Off the Wall and Into the Black?

Out-of-Town, Off-Season Performances Key to City Ballet’s Bottom Line
By Dan Cook
Wednesday, July 9, 2014
Columbia City Ballet's Off The Wall, Onto the Stage: Dancing the Art of Jonathan Green
It takes a lot of money to keep a ballet company financially solvent — and the Columbia City Ballet has learned through the years that not all that money can be found in Columbia.

It’s no secret that the ballet has been running in the red in recent years; its operating deficit in the tax year ending March 2012 was $52,596 on revenue of $1.2 million, and the company has also been trying to pay down a long-term debt.

Increasingly, it is looking outside Columbia to fill the gap.

Last week, the company performed a scaled-down version of its Gullah-themed 2005 production Off The Wall, Onto the Stage: Dancing the Art of Jonathan Green at the 39th annual national assembly of The Links Foundation, an international nonprofit whose membership consists of 12,000 professional women primarily of African descent. The convention is a big deal: Michelle Obama had been scheduled to attend; though she didn’t make it, she met instead with Links leaders at the White House. The City Ballet provided the headlining entertainment for the convention on July 2; the next night’s headliner was the R&B group Boyz II Men.

“We performed last night for 4,000 women,” says William Starrett, director of City Ballet. The event was held at the Gaylord Convention Center in National Harbor, Maryland, and Starrett was clearly excited about its scope.

“They had television cameras filming the dancers, showing them on four screens that were each three stories high,” he says. “We often sell out the Koger Center at 2,000 [seats], and we have performed for a little more than that in Savannah and Myrtle Beach ... but 4,000 is pretty exciting. I can’t remember ever performing for that many.”

As exciting as the gig was, it was also lucrative: The company was paid $50,000 to perform 42 minutes of dance.

There were plenty of expenses to cover — “It’s difficult out of the season, because the dancers are all over,” Starrett says — but nonetheless, the company turned a profit.

The Columbia City Ballet has long taken its productions to other regional cities, including Savannah, Myrtle Beach and Camden. It’s also ventured far outside the Southeast; a few years ago, it performed Off the Wall at the South Side Community Art Center in Chicago in 2010, and it’s bringing the production back to Chicago next year.

It’s that Chicago connection that led to the invitation to perform at the Links meeting — and Starrett hopes more such invitations are in the group’s future.

“There are 280 Links chapters, and many of them are interested in bringing us,” he says. “We’ve heard from Miami, Philadelphia and all these different chapters.”

More and more, Starrett sees out-of-town performances as central to City Ballet’s future — and not just one-off invitations, but formal connections such as what the ballet already does in Savannah, where it tours each of its major productions every season.

The ballet is also “hoping to become the formal dance company for Charleston,” Starrett says. The opportunity has arisen because of turmoil at the Charleston Ballet Theatre, which shut down in 2013 amid debt and acrimony after 26 years in operation. (There is a group operating under the same name, but it offers dance classes, not public performances.)

“We need three cities — Savannah, Charleston and Columbia — to afford a dance company of the caliber we need,” Starrett says. “Trying to pay down a debt during this economy is challenging, and there are many companies that have not survived,” he says. “The fact that there is a ballet at all is remarkable.”

Though more dance-savvy audiences might get tired of an annual diet of Nutcracker and Dracula, Starrett says these popular ballets are exactly what companies need to survive.

“Every artistic director wishes they had a Dracula,” he says. “It is what it is. It’s like another Nutcracker: It’s a great recruiter — and good for people who are new to the ballet.”

And with Off the Wall, Starrett seems glad to have hit on another winning formula.

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