The Milwaukee Ballet, with five years of good balance sheets and the Harmony Initiative, is on a roll.
A sentence I never thought I’d write: “The Milwaukee Ballet has run five straight years in the black.”
Well, take off the scare quotes. The Milwaukee Ballet has run five straight years in the black. And they haven’t been the easiest five years of American economic history, either. How have Michael Pink, artistic director, and Dennis Buehler, executive director, done it?
Through exercising caution, building in flexibility and reining in ambition.
“We have to remind people that it’s still very precarious,” Buehler said, in a joint interview with Pink. “All it takes is a wrong choice here and there.”
Many arts leaders measure success by budget and funding growth. Not Buehler. The Milwaukee Ballet Company’s budget has held steady at around $5.5 million since Buehler came on, in 2007.
“We’re using the same dollars, but using them differently,” Buehler said. “We’re much stronger financially with the same resources, and that’s been gratifying. We’ve had very good box office and income from the school. And we budget to programming. So it might be $5.7 million one year and $5.2 the next.”
For example, it cost extra money to build Michael Pink’s Peter Pan in the 2009-10 season, but not so much to re-mount it in 2012. But the show was just as much of a box office smash the second time around, and thus more profitable. Furthermore, Pink’s feel for what sells has grown keener each year. When one of his shows — Dracula, say — does well here, other companies take an interest in restaging it. Those companies rent the Milwaukee Ballet’s sets and costumes to do so, thus ringing MBC’s cash register.
Along those lines, Pink is creating a ballet version of Puccini’s La Boheme, the most popular opera on the planet, to open the 2012-13 season Oct. 18-21 at Marcus Center Uihlein Hall. Andrews Sill, the company’s music director, is arranging a purely orchestral version of Puccini’s music. This piece has box-office magic written all over it, but it’s the sort of project that appeals to Pink. Narrative, evening-length ballets have been his specialty throughout his career.
“When you take out the words out (the vocal recitative) it’s a tight little score,” Pink said. “The story’s staying exactly as it is, but set in the Paris of the 1950s — which didn’t really look that much different than the Paris of the 1840s (the time of the original short stories and Puccini’s opera).”
Pink said that the ’50s setting gives costumer Paul Daigle a great chance to riff on Parisian fashions of the time. Rick Graham has designed a flexible cityscape on sliding panels that leaves plenty of space for dancing.
“And they fold away, so they’ll fit in one trailer,” Pink noted. That means they’re cost-efficient to rent and transport. “In the back of my little warped mind, I’m thinking we could rent the production to opera companies, too.”
Swan Lake, the Petipa/Ivanov/Tchaikovsky classic, was the Milwaukee Ballet’s all-time box-office champ before Pink arrived. He’s been reluctant to stage a full version because MBC just doesn’t have enough dancers to populate the stage at a level acceptable to him. Pink put on a condensed version with almost all new choreography on here in 2006. I thought it didn’t work all that well then, but Pink will take another pass at it at the end of this season, May 16-19.
“Maybe they’ll (Odette and Prince Siegfried) live this time,” Pink joked. “I’m seeing them in leather and foam…”
“The thing is, we have our own sets and costumes for Swan Lake. And we have some really interesting dancers for it. We’ll split the roles of Odette and Odile between two dancers, as we did before, to share the wealth. And it will change from the last time. The last scene needs something.”
The biennial Genesis International Choreography Competition will return to the Pabst Theater , Feb. 7-10. The thrill of victory etc. has really caught on with the company’s audience, so this show should do well. The hardest sell, traditionally, is the spring mixed-rep program program at Uihlein Hall. Darrell Grand Moultrie returns with Simply Sammy, a tribute to Sammy Davis, Jr., which could attract some attention. It’s paired with a setting of Mozart’s Requiem, by newcomer Amy Siewert, April 11-14.
Pink’s warm and wonderful The Nutcracker will again fill the holiday season, Dec. 8-26. He feels no need to change a thing, and I agree. But the company is spending some money to spruce up Zack Brown’s glorious set, which is taking on some years.
So it looks like a typical Pink-Buehler season at the Milwaukee Ballet — a little on the conservative side, aimed at framing the company’s excellent dancers in the best light, being just provocative enough on the artistic side, and conceived with an eye on the bottom line.
Buehler confirmed that the ballet and its partners have essentially settled on the site now occupied by the Marcus Center’s crumbling parking structure. Proximity to the Marcus Center, the high visibility and the fact that the City of Milwaukee owns the land make the spot ideal.
“The City of Milwaukee has been unbelievably supportive,” Buehler said. “We’re not going somewhere where we’d take property off the tax rolls.”
Buehler et al. have been quietly laying the groundwork over the last year, with no splashy fund-raisers or fanciful architectural renderings.
“We have been fairly quiet,” Buehler said. “But we’ve made significant progress. Everyone wants to see pretty pictures, but we want to take the right approach and create the infrastructure, governance and business models first. We’ve created a new 501c3 organization, the Harmony Foundation, which would operate the facility and have its own board. Now we’re looking into architectural feasibility, to meet the parking needs of the Marcus Center and to have storefronts on the ground floor. We’re getting close to a project that will be not only transformative, but viable.”
Milwaukee County owns the parking structure.
“We’re waiting on the county, to make sure it works for their parking needs,” Buehler said. “There’s always the possibility that Milwaukee County won’t agree. But people have appreciated our slow, methodical approach. The design must meet everyone’s needs and must be clearly understood all around. But if we can all agree, we’re off to the races.”
The Harmony Initiative recently won a $100,000 National Endowment for the Arts grant for design work. That’s a drop in the money bucket for a project in the tens of millions, but important symbolically.
“That’s like the Good Housekeeping Seal of Approval for donors,” Buehler said.
“All the parties have to align their needs and strategies correctly. Together, we can leverage so much more than we can by ourselves.”
Don’t miss anything! Bookmark Matthew Reddin’s TCD guide to the 2012-13 season, which lists events by all of Milwaukee’s performing arts groups. Brought to you by the Florentine Opera.