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Is ballet really unprofitable?

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Someone made a comment on another thread (sorry, senior moment, I can't remember who)

that ballet makes no money.

But does it really not make money or is it just that there's 2 different levels to companies? The "conglomerates" like NYCB/ABT who can put up the $$ for productions that flop both critically and financially (Diamond Project/Pied Piper)

And the smaller "mom and pop" type companies

Is the disparity between the two warping our perspective as to whether or not ballet makes money.

I look at dancers who make upwards of $90,000, granted, they're principals with conglomerate companies and their careers are short, but on the administrative side, you have high salaries too.

Do the bigger companies have a responsibility to the smaller companies?

This is all steaming from my still not being able to get over how much NYCB spent on costumes recently.

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All very good questions, Calliope. Thank you for raising them.

If you look at the llist of administrative staff in any ballet company, you might be surprised how large it is. Part of this is grants-driven. You can get grants for education projects; and then you have to have people administer those projejcts. So it adds to the revenue of the company, but it's arguable whether it adds to it artistically.

Salaries are an issue, as you wrote, not only for dancers (who are still woefully underpaid in comparison to pop art stars, even at $90,000 a year), and there are administrators -- and company directors -- who are highly paid, in comparison to all of our naive ideas of artists working for no money but for the sake of art. (Writers, maybe, but not performing artists :) )

In an interview with Bruce Marks that I did a few years ago, he said something to the effect that We're all bureaucracies, now, and the bureaucracy must be fed. It's hard to break that cycle when you're in it -- but the money being raised is going to those dresses of which you are so fond, or funding big budget flops, and 3 more directors of human resources, development, and educational outreach. It's not Diaghilev going around to the art studios and plucking out the next genius.

When there are no Diaghilevs, there are bureaucracies? Apres moi, le board?

Any way out of the Dollar Swamp?

I think Calliope has raised some good questions, and I look forward to reading lots of good answers :)

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"pop art stars" like Britney Spears?

She generates money though, big money. And even she is victim to Napsterization.

You could argue, that she puts out a product (CD) then goes on promotion tours, then goes and does concerts. All of which generate hype and $$ and she's has stalkers, bad restaurant deals and her heart broken and then reported on front covers of magazines. Dealing with her public and having no privacy.All the while trying to maintain she's a virgin.

I think she earned the big bucks!

While I think it's ludicrous that people make $20 million to make a movie, I sympathize that I know more about Julia Roberts than some of my relatives.

I don't think it's fair to compare athletes/"pop culture" to ballet. Not when ballet goes to such extremes to separate itself.

Sorry for the soapbox, especially if I misunderstood "pop art stars"

:) :)

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I think if we actually looked at the budgets of companies, large, small and medium we might be surprised. Just like with poor Britney, there are considerations we don't think about.

An $80K costume budget for a new production for a major ballet company really isn't unheard of at all, nor out of line. Costumes are custom made items with the same labor going into them as couture and extra considerations we might not see (like the tunic that looks to the audience like it's one piece, but it's constructed in two to permit range of motion, or does the material need to be something that looks like one fabric, but has to be another for stage considerations?) I have a friend who was costuming a new production of Firebird for a regional company with nowhere near the budget level of NYCB. His budget was $40K and it was too low.

I know what it's like to make ballet without any support staff. I agree that management has a tendency to spontaneously generate itself; at the same time, so does work. City Ballet is a large organization, but it's got close to 100 fairly-paid dancers to support. And fund raising is a full-time occupation that takes your off hours as well as those at work. Galas and charity dinners aren't as optional as they look.

As for the question of the thread, is ballet unprofitable? Yes. Massively so, at all budget levels.

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You must be careful when talking about the profitability of an endeavor.

A company (of any industry) is said to be profitable if its revenues are greater than its expenses. Expenses include employee salaries. Any profits go to the people who own the company --- also known as shareholders. Shareholders ultimately run the company because they are the ones who own it.

