Indianapolis Ballet still standing 

"Oh my, people come and go so quickly here," exclaims Dorothy in the Land of Oz. In Indianapolis, the same holds true about the coming and going of resident ballet companies. First Indianapolis Ballet Theatre morphed into Ballet Internationale. Then there was BI's untimely demise. It wasn't bad dancing that shuttered the operation -- it was bad management. And now, after a 5-year run, the Russian Ballet Academy of Indiana and its affiliated Indiana Ballet Company have closed due to similar fiscal woes.

One dual school and performing organization, however, seems to be defying the revolving door syndrome with a solid business plan supporting its artistic mission. In 2006, entrepreneur-philanthropist Karl Zimmer, with founding artistic director Victoria Lyras and a board of seasoned non-profit and business leaders, crafted the original documents for Indianapolis School of Ballet (ISB) and Indianapolis Ballet (IB) "to keep ballet at the center of the city" with its location at 502 North Capitol Street and its vision "to stand alongside" the long-established arts organizations serving greater Indianapolis.

Zimmer's recognized acumen is cited as the keystone to "how we do business," according to ISB/IB business manager Lori Schlabach. That translates into understanding and following through on all the governmental requirements for running a non-profit organization along with maintaining artistic integrity.

"The whole business model was set up before we opened to ensure we grow incrementally, solidly," says Lyras. "I personally filled in the forms for our 501[c]3 status so I am aware of compliance issues. And we made sure we are not taking anything away from what was already here. Our goal is to add to the arts community, to grow partnerships."

Lyras, whose 40+-year career in ballet started as a 5-year-old at the School of American Ballet, is one of a dozen original Balanchine dancers to utilize his highly successful model for viable companies [school and performing] throughout the United States. Drawing upon this pool for the ISB/IB artistic advisory board, Lyras says she has access to a roadmap of what can go wrong as well as what's on-target to reach the stated vision and mission.

"In first starting a school with teachers who have varied experiences as professionals, Vicky is doing what Balanchine understood to be the successful way to build a performing company and to engage people in the community in valuing its place in American dance," explains Barbara Weisberger, a Balanchine protégé who is recognized by dance historians as the visionary dancer and founder of the Pennsylvania Ballet, during a telephone conversation from her home in Pennsylvania.

"The first step is finding the beauty in the talent of a child, of a young dancer. The second is to build from this training a company where these dancers, and others who feel they belong together, have a special spirit." It is "this love of carrying on and making a contribution to American dance" that Weisberger feels energizes the community-at-large to want to support their professional ballet company with attendance and sponsorships.

"Our instrument is the human body. The responsibility is to put the talent into it. American dancers need to have a wide range. We are trying to do new work along with the classics. Vicky's love, experience and understanding of what to do in the right way is the other half of success," says Weisberger.

"We have a different approach from other [dance] groups," says Jeffrey J. Kirk, II, who became chair of the board directors when Zimmer stepped into 'chairman emeritus' last year. "We first are developing dancers to support our artistic mission. We are training them here, helping them through Vicky's educational and artistic connections to get further training and experience elsewhere and then inviting them back to form the core of our city's resident ballet company. We think of ourselves as partnering with educational institutions and other companies to develop the next generation."

Kirk points out that "people we bring in for ISB master classes are not just coming in for this lesson and going away. People we invite connect with our students in the ongoing process of learning from each other. It's through Vicky's connections with leaders of other companies that our graduating students are able to have possibilities for advancement.

"We want to build a homegrown company to showcase our talent here. In the process of developing our school we are making a contribution to the educational fabric of our community."

Kirk points to studies showing that dance training helps students do better in regular school studies. "They are more disciplined and positive in their attitudes, more willing to be challenged and to perform to their highest potential."

Karl Zimmer's hand is apparent in the way the board operates "to ensure that the company and its employees conduct business in an ethical manner to best serve the interests and future of the organization; to maintain fiscal responsibility via controlled and planned growth in an incremental fashion while stimulating public interest and support..."

"People see the arts as wanting their money with no return," observes Rebecca Rutt, emeritus director of the Jordan College Academy of Dance. As a member of the advisory board she emphasizes the importance of "connecting with other entities to show arts are central to our everyday lives. We need to engage people in business, people in government, people in all walks of life with the vibrancy of our being downtown in the midst of what we are about as a city with a downtown that's exciting. When donors feel we are partners with them in growing the city with the arts they become part of art." Rutt points to the importance of "going to where people gather."

During its almost four-year tenure ISB students, in addition to presenting public programs annually at the Scottish Rite Cathedral, have appeared throughout the community including programs at the Athenaeum, Penrod, Indianapolis International Airport, and at the Artsgarden, where the emphasis is as much about engaging the audience in the process of making a dance as it is on the dance itself.

"I have complete faith in Karl's unique vision," stated Kirk. Zimmer, for his part, has stated his faith in "Vicky's ability to provide central Indiana with a teaching and learning environment in step with the advancement of American dance in the 21st century."

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Rita Kohn

Rita Kohn

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Rita Kohn has been covering craft beer and the arts for NUVO for two decades. She’s the author of True Brew: A Guide to Craft Beer in Indiana.

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