Surviving & Thriving

In the fall of 2008, during the early rumblings of the recession, Parsons Dance Company’s board of directors sat around a table discussing the choreographer’s first evening-length work. It was a collaboration with East Village Opera Company called Remember Me. “We kind of all stared at ourselves and said, ‘We’re looking at going forward with the biggest, most ambitious, most expensive initiative ever undertaken by Parsons Dance just as the economy appears to be on the brink of tanking—what are we doing?’ ” recalls executive director David Harrison. “It was at that point that as an organization we made what I believe was the right decision, but also a very courageous decision. We said we’re going to stay on mission.” In other words, they decided the show must go on.

 

Like arts organizations across the country, dance companies suffered a crippling blow when the financial crisis hit. Many are still struggling to stay afloat in what has proven to be the longest economic downturn since the Great Depression. But despite the hardships they faced, some dance troupes managed to weather the storm. They did so by reaffirming their creative integrity and seeking out new ways to sustain it. Whether their success stemmed from taking a calculated risk, making a miraculous turnaround, or just persevering through dire straits, these companies represent the resilience of the art form.

 

In the case of Parsons Dance, the path to a firm financial future was paved by the board’s Remember Me gamble. After green-lighting the costly rock opera, the modern company set a fundraising record for the 2009 fiscal year that paid for the production’s two seasons in New York City, a domestic tour, and the taping of a Public Television special. “When you can look a donor in the eye and say, ‘If you will help us, we can put this show on national television and reach thousands, maybe millions of new audiences and have a DVD to establish its legacy’—people couldn’t wait to help,” Harrison says.

 

Contributions didn’t continue at that dramatic level for long, but donations by individuals have increased 171 percent over the past four years. Harrison credits Parsons’ recent success in fundraising to the new “Campaign for Creation,” intended to cover artistic expenses like studio time, dancers’ salaries, costumes, and lighting design—as opposed to overhead costs. “People want to feel like they’re part of the creative process,” he says. Patrons can even co-commission new works at lower amounts. This helped pay for two of the three world premieres the troupe debuted at the Joyce Theater in January.

 

Sometimes the removal of a key artistic element spurs supporters to action. That’s what happened when Miami City Ballet resorted to canceling its orchestra in 2008 due to a lack of funds. The company performed without musicians in the pit for almost two years—until it was awarded a $900,000 Knight Arts Challenge Grant from the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation. But the money came with a catch: The company had to raise half of the award amount itself. Arts philanthropists stepped up to the plate, pledging enough matching gifts to secure live accompaniment for the dancers through 2013.

 

The recession forced some companies to make an even more impassioned plea to the public. In May of 2009, Oregon Ballet Theatre revealed that unless they came up with $750,000 in a month they would likely have to close their doors for good. The company’s precarious financial state resulted from both the bad economy and bad luck: Donations declined 50 percent after the economic collapse, and ticket sales for the prior year’s Nutcracker were devastated by the worst snowstorm in the history of the state.

 

Their lifesaver was a massive fundraising event called Dance United. In just three weeks, artistic director Christopher Stowell put together a gala performance with leading dancers throughout the nation that helped them net $900,000. The galvanizing effort ensured the company’s survival, but it also prompted a series of scalebacks aimed at longevity. The following season Oregon Ballet reduced their administrative staff, staggered performers’ work weeks, and forfeited the orchestra (all of which they are no longer doing). “I believe that collectively people understood the necessity,” says Stowell. “It was painful though.” Stowell also showcased existing repertory rather than invest in new works.

 

As a result of these cost-cutting measures, OBT trimmed its budget by 28 percent and ended the last fiscal year with a slight surplus. “We’re not out of the woods yet. I’m not sure we’ll ever be out of the woods,” says executive director Diane Syrcle. “But we’re well on our way to becoming—and sustaining—a healthy dance organization.” In June of 2010, a year after Dance United, the company reprised the event but on different terms. “It was a celebration this time and not a cry for help,” Stowell says.

 

The triumph of Dance United inspired similar ventures. After conferring with Stowell and others at OBT, Garrett Ammon, the artistic director of Ballet Nouveau Colorado, organized a Moving Together gala last summer to benefit his small troupe based outside of Denver. Again dancers from far and wide participated. “What a huge and humbling thing it was to see that kind of generosity from throughout the dance community,” Ammon says. Ticket sales bolstered finances, he adds, but mostly the performance raised awareness. “It helped get the word out about where we were. It was very grassroots in how it was achieved.” Ballet Nouveau Colorado also tightened the purse strings. One of the company’s 12 dancers left and was not replaced; the number of performances was reduced; senior staff members, including Ammon and his wife, associate artistic director Dawn Fay, took pay cuts; and cuts were made in all areas, including delaying upgrades to office computers and marley floors in the school.

