As much as audiences might flock to Swan Lake or The Nutcracker, ballet can't only rely on old war horses if it wants to remain relevant. But building new full-lengths from scratch isn't exactly cheap.
So where can companies find the money?
Ballet Austin's biggest longtime donors, Dr. Ernest C. and Sarah G. Butler, have come up with one answer: the Butler New Choreography Endowment. Three years ago, they invested $3 million into a designated fund, allowing Ballet Austin to draw on the dividends every year, which average about $100,000 (depending on the stock market). That money is earmarked specifically for the creation of new ballets by the company's choreographer in residence, currently artistic director Stephen Mills.
Meanwhile, the $3 million remains invested, so that it can keep earning interest to fund more ballets.
"It's like a motor," explains Sarah Butler, describing how their initial donation will continue to generate money to support new works in perpetuity. "It relieves Stephen of the constant burden of finding ways to fund the expenses of costumes, music, sets—all the facets of developing a full-length ballet."
While many dance companies have various forms of endowments, this one is specifically dedicated to new ballets.
The first work to result from the Butlers' gift premiered last month: Mills' Grimm Tales, inspired by the drawings of visual artist Natalie Frank. Because of the endowment, Ballet Austin was able to collaborate with Frank to build fantastical new costumes and sets, and Mills also commissioned composer Graham Reynolds to write an original score.
"We feel contemporary work is who we are, it represents us," says Butler, explaining why she and her husband wanted to fund new work.
For her, watching Grimm Tales come to life onstage was a thrill. "It was funny. It was sad. It was surprising. It was shocking," she says. "It reached our audience here in Austin in just amazing ways."
Stephen Mills' GRIMM TALES [OFFICIAL TRAILER] UHD 4k
Ballet Austin presents Stephen Mills’ GRIMM TALES, a full-length work inspired by the visual art of Natalie Frank. GRIMM TALES is a contemporary re-imagining...
She knows that future ballets might not always be quite so successful, and she's okay with that. "Sometimes you will have a failure—it's a part of life. The new ballet could be rejected or criticized. You gamble every time you give money. But if you're doing it in the form of an endowment, it is perpetually building itself. So if you have a loss, you just go ahead and you do the next one."
The next ballet funded by the endowment is slated for Ballet Austin's 2022–23 season.