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Tripping the Light Financial:  Professional Dance Funding Shrinking

Monday, June 12, 2000 at 9:16 AM

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The world of dance has made headlines recently, both nationally and internationally, due to economic and management problems. Northeast Ohio's dance community has had it own share of financial woes. The Cleveland San Jose Ballet and the Akron-based Ohio Ballet are local troupes with national reputations. Still, they have troubles filling seats back home, leaving some to wonder about the viability of professional dance in an era of dwindling funding. 90.3's David C. Barnett reports.

David C. Barnett- Like many performing arts groups, the Cleveland San Jose Ballet has often danced around deficits, but in the past two years, the financial footing has become particularly shaky. Some rent payments have been missed, there’s been personnel cuts, and payrolls have been precarious. As executive director, Richard Bennett has overseen the fortunes and misfortunes of the Cleveland troupe over the past four years. The rave reviews he was used to reading slowly turned into reports of financial difficulties. Bennett says it’s not like they haven’t tried to balance the books.

Richard Bennett- People have only so many dollars to spend on entertainment, and it comes down to what is your definition of entertainment? A few years back, we really got hurt competition-wise when Nutcracker on Ice came to the Gund Arena. We had budgeted $2 million for Nutcracker tickets that year, and came up about $500,000 short.

DCB- Nevertheless, Cleveland’s version of the Nutcracker has entertained audiences for twenty years, inspiring many young dancers along the way.

Cleveland City Dance is one of dozens of local schools where novices, attired in tights and toeshoes, try to learn and hone their dance skills. Students are being put through their paces by David Shimotakahara, a former star of the Ohio Ballet, who left that troupe last year to teach, and concentrate on his own company, The GroundWorks DanceTheater.

One of David Shimotakahara’s chief influences was the charismatic Heinz Poll, who ran the Ohio Ballet for three decades, until his retirement last year. Under Poll’s tutelage, he learned much about the elements of dance. And the expensive business of dance.

David Shimotakahara- Salaries, technicians...you have musicians...you have dancers...you have staff...you have an enormous number of people. More and more, the economics of it just don’t add up in terms of what you can actually charge as a box office ticket price - it just doesn’t balance out.

DCB- Shimotakahara’s fledgling Groundworks DanceTheater doesn’t have the option of a big staff or fancy theaters. The troupe performs when and where it can - a fact that he cheerfully spins into an artistic advantage.

DS- We go to non-traditional venues because: a) they’re cheaper. But also because we’re going to places that dance isn’t normally associated with - that may attract people to our concerts who might not normally come to a theater.

Chris Tabor- You have to learn a lot of different skills if you want to continue in the business, because you have to make the distinction between the art - and the business.

DCB- Former dancer Chris Tabor is the “Regisseur” for the Cleveland/San Jose Ballet. Like a building contractor, he takes the choreographer’s design and translates it to the stage. Tabor and his wife Lynn have worked with the Cleveland Ballet from it’s early days. They’ve seen changes in audience, repertoire, and personnel, including the resignation of executive director Richard Bennett last month. The Tabors are survivors in an artistic business where the rules are changing.

CT- I just think that dance is going to have to evolve along with whatever other social changes are roiling beneath the surface. To live in the past is not gonna work. You’re going to have to find out what that climate is. What sells. What people want. How you can make your company relevant to the society. And how to get the funding, in order to continue.

DCB- As David Shimotakahara’s students continue to work on a piece of basic choreography, he stands to one side, reflecting on what they’re learning - and what he has learned from a life in dance.

DS- I think it was Ballanchine who said that dance is like selling ice cream to the Eskimos. It really is because people don’t see most of the arts as a commodity in their life. And yet we all know that a life without art - without the ideas that art gives us - is a pretty barren existence.

DCB- As Shimotakahara walks to the front of the class, he gracefully stretches his arms out, surveys the faces of his students in the studio mirror, and leads them into a high-flown life of ideas far above the bottom line.

In Cleveland, David C.Barnett, 90.3 WCPN, 90.3 FM.

Additional Information

* The Cleveland San Jose Ballet
* The GroundWorks DanceTheater

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