- The Washington Times - Sunday, June 8, 2008

Two dance festivals running consecutively at the Kennedy Center reflect the imaginative programming and international scope Michael Kaiser has pursued since becoming president of the performing arts complex seven years ago.

Closing a three-day run Sunday is Proteges II, a festival showcasing important ballet academies around the world. It is followed by an unprecedented week of performances by nine of America’s strongest regional companies.

The lineup for Sunday afternoon’s Proteges is impressive, with students from dance academies at the Bolshoi, Paris Opera, Royal and School of American Ballet, and offers an enticing introduction to young talent.

“The different schools are very distinct, but as I go around the world I’ve been struck by how national styles are being dulled,” Mr. Kaiser says. “I think it’s because dancers are crossing boundaries - a Cuban dancer appears at the Royal, a Russian dances with American Ballet Theatre. So, let’s go to the source and show the real difference between the French training, British training, Russian training, and Balanchine training.”

Mr. Kaiser also has increased the center’s viability and importance by bringing in starry international ballet companies - the Bolshoi, Kirov, New York City Ballet, American Ballet Theatre, and the Kennedy Center-sponsored Suzanne Farrell Ballet - and creating extraordinary series of festivals, beginning with his first smash hit, the Sondheim Celebration.

Kennedy Center is “primarily a presenting organization,” he says. “But you can just fill the slots and tell who’s coming, or say something about the work: How do we group works to make it more interesting and more educational for the audience, like a museum curator selects which art works they’re going to put in an exhibition.

“I’ve worked really hard for seven years to do more of that on our stages - in modern dance, ballet and other art forms as well. So we put on things like Masterpieces of African American Choreography.

“For me, that was the highlight of what I’ve done in dance at the Kennedy Center. We had 17 African-American groups here; we honored all the choreographers who had created these important companies and this great body of work. There was a point of view, and that’s what I’ve been trying to do as much as I possibly can.”

As Ballet Across America is an unparalleled gathering of nine companies, it may address another problem. “With all the big international groups we bring in, it’s getting harder for us to sell the regional companies of America,” Mr. Kaiser says. “It’s important to see these wonderful companies; some of them have never been here before, like my alma mater, the Kansas City Ballet. I wanted to have them all, but I couldn’t give them each a full week; this is a way that made sense for them and for us.”

Mr. Kaiser rejects the notion that the classical arts are losing their appeal. He says economic pressure is limiting audiences. “You know, for the cost of two tickets to the Metropolitan Opera you can buy a computer. You can sit home and watch opera on your computer.

“I don’t think the arts are just for the elite; but only an elite can afford to pay for them. We’re all being pressured to raise more money privately so we don’t have to keep raising our ticket prices. We at the Kennedy Center have doubled our private fund raising in the last seven years. That’s why I’m so pleased by the free Millennium Stage performances every night.

“We give discounted tickets to seniors and students, because we’re trying to make the arts affordable. I don’t believe only a small group of people wants to see the classical arts. When we have our Open House every year and everything is free, the two most popular attractions are the National Symphony and the Suzanne Farrell Ballet. People really want to see these things.”

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