New ballet co. in town

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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.]

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