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Ballet 101 program

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Ballet 101 – The Business of Ballet


PNB has hosted some really interesting educational programming in the past, but they’ve usually been singular events.  This year they’ve created a 4 session series, called Ballet 101, that seems designed to fill in the blanks for people who have some previous knowledge of the art form.  It’s not an introduction in the usual sense (“ballet is a dance form descended from the social dances of the nobility in the 16th century …) – those can be fun, but this picks up where some of that intro leaves off.  I went to the opening session earlier this season, which was focused on how the season actually gets planned and presented, and was really impressed with the amount of specific information they gave.  This is pretty long -- I apologize for that, but I didn't want to leave anything out.


Doug Fullington was the moderator for the evening.  Peter Boal (AD), Larae Theige Hascall (costume shop manager), and Michael Ann Mullikin (operations director) were the panelists.  They all chimed in at various points, with their particular specialties.  We see quite a bit of Boal in audience events, and Hascall has presented at a few sessions about specific productions (she was especially detailed at a program about building costumes for the Maillot R&J), but this was the first time I’d heard anything from Mullikin, and I was very impressed.  She came to Seattle from a position with the Suzanne Farrell company, and from what I saw, we’re lucky to have her.


The session followed the schedule for the upcoming season and dealt with a long list of elements, including programming, licensing and commissioning, budgets and negotiations, fundraising, contracts and rights, rehearsal schedules, set and costume construction, casting, audience education, long-range repertory building, and touring.  Not everything got covered in equal detail, but it was a very substantial evening.


(some of these comments are a bit disjointed – I was taking notes like mad!)


To start off, Peter Boal spoke about the overall creation of a season.  “It starts with a wish list.” That list does reflect the interests and tastes of an individual, but they need a sounding board to create a curatorial point of view.  In general, Fullington and Mullikin are the first people in the company who he talks to about choices.  Boal is very interested in programming a selection of works by an artist, rather than just one ballet.  “If you’re going to do one work by an artist, you can’t really see the breadth of their (vision)”.  Additions to the repertory need to work for the current moment as well as the institution – these additions are “new food for dancers and audiences.”


Fullington researches the possible works, looking at the logistics (orchestral needs, available to stage) and Mullikin looks at the money – what are the costs, how does that balance with revenue projections and other standing obligations for the season?  They divvy up the task of contacting the artists representative (often depending on who knows who and what kind of relationship the company might already have with a person or a trust).  They spend a lot of time with the calendar, especially in trying to schedule commissions.


Q:  How far in advance do you work with scheduling?

Boal:  Next season is fully booked (a comment which made me really curious!) – they work within a 2 year window generally.  Nutcracker was a 4 year project, including design/build/fundraise – 4 years is the furthest out they want to plan (right now)


Q:  What affect do the dancers have on programming choices?

Boal:  It depends – when you know that someone is closing in on retirement (“twilight years”) you think about what you want to bring back to the repertory before they can no longer dance it.  And you try to have something for everyone over the course of the season (he told the story of his early time in Seattle, running a possible schedule by then-music director Stewart Kershaw, who asked Boal, in his plummy British accent, “what about the bassoons?”)


Q:  You have a program every year called Director’s Choice?

Boal:  It’s all the director’s choice.


Q:  Any thoughts about the recent trend in “theme programming?”

Boal:  It’s a curatorial choice, but it also has to work for the box office.  The audience loves juxtaposition.


Fullington talked about the timeline of programming – as a resident company, they have more flexibility to spread out work, but they still think into the future about what to acquire and how to stage it.


Mullikin spoke in detail about licensing works.  It’s her job, when they’re looking at the possibility of acquiring a certain work, to find out what’s under license and what is not.  Some living choreographers hold their works fairly close, and are very involved in who performs them, while others spend most of their time making new dance, and has someone else do the business of dealing with repertory.  In general, PNB asks for a license to perform a work two or three times over a five year period – occasionally you really only want to perform a work once, but that’s the exception.  Fees are usually between $10,000 and $50,000, but that reflects a variety of elements.  A few works cost more than that – the most she would say is that they are a “substantial amount”


Boal said that in the past a contract would usually be written for a couple of years, so that if you wanted to do a work in more than one program, you had to bring it back the following year, which didn’t really work so well for most audiences.  Apparently Mullikin is the one who developed the “perform twice in a five year period” model, which is a big improvement.


Q:  What comes with a license – is there an instruction list?