Ballet companies typically exist as a non-profit corporation. There are no shareholders in the traditional sense because normal shareholders expect to see a profit on their investment. If I give $$ to a nonprofit, I can expect to NEVER see a return on that "investment"; hence, it is a donation, not a purchase of stock. Large donors have a shot at being on the board of directors. The board ultimately runs the company. That makes sense; they're the ones funding it.

Practically all ballet companies, including NYCB, are nonprofit. They certainly might pay high salaries to their employees; and the board of directors at some level feels that is justified because it is the board's $$ on the line. But in the end of the day, ballet companies spend more money than they bring in. That shortfall is covered by continual donations.

In the for-profit world, this would be equivalent to a company that continuously seeks new venture capital but never pays dividends. Those companies lasted only a few years in the dot-com boom. To last longer than a dot-com, a ballet company must secure continued new donations.

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I think there are pop stars who make less than The Top Ones -- yet a great deal more than $90K -- whose lives are not ripped apart. But I agree that there's a difference in that they go on promotional tours, and that much of their money is from endorsements, and all that is market driven.

Sports stars -- nonstar professional athletes -- have less invasive coverage, yet make huge salaries compared to artists' salaries. All a reflection of the society, yes, but from the dancer's point of view, you'll just hear "they make so much more."

It is expensive, and there are times when it's less expensive to put on the longest-running of all theatrical shows, "Dark," [meaning the house is dark, there's nothing going on] than to put on a play, opera or ballet.

There are times when you wonder why people are willing to go through what they have to go through to get something onto the stage.

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Good questions, Calliope. My inexpert impression is that ballet is a high overhead proposition at all levels. Not quite as much as opera, but pricey. Forgive me, Calliope, but I'm afraid I had to smile when you described 90k and up as a "high salary." It seems to me from the vantage point of an outsider, that most dancers, in America anyway, including principals, are outrageously underpaid, even avoiding any comparisons to Britney or A-Rod -- (and after decades of service, no pension? nothing?) There may be overpaid people in ballet, but I don't see the dancers among them.

It's true that supply and demand play a part. I'm afraid I cannot bring myself to weep large tears at the thought of Britney and her bad restaurant deals, but there's no question in my mind that a movie star like Tom Hanks, who can lure millions of people to pay ten dollars to see him crack coconuts open against a rock for ninety minutes (and be interesting doing it), deserves as much as the studios can fork out for him.

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To expand on this, there's a difference between cash-flow and revenue. Sometimes we look at cash flow and confuse it with revenue.

Also, in theory a board does not run a company. They oversee it, are kept informed of its dealings and practices, and they approve its future plans and budget. Of course we have heard of cases where this is not so, but in theory, the board does do things like look at your budget and agree that you have $1.3 million dollars to spend next season and that they agree to raise it. They do not set repertory or hire and fire dancers.

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Leigh, what is the difference between cash flow and revenue? Clearly, NO organization can survive for too long with negative cash flow.

By "run the company", I meant "have the ultimate say". Boards do things like hire and fire management. Shareholders in a for-profit company (analogous to non-profit boards) elect board members and vote on the most important issues.

In neither case do the "ultimate owners" run the company directly.

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90k is a pretty high end salary, in my humble opinion! Plus we have companies that have to get the sponsors to pay above and beyond the top mark.

That's more than some median households, with combined salaries. Especially if you look at what a recent college grad faces coming out of school.

I think that's why dancers have a bit of a shock when they leave a company, the salary difference is quite vast.

But should the companies that have the resources (costumes, sets) should they lend them out to companies that can't afford to spend as much. Should they loan them dancers, rep, choreographers, for the sake of the art form?

Or is it truly a bureaucracy?

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I was under the impression that top companies do occasionally share productions -- ABT and the San Francisco ballet shared the Lubovitch Othello, and there must be other examples. But ballet will, in my opinion, put itself at great risk as an art form if it isn't led by major companies whose first duty to the art (not the bureaucracy) is to put on great productions of great ballets. And that means a high budget for costumes (among other things).

Occasional shared productions etc. are a good idea. Actually, Balanchine provided the 'seed' repertory free for many regional companies, though that repertory is increasingly being replaced with Dracula anyway!

