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Midsized Companies Closing


chauffeur

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I'm still a relatively new observer of the overall dance scene, but I can't help but notice that in the last year, at least in the US, there's been a lot of what I could consider mid-sized companies closing or faltering. Off the top of my head, I'm thinking of Oakland, Ballet Internationale, Ohio, Ballet Pacifica, and now Augusta. I'm sure there are others.

Is this part of a normal growth cycle in the dance industry? I know in most other industries, growth is followed by shrinking which is followed by growth, and it just goes around and around through the decades. Has this occurred before in dance? And if so, what are we left with when this particular shrinking phase is over?

Or is this really new and different, perhaps signaling a serious and permanent downsizing of the field? Is dance, and classical dance in particular, evolving into something that will appeal to only an even smaller audience and probably then only in major cities?

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A sad topic, chauffeur. You raise some interesting questions, and I hope that people more familiar with ballet companies than I am can help us understand a bit more.

It's particularly sad to think about the closing of these companies in the context of the recent Youth America Grand Prix Competeition in New York City. So many brilliant young dancers -- with fewer and fewer opportunities to have meaningful careers in this country.

What IS going on? And what does it imply for the future of ballet in the US?

_____________________

P.S.:

Thanks to vagansmom to pointing out that BT4D has information (originally posted by Hermes) about problems that have led to the cancellation of next season by the board of the Augusta Ballet - with the dancers, as seems often to be the case, to be among the last to learn that they had no jobs for next season. Here's a LINK posted by Hermes. You must register with the newspaper to get access.

http://chronicle.augusta.com/stories/041906/met_78062.shtml

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I think it's a symptom of the greater economy. There have been so many industrial and commercial companies closing, laying off their employees, "outsourcing" and "downsizing". The real estate market is expected to hit a wall, and people everywhere are losing their homes because they can no longer afford their mortgages. Many corporations have gone to "Independent Contractors" for normal everyday jobs that used to be considered fulltime with benefits.

Needless to say, it is a shame.

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Does anyone have any predictions for the future of ballet companies based on what has happened in the past? Because surely it can't go on like this much longer? I mean if it keeps going on like this, who knows what will happen! I wish that someone would recognize that the arts need more funding and send a little money our way, but que sera!

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I'm afraid I'm also turning into a pessimist. The economy is in play here, but I think time and change in attitudes is the more culpable factor. People are accustomed to getting their entertainment via portable means on demand (TV and recordings), not to communal, scheduled entertainment. Ballet is looked at (to me, increasingly) as a specialized entertainment - something for little girls at holiday time - and the audience for a robustly classical ballet company is shrinking below the point where a company can be supported in most markets. Maybe this will change again at some point.

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As great as it would be to see public monies spent on bolstering ballet, I just don't see it happening, even in a more liberal political climate in this country. We always have been and probably always will be a culture that largely expects artists to make their own way in the world.

And I do agree, Leigh, that shifting tastes for the arts and entertainment underlie a lot of the decline in audiences and revenues. It seems that many midsized companies are changing their repertoires to suit these changes, heading more in the direction of musical theater even. What will happen to the classical repertoire?

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Ballet is looked at (to me, increasingly) as a specialized entertainment - something for little girls at holiday time - and the audience for a robustly classical ballet company is shrinking below the point where a company can be supported in most markets.

If some companies have to disappear, it might be the time for the survivors to expand their touring. Several companies have regular subscription series in more than one city and have begun to develop a local following in several locations. Miami, with 4 such series, is one example.

This would not solve the problem of declining job opportunities for dancers, but it might allow for longer annual contracts and more actual dancing.

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One of the things that happened following the exuberant bubble of the '70s was the consolidation of some companies into a single one. But, alas, this only forestalled the inevitable.

MCB's regional mini-touring strikes me as a great model. But not all states are like Florida, with population concentrated in a cluster of nearby but separate cities.

Another model might be something along the lines of Britain's Royal, with the "main" company in a home opera house and a "touring company" based in a smaller city but touring the nation regularly. NYCB had planned to branch off a section to tour all 50 states during its 50th anniversary year, but that never came to be, perhaps because of the orchestra stipulation.

