Ballet dancers must be nut jobs.
They work five days a week or more, performing strenuous acts of physical fortitude and contorting themselves into positions that defy the laws of physics and gravity. They risk injuries comparable to those suffered by football players and wrestlers, while at the same time conforming to an impossible standard of grace and beauty.
Many develop eating disorders or suffer ambiguous maladies induced by stress. Most of their careers are over by the age of 35-that is, if they're even able to obtain a position as a paid professional.
And for what?
Ballet companies don't tend to sell as many foam fingers or $8 beers, and PBS and Bravo aren't exactly in a bidding war to broadcast nationally the Bolshoi Ballet's interpretation of The Nutcracker. So dancers obviously don't rake in the cash.
In 2002, his last season as a San Diego Charger, Rodney Harrison was fined $100,000-more than three times as much as most professional ballet dancers earn for a full year's work (less than $30,000).
That, of course, is assuming they're paid-apprentices perform in exchange for lessons, shoes and the rather-remote possibility of a 36-week contract. Perhaps that's why most ballet dancers can say, while looking you in the eye, that they're in love with what they do.
Such dedication and talent is rare-especially among 20-somethings, an age group not typically known for singular focus or unerring discipline. Still, most Americans would prefer reruns of Insomniac to the visual pleasures of ballet.
Perhaps it's because people relate to Dave Attell-his drunken antics ease the guilt of our own debilitating vices. Or perhaps people are simply unaware of the talent that surrounds them.
“Does San Diego know what they have? No!” asserts Jo Anne Emery, managing director of San Diego City Ballet.
City Ballet is the smallest of San Diego's resident ballet companies, the other two being California Ballet and San Diego Ballet. Each company puts on four to five productions per season (early fall to late spring). All are nonprofit organizations that rely on funding from corporate and private donors, grants and funds allocated by the city, county and, until recently, the state.
California Ballet is one of the city's larger companies, with 25 paid dancers and nine to 12 apprentices. For the fiscal year ending in June 2003, it had an $822,849 budget. Earned income (including $540,647 in ticket sales) provided the company with $1,164,375. Corporate sponsorship, individual contributions and funding from the city and county totaled $404,864.
“You could look at these figures two ways,” proposes Maxine Mahon, the company's director. “You could say, ‘Wow, they are doing really well.' Or you could say, ‘Boy, they don't have very many contributions.'
“We are still very under-funded by corporations.”
Corporate sponsorship and individual contributions are essential to the financial well-being of San Diego's arts organizations. By comparison to other fine arts, the San Diego Opera receives more than half of its $14 million annual budget from donations (including city and county funding). Fifty-five percent of the San Diego Symphony's $11 million annual budget is donated.
Says Emery, “Now it's time for ballet.”
And this year especially, ballet could use the support. Reacting to the its budget crisis, the city cut 10 percent of ballet's funding. San Diego City Ballet lost $9,000-the equivalent of one dancer's salary. That also means one less apprentice who will be able to dance her way up through the ranks to a paid position.
Ticket sales, unfortunately, provide only a small amount of revenue.
“Ticket sales never cover the cost of a performance,” says Emery. “Only three-quarters of the cost ever comes from ticket sales.”
Last year, San Diego City Ballet made $134,692 of its $396,015 budget from tickets.
The sad truth is that, in recent years, ballet has been unable to attract a larger audience. This phenomenon was aptly documented by Angus MacQueen in Dancing for Dollars: Bolshoi in Vegas. The film chronicles the sad spectacle of a 1996 Las Vegas performance by the Bolshoi Ballet, generally regarded as the best in the world.
Backed by elderly investors in Wyoming, the Russian celebrities traversed continents, arriving at the Excalibur casino to a less than optimum situation. The stage was unfinished, ruling out any sort of dress rehearsal. The orchestra had no proper place to play. Costumes and instruments were missing. Adding insult to injury, management couldn't even give tickets away (which they tried to do in an effort to reduce the mounting embarrassment of the event).
In the end, the Bolshoi Ballet received nothing but its advance. Investors lost $1.8 million.
Aside from poor planning and marketing, blame can also be attributed to the lack of arts education in American schools. Without public education, the Elvis Presleys or Bob Dylans of the ballet world receive little recognition. Then there's the perception that classical ballet is an exercise in cultural nostalgia for old theater buffs, rather than an art form brimming with joie de vivre.
San Diego City Ballet director Stephen Wistrich begs to differ: “You don't really have to know anything to enjoy a ballet. It's really a very visual experience. It can appeal to anybody and everybody.”
Yet ballet companies know that perception is often reality, so most incorporate contemporary repertoires to update their appeal. It's not uncommon for ballerinas to dance to techno or rock music, perform in sublime costumes or choreograph their pieces to spoken word. City Ballet of San Diego puts on a yearly production called Ballet on the Edge, which Whistrich describes as “always the unexpected” and “very eclectic.”
Whistrich and his dancers are the enlightened nut jobs raging gracefully against the dying of the light. The question is, will anyone-the state, the city, you, I-find reason to fund the struggle?