I hope this city's cultural advocates will draw some constructive conclusions from last week's news about the shut-down of Ballet Internationale. Some good and dedicated people have lost their jobs and it's a shame to bid farewell to the Clara Noyes Academy where so many young people found themselves by taking dance instruction. But the folding of the city's professional ballet company does not equal a cultural crisis.
In 2001, I wrote about how Ballet Internationale was trying to dig itself out of a $700,000 hole. At that time, the company had managed to run afoul of the IRS, the State of Indiana and the Department of Workforce Development. But it was hoped that hiring a full-time bookkeeper and the implementation of better communications between board members and staff would improve the situation. BI's leadership was determined to build better support among corporate contributors and to better market itself to the local community. For a while, it looked like BI had a plan - at least that's what the Lilly Endowment must have thought, because the Endowment eventually came to BI's rescue with a major grant.
It turns out that wasn't enough.
Professional ballet, of course, is a notoriously expensive proposition. BI carries 27 paid dancers and a support staff of 16. Its annual operating budget is approximately $3 million for a season that consists of four productions, including The Nutcracker every December. While Ballet Internationale was doubtless sincere about its desire to set its house in order, the revelation that it is now facing a $1 million debt suggests that this organization was addicted to living beyond its means.
But this problem might have been overcome if the company had worked to build a rapport with the community. Indianapolis, after all, is often tagged for being an artistically conservative town. This should have been fertile ground for one of the most traditional artforms, the ballet. Indeed, there are many people here who cling to the rickety notion that a professional ballet company somehow goes with a culturally sophisticated city the way a blue blazer goes with gray slacks.
No doubt the board thought it was executing a masterstroke when it hired the Russian dancer Eldar Aliev to be artistic director in 1994. Perhaps they thought they were doing what the Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra had done so successfully a few years before, when the ISO hired the internationally renowned Raymond Leppard to be its music director.
Leppard not only brought a world-class artistic reputation to Indianapolis, he exemplified zest and enthusiasm. He embraced the city and became an ambassador for the ISO and the music that it played. In spite of a busy schedule, rehearsing here and making guest appearances with other ensembles around the world, Leppard managed to find the time to become a local celebrity. The payoff for the ISO - in goodwill and financial support - was tremendous.
Eldar Aliev has been another type completely. Aliev was hired by the Indianapolis Ballet Theatre. But no sooner did he get here than he declared that the name of his new employer was a loser. He planned on touring the company abroad, he said, and sophisticated people in Europe would have no interest in seeing a company from Indianapolis. This conveniently overlooked the fact that if the company had a great reputation maybe people elsewhere would develop an interest. But never mind. The ballet's board bought Aliev's line and, in the process, managed to estrange themselves from the hometown audience.
Over the ensuing years, BI's board bought a lot from Aliev. In spite of the fact that he was one of the most highly compensated artists living here - with a salary of $101,650 plus expenses - he projected little more than disdain for this place. He kept to the studio and rarely ventured out. This served the rigors of his discipline, but it ignored the public dimension of his job. And where Leppard did his best to adapt to the complexities and competitive nature of arts funding in the U.S., Aliev reportedly remained in Soviet mode, believing that the virtues his company brought to Indianapolis were self-evident and should be supported without question.
There is no doubt that Ballet Internationale presented a worthy and thoroughly accomplished product to audiences in Indianapolis. But in developing its offerings, Aliev and Co. often seemed unsure of who they were. Productions whip-sawed between modern ballets and museum pieces. Instead of being gripped and engaged, many audience members could be excused for thinking they were being given a kind of lesson in ballet appreciation.
That the backing Ballet Internationale expected never materialized should come as a shock to no one. The company's failure to come to terms with its community spelled its demise. But this wasn't the community's fault. Ballet Internationale saw Indianapolis as an obstacle to overcome rather than an asset to be embraced. Time and again, members of this community bailed BI out only to be blamed for a lack of support. You have to wonder what the arts scene might be like today if some of the millions lavished on BI over the past five years had, instead, been invested in our new generation of performing artists. Maybe now we'll have a chance to find out.