The Endowment That Funds New Ballets Forever
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.
What happens during a performance is the product of the painstaking process of realizing an artistic vision. Whether held beforehand, afterward, offsite or online, audience discussions tend not to be so preordained, easily thrown off track without a skilled moderator at the helm.
"I'm someone who dreaded talkbacks and Q&As," admits Bill Bragin, former director of public programming at Lincoln Center. "While I was in New York, a lot of the time it was just audience members trying to show off how smart they were."
These events present a pile of difficult questions: How much do you reveal about a piece before it's shown? How can a conversation designed to hit key points feel casual and spontaneous? How do you cater to the needs of diverse attendees, from novice dancegoers to lifelong fans to scholars and critics? And how do you avoid smothering dance with language, flattening all its complexity?
If you think becoming a trainee or apprentice is the only path to gaining experience in a dance company environment, think again.
The University of Arizona, located in the heart of Tucson, acclimates dancers to the pace and rigor of company life while offering all the academic opportunities of a globally-ranked university. If you're looking to get a head-start on your professional dance career—or to just have a college experience that balances company-level training and repertory with rigorous academics—the University of Arizona's undergraduate and graduate programs have myriad opportunites to offer:
Yes, we realize it's only August. But we can't help but to already be musing about all the incredible dance happenings of 2019.
We're getting ready for our annual Readers' Choice feature, and we want to hear from you about the shows you can't stop thinking about, the dance videos that blew your mind and the artists you discovered this year who everyone should know about.
I dance to encourage others. The longer I dance, the more I see that much of my real work is to speak life-giving words to my fellow artists. This is a multidimensionally grueling profession. I count it a privilege to remind my colleagues of how they are bringing beauty into the world through their craft. I recently noticed significant artistic growth in a fellow dancer, and when I verbalized what I saw, he beamed. The impact of positive feedback is deeper than we realize.