On the Retirement of Delia Foley

Exit sign at the Stanley Theater

Delia Foley created the Mohawk Valley Ballet (formerly Mohawk Valley Performing Arts) forty-one years ago, and has presented a flagship production of The Nutcracker at the Stanley Theater for more than thirty years. The current crop of alternative Nutcrackers around town can be seen as unimaginative flattery, although they have watered down the audience and were probably conceived more from laziness and/or spite than homage. As a friend said last week, “I don’t know anything about dance, but I know Delia’s name. She’s really good, and a lot of people don’t like her.”

Delia is really good. She’s taught many of the dance instructors in the area, most of whom hold her in love/hate esteem. She’s all about form and precision; her productions and choreography are formal and classy. At the same time, there is a famously quick temper and disregard for feelings. But we accept certain quirks from artists, more so from the great ones. I have been able to achieve some of my best stage work (in lighting design) because 1) Delia’s productions are at a higher level to begin with, which showcases my work; 2) I wanted to meet her standards.

Delia announced her retirement from the Mohawk Valley Ballet this year. This would be her final Nutcracker. I’d expected an uptick in attendance on the strength of the announcement, and perhaps a long-overdue standing ovation – for as much as they’ve become de rigueur, I don’t remember one at any Nutcracker I’ve worked. Instead, last Saturday evening we got a very strange valedictory that left some in tears, and many scratching their heads.

It shouldn’t have happened the way it did. Delia’s speech was rambling and seemed to hand the reins of the company to the Assistant Artistic Director, ahead of the current Associate (and heir apparent). This was a surprise to many, but it seemed particularly mean-spirited when the Associate was called onstage, to be told she wasn’t Delia’s choice because she was a mother of four who should be happy to have the freedom to attend her children’s soccer games. (I presume this didn’t go over with the mothers volunteering backstage, either.) Forty-one years of grace and beauty deserved a speech composed with those hallmarks in mind, and should have been met with deafening applause. Instead, the applause sputtered and gave way to murmuring: “What did she say?”

Divided companies rarely perform their best, but I’ll give credit to the dancers, who largely held it together the next day. It can’t have been a pleasant experience for anyone, with whispered conversations happening throughout the theater. Despite Delia’s reputation, I’d never seen this kind of politicking on a Mohawk Valley Ballet production – the focus has always been all about the show. My hope is that the Ballet’s Board of Directors will smooth things over and recover momentum that shouldn’t have been lost to begin with (I wish they’d established a formal succession plan ahead of time!) I’m told that people aren’t going to remember this minor debacle, but the showman in me longs for a do-over. I want that ovation, damn it.