What Does it Mean to Have a "Sponsor"?

May 29, 2017

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.”