Without help, Ballet Kelowna was projected to land $71,000 in the hole this April
With the days of watching Ballet Kelowna numbered, the Canadian School of Ballet’s students poured into the studio to watch final rehearsals Tuesday.
This is how it all began. Artistic director David LaHay, who can still be found in the studio sewing costumes before 8 a.m., was approached by the school’s directors to start a performance group for their senior students as he taught many of them in a Banff summer program.
He took the idea to the next level.
“I felt that there was a need for another small professional ballet company to launch dancers’ careers,” he said. “Everybody said I was absolutely mad to do this from scratch.”
Slated for a final performance in a week and a half, the company was such a success that its demise, ten years later, will leave a serious hole on the national ballet scene and the wider arts community.
There are only a handful of companies of similar size in the country, which means many young Canadians, particularly in Western Canada, simply won’t be exposed to dance.
“We tour quite extensively throughout the province, more and more so into Alberta, and we were just about to enter the Saskatchewan market,” LaHay said.
He is a product of a mid-size Canadian town, Barrie, Ontario, and didn’t start dancing until he was 22 years old, having never had contact with the art form.
“Once I discovered dance and dance chose me, that was the only thing I ever wanted to do,” he said.
As in every artistic pursuit, money has been an issue over the years. When he was dancing for Les Grands Ballets Canadiens de Montreal the company experienced serious financial turmoil, leaving him a personal understanding of how the bottom-line affects a career.
“One thing I’ve learned is that you need to protect the artists,” he said, as the group prepared for dress rehearsals.
Unfortunately, his dancers are very clear on the woes facing their company.
With a surprise announcement that Ballet Company would close it’s doors at the beginning of February, the dancers have been working under great strain, even as donors stepped in to buy them a reprieve to finish the company’s 10th anniversary season.
The actual financial shortfall has never been revealed by the board of directors publicly. A plea for assistance, even to major benefactors, was not made before the group pulled the plug.
But dance supporters have nonetheless rallied.
“I’m really heartened by the level of support the community is showing,” said LaHay, noting ticket sales and membership sales are going strong now.
A fact sheet sent to members in preparation for a closed-door meeting on March 13 stated the monetary problems were more than its members were prepared to take on.
“This harsh ‘fiscal cliff’ presented only two possible outcomes, to immediately wind up the operations of the society in order to settle our financial obligations (effectively closing the doors on February 1st); or to finish the season, which at a ‘burn rate’ of about $45,000 (or more) per month would lead us into deep indebtedness,” it said.
According to the sheet, debt last season and this season would have amounted to $71,000 by April without intervention.
The board of directors also felt it could not proceed with its fundraiser, Pirouette, under the circumstances, leaving the society $180,000 in the hole heading into the 2013/14 season.
With benefactors like Thomas Budd, the company has typically proven a successful member of the arts community locally, and the ballet community nationally.
“For many years, we were considered the success story of a ballet company, making great strides,” said LaHay. “And it took this long for the economic downturn to really reach (us).”
Provincewide, theatres and venues are reporting a 20 to 30 per cent drop in attendance.
And yet, he admits its all still a shock.
Whether the membership dollars currently pouring through the door and ticket sales will actually be enough for the company to start again next year remains to be seen, but LaHay said he knows his impending retirement would not be an issue as the board has suggested.
“I, without a doubt, know that there are the young dancers who are transitioning from performing who would look on Ballet Kelowna as a good opportunity. There’s probably choreographers who are skilled enough to run their own company,” he said.
Now they might never get the chance.
The company’s final performance will take audiences around the world from Spain to Russia to England and back to Canada in a demonstration of how art transcends culture and, in this case, the strain of fiscal and managerial realities.
The pas de trios from Paquita, a story of a beautiful gypsy girl who falls in love with a French nobleman opens the show, followed by Five for Frank, England, a whimsical work choreographed by LaHay himself. The company is one of few commissioning original choreography.
It will be followed by Journey Out of Darkness, a performance designed to move the audience from sorrow to hope, loss to salvation. In Stride, a contemporary jazz-inspired dance, is Canadian and the final number is Be Moved.
The dancers are no doubt hoping those with the financial means to do so will in fact be so inspired to help get the company back on its feet.
Tickets for the March 15 final performance at the Kelowna Community Theatre remain on sale.