If the sour economy of the past five years has been particularly hard on any discipline of the performing arts, it's dance. Professional dance, particularly classical, is expensive to produce, and usually the payoff is just a few performances. Compare that to theater, in which a shoestring-budget production can play for weeks.
Locally, this has meant the loss of live music for the area's largest ballet company, Texas Ballet Theater, and more devastating, the loss of an entire company, the Arlington-based Metropolitan Classical Ballet. For more than a decade, MCB was a solid secondary classical ballet company.
Katie Puder and David Cooper, the founders of Avant Chamber Ballet -- which they funded in part with help from the crowdsourcing website Kickstarter.com -- are hoping to alleviate some of those pains felt by local ballet patrons. The group's second major performance of the year takes place Saturday and Sunday in Grapevine, with an encore to follow in Richardson.
Avant will debut four ballets in the program, and all of them will have live music accompaniment. The company of eight dancers includes alumni of Metropolitan Classical Ballet, including artistic director Puder, who trained with the Texas Ballet Theater in the late '90s and then danced with MCB for nearly 10 years.
Cooper, a French hornist with the Dallas Symphony Orchestra -- and before that, the Fort Worth Symphony Orchestra -- is one of seven musicians who will perform with the ballet.
"My choreography is closer to something along the lines of the Balanchine American aesthetic," Puder says. "Focused on musicality and the music, and not so much the story."
That jibes with Cooper, who moved to Texas from Canada and began playing with the Fort Worth orchestra just as the Texas Ballet Theater stopped using it in its performances. Having played The Nutcracker for the Royal Winnipeg Ballet for years before that, Cooper says not playing that music with a major ballet company was unsettling, but it couldn't be avoided.
"As a musician, you have to be flexible," he says. "[For Avant] we wanted to stay in the realm of, of not modern, but post-Romantic."
For Avant's first major outing (the group performed earlier this year in the Plano Dance Festival), Puder choreographed all four works. One of them, Prelude, is co-choreographed with dancer Yulia Iliana, who will dance the solo piece, accompanied by her husband, pianist Konstantyn Travinsky.
Francaix Marelle is set to Jean Francaix's Divertimento for horn and piano and features three dancers, Cooper on French horn and Travinsky on piano.
Colloquy, set to Gyorgy Ligeti's Six Bagatelles for Wind Quintet, features five musicians and two dancers. The final work of the program will be Italian Suite, a ballet in six movements set to Stravinsky's Suite Italienne and with the full company of dancers.
Puder, who left Metropolitan Classical Ballet three years before it dissolved, says that group's demise left a number of dancers in town, many of them teaching or working with various companies on annual productions of The Nutcracker. Half of the Avant dancers are former MCB company members.
"It's really nice because we've all danced together before, so we have a cohesive look and the same background," Puder says. "I can say something and [the dancers] know exactly what I mean."
She and Cooper are convinced that in a metropolitan area the size of Dallas-Fort Worth, there's room for more quality, professional classical ballet.
"There doesn't seem to be a secondary classical company that has a season beyond The Nutcracker or a summer dance program," Puder says.
Fort Worth-based Ballet Concerto presents a well-attended annual Summer Dance Concert at Trinity Park and a (non- Nutcracker) "Holiday Special" program in December. Fort Worth-based Ballet Frontier of Texas presents an annual Nutcracker and various performances throughout the year. Both Ballet Concerto and Ballet Frontier are associated with dance schools; Avant is not.
"There's also not anything between Dallas and Fort Worth," Puder says. "I live in Grapevine, and there's a great audience there that has the ability to support the art. I think every Metroplex this size can have more than one strong ballet company, especially if they're so different."
Part of the strategy will be staying small.
"We're not trying to be at Bass Hall or the Winspear [Opera House]. If we stay smaller, we will have more flexibility to do new works and explore different ideas," she says.
The space where Avant performs this weekend in Grapevine, LifeStage, has about 200 seats. At the Eisemann in Richardson, the performers will use the smaller of that facility's two spaces, which can seat between 230 and 400.
"[We] are working together to start something new, from the ground up," says Cooper. "Among the people I talked to, everyone's very enthused about it. It combines top-level dance and top-level chamber music, and it's an opportunity to see both at the same time."