It began over a glass of wine.
It was 2005 and Victoria Morgan, the artistic director and CEO of
Cincinnati Ballet, was having a glass of wine with her good friend—and board
“I was bemoaning the fact that there are so few new full-length
ballets,” recalls Morgan. The problem? They’re too risky and too expensive. It
seems that audiences would rather see Swan Lake again than take a chance seeing
a new ballet.
But as an artistic director, you don’t want ballet to become a
museum. You need new works, but ones that audiences will be willing to pay money
for. You don’t want to spend a couple of million dollars and create a ballet
that doesn’t work.
That’s why most companies would rather spend far less—$100,000,
perhaps, or $200,000—and get someone to restage a one-act ballet that has
already been proven successful with another company.
Morgan wanted something more substantial and original, something
that only the Cincinnati Ballet had in its repertory.
“We were talking about themes and ideas and what would make a good
full-length ballet,” says Morgan. “And Rhonda just threw out Camelot.”
Morgan’s first reaction was skeptical. Camelot felt old to her.
The Oscar-winning movie was released in 1967. The hit Broadway play it was based
on opened in 1960.
It didn’t feel far enough in the past to be a classic or new
enough to be fresh.
“I thought maybe it wouldn’t be as relevant as it needs to be for
a brand-new ballet,” says Morgan.
But the more they talked, the more intrigued Morgan became. She
went home and started researching. She read articles, essays and lots of books
about the legends.
The more she read, the more she came to realize that this wasn’t
just a story about love and betrayal. It was about honor as well. And
responsibility. And leadership.
“It’s kind of a universal story, really,” says Morgan. “There were
such high expectations of Arthur as a leader. But at a certain point, he doesn’t
think of himself as being worthy of being a king. These are the sorts of issues
that people are still dealing with today. How much do you give of your life so
that you can, in a responsible way, lead a society? How much do you give of your
personal life to create a Camelot where there is peace and beauty and safety and
This didn’t happen overnight, mind you. In fact, it took the
better part of four years before Morgan decided that King Arthur’s Camelot would
become one of the highlights of what is the company’s 50th anniversary
This set into motion the dozens of other elements involved in
creating a new ballet. First of all, how much would it cost? And how would the
company pay for it? All of that depends, of course, on what the ballet would
look like. Would it be lavish and have an enormous cast? Or would it be a
barebones sort of production?
To answer those questions, Morgan had to pick her collaborators.
Who would design the sets and costumes? Who would create the lighting for the
show? And there was one huge consideration: the music.
Morgan wanted the entire piece to be new. That meant the company
would have to commission an entirely new orchestral score instead of using
“I don’t think people have any idea of how much is involved with
putting on a production like this,” says Missie Santomo, Cincinnati Ballet’s
chief operating officer. “While Victoria is busy creating this amazing new
ballet, we’re finding ways to pay for it. And then sell it.”
Sheakley, the one who came up with idea to turn the King Arthur
legend into a ballet, took the first big step. She and her husband, Larry A.
Sheakley, owner and CEO of The Sheakley Group, committed $1 million to what
would be called the Sheakley World Premiere Fund, an endowment that provides an
ongoing source of seed money for the company to commission original ballets. The
goal isn’t to completely underwrite new works; it is to launch them into
Morgan and Santomo brought on Canadian opera composer John Estacio
to write the music. They engaged notable designers Sandra Woodall (costumes),
Joe Tilford (sets) and Trad A Burns (lighting).
Finally, Morgan brought in Eda Holmes, the associate director of
the Shaw Festival Theatre in Niagara-on-the-Lake, Ontario.
In an earlier life, Holmes was a ballet dancer and a colleague of
Morgan’s back at the San Francisco Ballet. But after a serious injury ended her
dancing career, Holmes turned to theater. Not as an actor, though. She wanted to
get off the stage. She was fascinated with the narrative, with how successful
scripts were put together and how she could get the most out of them.
It is that expertise—finding the best way to tell a story—that has
brought Holmes and Morgan together several times since Morgan came to Cincinnati
Ballet in 1997.
“If you’re going to commission a score, you need a libretto,” says
Holmes. “You can’t just tell a composer, ‘Go write us some music and we’ll try
to make it work.’ That’s a recipe for disaster.”
It’s not as simple as it sounds. Ballet is excellent at sharing
broad emotions like love and anger and passion. But since it has no words, it’s
not so good at expressing intricate plot twists.
Holmes’ goal was to help Morgan develop a storyline in which the
ballet could do justice to the story’s dramatic complexities.
Holmes explored dozens of sources, everything from the poems of
Malory and Tennyson to Game of Thrones.
“I know that seems an unlikely source,” says Holmes. “But like the
King Arthur story, it comes out a time when people are figuring out what exactly
what leadership is. Who is it that is going to create a society that is safe and
let people live in peace? That’s Game of Thrones.”
The resulting ballet is filled with sumptuous music and potent
emotions. Working in opera, Estacio has become a master of extracting huge,
over-the-top sounds out of an orchestra. Tilford’s sets are built more around
massive backdrops than they are intricate sets. This is emotionally lavish, but
physically spare. What lavishness there is, you’ll find in Morgan’s choreography
and Woodall’s elaborate costumes.
But there is still much work to be done before the Feb. 13 opening
at the Aronoff Center, says Holmes.
“Victoria has spent years making sure that all the pieces will be
ready at the right time,” says Holmes. “But actually putting them together so
they tell the story well... that’s the hard work. It will happen, though. It’s
like that scene from Shakespeare in Love.”
She recounts a scene from the 1998 movie where a theater owner
tries to explain the business of theater to a loan shark.
“The natural condition is one of insurmountable obstacles on the
road to imminent disaster,” says the owner.
“So what do we do?” asks the loan shark.
“Nothing,” replies the owner. “Strangely enough, it all turns out
“How?” asks the loan shark.
“I don’t know,” replies the owner. “It’s a mystery.”
“He’s exactly right,” says Holmes. “It will all come together at
the right time. I just can’t tell you how.”