New ballet co. in town

April 15, 2009
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IBJ reporter Kathleen McLaughlin chimes in with an update on efforts to launch a new Indianapolis ballet company:


The potential launch of a new ballet company certainly has piqued the curiosity of arts supporters – and competitors.

Local arts backers Bob Hesse and Jane Fortune appeared at the Omni Severin Hotel downtown this afternoon to introduce an artistic director and talk about what few details are available on their proposed Indianapolis City Ballet.

Longtime life partners, Hesse and Fortune are the chairman and vice chairwoman of the newly formed ballet company. They’ve hired John Meehan, who most recently was artistic director of the Hong Kong Ballet, to put together a "gala" event on Sept. 12 at the Murat Theatre.

Hesse was the first to admit that he and Fortune are still testing the waters. "If Indianapolis responds, we will go on and take the next step," he said. "If not, you’ll see a great performance."

Hesse would not say how much money has been raised to form a new company, but he said the budget for the gala event is less than $300,000.

Meehan flew in from New York for meetings this week. His contract so far covers only putting together the gala event, which is supposed to include internationally known dancers.

If the gala is successful, Indianapolis City Ballet will hire a regular ensemble of a dozen dancers and slowly build up a schedule of performances. "I would be surprised if we launch this fall," Meehan said.

The press conference drew other arts managers, including Jan Virgin of Dance Kaleidoscope and John Pickett, executive director of the Indianapolis Opera, as well as Russ Smith, executive director of the Indiana Ballet Co.

Smith’s wife, Alyona Yakovleva, is the company’s artistic director and head of the affiliated Russian Ballet Academy of Indiana. She taught for the Clara R. Noyes Academy of Ballet Internationale, the dance company that folded suddenly in late 2005 after 32 years.

Ballet Internationale’s failure has affected the way both fledgling companies operate. Smith said it’s difficult to raise money from Ballet Internationale’s former supporters. "For three years, I have been fighting [the idea] that ballet is bad business in Indianapolis," he said. "We know a $3 million, $2 million budget is out of the question."

Indiana Ballet Co. has received small grants from arts backers, however, and the affiliated dance school is the key to its business model. The small company hires only dancers who also can teach.

Hesse also wants to distance himself from Ballet Internationale. "I believe there is not much of a future for regional ballet companies. I’m talking about 30- or 40-member troupes that can probably survive but not grow," he said.

Hesse, who was executive director of Chicago’s Joffrey Ballet in the 1980s, envisions hiring a dozen dancers, who can launch shows in Indianapolis, then take them on the road with very little overhead.

"We don’t want any trucks. We don’t want sets. With today’s technology we can do it with lighting, and we can do it superbly," he said.

Hesse acknowledged the existing professional company, but he was dismissive of the focus on teaching. "Dancers love to dance. One of the problems with regional ballet, they only get to dance 12 times a year, maybe 15."

Without a budget, it was difficult for Meehan to say what level of dancers he might contract, or for how long. He said he envisioned hiring dancers who also work for other companies.

Meehan is teaching at Vassar College in New York this fall and will remain in New York. He said he would expect Indianapolis City Ballet to gradually expand its presence here until it is a resident company. He hopes to eventually hire his own replacement, who could live in Indianapolis.

Pickett told Hesse that building an audience for classical arts in Indianapolis is difficult, but he welcomed the effort.

Hesse and Fortune will have some help from fund-raising heavyweights. The chairwoman of the gala event is Mary Levin, wife of Barnes & Thornburg managing partner Alan Levin.

[Note: In my haste to post this update, I mistaken stated Alyona Yakovleva’s role with Ballet Internationale. Thanks to a reader for pointing out the error. Starting in 2001, Yakovleva taught for the Clara R. Noyes Academy of Ballet Internationale. The blog has been changed to reflect that fact.--K.M.]

 Your thoughts?

  • I am glad to see so much attention to the arts. I just wonder why Mr. Hesse and Ms. Fortune are competing for the same funding as the Indiana Ballet Company? Why not support the ballet company that Indianapolis already has? That $300,000 for one gala could have made a significant impact on the existing ballet company and academy. This seems to be sort of a slap in the face to the dedication and efforts that those dancers are already contributing to our community. Why not better fund the existing ballet academy so that they can hire more teachers and in turn allow the existing ballet company dancers to dance more? The recession is making it so challenging for non profits - especially the arts - right now. Why cannibalize what little funding is available. A $300,000 gala during the worst recession since the great depression - all to test the waters for a second Indianapolis ballet company when the first is probably having funding issues. Wow. Sounds like it is the artists who lose here.
  • Arts Supporter (above),
    Please identify your connection with the academy.
  • Lou,
    If you find out who the arts supporter is, let me know I probably need to hire them. They seem to have a good head for art matters. oh and Kathleen great coverage,,,but, Alyona started teaching and danced with BI in 2002, August. Ask the Husband,hehe.
  • Clarification on what I said at the press conference. I believe that dance is one of the toughest sells in the arts. Ballet and Modern dance are important, very important, parts of a great city's cultural portfolio. Audiences for classical music, opera and dance are growing but it takes a lot of consistent work, education and exciting programming. We are all in this together and must support and help the growth of these important efforts.
  • I agree with John, He is absolutely the man to talk to when putting funding where it needs to go in a city’s arts and he makes honest efforts to collaborate across Indy. He has made the Opera a great event to go to. Indy has to have the flavor of an international city if we want corporations to move their HQ's or even parts of their operations here. They have to hire quality employees and if the area is not culturally rich enough forget about looking like an international competitor. So, bottom line what does Indiana Ballet Company (IBC) say about the Indianapolis City Ballet (ICB), more power too them, they are bringing arts awareness into the media if nothing else. Some people didn't know we (IBC) existed. Now they do. We are going to do what we set out to do and that is give Indianapolis excellence in ballet and excellence in ballet education. They are going to do what they set out to do. Yes everyone competes for the same money in philanthropy Jan Virgin, John Pickett, Steven Stolen, Simon Crookall, I and others all go after the same donors and business but we respect each others bounderies and what each one has to offer our citizens. Alyona, our AD, loves our IO; she hates it when we can't see them. I get abused if we miss Symphony on the Prairie, and we enjoy DK and IRT. What a special town we have. I introduced her to Baseball – Go Indians! She adores Jeff Saturday (I am jealous of his blue eyes) and the Mannings. The year is not complete without the Ice. And there is so much more, I could just go on and on. I am sure John P. is agreeing with me right now about the length of my conversations. ;) And hey, we all talk on Lou's Blog.

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