How The Ballet Battled A Crisis With Creativity And Won

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(Sacramento, CA)
Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Part 1 of Capital Public Radio's 3-part series "The Show Must Go On"

In recent years, the Sacramento Ballet has been on a roll. Among other things, they announced plans for a new studio and offices, and they made their first international tour to China. 
(excerpt from Shanghai performance)
Last fall, the Ballet's co-artistic directors Ron Cunningham and his wife Carinne Binda were gearing up for another successful year. But, when ticket sales for the season opener "Alice in Wonderland" came up short, they were concerned.

And then as we went into Nutcracker which is traditionally our bread and butter, there was a lack of people in the theatre. That's what really set off the alarms.
Local media including TV news jumped on the story.
[News 10 report]

The Sacramento Ballet's production of the Nutcracker has become a holiday tradition. But for the first time in 40 years, the Ballet is concerned the tradition may not continue. Just days before the opening performance advance ticket sales are alarmingly low.

To stimulate sales, the Ballet offered thousands of low price tickets with help from a corporate sponsor. They sold out fast… but it wasn't nearly enough. Cunningham says the ballet faced a potential 600-thousand dollar deficit by the end of their season if they didn't do something drastic. So he and Carinne asked themselves…


Do we simply shut the doors, refund our subscribers and wait for better times. We've know companies over the years that have done that and I've never known a company to bounce back, that's it, it's the final curtain call for them.
The Cunninghams were determined to keep their company alive, and with backing from their board, they sketched out a plan. It would rely heavily on their 24 dancers.
We called a meeting with the dancers and the staff you know we're one big team and said this is what the reality is, and this is what's going to happen if we don't do something radical, and we can do this if we all work together and not lose courage.

It was scarey, it was definitely a scarey time
First year Sacramento Ballet dancer Rick Porter had just moved from Australia to join the company. That meeting is still fresh in his mind.
The thing I can remember the most is just the sheer look of worry and they were so sad to have to break this news to us that things weren't going that well.
They were just really heartbroken
Dancer Alexandra Cunningham says she was concerned not just for her future, but for parents.

Just thinking about the company potentially folding because it's their life. It was hard to see them going through something like that.

You know, that speech was difficult to give. But on the other hand we kind of already knew going into it what the response would be, it's like ya, let's fight for it.
The Ballet cut three staff positions, immediately stopped advertising , and most dramatically, cancelled the remainder of its season in the huge and expensive Community Center Theatre. Then Cunningham did something really radical, he added performances… dozens of smaller ones at the Mondavi Center, McClatchy high, in art galleries and mostly in the Ballet's home studios. The revamped season was a gamble. For the dancers, it was grueling.

I think at one point I had at least ten different pieces of choreography in my head cause we were basically performing every weekend,

Ya, it was strenuous not only on the body but on the brain as well. but everyone kind of pulled together and you know just tried to do it, we had to do it really, and it paid off.
Rick Porter says audiences really related to the up-close-and-personal shows in the studio.

When we're on stage it looks so glossy and you can't really see the hard work going on, but when you're sitting three feet from us you can see the sweat pouring off everyone, you can see the muscles burning and how red everybody gets and just how intricate everything is.
While ticket prices for the news shows were inexpensive, Cunningham says audiences were generous.
And people who've never been donors before, who don't have deep pockets, started contributing to the company. Small amounts, because that's what they could afford, but all of that added up.
So did the dollars raised by the dancers themselves. They set up their own website for donations, held a silent auction, and lobbied local businesses and media for support. In the end, the re-configured season and all of the fundraising efforts worked. The company not only survived the season, it ended with a surplus. 

In June, Ron Cunningham shared the Sacramento Ballet's story with colleagues at a national conference dance companies. They gave him a standing O.

We get standing ovations from the stage but I think it's the first time we've ever gotten a standing ovation for our management style. And that was very rewarding. And we did it. We wound up in the black and that's a tribute to everybody who works in this organization and to all the people in the community who came out to support us.