Mullikin:  A license is a set of expectations, where the rights holder and the company each supply certain things.  Some include costume and music rights, some include the services of a stager, some are just the right to perform the choreography, and the company is responsible for making all the other arrangements with everyone else.  Some licenses have stipulations about advertising and program order (a work has to be danced in the middle of the bill, the press always needs to mention a certain artist or a certain company).  Sometimes a company is required to use a particular stager, or to use the original designs.  Sometimes a company has to use a particular musician for performance -- – there are all kind of packages.  Usually the primary license is just for the choreography – the company is responsible for negotiating separate agreements for music and designs.  The performance period generally starts on the day the company premieres the work (no one asked what kind of clause there might be if the work didn’t make it to premiere).  Mullikin coordinates all these agreements, but Hascall and Norbert Herriges (the technical director) handle the details of scheduling – if the company is building a new production it takes considerable finesse to make those plans. 


Q:  What do you get in a costume contract?

Haskell:  It depends.  Sometimes we rent existing costumes from another company, and sometimes we make our own.  Renting can be tricky – some costume sets are in much better repair than others, and it might take almost as much work to repair and fit a set of rental costumes as it would to build a new set from the existing designs.  Sometimes PNB redesigns a production, so that they’re working with existing choreography and new designs (they’ve done that with Balanchine’s Coppelia, Midsummer, Jewels, and Nut).


Q:  Did the company need permission to redesign the Balanchine productions? 

A:  Yes they did, but not for the new designs by Jerome Kaplan for Giselle.


Fullington spoke about the Balanchine Trust as a model for dealing with estates.  The 1976 changes in copyright law (extending the period of time that a trust can control rights) sparked Balanchine and his colleagues to rethink how they were planning to deal with the repertory after his death.  The second edition of the Bernard Taper biography has a clear description of the formation of the trust. 


Boal spoke about the differences between the Balanchine Trust and the Robbins Trust.  Balanchine was famously generous with his ballets during his lifetime (would often give fledgling companies help in choosing rep that was appropriate for them and give them big discounts on royalties).  Robbins was more conservative in his practices while he was alive (kept the rights to his choreography quite close) and the trust reflects that attitude.  In general, they charge more and have more stipulations about contracts.


Q:  How are fees assigned?

Mullikin:  It’s partially a sliding scale – Suzanne Farrell company had a $2 million budget when she was with them, PNB is closer to $20 million – PNB will pay more for some things.  Trying to find comparable examples is tricky.  Size of company and complexity of the work are just two elements used in the equation.  The potential revenues are generally not considered. On the other hand fees for the music are often based on ticket sales projections (based on size of house and percentage of the program)


Negotiating for scenic and costume contracts are similar, looking at how much time and how many people it will take to build from scratch or customize existing materials.  Both Haskell and Herriges need to estimate the number of hours something will take, and submit those numbers – choices sometimes need to be made based on costs.  New works have the extra wrinkle that the designs are often not completed by the time the schedule and the budget need to be finalized  (for Her Door to the Sky, the company knew what designers were involved, but didn’t have actual designs before initial budgeting)  The choice between renting and building a design is mostly about practical matters.  How hard will it be to build, how much will it cost.  No one asked if they ever made the choice to build something thinking that they would get revenue about renting things out.


Some designers create both the costumes and the sets (Kaplan often does this) and some do not.  Boal is involved in most of these choices, but doesn’t want to “squelch” anyone’s impulse. 


Q:  How does rental work?

Hascall:  There’s a “design reuse contract” whether we rent or build something new from the original designs.  Sometimes it’s tricky to figure out who to pay (when designers don’t have a clear relationship with original production) 


Q:  Are there any reality checks for designers?

Hascall:  Sometimes, yes, but mostly not.  The shop is very skilled and has considerable ingenuity.  There are 12 regular staffers in the costume shop, but they can pull in other people from the community when they need to (and for some projects, they’ve had as many as 30+ people working on the project.)


Peter Boal outlined the different elements of the budget, including stagers, visa fees, artistic fees, outside production fees, risk pay (standing on platforms and hanging from the ceiling).  The average ballet pencils out around $50,000, but they’ve gone as high as $110,000.  Looking for funding is a complex process – different funders like to support different things.  A ballet for the Next Step program work is approximately a $7,500 donation.  There are various categories of support.  The artistic fees and dancer fees are the two biggest elements in the budget.


