Though the Sarasota Ballet company was saddled with a substantial debt last year, it expects to finish the current fiscal year in the black, managing director Michael Shelton said Wednesday.
And though the company was rumored to be in danger of closing earlier this year, “The only way we’re going down the tube is when I take the dancers on the subway in London,” artistic director Iain Webb told a cheering audience at a ballet reception Wednesday night.
Webb announced that the 2010-11 season will be a mixture of favorite pieces from the company’s repertoire and works that the dancers haven’t done before. “We want to pay respects to what has happened here in the past 20 years, but also reflect the new vision of where we are going,” Webb said.
One program will be a tribute to George Balanchine, whom Webb called the backbone of American classical dance. “Each year, our dancers have become more comfortable with Balanchine’s style and musicality,” said Webb, who took over the company almost three years ago.
Another program will be devoted to the works of Sir Frederick Ashton and other choreographers for England’s Royal Ballet, for whom Webb once danced. Johan Kobborg , the renowned Royal Danish Ballet dancer who was a guest artist in Sarasota Ballet’s Giselle this season, will return for an all-Danish program in March.
The company will also reprise former artistic director Robert DeWarren’s production of The Nutcracker in December, and will open the season in October by bringing back The Diary of Anne Frank, by choreographer and former Sarasota Ballet dancer James Buckley.
A 20th anniversary gala performance on March 25 will honor founder Jean Weidner. Webb said the program won’t be announced in advance, but he hopes it will include a work by another former artistic director, Eddy Toussaint.
The season will close in April with a program that will feature Sarasota Ballet dancers and guest artists from another company, still to be determined.
When the board hired Webb, he was given a mandate of creating a national reputation for the company. He has met that challenge by getting a rave review from The New York Times last season for a program of Ashton works. Thanks to Webb’s contacts in the dance world, the company has performed ballets by some of contemporary dance’s biggest names, including Matthew Bourne. Next month, the company will perform a ballet by another renowned young choreographer, Christopher Wheeldon.
Box office revenue has risen steadily each year, to about $800,000 this season. But until recently, offstage developments haven’t kept pace with onstage success. “For years, the company had dysfunctional management and boards,” said Shelton, who was hired as managing director last year to stabilize the organization. “It’s never had effective grants and development programs. Now, it’s being run like a business.”
Shelton said money has been saved by trimming the ballet’s staff to a handful of positions, and by reining in big and small expenses. “We even got rid of our color copier,” he said.
The company has also been challenged by its performance venues. Because rental fees at the Van Wezel Performing Arts Hall have increased substantially in recent years, the company no longer performs there. It now splits its time between the Sarasota Opera House and the FSU Center for the Performing Arts.
But at the FSU Center, the ballet must share the stage with the Asolo Rep. Until this year, Shelton said, the Asolo simply presented the ballet with a list of available dates. This year, the Asolo and the ballet engaged in negotiations that concluded earlier this week.
“We did some horse-trading, some give and take, trading a Tuesday here for a Thursday there,” Shelton said. “In the past, the ballet probably didn’t assert itself to make sure it was getting the access to the stage that it was contractually obligated to get.”
Shelton said the ballet is “thrilled to be in the same building with the Asolo,” and described the negotiations as constructive and amicable. But he said the space-sharing arrangement still needs to be revised “so it works better for both of us.”
Webb said he hopes the company can return to the Van Wezel for some performances by the 2011-12 season.
At the ballet’s Tu Tu Terrific reception and fashion show on Wednesday, it was announced that supporter Sydney Goldstein has made a $250,000 contribution to the Sydney Goldstein and Family Sarasota Ballet Endowment Fund, which is administered by the Gulf Coast Community Foundation.