There was something slightly surreal about the announcement. The Cincinnati Ballet was going to collaborate with Cincinnati-based band Over the Rhine to create an evening-length performance at the end of April.

At best, it was an unlikely pairing. The Cincinnati Ballet is best-known for The Nutcracker, its annual kid-friendly holiday entertainment. Over the Rhine, on the other hand, is known for moody and highly literate music, an enigmatic blend of genteel country with bits of gospel, folk and R&B stirred in here and there.

But look a little deeper and perhaps it's not quite so curious as it seems. During the past decade, the Cincinnati Ballet has embraced artistic collaboration with a gusto that would send nervous shivers through the boardrooms of most large arts groups.

COMPLICATED, YET REWARDING

"I love working like this," says Victoria Morgan, the ballet's CEO and artistic director, now in her 13th season with the company. "It's true "” collaborations can be very complicated. But they are also so incredibly rewarding. And it's a way to keep from being pigeonholed as The Nutcracker and nothing else."

It's an uphill battle.

"So a collaboration like this one serves three purposes," says Morgan. "It gives us a chance to push ourselves into a different area. It brings people into our theater that might not see us otherwise. And it helps us challenge the image that some people have of us."

Collaborations are nothing new. Arts organizations have extolled their virtues for decades. Collaborations make better use of resources, we're told. They can help build audiences. And when collaborations work well, the cross-pollination between art forms generates spectacular results that neither group, on its own, could possibly have achieved.

Arts funders "” foundations, arts councils, high-rolling philanthropists "” like collaborations, too. More bang for their bucks.

But for all the banter about how good they are, very few collaborations actually come to fruition. They rarely save as much money as expected. And the compromises necessary to bring differing artistic visions together into a unified presentation are sometimes too much for the participants.


 
THE EXCEPTION
 
The ballet is the exception. This season alone, the company has worked with the Cincinnati Shakespeare Company, the Xavier University chorus, Northside composer/performer Peter Adams, choreographer Heather Britt "”revered for her Rhythm and Motion classes "” and the local choreographic team of Missy Lay Zimmer and Andrew Hubbard, directors of the Exhale Dance Tribe. Next year, the company is scheduled to work with BalletMet Columbus, poet (and vice-president of museums at the Cincinnati Museum Center) Tonya Matthews and Madcap Puppets, among others.

But that doesn't mean it's easy to pull off.

In 2009, for instance, the Cincinnati Ballet and BalletMet Columbus collaborated on a production of "Swan Lake." There would be performances in both companies' hometowns. But how would the roles be split up among the dancers? And who would be in charge? After all, both companies have ballet masters, conductors, musicians, lighting designers.

It would be like fusing two NFL teams together into a single team for a couple of games. Who'd quarterback? What type of offense would they run?

 
 
 
REMARKABLE RESULTS

In the ballet's case, the result was remarkable: a first-rate production done on a scale that neither company could afford to do on its own.

But what's in it for a group like Over the Rhine? The band is enormously popular, with a huge national following and more than 20 albums to its name. Why would this band "” the personification of cool "” step into something that is so far from its usual artistic territory? "When they approached us with the idea of an evening of choreography based on our music, we took it as a huge compliment and an exciting experiment," says Linford Detweiler, the male half of the husband-wife team that forms the core of OtR. "We've been touring for 20-plus years. Any chance for us to be pushed out of our comfort zone is welcomed. It's not like they're just using our music "” we'll be onstage and part of all the performances."

For many artists, venturing into the unknown like this is intellectually invigorating

Karin Bergquist, the vocalist whose distinctive vocal style defines the band, sang a solo piece during the ballet's 2009 New Works performances. She found the uncertainty unsettling. She had just one rehearsal with the dancers. But she found the interplay between dancers and music fascinating.

FLATTERING

"We were honestly flattered the first time they asked us to do a collaboration," says Bergquist. "I love what they do. And I love supporting the Cincinnati Ballet.

"So when they asked us again, I felt that we couldn't say 'no.' It's such an amazing thing, the symbiosis between the music and the dance "” the two live art forms.

"There's risk and danger and excitement that you can't get any other way. It hypes up the adrenaline. And most important, it gives the audience something extra." 
 
Infamous Love Songs with Over The Rhine
Performed by the Cincinnati Ballet and Over the Rhine
8 p.m. Friday-Saturday (April 29-30)
2 p.m. Saturday (April 30)
Procter & Gamble Hall, Aronoff Center,
650 Walnut St., downtown
Tickets: $30-$80