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To add to my above thoughts, most markets outside of the top 5-10 nationally don't actually want a ballet company. Their general audience wants a dance company, and they don't particularly care about the genre - in fact, they'd prefer the company did any and all dance from hip-hop to ballet. They're looking to be entertained; they don't really care how.

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To add to my above thoughts, most markets outside of the top 5-10 nationally don't actually want a ballet company. Their general audience wants a dance company, and they don't particularly care about the genre - in fact, they'd prefer the company did any and all dance from hip-hop to ballet. They're looking to be entertained; they don't really care how.
I'll go one step further and say that having no local dance at all except dance school recitals and attending a mixed dance series associated with a performing arts center, theater, or school is preferable because of the variety and because there isn't the financial pressure to support a local company. Modern dance companies live on tour for most of the year, and they perform in any number of these series. When there is a ballet company, that company must compete with an array of dance offerings from Flamenco to hip hop to modern to Riverdance to Stomp to jazz to fusion to ethnic, etc.

In Seattle where there is a thriving ballet company, albeit one that suffered financially post 9/11 and after performing for 18 months in the hockey arena, there are also two other dance series -- University of Washington World Dance and the Seattle Theatre Group Dance Series -- as well as several modern companies, like Spectrum. Touring ballet companies mainly skip Seattle, although STG offers a short visit every few years -- Bolshoi, Mariinsky, National Ballet of Cuba, Lyon Opera Ballet, Dance Theatre of Harlem and ABT since 1994 -- and Eifmann has performed several times at the University of Washington. Berkeley (Cal Performances) got the Mariinsky and Perm Ballet this year alone. (Next year they get Lyon Opera Ballet and Eifmann Ballet.) Still no word from Seattle Theatre Group about next year, but this past year's pickings for dance were slim.

I am green with envy looking at the classical music offerings for the 2006-7 season between Cal Performances and the Vancouver Recital Society, knowing most of them are skipping Seattle on their way from one to another :)

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I know that Leigh's diagnosis comes from a wide experience with ballet around the country. It presents a depressing vision for the future.

What does this imply for all those dance students in our schools -- those who have hopes for a professional career? Not to mention the many already trained dancers who come here from Latin America, Russia, etc.

Why put so much time and effort into ballet training -- other than avocationally -- if there is a declining likelihood of a career?

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Along with the consoidation of dance companies, there has been a consolidation in the business/corporate sectors as well.

Texaco was taken over by Chevron. ChevronTexaco then stopped backing the Met broadcasts.

What happened here was an arts friendly corp. was taken over by a corp. that was not as willing to dedicate the same amt. in their budget.

Foreign corps., from countries whose arts' funding is mostly supplied

by the gov't, don't have the inclination to fund arts programs here, when they buy up a company here.

So globilization will probably spur the demise of more dance and in general more of the performing arts institutions throughout the US. A very sad and dire situation :):):mad:

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Along with the consoidation of dance companies, there has been a consolidation in the business/corporate sectors as well.

Texaco was taken over by Chevron. ChevronTexaco then stopped backing the Met broadcasts.

So globilization will probably spur the demise of more dance and in general more of the performing arts institutions throughout the US. A very sad and dire situation :crying::helpsmilie::mad:

The Met Opera, one of the 900 lb gorillas of the arts institutions in the US, is very, very, (yes one more time), very effective at raising money for whatever purpose. It will be interesting to see what the new GM, Peter Gelb does.

It took them a year or so, but they have a new sponsor for the broadcasts(although initially the Toll Brothers may have signed up for something like a five year committment).

It's my own opinion that arts institutions need to adapt to some of the mechanics for raising money in the 21st Century. Building/revitalizing audiences is critical. I look at ABT's brochures and think , hmmm... they are reaching out to pull in ticket purchasers beyond their core audience.

The institutions that proactively take the steps to try to survice in the harsher financial climate of today will probably be less vulnerable to demise than the ones who rely on the old "rules"

What's really tough are the really tiny companies, though

Richard

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What does this imply for all those dance students in our schools -- those who have hopes for a professional career?

