Madison Ballet reduces season and dancer corps to rebuild

Officials anticipate cuts will help regain footing
Madison Ballet reduces season and dancer corps to rebuild
Photo courtesy of Madison Ballet
The Madison Ballet will again stage "The Nutcracker."

Only two shows are scheduled for the 2018-19 season — “The Nutcracker” at Overture Hall and a mixed repertory piece in spring 2019. The company previously produced four to five shows per season.

The 2017 edition of “The Nutcracker,” which sold 13,000 tickets, was the most prosperous show in Madison Ballet history.

The corps of contracted dancers has been slashed from 16 to four, and Madison Ballet managing director Gretchen Bourg says that a pick-up company will be hired for “The Nutcracker.” A pick-up company is a group of dancers employed on a per production basis.

The changes come on the heels of the resignation of W. Earle Smith, who was Madison Ballet’s artistic director for 19 years. He retired in March following the company’s performance of “Rise.” Smith will remain involved this fall and winter as his choreography will be used for “The Nutcracker.”

Corkey Custer, Madison Ballet’s board treasurer and former board president, says Smith established a high standard of artistic excellence that the organization wants to maintain. Revamping with a solid business model is the board’s main focus.

“It’s fair to say that we’re in a rescue and rebuild phase, but it’s also fair to say we’re trying to keep Madison Ballet going on it’s own model,” Custer says. “We’re rebuilding it with, and starting from, a business structure. We’re confident that the standard of artistic excellence that was set by Earle is going to remain.”

An interim artistic director will be brought in to oversee “The Nutcracker” as the search for a full-time artistic director continues. An interim director should be in place this month, but an expanded Madison Ballet board could take its time in filling the full-time position. The board also expects to hire an executive director to oversee fund raising.

Bourg says the ballet experienced rapid growth but didn’t have the infrastructure and staff in place to support it. The ideal financial ratio for the company is 25 percent earned revenue through ticket sales and school tuition and 75 percent contributed revenue.

Custer says the company took a financial hit after its 2015 production of “Dracula.” The work was presented for the first time to rave reviews in 2013 — lauded for its innovative choreography, music and costumes. But “Dracula” was an expensive and complex piece that didn’t have financial success the second time around.

“If the entire staff is working on getting a ballet produced and no one is working on building a funder base, you end up with a shaky financial situation,” Custer says. “And that’s where we found ourselves. That’s why we had to make these financial changes, and that’s why we’re entering a rebuilding phase.”