The Business Of Ballet

June 5, 2002
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GRAND RAPIDS — While most area firms are dancing for profits, one local organization has been profiting from dance — and has done so for nearly three decades.

The Grand Rapids Ballet, the only professional dance company in the state, will open for its 30th season of business in October with a repeat performance of “Dracula” in DeVos Hall. A skeptic might not agree with using the term “business” as a way to describe the Ballet, but the word does seem to fit after a closer look.

The Ballet employs 10 staff members, 10 dancers and about 15 teachers and pianists. It has an annual budget of $1.2 million, and is one of four tenants that officials of the Grand Center regularly count on for revenue.

So even though the Ballet has been a stable enterprise for a fairly long time, there still is one long-standing misconception about the company that needs to be cleared up.

“Most people think that our professional dancers have day jobs and this is volunteer work. This just isn’t indicative of here, but also I’ve found that to be the case with all the other ballet companies that I’ve worked for in the past,” said Bob Bondlow, managing director of the GR Ballet since January 2000 and a veteran who has been in the dance business since 1979.

“It is a professional job. Our dancers come in on a daily basis during their 35-week contract that starts right after Labor Day and ends with Festival, and they work. They work a full day and they are paid for it,” he added. “And this is a big part of our budget.”

So why does the Ballet pay its dancers, unlike some other dance troupes? Because it makes for better business.

“When you do pay the artists, you’re more likely to get a better product. These people are committed, and we’re going to attract people to the area to work,” said Bondlow.

As for the company’s revenue, 54 percent of it is earned, while the rest comes from grants and contributions. The Ballet reaches 60,000 people each year. Women aged 40 to 65 are most of its customers most of the time. The notable exception is “The Nutcracker.” The Tchaikovsky holiday classic draws all ages and is a favorite of area families.

“We’re also trying to attract a younger audience. Particularly, we’re looking for people that have the disposable income to come to our shows, and that’s usually your professionals. And we’re trying to attract the 20s-and-30s crowd because, eventually, they will be our 40s-and-50s audience,” said Bondlow.

Season subscribers have grown between 5 percent and 10 percent each year for the past few years, and the Ballet sells a good deal of walk-up tickets. The dance company also offers two mini-packages, which lets customers see two of the three shows.

This season the Ballet will again have three performances. Following “Dracula” will be “The Nutcracker,” and then “Cinderella” will look for her Prince Charming in the finale next March. By the way, the Ballet uses live music for its performances, which is uncommon in the industry, and hires musicians from the GR Symphony.

As for performance fees, the Ballet doesn’t have to pay one for every story it tells. Some music is in the free public-domain file, but the company has to pay to use other scores. In general, the fee is a complex equation that charges the larger companies more than the smaller ones. This method gives almost every dance company a chance to tell a story.

“It has to do with the size of the organization, the size of the theater, the number of performances, and anticipated ticket sales. There are a lot of different variables involved. It goes up with the cost of living, but not at huge increases,” said Bondlow. “It allows for a broad range of companies to produce the same work.”

But the business of the Ballet is more than its performances at DeVos Hall. The company also dances at St. Cecilia’s and Festival, and teaches dance to about 200 students each year. On top of all that, its outreach program reaches nearly 6,000 elementary school children.

“One thing that we’ve noticed from the SMG perspective is the artistic vision of the Ballet has continued to grow exponentially. Yet, they’ve also been able to maintain a more pragmatic rounding. So they have been able to combine both the business sense with the artistic vision that they are trying to create,” said Rich MacKeigan, general manager of the Grand Center and Van Andel Arena.

“As those of us who deal with folks in the arts world know, that is often a difficult goal to attain,” he added. “We have been very, very impressed for the last couple of years with their front-office folks, as well as continuing to be impressed with the creative folks at the Ballet.”

MacKeigan said that Bondlow has been a strong influence in getting the Ballet to that often unattainable mix of business and art. But, as Bondlow readily admits, he isn’t done yet.

“Many people think of ballet as very staid: women in tutus dancing to a very kind of slow music. Everybody thinks, this is art and we should like it,” he said. “We’re trying to show people that it’s exciting, it’s dynamic and it’s very athletic, and we are using a variety of different types of music that will showcase that.”  

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