This is a good question, bart, and I think the answer is complicated. For the students at the very top, what this implies is years of uncertainty and insecurity. For the rest, I could be flip and say it implies self-delusion, but I don't think that's entirely accurate. I think they are being sold a bill of goods.

We have a decentralized training system in this country, and each of the many "top" schools has to fill their classes to stay solvent (to say nothing of the myriad second or third tier schools). Clearly, that many students cannot win a job in a professional company, yet they are encouraged to believe they can.

Why put so much time and effort into ballet training -- other than avocationally -- if there is a declining likelihood of a career?

This is even more complicated. I think the answer to this is because we don't have many good models for ballet training in this country that aren't based on the pre-professional one. In other words, if you want to study seriously in this country, you have to follow a pre-professional curriculum. Hang out for a while on our sister site, BT4D, and you will see that the number of classes and hours that are deemed "usual" or "normal" or "required" are quite large. Clearly, that level of training is only going to benefit a very, very small number of dancers, in the sense of who is going to use it to gain professional employment. However, anything less and dancers are looked down on as "recreational" or "not serious". I think the choice to aim a terrific resource like BT4D only at pre-professional dancers is symptomatic of the ballet training atmosphere. Why not instead choose to support and encourage excellent dance training at all levels?

You see it in the nomenclature, too. Look at the many thousands of "pre-professional" dancers attending the many hundreds of summer intensives, which are now de rigeur for almost any serious teenager. Look at RDA's characterizing the 2000 dancers who will attend next year's national festival as "pre-professional". It's just wrong; they aren't all pre-professional, no matter how serious they are. It's like calling every college football player "pre-professional". But it sends a message.

Another part of the story is that ballet training starts so very young, at a time when kids are filled with dreams. Still another part is the ethos, in the US at least, that "you can be anything you want to be, if only you try hard enough." Add in also the current societal push to specialize early and train intensively in ANY chosen pursuit. Put all these things together and it's a pretty volatile mix.

I wish it weren't so. I really wish that we had better, healthier training models. Ones that created more audiences and fewer performers. Isn't there a saying about all chiefs and no indians?

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Clearly, that level of training is only going to benefit a very, very small number of dancers, in the sense of who is going to use it to gain professional employment. However, anything less and dancers are looked down on as "recreational" or "not serious". I think the choice to aim a terrific resource like BT4D only at pre-professional dancers is symptomatic of the ballet training atmosphere. Why not instead choose to support and encourage excellent dance training at all levels?
Ballet Talk for Dancers has a specific mission which is mainly limited to pre-professional training, just as Ballet Talk has a specific mission which is limited to the discussion of classical ballet. A great deal of energy was invested when Ballet Talk (then Ballet Alert!) was founded to try to convince people that limiting scope/mission to a common interest was not intended to comment on any other form of dance, any more than a discussion board dedicated to figure skating is a put down of gymnastics.

The founders and Moderators of BT4D have dedicated their energy to helping students and parents in the pre-professional training sphere (although not exclusively: there is an active adult student ballet forum.) Just as there are other dance boards whose mission is to discuss a wider range of dance, it would be great if people with an interest in non-pre-professional training founded their own online community based around that common interest.

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Treefrog -

You bring up a very good point. Many schools are training disillusioned dancers. Its like the teachers are just as caught up in having a student of theirs go pro as the kids are. Instead of taking a realistic step back and recognizing if its a reality for that specific dancer. And if not, they should encourage them to continue dancing and expressing their love for it, but not "leading them on" so to speak. Because when a dancers dreams are shattered, its harder for them to appreciate the artform that broke their heart. So as a result, you rarely will find those ex-dancers in the audiences. As terrible as it is, the kids should not blame anything for their unsuccessful career. But they should instead find the career path that is best for THEM, and continue their passion for dance as a supporter. Now I know this is a very unrealistic approach, but hopefully in the future, this trend will begin to take effect. And maybe it will grow our audiences, instead of decreasing them!

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I once had an art teacher in college who explained to us why he had let in non-art students (me among them) into his high-level Typography class. He said that he didn't expect us to become designers, but he wanted us to appreciate good design so when we became lawyers or business people, we would automatically look to hire good designers, because the more good designers who could make a living at it and the more good design in the world, the better.