Q:  What is the dancer budget?

Mullikin:  The company usually has 48 dancers on the standard AGMA contract. This is a negotiation year.  The union lays out the salary and benefits, they’re based on rank, with a bump up if you’ve been there five years.  The Department of Labor and Industries taxes and fees are a big chunk of the costs.  People are paid on a 41 week contract whatever they are (or aren’t) dancing.


This confused some people in the audience.  Several of them thought that “star” dancers would automatically be paid higher fees, or that they would negotiate their fees separately.  And several people couldn’t understand that you would be paid even if you weren’t performing (whether you weren’t cast or you were injured) 


NYCB has a 38 week contract (was 40 until this year) and Houston has a 44 week contract.


Q:  What is the touring budget

Mullikin:  It’s not a standard item – it’s all project-driven.  We try to build it into the regular calendar, but it’s secondary to our home schedule.


Q:  What is shoe budget?

Boal:  The company spends about $230,000/year.  NYCB spends over a million.  They cost about $80/pair.  Kaori Nakamura (known for her shoe use here) used around 125 pair/year.  Some dancers use as few as 35.  The professional division students get shoes for performances.   Stage manager Sandy Barrack organizes the shoes – it is a huge job.


Q:  Where do visiting artists stay?

Boal:  They use Doug’s office…

Mullikin:  The company has a relationship with a couple of hotels (the Maxwell and the Hampton Inn).  Some artists prefer Air B&B, especially if they want to do their own cooking. 

Fullington :  We provide air fare, ground connections and per diem. 


Q:  What about injuries?

Mullikin:  The company has a wellness program, including daily class, Pilates and mat-based Gyrokinesis in the building, physical therapy and massage in the building, gym membership in the neighborhood.  They help fund health savings accounts to cover acupuncture, massage, naturopathy, and yoga.  There have a nutritionist and a psychologist on staff (for the students as well as the company)


Q:  Gender equity?

Boal:  Men and women are paid the same


Q:  No difference in salary depending on quality of work? (this is what I was talking about earlier)

Boal:  We don’t want that kind of competition.  They are already competitive enough.  As far as money is concerned, they can earn extra through guesting.


Q:  Does the company forbid risky behaviors?

Boal:  We don’t control what they do when they’re off – they’re already pretty protective during the season.  (Bold is apparently learning to surf now that he’s retired)


Q:  Do they schedule pregnancy?

Boal:  Sometimes they try – they’re usually very sorry to miss the chance to perform.


Q:  Scheduling stagers?

Boal:  The company has a reputation for being quick to learn work, but they’re always working to get a head-start on new rep.  There is always a company ballet master working with a stager – they’re responsible for the work after the stager goes home.

Fullington:  We try to set work in the late summer, especially works that will be performed in the spring, just to take the stress off the company.


Q:  Who does the casting?  The stager?

Boal:  Or the choreographer – “for me to stand in the way would be really wrong”  He will make suggestions, especially if he knows the work being staged or the choreographer doesn’t’ know the company.  There are lots of ways to organizing that task – Crystal Pite will hold a workshop for the whole company for the first two days she’s in the studio before she makes any casting choices.


Fullington asked Hascall to talk about the timing of building a production.  The company can’t always control the timeline.  They got the Jewels designs from Jerome Kaplan in February (the program went up in September).  The new Nutcracker that premiered in 2015 had almost two years lead time, which was a luxury,  When they built a new Swan Lake in 2003 they had 4-5 months, and had to job out some of the work (Texas, DC, Pittsburg).  “It takes as long as we have.”  Her Door to the Sky (costumes and set) took about four weeks.


Q:  How do you deal with different fits on different bodies?

Hascall:  Costumes built with multiple fasteners (like bra straps)


Q:  How do you deal with hair and makeup

Hascall:  Specialty things (like wigs and prostheses) are part of the costume shop – otherwise the dancers do their own hair and makeup.


Fullington asked Boal and Hascall about building a repertory.  This question didn’t really get turned over very thoroughly – Boal though his contribution was more intellectual, and Hascall was more corporeal/pragmatic.


Q:  Touring?

Boal:  The company is going to Paris in June/July for Les Étés de la Danse  They’re taking three full programs, and will also perform in a Robbins tribute.  Several of the works they’re taking are on the season this year, which makes this more do-able. 

