Ballet Plots Guerilla Strategy For Survival

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(Sacramento, CA)
Wednesday, February 25, 2009

It’s a Friday, late afternoon, Artistic director Ron Cunningham is in the ballet’s rehearsal studio on K Street, watching his dancers in a sultry piece set to Cuban music.

But this is no warm-up. It’s a performance in front of a paid audience of around 100 people. They sit in folding chairs crammed two deep around the edges of the room – so close to the dancers that their breathing is audible.

When the music ends, Cunningham assures folks the Sacramento Ballet is not throwing in the towel.

“While we’ve had to cancel our performances over at the Community Center Theater, it does not mean we are closing the curtain on our 54 year history.  We ain’t down yet.” (Applause)

Cunningham has nurtured the ballet for two decades, through economic ups and downs. He reflected on this when we talked in his office.

“We’ve had bad times here before, and we’ve managed to weather those rather well, and come out on the other side of those stronger. This one is really different. It’s global.”

For Cunningham, the downturn hit home in December, when “The Nutcracker -- the ballet’s biggest money-maker – opened to dismal sales. Ticket income makes up 80 percent of Sac Ballet’s budget. Faced with empty seats at what’s usually a well-attended show, the Ballet decided to try an experiment.

“Let’s open up the second balcony, and offer really inexpensive tickets, like $10 tickets, and see what happens. Well, we put over 5,000 tickets on sale, and they were sold within one week’s time. So that really made us understand that you know what? They love us, but they just can’t afford to see it.”

Still, the high cost of renting the 2,400-seat Community Center Theater threatened to take the company deep into debt. So the Ballet made a dramatic decision. They cancelled the remainder of their season at that location.

Instead, Cunningham is programming a slew of smaller shows at various venues. Tickets prices have been slashed. It’s a radical midseason makeover of the ballet’s artistic and business game plan, aimed at keeping the organization viable.

“We often refer to it as a guerilla operation. Not in the sense that it’s warfare. It’s thinking outside the box.”

Meaning that they’re getting out of the big box. The dancers are performing every week, in places like in art galleries, alongside paintings. They’re dancing at the Mondavi Center’s 200-seat Studio Theater, and of course in their own downtown Sacramento studio. It’s all about keeping the dancers in the public eye.

“Let the community know what we need, what are problems are, and ask them to help us.  And keeping our dancers on contract, we knew that was important. Without the visibility of our artists, there is nothing to fundraise for.”

(sound of chairs)

The ballet has reduced its office staff, and now you’ll find dancers stacking folding chairs. Lifting chairs comes easy for Gabriel Williams, he’s got muscles from hoisting ballerinas all day. Williams just hopes the community will feel keeping the Ballet is a priority.

“Even if people don’t come to the Ballet every night, or every time we have performances, they know that it’s an option. And it’s the same thing with the theater and the Philharmonic… Knowing that your city has these arts organizations that are really high quality, it makes you feel like you’re living in a place that’s worth living in.”

Of course, the Sacramento Ballet isn’t the only arts organization feeling the pinch.

“It’s painful to learn that the American Musical Theater of San Jose closed its doors in December, and that the Santa Clarita Symphony cancelled its season."

 Muriel Johnson is director of the California Arts Council -- and a longtime Sac Ballet subscriber. Even though the ballet’s radical new strategy is untested, Johnson thinks it might be a model for other hard-pressed arts groups.

“The Ballet’s been making a great effort, their letters have been good, I see people out there really caring… I have great confidence that we’re going to see the Ballet continue. They’re too good not to.”

Staying good means constant rehearsals, and at the Sac Ballet studios, dancers like Gabriel Williams are working out six hours a day, hoping for the best.

(rehearsal sound rising)

"In scrambling in finding a place to perform wherever that may be, whether it’s in the studio, whether it’s in smaller theaters, we need to be more active and going out into the community and sharing what we have, because we have a lot to offer.” 

(rehearsal sound out)