 

With philanthropy down, some groups turned their attention to earning extra revenue. Since Chicago is a major corporate headquarters, roughly $2 million of Joffrey Ballet’s budget comes from corporate donations. When that number dropped by half due to the dismal economy, the classical troupe explored ways to grow their income so they’d be less reliant on contributions. They now have a large merchandising business—on site, online, and on tour—and have begun renting their studios for weddings. “I think you have to have an entrepreneurial culture in the organization,” says executive director Christopher Clinton Conway.

 

Equally important with a volatile market is saving money. Last August, the Joffrey offered a three-ticket package at 61 percent off on Groupon.com. It was the first time a dance company had been featured on the popular discount website, and they increased their subscriber base by a whopping 50 percent. The organization typically shells out $300 to $500 to obtain each new subscriber, notes Conway, which “means that the cost for us to have acquired those 2,500 people could have been well over a million dollars.” After analyzing the Groupon data, the Joffrey found they’d attracted a fresh audience: Less than 2 percent had previously attended a performance. Conway hopes to renew the majority.

 

Some companies benefited from having a bare-bones business model to begin with. The 10-dancer Aspen Santa Fe Ballet employs only five full-time administrative staff members and operates on a modest budget of $3.2 million. “We don’t have a wardrobe person. We don’t have a company manager,” says executive director Jean-Philippe Malaty. “Those are some of the sacrifices we made to put the dancers first.” As a result, there was no one to lay off and no fiscal fat to trim when the economy unexpectedly plummeted.

 

Instead, ASFB responded proactively. “Our ticket sales went down 20 percent,” says Malaty. “What did we do? Most people cut back; we added some performances.” Since the company has two bases, both populated largely by tourists and second-home owners, it was able to produce an encore in each town six weeks after the original program and capture a new crowd at little additional cost. The dancers have a 52-week contract, so they were available, and there weren’t season subscriptions or extensive marketing materials to worry about since the troupe has never had those. “Where our focus turned, more than to the bottom line and the bank accounts, was how to not lose our artistic value,” Malaty says.

 

At the end of the day, the saving grace of all these companies was resourcefulness and tenacity. Ballet Nouveau Colorado’s Ammon puts it best: “Is it tight? Sure. Is it gonna be tight for a while? Yeah. But if we can get through this period, we can get through anything. It’s a test of ourselves and our belief in our art.”

 

Elaine Stuart has written about dance for The Wall Street Journal and Time Out New York Kids.

 

The Joffrey Ballet in Jessica Lang's Crossed. Photo by Hergert Migdoll, Courtesy Joffrey

The Conversation
Dancers Trending
Hamrick rehearsing Port Rouge in St. Petersburg. Photo courtesy Hamrick

Choosing music for your first-ever choreography commission can feel daunting enough. But when you're asked to create a ballet using the vast discography of the Rolling Stones—and you happen to be dating Stones frontman Mick Jagger—the stakes are even higher.

So it's understandable that as of Monday, American Ballet Theatre corps de ballet dancer Melanie Hamrick, whose Port Rouge will have its U.S. premiere tonight at the Youth America Grand Prix gala, was still torn about which songs to include.

Keep reading... Show less
Hive by Boston Conservatory student Alyssa Markowitz. Photo by Jim Coleman

The way we create and consume dance is changing every day. Now more than ever, the field demands that dancers not only be able to perform at the highest level, but also collaborate with choreographers to bring their artistic visions to life. Dancers who miss out on choreographic training may very well find themselves at a disadvantage as they try to launch their careers.

Keep reading... Show less
Advice for Dancers
Photo by freestocks.org/Unsplash

What is an acceptable request from a choreographer in terms of nudity? On the first day of shooting All That Jazz in the 1970s, Bob Fosse asked us men to remove everything but our jock straps and the women to remove their tops. His rationale was to shock us in order to build character, and it felt disloyal to refuse. Would this behavior be considered okay today?

—Anonymous

Keep reading... Show less
Career Advice
Stephen Mills' Grimm Tales, which premiered last month, is the first ballet funded by the Butler New Choreography Endowment. Photo by Anne Marie Bloodgood, Courtesy Ballet Austin

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?

Keep reading... Show less
Sponsored by McCallum Theatre
Last year's winner: Manuel Vignoulle's EARTH. Jack Hartin Photography, Courtesy McCallum Theatre

It's not often that a promising choreographer gets to stage work in a world-class theater, on a skillfully-curated program with professional dancers, and with the possibility of winning a substantial cash prize. But at the McCallum Theatre's Palm Desert Choreography Festival, that's been the status quo for over twenty years.

Since Shea New, the festival's artistic director, founded the festival in 1998, she's worked tirelessly with McCallum's director of education and festival producer, Kajsa Thuresson-Frary, and stage manager and festival production manager Joanna Fookes to build a festival that nurtures choreographers, highlights high quality work, powerfully engages the local community and cultivates an audience base for dance in the Coachella Valley. The trio is backed by a strong team of professionals at McCallum and the brilliant volunteers from the local and national level who serve as adjudicators.

