Dance and Arts & Entertainment, etc. and Indianapolis Ballet and Performing Arts

Cincinnati ballet troupe might open regional office here

September 24, 2007

Ever since Indianapolis' 32-year-old ballet packed up its pointe shoes in 2005, there's been talk about whether a regional ballet company might be the way to keep the art alive in the city.

Now, the Cincinnati Ballet is taking an exploratory step toward that, announcing plans to stage a six-show "Nutcracker" production here this December.

The idea of a collaboration--where the two cities would share production and administration expenses--has elicited mixed response. Some ballet enthusiasts are supportive, while others believe Indianapolis could "do better," according to a study conducted for the Arts Council of Indianapolis.

Indianapolis' Ballet Internationale struggled for years to fund its roughly $3.5 million annual budget. In late 2005, board members gave up the fight, shutting down the company in the face of $1 million in debt.

The possibility of partnering with Cincinnati Ballet was floated immediately. Its board chairman hired consultant John Zurick to look into it, and the Arts Council commissioned a market study.

Cincinnati Ballet spent 18 months trying to get Indianapolis donors on board before deciding to bring "The Nutcracker" to town. Leaders hope to decide by the end of this year whether to pursue a regional company.

Whether Indianapolis embraces the effort remains to be seen.

Can we share?

Under the version of a regional ballet now being bandied about, dancers likely would be based in Cincinnati. Indianapolis would have a satellite administrative office with a regional manager, marketing person and secretary, said Zurick, a former executive director of the Cincinnati Ballet. His company, Cincinnati-based ZQI Inc., also consulted for Ballet Internationale until 2003.

Indianapolis wants a full-time professional ballet company, he said, but those who backed the failed Ballet Internationale are hesitant to get back into the game and there isn't the energy to start a company from scratch.

"Ballet is a tough business if you're already in it," he said. "As a startup, it's even tougher."

In its final year, Ballet Internationale had $2 million in revenue and spent nearly $3.5 million. Cincinnati Ballet has a $5.8 million budget for the upcoming season and backers would need to raise another $2 million to launch and support a full run in Indianapolis.

The cost sharing would help keep the potentially renamed company financially sound, Zurick said. For the idea to work, though, Indianapolis backers would have to feel like the city got more than a traveling show.

"It can't be a company that comes in from out of town [for a production] and then goes away again for three months," he said. "We recognize that is one of the key challenges of this model."

For Cincinnati, a second market means more revenue--but also more expenses. During its 2005-2006 season, the company spent nearly $6 million, covering a $540,000 operating deficit by drawing from the more than $4.5 million it has in assets.

Adding shows also could improve the company, since dancers often weigh job offers based on the number of performances a company can offer.

"It's a better experience for the artist who can grow more with more time spent in front of audiences," Zurick said. Dancers often would even take a pay cut to perform with a ballet that has more productions, he said.

Usually, host cities pay a fee to attract touring productions. But Cincinnati is covering the nearly $400,000 cost to perform its version of "The Nutcracker" at the Murat Theatre. The Indianapolis Foundation has pitched in $5,000 to help defray costs and the ballet has applied for additional support from the Clara Noyes Foundation, which is overseen by the Central Indiana Community Foundation.

"Our goal is to break even," said Cincinnati Ballet Executive Director Paul Kaine.

The regional ballet idea has inspired some local ballet backers such as Mary V. Paul, who formerly served on the Ballet Internationale board.

"Two brains are always better than one," she said. "But is the city smart enough to figure out that this is something that can be shared even if it's not based here?"

The Arts Council is supportive of any effort to give ballet a boost in Indianapolis, but raising $2 million a year will be tough, said President Greg Charleston.

"All the groups [trying to do ballet in Indianapolis] recognize that it's a challenge or it would have happened already," he said. "We've seen major donors who get behind specific efforts, but there's not one lined up for ballet yet."

Outside invasion

Others say Indianapolis once supported its own professional ballet company with locally based dancers and should settle for nothing less.

"Barriers include the perception of not being 'home-grown' [no sense of ownership] and therefore, not connected to the community," the Arts Council's market study found.

Given the lack of a local big-dollar ballet champion, some respondents also questioned whether the timing was right to launch a regional ballet concept.

Others bristle at the talk of relaunching professional ballet, saying the city already has a professional company--The Indiana Ballet Co., which was founded in 2006 and is associated with the Russian Ballet Academy of Indiana.

Academy teachers are paid separate performance fees to be the principal dancers at the company's four annual productions. Before going under, Ballet Internationale also did four productions per year; Cincinnati Ballet has six productions lined up for the 2007-2008 season.

The fledgling IBC is partnering with the Cincinnati Ballet for its local production, but it also is staging its own version of "The Nutcracker"--despite two overlapping dates. IBC students--not instructors--will dance in the Cincinnati production.

When Cincinnati announced its local "Nutcracker" performance, officials mentioned the academy, but not IBC. That leaves one Indiana Ballet Co. volunteer to wonder if Cincinnati really wants a partnership.

"The Cincinnati Ballet kind of pretends that [IBC] doesn't exist," said Leah B. Oblak. "They want our students, but they don't want our teachers."

Oblak said the company has fought to overcome the bad taste Ballet Internationale's collapse left with some donors and struggles to pay dancers. She's doubtful Cincinnati would offer an equal partnership; instead, it would just be another game in town hitting up the same donors.

"We're all asking for money out of the same pockets," she said.

IBC runs on a $450,000 annual budget, Executive Director Russ Smith said, and would like to get up to $1.2 million. He's happy to have Cincinnati Ballet productions in town because it means more performance opportunities for students, but he still wants the local company to succeed.

"We're not isolationists," Smith said. "We're just rooting for the home team."

A fork in the road:

To jete or not to jete


Regional-ballet backers point to the success of Miami City Ballet, which performs in four South Florida counties. It has served multiple cities since starting in 1985, and the diverse markets have helped it become a powerhouse with 55 dancers and a $12 million annual budget.

Each market has its own representative and attendance doesn't overlap the markets though they're in close proximity, said spokeswoman Nicolle Ugarriza.

"Southern Florida is very balkanized," she said.

Other collaborations haven't fared so well. A partnership between Cleveland and San Jose, Calif., failed, as did one between Tulsa, Okla., and Knoxville, Tenn. Even cities that are closer together can struggle to make it work.

It's a tough balancing act, said Jack R. Lemmon, executive director of the Louisville Ballet. Lemmon worked with two-city models in several previous posts.

"If a second city is putting in substantial resources, then [its leaders] have to have a substantial say and that can be scary," he said. "Where the idea has worked is where the community leadership merges and there's been a reasonable balance."

Louisville also has looked into staging its productions in Indianapolis, but Lemmon said the cost is prohibitive. For now, it's taking a more cautious approach by continuing to partner on educational opportunities with Butler University's dance department, but stopping short of staging productions here.

Eventually, Lemmon said, local ballet lovers must either get over Ballet Internationale's collapse and fork over the cash to sustain an expanded company of locally based dancers, pay the $2 million needed to get a regional ballet off the ground, or do nothing.

"Indianapolis is going to have to decide what it wants," he said.

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