Mullikin:  The company loves to be asked, but the timing is difficult.  Sometimes small groups of dancers can tour during the regular season, if the casting works out, but to go somewhere as a full (or almost full) company, they have to tour in the summer.  They turn down more opportunities than they accept, mostly because of the timing.  The programming is usually a negotiation between Boal and the presenter, and the fees are shared between the company and the presenter.  The company share is almost always from specific fundraising.  The union contract requires that the company take 2 full casts for any program when they tour.


Q:  Presenting other companies?

Boal dodged this question…


Q:  Can we continue to grow the audience?

Boal:  The Sculptured Dance program (site-specific summer event) brought a lot of new people to see the company – not clear yet how many are stepping up to the regular season.  Nutcracker is up to 100,000 last year (from 80,000)


Q:  Financial status?  Size of company?

Boal:  The annual report has a lot of information in it.  The company has a stabilization fund of about $2 million  (mostly from the last Stowell/Sendak Nutcracker and first Balanchine/Falconer Nut).

There were two promotions at the beginning of the season (one to principal and one to soloist)  The repertory needs about 10 principals and 10 soloists – people often perform “outside” of their rank, but try not to depend on that.


Q:  First cast vs other casts?

Boal:  Stager chooses.  Sometimes one group gets more attention if there’s a difficult work. Paul Gibson (ballet master) sometimes rehearses the second cast simultaneously.


Q:  Diversity?

Boal:  The company recently established a racial equity committee.  Emphasis to look at entirety of company, not just the dancers on stage – who teaches and who works in administration?  The city arts commission suggested that several of the administrators take the city diversity training – Boal did, along with CEO and administrator from school.



This was a very dense session – even though there were some topics that I wish we’d spent more time on (like the general direction of the repertory) I still came away knowing all kinds of details I hadn’t known before.  The series is alternating between studio demonstrations that are mostly about technique and more panel oriented discussions (they did a session about coaching a couple of weeks ago) – the next session is in April focusing on “contemporary ballet” – I’m really looking forward to it!

Edited by sandik
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Really interesting -- I learned a lot! Thanks for posting.


PNB does the best educational pre- and post-performance sessions of any company I've visited. SFB and Pennsylvania both do a wealth of pre-performance things and SFB has a traditional ballet history thing for supporters and others. But PNB outshines them all. Having Doug Fullington there seems to be a big factor. 


I think a session like this helps loyal supporters understand complexities of cost, touring, rep, etc., etc. And if it motivates them to give more, so much the better.

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Great write-up, Sandik.
I assume you recorded this session? Either that or you're a court stenographer by trade.  ;)

'"This confused some people in the audience.  Several of them thought that “star” dancers would automatically be paid higher fees, or that they would negotiate their fees separately.  And several people couldn’t understand that you would be paid even if you weren’t performing (whether you weren’t cast or you were injured)"'

>>Maybe it would have been better to describe contracts as a "salaried" position that runs for a specific number of weeks/days. The dancers are paid for their general participation in class, ballet creation, rehearsals, touring and photo/video shoots for marketing, etc. (all necessary aspects of the job), not just for performances.

Edited by pherank
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Sandik this this is so wonderful. I also thank you deeply. Something about PNB that has always crossed my mind at least under Boal is his tranparency. I never get the feeling that he and his entire team and company are distant or hard to reach. They are always so open and clear with their plans and reasoning and as a longtime supporter i personally hold that very high. People want to know whats going on and to have a feeling that there is a community working together through good times and hardships and I think even holding this Q and A shows their openess. There should be some kind of award given for smart educational programming by ballet companies and this would take the cake. Bravo.

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9 hours ago, pherank said:

Great write-up, Sandik.
I assume you recorded this session? Either that or you're a court stenographer by trade.  ;)

'"This confused some people in the audience.  Several of them thought that “star” dancers would automatically be paid higher fees, or that they would negotiate their fees separately.  And several people couldn’t understand that you would be paid even if you weren’t performing (whether you weren’t cast or you were injured)"'

>>Maybe it would have been better to describe contracts as a "salaried" position that runs for a specific number of weeks/days. The dancers are paid for their general participation in class, ballet creation, rehearsals, touring and photo/video shoots for marketing, etc. (all necessary aspects of the job), not just for performances.

No shorthand skills -- just a lot of scribbling.

I thought they were pretty clear about the concept of salary, but I'm far from an outsider.  Since athletes are often injured, and are still on a payroll, I would think the analog would be fairly clear.

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