The PNB school has a split between the Professional Division and school training for teenagers. I've seen the students in levels VI-VII (the highest non-Professional grades) perform. While there may be some dancers who are disappointed that they did not qualify for PD, they still continued to train on a parallel track. It's hard to imagine that these students will not continue to support ballet in their later life, having become so accomplished in a difficult discipline.

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Sorry -- when I said

...excellent dance training at all levels
I should have used the word "ballet" in place of "dance."

I stand by my belief that part of the answer to bart's question is that the training system steers student dancers in that direction, and that BT4D's choice to serve a very,very tiny part of the ballet student population is emblematic of that system. Student dancers who see the writing on the wall at an early stage and choose not to follow the pre-professional regime find less support within the system, less encouragement to keep dancing, and fewer resources for excellent training.

Edited to add: Helene, I was composing while you were posting. I'm glad to hear that that PNB maintains an excellent parallel track. I have heard often that the "community" tracks are not as good. And, I will also note that Boston Ballet curtly dismissed our inquiry about classes for college students, saying, "They never keep up with classes. And if they do, they end up dropping out of college." This suggests strongly that the school does not care enough about non-professional students to keep them happy and engaged and learning on the terms that are appropriate to the students .

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Because when a dancers dreams are shattered, its harder for them to appreciate the artform that broke their heart. So as a result, you rarely will find those ex-dancers in the audiences. As terrible as it is, the kids should not blame anything for their unsuccessful career. But they should instead find the career path that is best for THEM, and continue their passion for dance as a supporter. Now I know this is a very unrealistic approach, but hopefully in the future, this trend will begin to take effect. And maybe it will grow our audiences, instead of decreasing them!

Exactly. I think that, in a lot of ways, I haven't been overly susceptible to this as a former ballerina wannabe, because I was always interested in other aspects of the art. Still, for the first year or two I was rather distant to the dance world.

It is so upsetting to see former dance students (my age, college-aged) who claim they can't even watch a dance performance because it stings so much emotionally. What a loss for everyone.

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Because when a dancers dreams are shattered, its harder for them to appreciate the artform that broke their heart. So as a result, you rarely will find those ex-dancers in the audiences.

Luckily, I don't think that's true. Having recently retired from parenting a ballet student (she's now a professional dancer), my 14 years experence watching pre-pro students come and go has shown me that while some students are heartbroken initially when they discover they cannot have a career as a ballet dancer, they do return to the ballet as appreciative and highly knowledgeable audience members. It may take a few years, but the love for ballet that they carried with them through all those training years surfaces again. In fact, I'd say that they're among the most passionately appreciative audience members because, like Helene's art designer example, they're educated in the art. Music is yet another example. Symphony audiences are full of people who grew up playing an instrument and hoping they could have a career in the field. Their lives are forever enriched from the training they received earlier.

But looking back at the original post here, I do think we're in danger of losing classical ballet regionally.

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On one level I think that mid-sized ballet companies face the same challenges that all mid-sized organizations do, no matter their actual art form. Small groups are often lead by a single artist or a small group of committed colleagues, work from project to project and are flexible enough to bend with changes. The attrition rate is huge, but we don't really think of it in that way because we often don't identify them as actual groups -- they are just artists doing art. Financially, much work at this level is directly subsidized by the artists themselves, and much of the rest of it runs under the institutional radar.

It's when the ensemble grows in size or in ambition and tries to become more of an organization with an organizational identity that includes longevity that they enter very dangerous territory. That transition is quite costly, and usually takes longer than anyone anticipated. Less is done on an ad-hoc basis, time needs to be spent just maintaining the identity of the organization (rather than working specifically on art). If they haven't already incorporated they certainly need to at this point -- this is where institution-building gets thick.

I don't have statistics on this, but from watching the process over the last 20+ years in Seattle, I'd be willing to bet there are actually fewer failures on this level than there are for small groups. But they are significantly more visible, and that visibility has an affect on the arts community as a whole.