But I take it that Calliope is suggesting that companies like NYCB should 'share' more of all their resources with smaller local companies around the country. (I hope I have this right?) I like the suggestion that companies should think creatively about this -- But I'm a little skeptical that there is that much in the way of extra resources to go around.

I don't doubt big institutions make mistakes, and occasionally overspend, but on the whole I don't think NYCB or ABT is pouring hugely unnecessary amounts of money on overly lacey tutus, or overpaid divas. The top companies do put on failed productions, but outside of Mel Brooks's imagination, they aren't doing it on purpose.

I'm not sure either whether it's so easy to loan out dancers for this or that series of performances that may be taking place miles away in a completely unfamiliar theater etc. Unless, of course, you loan out dancers for long periods of time, and then it really is a question of balancing the artistic benefit with the artistic cost to the maintaining of a cohesive major company. This speaks to the ways in which ballet *is* elitist and has historically depended on geographical, usually metropolitan, centers. (Many on this board feel that dancers are, as it is, under-rehearsed and undercoached in the major companies -- given the standards that those companies are supposed to maintain. Would it be possible to share dancers without spreading the artistic 'riches' even thinner?)

One matter I do feel -- well -- very strongly about...A principal dancer at NYCB is, quite simply, one of the world's best in his/her field, and performing in one of the richest countries in the world. Someone in an American company who is making $90,000 when they are the best of the best in the world in a profession that requires an enormous amount of training, lasts 10-20 years (if you are very, very, very lucky) is, under no circumstances, making an unreasonable amount or even a lot of money. (Factor in, too, that they are living in major metropolitan centers where salaries are generally higher for professionals -- though not for everyone else -- because the cost of living is higher.) I agree that such dancers would have no business crying 'poor' -- and to my knowledge they don't -- but what they make is not at all unreasonable. And I don't buy for a minute that underpaid in any way helps the cause of art, especially not in classical ballet where the major productions need not just enthusiasm but sheer numbers of talented people involved.

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I would add that a certain amount of expensive failure is inevitable. In the world of government funding, for example, a high number of scientific experiments fail. Entire weapons systems fail. If the example is egregious enough it does cause scandal, but for the most part it's taken as going with the territory. It would certainly be nice, in theory, if the dough put to waste in "The Pied Piper" could go to some deserving small company somewhere. But this wouldn't work in practice, and as Drew pointed out, ABT and NYCB are trying to be good, even when they're not. Choreographers often do make ballets for several companies, and star dancers do guest stints with smaller ones. But it would be very questionable to make such things a matter of policy even if they were practicable.

It's true companies do get territorial over some things, such as signature works. Alexandra's book has one instance – Dowell refusing the rights to "A Month in the Country" to the Danes – the details just dropped out of my head.

When something like the Diamond Project eats up large sums without too much in the way to show for it, that does cause comment – I remember reading several remarks to the effect asking, is this really working? couldn't this funding be put to better use? And those are legitimate questions to raise. But it's not quite the same thing.

Good to hear from you, Drew!

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Projects such as the Diamond Project often have funds that are restricted only to that project. The company may not use those funds for general operating expenses nor other projects. It is easier to raise funds for specific projects hence the proliferation of theme evenings or special events. Not many want to see their name associated with the less glamorous operations.

The annual salary of $90,000 is nothing in New York (nor SF, Chicago or DC for that matter) compared to what other principals at Big Five or Fortune 500 firms make. A principal dancer at a mahor company is one of ten thousand - similar to a VP at a major corporation who may make upwards of $250,000 base plus another $250,000 in options and perks. Dancers are underpaid given that successful dancers faced similar odds to professional sports players and took as long as doctors to train. Both sports and doctors easily start at over $90,000.

This has been said above, but cannot be stated enough.

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Back in the old days, New Haven was a testing ground for Broadway shows. A show wouldn't be produced on Broadway untill it had proven its potential for success in New Haven.

Contrast that to the Diamond Project, which in this analogy would be like putting your latest and greatest shows up on Broadway without any testing beforehand.

