Lilyan Vigo Ellis and Marcelo Martinez. Photo by 20/20 Photo Video, courtesy Carolina Ballet

What Does it Mean to Have a "Sponsor"?

Now more than ever, ballet companies are searching for creative ways to build revenue. One tactic has stood out: patrons choosing to donate via the sponsorship of a particular dancer. Often implemented by large troupes like American Ballet Theatre (all of its principals and most soloists have sponsors), the trend has now reached smaller companies such as Cincinnati Ballet and Carolina Ballet.

The History of the Tradition

The custom of bankrolling dancers goes back at least to the 19th century and the Paris Opéra. The right amount of money guaranteed a patron a visitation to the foyer de la danse, built as a space for the men to mingle with the ballerinas. (The foyer was off limits to wives and male dancers.) Louis Véron, a director of the Paris Opéra in the 1830s, observed that "attending the Opéra was fashionable; keeping a ballet girl even more so." Fortunately, 21st-century patrons aren't allowed to indulge such salacious intentions.


How It Works Now

So what is assumed in patron relationships today? "Nothing is expected," says Lilyan Vigo Ellis, who retired from Carolina Ballet last season after a 20-year career there, six of which were sponsored by Dr. and Mrs. Malcolm Brown. "We became like family. Every time they came to a show, they let me know they were coming and we'd go out to dinner. One year they invited me to their beach house and I spent a couple of days there. They treat my sons like grandkids. I wrote a personal note to them that I was retiring, so they were among the first people I notified."

To be clear, patrons almost never pay the dancers' salaries directly. The donations go to the company, not to the dancer. "The sponsors give the company money in honor of me," says Vigo Ellis. The artistic director and staff decide where the money goes.

Lilyan Vigo Ellis in Giselle. Photo by Chris Walt Photography, courtesy Carolina Ballet

Ethical Issues

Some sponsor/dancer relationships create complications, however. Before joining Carolina Ballet in 2007, Marcelo Martinez danced lead roles with another midsized company. "One sponsor asked for their dancer to be cast in some ballets for the performance they were attending," says Martinez. He also heard about a patron who paid for a specific ballet and then requested that the male dancer he sponsored dance the principal role. "It brings up questions," he says.

Marcelo Martinez cooking his famous paella in the home of his Carolina Ballet sponsor for a company fundraiser.

How Do Companies Find Sponsors?

Cincinnati Ballet, which has had a successful sponsorship program since the early 2000s, hosts gatherings at the beginning of the season to introduce new and returning dancers to current and prospective sponsors. Some patrons are also drawn to sponsorship through the company website or the program. Cincinnati Ballet's minimum sponsorship for 2016–17 was $500 for a trainee. Its current goal is to seek two sponsors for each dancer.

"It's important we set the tone and expectations for the relationship," says Sara Pomeroy, Cincinnati Ballet's director of major giving. "The dancers are encouraged to participate in ballet-specific, hosted gatherings while sponsors receive perks, including advance notice of casting and special-event invitations."

Carolina Ballet soloist James Cunningham with sponsors Ronna and Dr. James B. Willis

Why It Works

The reason for the popularity of sponsorship programs? "Storytelling is compelling," says Pomeroy. "When you know something about a dancer that's more personal, it exposes how they became who they are onstage. The insight creates a connection that deepens the experience for the patron."

For Martinez, a Paraguayan who has no family in the area, the benefit is mutual: "Everything I accomplish in my career, including the hard dedication that gets you there, is shared with my sponsors. I don't know who is more proud—me or them."

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Courtesy Harlequin

What Does It Take to Make a Safe Outdoor Stage for Dance?

Warmer weather is just around the corner, and with it comes a light at the end of a hibernation tunnel for many dance organizations: a chance to perform again. While social distancing and mask-wearing remain essential to gathering safely, the great outdoors has become an often-preferred performance venue.

But, of course, nature likes to throw its curveballs. What does it take to successfully pull off an alfresco show?

Marisa Grywalski and Alejandro Diaz in Dwight Rhodens "Ave Maria," part of PBT's Open Air Series last fall.

Kelly Perkovich, Courtesy Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre

Keeping dancers safe outside requires the same intentional flooring as you have in the studio—but it also needs to be hearty enough to withstand the weather. With so many factors to consider, two ballet companies consulted with Harlequin Floors to find the perfect floor for their unique circumstances.

Last fall, Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre invested in a mobile stage that allowed the dancers to perform live for socially distanced audiences. "But we didn't have an outdoor resilient floor, so we quickly realized that if we had any rain, we were going to be in big trouble—it would have rotted," says artistic director Susan Jaffe.

The company purchased the lightweight, waterproof Harlequin's AeroDeck® sprung floor panels and the heavy-duty Harlequin Cascade™ vinyl, which is manufactured with BioCote® Antimicrobial Protection to help with the prevention of bacteria and mold. After an indoor test run while filming Nutcracker ("It felt exactly like our regular floor," says Jaffe), the company will debut the new setup this May in Pittsburgh's Schenley Park during a two-week series of performances shared with other local arts organizations.

Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre's Open Air Series last fall. The company plans to roll out their new Harlequin AeroDeck® sprung floor panels and Harlequin Cascade™ vinyl floor for more outdoor performances this spring.

Harris Ferris, Courtesy Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre

In addition to the possibility of rain, a range of temperatures also has to be taken into account. When the State Ballet of Rhode Island received a grant from the state to upgrade its 15-year-old stage, executive director Ana Fox chose the Harlequin Cascade vinyl floor in the lighter gray color "so that it would be cooler if it's reflecting sunlight during daytime performances," she says.

However, for the civic ballet company's first performance on its new 24-by-48–foot stage on November 22, heat was less of a concern than the Northeastern cold. Fortunately, Fox says the surface never got icy or too stiff. "It felt warm to the feel," she says. "You could see the dancers didn't hesitate to run or step into arabesque." (The Harlequin Cascade floor is known for providing a good grip.)

"To have a safe floor for dancers not to worry about shin splints or something of that nature, that's everything," she says. "The dancers have to feel secure."

State Ballet of Rhode Island first rolled out their new Harlequin Cascade™ flooring for an outdoor performance last November.

Courtesy of Harlequin

Of course, the elements need to be considered even when dancers aren't actively performing. Although Harlequin's AeroDeck is waterproof, both PBT and SBRI have tarps to cover their stages to keep any water out. SBRI also does damp mopping before performances to get pollen off the surface. Additionally, the company is building a shed to safely store the floor long-term when it's not in use. "Of course, it's heavy, but laying down the floor and putting it away was not an issue at all," says Fox, adding that both were easy to accomplish with a crew of four people.

Since the Harlequin Cascade surface is versatile enough to support a wide range of dance styles—and even opera and theater sets—both PBT and SBRI are partnering with other local arts organizations to put their outdoor stages to use as much as possible. Because audiences are hungry for art right now.

"In September, I made our outdoor performance shorter so we wouldn't have to worry about intermission or bathrooms, but when it was over, they just sat there," says Jaffe, with a laugh. "People were so grateful and so happy to see us perform. We just got an overwhelming response of love and gratitude."

Marisa Grywalski and Alejandro Diaz in Susan Jaffes "Carmina Terra," part of PBT's Open Air Series last fall.

Kelly Perkovich, courtesy Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre

February 2021