All the points that have been made above are a part of the system -- the arts community is indeed affected by changes in popular culture, corporate planning, global economies, educational trends, and other elements as well. But I think that one of the real problems is that very few mid-sized groups wish to remain mid-sized. We are trapped by thinking that all succesful groups must continue to grow -- to hire more dancers, do more performances, commission works, buy real estate... The groups I know that are the most successful at this level are the ones that are not overextending themselves by trying to expand past their strengths.

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On one level I think that mid-sized ballet companies face the same challenges that all mid-sized organizations do, no matter their actual art form. Small groups are often lead by a single artist or a small group of committed colleagues, work from project to project and are flexible enough to bend with changes. The attrition rate is huge, but we don't really think of it in that way because we often don't identify them as actual groups -- they are just artists doing art. Financially, much work at this level is directly subsidized by the artists themselves, and much of the rest of it runs under the institutional radar.

It's when the ensemble grows in size or in ambition and tries to become more of an organization with an organizational identity that includes longevity that they enter very dangerous territory. That transition is quite costly, and usually takes longer than anyone anticipated. Less is done on an ad-hoc basis, time needs to be spent just maintaining the identity of the organization (rather than working specifically on art). If they haven't already incorporated they certainly need to at this point -- this is where institution-building gets thick.

I don't have statistics on this, but from watching the process over the last 20+ years in Seattle, I'd be willing to bet there are actually fewer failures on this level than there are for small groups. But they are significantly more visible, and that visibility has an affect on the arts community as a whole.

All the points that have been made above are a part of the system -- the arts community is indeed affected by changes in popular culture, corporate planning, global economies, educational trends, and other elements as well. But I think that one of the real problems is that very few mid-sized groups wish to remain mid-sized. We are trapped by thinking that all succesful groups must continue to grow -- to hire more dancers, do more performances, commission works, buy real estate... The groups I know that are the most successful at this level are the ones that are not overextending themselves by trying to expand past their strengths.

I'm requoting your entire post, sandik, because I think it is one of the most cogent analyses I've seen on the subject of organizational size and evolution.

I think one of the things that distinguishes ballet from other dance forms, though, is that to dance professionally, a ballet dancer has to have a chance to be in class every day. The stability of mid-sized ballet companies gives dancers that option. Most modern dancers I've know in smaller companies have day jobs (often many strung together) and their training fits around their jobs. Unless a company is formed around a specific type of training, and that training is offered around the schedules of the people dancing, class can be hit or miss, and up to each dancer to arrange.

Both Ballet Arizona and Pacific Northwest Ballet could be considered midsized by looking at the number of dancers on the roster. PNB has a large staff, both administrative and artistic -- it's got its own costume shop, for example -- which would make me classify it as large. Both have schools whose dancers can augment the core company for story ballets. But I found comments by both companies' Artistic Directors in Q&A's interesting. Ib Andersen said that he wouldn't want more than 50 dancers: above that size, you just can't know everyone. Peter Boal said that his ideal company would be made entirely of principals and soloists, which creates its own natural limit.

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I think some of the companies mentioned in the original post are more small than mid-sized, and those companies have always struggled. Some of the mid-sized companies iin trouble -- Colorado Ballet (which seems to be ok at the moment, I hope), Ballet Internationale -- seem to have been management related. Another way to look at this might be that there CANNOT be a professional company in every town with a population of 100,00 or more. Instead, larger company -- PNB, MCB, Atlanta, that size -- could serve the communities near their home city. That would, in theory at least, produce better ballet -- more performances, the chance to keep pieces in repertory more than a single season, etc. BUT it would decrease employment opportunities for dancers.

Lewis Segal made a very good point, I thought, in a recent piece in the LA Times about the demise of Ballet Pacifica: do not try to start a company in Orange County again until there is a wide enough audience to support it. When ABT and the Kirov can only play one week here, this is an indication that the audience is not wide enough. The idea that all we have to do is start a ballet company and money will fall from the sky and audiences will rush in the door if we do "Swan Lake!" No, make that "Dracula!" Um, maybe we should try Rock Ballet? Yeah, that'll do it -- that has not proven to be a workable formula.

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