Let’s get to the Pointe: Ballet and Business
Throughout history ballet has served many purposes. It has been a form of entertainment, a playful pastime, and a weapon in political culture wars. However, ballet originated and since then has primarily been performed as an art form. It has traditionally been seen as the epitome of beauty, grace, and strength. Becoming a professional ballet dancer requires decades of training and dedication as well as the ability to cope with an exceptionally cutthroat atmosphere. These factors have made ballet one of the most difficult professions in today’s society.
However despite ballet’s deep-seated roots in tradition, recently, it appears that the realm of professional ballet is undergoing a monumental shift. No longer is ballet focused primarily on technique and artistry, but it has also become preoccupied with business. Ballet has flourished into a new industry for many businessmen/women whose priorities are revenue and profits, which often come into conflict with artistic vision.
Drawing in thousands of audience members, New York City Ballet (NYCB) is one of the best ballet companies in the United States and the wider world. Many people are very well acquainted with their shows, which range from classical to modern ballet. The amount of revenue generated from their seasonal performances—whether that be the timeless Nutcracker or iconic Giselle—make this ballet company a new take on what is considered a household name.
But behind the sparkly tutus and tiaras, there is a board of directors, which essentially calls all the shots. This elite group, comprised of mostly elderly individuals, decides funding for the company that they oversee and therefore has indirect control over the direction that a ballet company, like NYCB, takes. In fact, some of the newer members of the NYCB board include: Ajay Banga, the President and CEO of MasterCard; Howard P. Berkowitz, the founder of HPB Associates which is a New York investment firm; Debra Martin Chase, an Emmy nominated television and motion picture producer; and Robert S. Pitts Jr., President and CIO of a New York City based investment management firm. The demographics of not only the newest board members, but also the entire board itself show the impact the business mindset has over the ballet world.
The high proportion of CEOs and founders of firms within a board for a ballet company appears at first blush to be paradoxical. Why would a middle-age man working for an investment firm want to concern himself with the logistics of an art form in which they do not participate in and which is in fact dominated by young girls? The answer appears to be that these men and women know the impact art has on society, specifically the society of the upper class. The members of the board invest their time, money, and energy into an activity that was once only for the elite. These high profile and successful individuals place themselves in the world of ballet in order to appear worldly.
However, by doing this, board members often end up having a large impact on their chosen ballet company. Their end goal is to make money. As mentioned earlier, most of the board members have careers based in areas of finance or consulting. Therefore, it should be no surprise that many board members place an emphasis on profits from shows instead of the artistic vision of the shows. This unfortunately creates conflict between what artistic directors believe, and what board members want. In the end, the company dancers have to listen to what board members say. Their contracts, their ability to perform, and what they eventually get to perform all depend on the directors of the board.
Well-renowned ballet companies, like NYCB, generate thousands of dollars from tours and performances. Additionally, principal dancers and the artistic director easily make over $200,000 for their annual salary. Needless to say, ballet companies, especially NYCB, are moneymaking businesses. However, even though there are the members of the company who make a significant amount of money, the majority of the members, like those that compose the corps de ballet, actually struggle with their finances. What appears to be an industry dominated by technique and classical music is actually affiliated with stocks, operating revenues, and public support from the city of New York itself. There has even been a public discussion about the salary issues. According to the article “Think Everything Is Beautiful at The Ballet?”, ballet companies can have over $60 million annual operating budgets and deficits that are not met by ticket sales and performances. Therefore, board members have to be strict for a reason because at the end of the day, a ballet show cannot compete with the public attention and revenue of an NBA game. The entertainment industry is already competitive, which is why many board members fight with the artistic vision from artistic directors. They want performances that make money and appeal to a wider range of people. However, this becomes problematic when artistic directors sometimes have visions that do not excite the average American.
So who actually suffers in the end? The individuals who do the most work are the ones that get the short end of the stick. The dancers who put in hours of work and put their bodies in positions not natural for humans are the ones that receive the least amount of gratitude and slack. In fact, musicians, costume designers, and even stage crew often receive better benefits and salaries than the dancers within the ballet company.
The Board of Directors can easily be seen as the bad guy in a ballet company. Most, if not all of them, have never been classically trained and do not know the difference between an arabesque and a back attitude. But at the end of the day, critics can argue that without their business mindset, ballet companies would cease to exist. Costumes, choreographers, and production all cost a significant amount of money. And to make the money, ballet companies have to sometimes sacrifice their elite art form and put on performances that are more accessible to the average person. While there is no set silver lining between creating art and creating revenue, ballet companies are finding a way to manage. Whether it is receiving money from endowment groups or using media to bring ballet to a more commercial level, ballet companies are slowly shifting their perspective. New traditions are being created and ballet is defining itself in a new and modern light, both in terms of the lights and business.