Seated in a low chair in his OBT office—a former bank vault that one still enters through its original, imposing, foot-thick door—Stowell explains what it is that, in his mind, separates ballet from all other forms of dance, the thing that has kept him in its thrall.
“I see ballet as a language,” he says. “And it’s a language that’s very difficult to speak, to stick with the metaphor. It’s a language that, when people speak it well, makes them pretty special. And to do this well, you have to work hard on it all the time.”
By “language,” Stowell doesn’t mean a glossary of terms: arabesque, pirouette, jeté. He means, quite literally, a system of communication—albeit a kinetic, corporeal one—whose most proficient users, the dancers, constitute a culture unto themselves, complete with their own manners and physical phenotype. In her 1979 book The Magic of Dance, retired prima ballerina Margot Fonteyn got at this ineffable quality when she wrote of the great dancer Vaslav Nijinsky: “At a loss to define his genius, various people used comparisons like ‘half cat,’ ‘half snake,’ ‘a panther,’ ‘a serpent,’ ‘a stallion,’ ‘no man, but a devil.’ It is a curious fact that he was rarely compared to a human being.” According to Stowell, ballet choreographers like himself “get off” on these “basic aesthetic qualities.”
“I don’t want them to look like ordinary people,” he says. “They’re not the horse hanging around the barnyard. They’re, like, the Kentucky Derby-winning horse. They can do things; they have ready at their disposal a physical arsenal.”
Training and caring for a stable of thoroughbreds is expensive, of course. And this struggle to balance lofty artistic ideals with base financial realities weighs on Stowell. To pay 28 dancers their weekly salaries during the performance season; to rent halls, sew costumes, hang lighting, build scenery, and hire musicians for five productions each year; to run a ballet school with 180 students; and to employ a cadre of fundraising, marketing, outreach, and other staff to support all this activity amounts to an annual budget of about $6.5 million.
‘[Dancers are], like, the Kentucky Derby-winning horse…. They have ready at their disposal a physical arsenal.’
Like most ballet companies, OBT pays for the bulk of its expenses with a near-even split of earned revenue (from ticket sales and education programs) and donations. And as with arts organizations everywhere, hitting those revenue targets is a yearly gamble. In three of the five fiscal years leading up to 2005-06, OBT posted operating deficits, and it barely covered its expenses in the other two. During 2005-06, the operating deficit reached a $1.9 million nadir when Stowell’s decision to increase the number of annual productions from four to five coincided with the cancellation of $768,421 in previous years’ capital campaign pledges—and fundraising remained stagnant, due at least partly to lengthy vacancies in two upper management positions.
OBT’s current executive director, Jon Ulsh, who was hired in 2006, says he’s gradually been turning the financial boat around; last year’s deficit was just $300,000, and this year he hopes OBT will break even, thanks to steadily rising ticket sales, subscriptions, and private contributions. Still, these are uncertain times for ballet companies all over the country. Since 2001, seven companies with budgets of more than $1 million (in cities such as Oakland, Akron, Cleveland, and Indianapolis) have shut down or cut back operations drastically; by contrast, during the entire 1990s, only one did. John Munger, director of research and information for Dance/USA, a national professional association for dance companies based in Washington, D.C, says that the current rate of failure is “unprecedented.”
Munger posits that philanthropic dollars have been sucked away by an unfortunate convergence of natural disasters and a falling stock market. Now there are signs that many ballet companies are hoping to make up lost revenue by retreating to safer artistic ground—meaning performances that bring more people to the box office. Munger’s preliminary research indicates that last year commenced “an enormous surge toward either classicism or the kind of new work that has built-in name recognition”—ballets created for stories such as Alice in Wonderland or Peter Pan. He’s also noted a surge in “consciously hip, very new” works, choreographed by company members or commissioned through new works festivals, that are less expensive to produce.