The Milwaukee Ballet
In artistic director Michael Pink and executive director Dennis Buehler, the company at last has strong leaders who see eye to eye. Pink came to Milwaukee in December of 2002. Buehler joined him two and a half years ago. So the ballet has some continuity in leadership, too.
Pink has redefined the company. It is no longer modeled on the old ballet hierarchy (prima-principal-soloist-corp-apprentice-student). Pink has emphasized the ensemble aspect of the company. He has hired more flexible dancers and looked for theatrical flair to go with technique. He rarely goes for the big 19th-century classics, long the company’s bread and butter. He tends toward somewhat leaner abstract or narrative ballets by other choreographers, notably Trey McIntyre and Mark Godden. His own work has a blockbuster quality. Sometimes, he gets blockbuster results, as with his recent smash-hit Peter Pan.
Buehler’s sharp business mind and great interpersonal skills have upgraded the Milwaukee Ballet’s business practices and relations with donors and foundations. The company has never tracked finances with the detail and ongoing transparency that it does today. Buehler said that they reassess the budget not annually, but quarterly.
Buehler managed to retire the company’s long-term debt, about $400,000, two years ago. But MBC still has plenty of problems. It has no endowment to speak of and no reserve of operating capital.
The balance as we spoke was about $400,000, but that goes up and down with cash flow and expenses. In terms of revenue vs. operating expenses, Buehler expects to report a balanced budget at the end of the fiscal year.
“But we basically have no money in the bank,” he said. “We need a stronger fiscal footing. We need to establish an operating reserve at 10 percent of our budget.”
That would be about $500,000, as the ballet’s budget for 2010-11 will be about $5.25 million. (“But we reassess that budget every week,” Buehler said, when he gave me the number. That means that if the numbers aren’t working out, he and Pink will find a way to adjust expenses on the fly.)
That was Buehler’s first priority. His second is infrastructure.
The Jody Peck Center, the ballet’s 5th and National home for over 30 years, is falling apart. On the day of the interview, they were cleaning up after a major roof leak during the previous night’s downpour. But Buehler and Pink believe that simply spending a few million to refurbish their current building would not be sufficient.
“The space no longer meets our needs,” Buehler said. “We’ve outgrown it, and the Milwaukee Ballet School has outgrown it.”
Buehler is thinking about things on a larger scale — much bigger than a new building. He and Pink envision a complex with a large studio that could also serve as a theater with 300 or so seats. The ballet would not be the sole occupant. Buehler has been quietly meeting with donors, foundations, real estate developers, the City of Milwaukee and other arts groups around town to build partnerships in creating what he sees as a “destination building.”
This is not just idle talk; the Dohmen Family Foundation last fall gave the ballet $1 million, spread over ten years [updated], to get it off the ground.
Buehler says the reception has been very good so far. (Donors and foundations do love the word “collaboration.”)
“This is a pragmatic and unique approach,” Buehler said. “We’re building momentum for the idea. The downturn is a good time to plan and build advocacy. When the economy comes out of recession, we want to hit the ground running. The ballet is taking the lead on this, but it won’t be just a ballet effort.”
He promised further announcements in the fall, including formation of a project cabinet to get down to specifics. Buehler wouldn’t talk about potential partners, but rumors about some partnership with UWM’s Peck School of the Arts have been circulating for more than a year. Buehler said that no timeline has been established, but that he believed the project could be completed within five years.
Pink believes that such a building, especially if it were placed in a high-visibility location, could raise the profile of the company within the community. He laughed about his neighbor asking him why his picture is on a building in Walker’s Point. His own neighbor had no idea that Milwaukee has a ballet company or that Pink ran it.
Even so, MBC managed to sell about 40,000 tickets in 2009-2010.
“Subscription sales last year were tremendous,” Pink said.
It was, however, the 40th anniversary season and the ballet’s year of family-friendly dances. Cinderella, Peter Pan and The Nutcracker (usually non-subscription, but on the list last season), all Pink theatricals and all very charming, had people flocking to the ballet in rare numbers.
Pink and Buehler cautioned that they do not expect to match those numbers in 2010-11.
“Pan was like an NBA playoff game, with people outside the theater holding signs for tickets,” Buehler said. “It’s nice that we had two years of subscription increases after 10 years of declines, but you can’t say, ‘Well, we sold $1.6 million in tickets last season, so we have to sell
$1.61 this year.'”
Buehler expects to take in about $1.5 million at the box office next season. The season includes Pink’s Esmeralda, apparently a revamped version of his Hunchback of Notre Dame. Also on the bill: The Nutcracker (Pink’s version is beautiful, funny and warm); the semi-annual Genesis Choreography Competition (always intriguing); Three, an evening of new works by the ballet’s own Petr Zahradnicek, Diane Coburn Bruning and Darrel Grand Moultrie; and Coppelia, a treacly French 19th century classic that might well benefit from Pink’s deft way with comedy.
For further details and to subscribe, visit the Milwaukee Ballet website.