Keep reading... Show less
Dance History
Merce Cunningham in his Changeling (1957). Photo courtesy DM Archives

Today—April 16, 2019—marks what would have been Merce Cunningham's 100th birthday. As dancers from Los Angeles to New York City to London gear up for Night of 100 Solos (the marathon performance event being livestreamed today), and as companies and presenters worldwide continue to celebrate the Cunningham Centennial through their programming, we searched through the Dance Magazine Archives to unearth our favorite images of the groundbreaking dancemaker.

Courtesy DM Archives

Dance in Pop Culture
Courtesy MPRM Communications

A bright disposition with a dab of astringent charm is how I remember Brock Hayhoe, a National Ballet School of Canada schoolmate. Because we were a couple years apart, we barely brushed shoulders, except at the odd Toronto dance party where we could dance all night with mutual friends letting our inhibitions subside through the music. Dancing always allows a deeper look.

But, as my late great ballet teacher Pyotr Pestov told me when I interviewed him for Dance Magazine in 2009, "You never know what a flower is going to look like until it opens up."

Keep reading... Show less
News
A 1952 photograph of Merce Cunningham in Sixteen Dances for Soloist and Company of Three. Photo by Gerda Peterich, Courtesy Blake Zidell & Associates

One night. Three cities. Seventy-five dancers. And three unique sets of 100 solos, all choreographed by Merce Cunningham.

This incredible evening of dance will honor Cunningham's 100th birthday on April 16. The Merce Cunningham Trust has teamed up with The Barbican in London, the Brooklyn Academy of Music in New York City and the Center for the Art of Performance in Los Angeles for a tri-city celebration.

The best part? You don't have to be in those cities to watch—Night of 100 Solos is being live-streamed in its entirety for free.

Keep reading... Show less
The Creative Process
George Balanchine's Don Quixote. Photo by Martha Swope ©The New York Public Library for the Performing Arts

When George Balanchine's full-length Don Quixote premiered in 1965, critics and audiences alike viewed the ballet as a failure. Elaborate scenery and costumes framed mawkish mime passages, like one in which the ballerina washed the Don's feet and dried them with her hair. Its revival in 2005 by Suzanne Farrell, the ballerina on whom it was made and to whom Balanchine left the work, did little to alter its reputation.

Yet at New York City Center's Balanchine festival last fall, some regretted its absence.

"I'd want to see Balanchine's Don Quixote," says Apollinaire Scherr, dance critic for the Financial Times. "It was a labor of love on his part, and a love letter as well. And you want to know what that looks like in his work."

Even great choreographers make mistakes. Sometimes they fail on a grand scale, like Don Quixote; other times it may be a minor misstep. Experiment and risk help choreographers grow, but what happens when a choreographer of stature misfires? Should the work remain in the repertory? And what about a work that fails on some levels but not others?

Keep reading... Show less
News
Sarah Lane will perform in one of the "You Are Us" benefit concerts. Photo by Erin Baiano, Courtesy ABT

After the horrific March 15 terrorist attacks at two New Zealand mosques, the music and arts community sprang into action to plan a way to help victims and their families. A series of resulting concerts, titled "You Are Us/Aroha Nui," will take place in New Zealand (April 13 and 17), Jersey City, New Jersey (April 17) and Los Angeles (April 18). Proceeds from ticket sales will be donated to the Our People, Our City Fund, which was established by the Christchurch Foundation to aid those affected by the attacks.

Keep reading... Show less
News
Malpaso Dance Company in Cunningham's Fielding Sixes. Photo by Nir Ariel, Courtesy Richard Kornberg & Associates

Throughout 2019, the Merce Cunningham Trust continues a global celebration that will be one of the largest tributes to a dance artist ever. Under the umbrella of the Merce Cunningham Centennial are classes and workshops, film screenings and festivals, art exhibitions and symposia, and revivals and premieres of original works inspired by the dancemaker's ideas. The fever peaks on April 16, which would have been the pioneering choreographer's 100th birthday, with Night of 100 Solos: A Centennial Event, featuring a total of 75 dancers in three performances live-streamed from London, Los Angeles and New York City.

Keep reading... Show less
Career Advice
Tan Li Min working with Queensland Ballet dancer Lou Spichtig. Photo by Jovian Lim, Courtesy Cloud & Victory

Cloud & Victory gets dancers. The dancewear brand's social media drools over Roberto Bolle's abs, sets classical variations to Beyoncé and moans over Mondays and long adagios. And it all comes from the mind of founder Tan Li Min, the boss lady who takes on everything from designs to inventory to shipping orders.