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but then *not* doing diamond project-type projects would mean that the audience never got to see something that really was brand-new, and most probably would be criticized for "pushing the envelope" (if i hear that phrase again) or "forcing ballet into the 21st century" (ditto). these aren't like broadway shows that if they're successful, run for years. often they don't get seen beyond their initial presentation. and there isn't a touring arm of the company; i can't imagine what that would add to a budget, not to mention having to have an entire group of dancers that wouldn't normally be performing in the main theatre.

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What about a two-tiered approach? Produce new choreography on a smaller scale in a smaller venue. If it seems to work out well, then bring it to the full Lincoln Center stage. If not, then it's not too much of a loss that thousands in the audience never got to see it.

That's all I'm suggesting. It seems quite doable to me.

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Many companies do this through the second or apprentice company. A choreogrpher makes a ballet on this smaller company and if it is a success then is allowed either to remount it or make a new work for the main company.

But for "name" choreographers or those others famous enough, this is not possible. These types demand (and get) the main company and if the work fails, that is the price one pays. Too bad dance does not have the video aftermarket that movies do.....

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mbjerk raises another interesting aspect of this: how to program experimental work. Ballet hasn't generally used the "out of town tryout" model. The larger companies (and once, not too long ago, there were only the larger companies, the big institutions) scheduled new works and, if they weren't immediately successful, would program them the next season -- if the directors thought they were good works and needed a second showing. Obvious flops were put to sleep quickly. Sometimes an audience needs a few viewings to "get" a new ballet. One reads over and over that Balanchine ballets were often not quite ready by opening night -- or, more accurately, the ballets were ready, structurally sound, but the dancers needed more rehearsal to get the steps in their bones. Next season, after 5 or 6 performances, this

would happen.

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Sometimes with big new productions -- say Kevin Mckenzie's Swan Lake or Baryshnikov's Don Quixote -- companies have the premier showings on tour, and this allows adjustments etc. before the New York season. It's not quite the same as an out-of-town tryout, since no-one would consider, say, putting the premier off for a year while a production was re-worked, but it does give a company time to make a few adjustments. And a new Swan Lake or a new Don Quixote ultimately require the resources of an opera-house stage or something close to it.

Would, say, Pied Piper have benefited from some out-of-town performances or would it have required too much work to make it a success? I never saw it and have no opinion. (I am, I think, the only person I know who admired parts of Lubovitch's Othello and would have liked to see ABT keep it in repertory more than a season.)

Workshops are often used to develop plays and operas, and perhaps the major companies could offer more workshop evenings(?) I know Martins has a choreographic one (not the Diamond project, but one of those in-a-small-venue, no critics allowed evenings). This still would not be a matter of somehow spreading the wealth around to other institutions, but it might help keep certain kinds of evenings less unprofitable than they might otherwise turn out to be...And perhaps the smaller-scale works that developped in this type of context might be more easily 'shared' with smaller companies.

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I almost mentioned McKenzie's "Swan Lake" and Baryshnikov's "Don Q" (and "Nutcracker") -- but that's a matter of perception and geography. The Kennedy Center billed them as world premieres and they go in the books that way (unlike the Broadway practice, where it's stated policy as well as general agreement/perception that New Haven is the out of town tryout spot). Did the company view them as out of town tryouts? I'll bet they did -- but the Kennedy Center would have a different take on it.

(And good to see you again, Drew. If you see a Nutcracker, I hope you'll post about it!)

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Companies use the out-of-town world premieres to raise monies also. Joffrey's Nutcracker was paid for and premiered in Iowa City. Kennedy Center sometimes funds premieres also. The risk is that the out of town flops and therefore a source of funds is closed.

One idea is for the artistic director to solicit other artistic views during the creative process - studio showings all along the process instead of one or two at the end. This helps with the choroegraphy and dancers' interpretation but not the set, costume and lighting.... Another huge expense left that is sometimes wasted.

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In an example of a bigger company helping out a smaller one, Carolina Ballet began with connections to NYCB. NYCB dancers guested with CB during its opening season and there was a ticket tie-in with NYCB. And there was a Martins ballet on the schedule, along with ballets by Balanchine and Weiss. I don't know how far, in $, NYCB helped Carolina Ballet, but there appeared to be some support.

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