcase or the most modest children’s recital is an art form by itself, turning inevitable behind-the-scenes chaos into, on a good night, a refined finished product.

Now multiply that typical scenario by 100. Add a cowboy. Add American Indian fancy dancers. Add live musicians. Add a decade’s worth of the company’s best alumni dancers. Add video and American flags and some antlers. Add a handful of classic foreign folk dances set on teenagers, something completely unlike anything the company’s ever attempted before. Add all of this to the usual chaos and then, just for good measure, try to pull it together while coordinating every last detail—each hotel reservation, each ronde de jambe—with the Chinese government. Wrap your brain around this complex equation and you begin to see just what an organizational challenge Rocky Mountain Ballet Theatre’s (RMBT) upcoming Montana, A Cowboy Christmas has become. The show will premiere this weekend at the Wilma Theatre, and then travel—at least parts of it—to Beijing as part of the 2008 Olympics.

“I have a lot of experience with big productions, with big casts, but this is entirely new,” says RMBT artistic director Charlene Campbell. “I’ve worked at the Macy’s Day Parade in inclement weather, on operas and on movie sets. But the diplomacy and protocol is at a whole new level with this. This is completely unique.”

The process began more than 18 months ago with a cold call from Campbell to the offices of Sen. Max Baucus. Campbell, who founded RMBT in 1998, had recently traveled to Italy with her company and, at the suggestion of a colleague who’s a former Chinese ballerina, wanted to explore the possibility of taking work to China. Baucus’ office jumped at the opportunity. As Campbell puts it, “I mean, we’re always shipping other things, like wheat. They loved the idea of exporting an arts organization.”

But what’s transpired since then has been a study in cultural contrast, a patient pas de deux between a relatively small Missoula dance company and a huge bureaucratic entity. Campbell says she receives between 40 and 50 emails daily from different Chinese agencies. She’s working with Baucus’ staff, the Chinese ambassador in Washington, D.C., and various government contacts abroad to handle travel logistics and process artistic feedback. Last spring, Campbell created an original fly-fishing ballet to perform at an economic summit in Butte, hosted by Baucus and attended by seven international ambassadors, as a taste of the company’s work. Chinese dignitaries have attended pre-concert rehearsals and previewed videotaped samples of the choreography for first-hand evaluation. Even this weekend’s Missoula premiere will be attended by another Chinese delegation. Literally every step of the process has been carefully overseen by a foreign government. 

“China surprised me by saying, ‘Oh no, we don’t want your contemporary work, we want traditional Montana,’” says Campbell, stressing how honored she feels to go through the rigorous review. “They want our native Montana folk dance, our native Montana classical ballet, our native Montana fancy dancers, our cowboys. When they were asking for these things, they were asking for segments of a lot of different cultures within our own state. I don’t think they realized that ballet companies don’t have in-residence cowboys and fancy dancers. I think we may be the first.”

Campbell describes the resulting program as “China’s romanticized view of Montana.” One piece, “Alexander Glazonov in Glacier National Park,” is a classical ballet performed against a projected film of the park’s signature views. “Montana: A Vision of the Last Best Place,” described by Campbell as a “contemporary American West ballet,” features an original score by San Francisco composer Barney Jones with performances by American Indian singer Leo Charlie, Flathead fancy dancer Louie Plant, authentic Bozeman cowboy Wade Black and a chorus of younger, flag-waving dancers clad in bison-decorated leotards and antlers. Regardless of one’s taste for such a hyper-stereotypical interpretation of the state, it’s what China requested and what Campbell is obligated to deliver.

“Every day is different,” she says. “Nothing’s etched in stone at this point. We’re going, there’s no doubt about that. We’ve got our dates, we’ve got our performances, but the shape that the show will be in and the cast of players is a constantly evolving scenario. After this performance we’ll look at what worked, what didn’t and decide what steps to take next.”

Four dances, however, are definitely making the trip. In August, Ming Yan Cui, Campbell’s colleague and friend now based in Chicago, set several folk dances on RMBT. The inclusion of these works was another request of the Chinese government aimed at making RMBT’s performances abroad a true exchange of cultures.

“It’s probably been the hardest for the students,” says Campbell, adding that only the company’s best pre-professional students are expected to travel to China, along with some handpicked alumni performers. “The attention to detail and the precision has been really something to watch. It’s one thing to think about us going over there and bringing our own work and having them love it. But the thought of that happening with their own traditional dances, of our students doing the Beijing Red Ribbon Dance and getting huge applause, that makes me fuzzy just thinking about it.”

But a lot needs to happen between this weekend’s premiere and any fuzzy moments in Beijing next summer. There’s more fundraising to do (RMBT has to cover all its own production and airfare costs), more logistics to iron out and more emails to answer. In other words, despite this weekend’s seemingly finished product, there’ll be more behind the scenes maneuvering in the coming months.

“I like a challenge,” says Campbell. “That’s why we don’t do The Nutcracker and Swan Lake. I’m easily bored. I’m always looking for the next thing. I have a lot of inspiration working on something as big as this.”

Rocky Mountain Ballet Theatre’s Montana, A Cowboy Christmas debuts at the Wilma Theatre Saturday, Nov. 24, at 2 and 7:30 PM, and Sunday, Nov. 25, at 2 PM. $20/$14 children and seniors.

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