Known simply (and affectionately) to the brand's 41K Instagram followers as Min, she's used her wry, winking sense of humor to give the Singapore-based C&V international cachet.

She recently spoke with Dance Magazine about building the brand, overcoming insecurity and using pizza as inspiration.

Keep reading... Show less
News
Alia Kache in rehearsal with Ballet Memphis. Photo by Louis Tucker, Courtesy Ballet Memphis

The Ballet Memphis New American Dance Residency, which welcomes selected choreographers for its inaugural iteration next week, goes a step beyond granting space, time and dancers for the development of new work.

Keep reading... Show less
News
Maddie Ziegler will play one of the Jets. (photo by Lucas Chilczuk)

This is huge news, so we'll get straight to it:

We now (finally!) know who'll be appearing onscreen alongside Ariana DeBose and the other previously announced leads in Steven Spielberg's remake of West Side Story, choreographed by Justin Peck. Unsurprisingly, the Sharks/Jets cast list includes some of the best dancers in the industry.

Keep reading... Show less
Cover Story
Courtesy Khoreva

The pleasure of watching prodigies perform technical feats on Instagram can be tinged with a sense of trepidation. Impressive tricks, you think, but do they have what it takes for an actual career?

Just look at 18-year-old Maria Khoreva, who has more followers than most seasoned principals; in videos, her lines and attention to detail suggested a precocious talent, and led to a Nike ambassador contract before she even graduated from the Vaganova Ballet Academy. Still, when she joined the Mariinsky Ballet last summer, there was no guarantee any of it would translate to stage prowess.

Keep reading... Show less
25 to Watch
Photo credits, clockwise from bottom left: Peter Mueller, Courtesy Cincinnati Ballet; Jayme Thornton; Jochen Viehoff, Courtesy Stephanie Troyak; Karolina Kuras, Courtesy National Ballet of Canada; Natasha Razina, Courtesy State Academic Mariinsky Theatre; Kim Kenney, Courtesy Atlanta Ballet; Jim Lafferty; Arian Molina Soca, Courtesy Pennsylvania Ballet; Altin Kaftira, Courtesy Dutch National Ballet; Scott Shaw, Courtesy Shamar Wayne Watt

What's next for the dance world? Our annual list of the dancers, choreographers and companies that are on the verge of skyrocketing has a pretty excellent track record of answering that question.

Here they are: the 25 up-and-coming artists we believe represent the future of our field.

Keep reading... Show less
News
Youth America Grand Prix alumna Michaela DePrince. Photo by VAM, Courtesy YAGP

Since its inception in 1999, Youth America Grand Prix has grown to have an outsize impact on the ballet world, with more than 450 alumni now dancing with 80 companies across the globe.

Keep reading... Show less
Dancers Trending
Jesse Obremski captivates as a freelancer for many NYC–based troupes. Photo by Roi Lemayh, Courtesy Gibney Dance Company

At six feet tall, Jesse Obremski dances as though he's investigating each movement for the first time. His quiet transitional moments are as astounding as his long lines, bounding jumps and seamless floorwork. Add in his versatility and work ethic, and it's clear why he's an invaluable asset to New York City choreographers. Currently a freelance artist with multiple contemporary groups, including Gibney Dance Company and Limón Dance Company, Obremski also choreographs for his recently formed troupe, Obremski/Works.

Keep reading... Show less
News
Photo by @FullOutCreative

Last night at Parsons Dance's 2019 gala, the company celebrated one of our own: DanceMedia owner Frederic M. Seegal.

In a speech, artistic director David Parsons said that he wanted to honor Seegal for the way he devotes his energy to supporting premier art organizations, "making sure that the arts are part of who we are," he said.

Keep reading... Show less
Advice for Dancers
Getty Images

I've been on a crying jag since I sprained my ankle for the third time. It kills me that I can't dance my favorite roles. I'm also disgusted with myself for being a crybaby.

—Maggy, Philadelphia, PA

Keep reading... Show less
Dance in Pop Culture
Michael Parmalee/FX

It's a bit of an understatement to say that Bob Fosse was challenging to work with. He was irritable, inappropriate and often clashed with his collaborators in front of all his dancers. Fosse/Verdon, which premieres on FX tonight, doesn't sugarcoat any of this.

But for Sasha Hutchings, who danced in the first episode's rendition of "Big Spender," the mood on set was quite opposite from the one that Fosse created. Hutchings had already worked with choreographer Andy Blankenbuehler, who she calls "a dancer's dream," director Tommy Kail and music director Alex Lacamoire as a original cast member in Hamilton, and she says the collaborators' calm energy made the experience a pleasant one for the dancers.

"Television can be really stressful," she says. "There's so many moving parts and everyone has to work in sync. With Tommy, Andy and Lac I never felt the stress of that as a performer."

Keep reading... Show less

mailbox

Get Dance Magazine in your inbox