Bob Shallit

Sacramento Ballet seeks more stability with big move looming

Dancers Katie Miller and Ava Chatterson leap during a performance of Sacramento Ballet’s “Swan Lake” at the Community Center Theater in March. Arts groups are pushing for a brand new performing arts center.
Dancers Katie Miller and Ava Chatterson leap during a performance of Sacramento Ballet’s “Swan Lake” at the Community Center Theater in March. Arts groups are pushing for a brand new performing arts center. mcrisostomo@sacbee.com

The Sacramento Ballet has long been an artistic success, nationally acclaimed and beloved by local dance fans.

But financially speaking, it’s been caught flat-footed at times – as the early termination of its last season indicated.

Occasionally, “we’ve fallen behind a little bit in terms of revenues equaling expenses,” said Ron Cunningham, who has run the company for almost three decades with his wife and co-artistic director, Carinne Binda.

Now, with the organization set to move into new and larger digs early next year, the ballet has embraced a business plan aimed at creating longer-term stability and no repeats of May’s decision to end the season three weeks early.

The key to the new focus: Finding broader sources of revenue while lowering costs – a process that began with the tough decision to shorten the company’s season, lay off staff and reduce salaries.

“Everybody took a haircut and as a result we’re a much more stable organization,” said Charley Ansbach, a fundraising consultant who took on the job of interim executive director of the ballet about five weeks ago.

Perhaps the biggest change going forward is a commitment to smaller in-studio performances over the coming season, which starts next month and runs through June. With the exception of the annual “Nutcracker” performances, which generate almost $1 million in revenue and involve 500 local children, the dance company will forgo big-theater productions in favor of intimate performances before 100 to 125 people.

They’ll be held initially at the company’s cramped space at 17th and K streets, then at the more expansive Studios for the Performing Arts at 24th and N streets.

One advantage of the in-studio performances is obvious. “There are virtually no expenses,” Cunningham said.

Seeing dance for the first time, up close and personal ... can be very compelling and turn people into real aficionados.

Ron Cunningham

Another is the potential for what Cunningham calls “audience development.”

“A lot of people seeing dance for the first time, up close and personal, where you see the muscles working and the sweat pouring off their faces, it can be very compelling and turn people into real aficionados.”

In terms of revenue generation, the company has hired its first full-time fundraiser, Erica Kobbe. One of her key tasks: Generate some of the $317,000 needed for tenant improvements in the new space.

The organization’s board also is stepping up its fundraising efforts and working to build money-producing relationships with local businesses.

One initiative in the very early stages includes a possible collaboration with the Sacramento Kings that would take advantage of the basketball team’s marketing and public relations expertise.

Another, also in the early stages, is using the company’s dancers as community ambassadors for health, appearing at schools and other venues under the sponsorships of groups like Western Health Advantage or Kaiser.

One selling point: Having dancers perform at schools, then talk with kids about the benefits of healthy living might just have more impact than another lecture about the food pyramid.

“Dancers can become role models … when it comes to proper nutrition, proper rest and taking care of yourself,” Binda said.

Another additional source of revenue will come from an expansion of Sacramento Ballet’s dance school once the move is made to the new studios.

Started a decade ago with 65 students, the school now has 350 people enrolled and Binda envisions that growing to 500 within a year at the new space. With tuition ranging from $700 to $4,000 annually, adding 150 more students will be significant.

Finally, the organization is looking internally for more support; board members are being asked to pony up bigger donations, and pitches for contributions also will be made to the families of Nutcracker participants and dance school students.

“Some have the capacity for $10 and others for $1,000,” Binda said, but the idea is the same. “To keep arts alive, you have to invest in it.”

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