This Thanksgiving Day, Ballet West and all ballet fans of Utah will have something extra to be thankful for - the generosity of the George S. and Dolores Dore Eccles Foundation, which has provided funds for live orchestra music for the remainder of the season, beginning with "Nutcracker" performances in Ogden Friday and Saturday, Nov. 23 and 24.
Their generous gift of $300,000 will also enable the company to retire its indebtedness to the Utah Symphony for past services, a nagging accumulation that has dragged on the company's finances for many years. Indeed, I can't remember a time when I didn't hear about the size of the ballet's debt to the symphony; sometimes less and sometimes more, but always a fact of life, weighing on the conscience.Along with other perks of living in this valley (many of them not completely recognized by their beneficiaries), Utahns have become extraordinarily spoiled by always having live music with their ballet.
Ballet West grew out of "Nutcracker" performances at the University of Utah in the '50s, spearheaded by Maurice Abravanel and the Utah Symphony, and Willam Christensen. Over the years, the ballet without the orchestra has come to seem almost unthinkable. Never mind that very large companies elsewhere in the country consistently dance to taped music; orchestral accompaniment is viewed as something of a birthright in Utah.
But this year Ballet West officials have taken the most responsible fiscal approach yet, with a revolutionary aim in mind - to live within their budget. Hard measures have been instituted. Administrative and technical staffs have been cut, dancers' positions trimmed to to 37 instead of 40, the contract year reduced from 41 weeks to 38 weeks, and the promotional budget cut.
As for eliminating the orchestra for "Giselle," "The decision was painful, but we felt strongly it was an important one for maintaining our commitment to Ballet West's fiscal stability," said general manager Susan Barrell. And Stephen D. Swindle, chairman of Ballet West, admitted he had a hard time persuading some members of the board of directors not to follow the usual route of running up a debt so we could enjoy now and pay later.
As a child growing up in the wake of the Great Depression, I became accustomed to four little words that put an end to all discussion - "We can't afford it." How long since you have heard those words from much of anybody? Instead, the accent is on "creative financing," which usually means using other people's money to allow comfort and even opulence where only subsistence is indicated.
To their credit, Ballet West has bitten a hard bullet this year, with an eye to eventually retiring a big debt, in the upper six digits. The debt is being serviced, and "We're currently on target with our financial plans and endowment goals in terms of year-to-date income," said Barrell.
Ballet West looks a little more sparse and lean than we would like this year. Numbers are fewer, new productions almost non-existent. But quality remains high and the framework is intact, the structure seems firm. Problems assuredly exist, but they do not seem insurmountable.
Swindle and Ken Hill, vice president for development, are looking at ways to generate more income. One of these is to seek more money from the Legislature to fully cover the cost of school programs, which the company is actually subsidizing to an extent. "And small businesses that benefit from the ballet's presence here should become accustomed to contributing," said Hill.
"It's terribly difficult to work within budget, hard to say `no' to tempting expenditures, but it must sometimes be done," said Swindle. "Our board must become more personally involved, and we must educate the public about the real costs of producing ballet.
"For example, we have a beautiful production of `The Sleeping Beauty' (to be seen in February) for which the sets and costumes cost $300,000, compared to the American Ballet Theatre's $1.5 million for the same ballet. But if you ask the average man or woman in the lobby what they think those sets and costumes cost, they will say something like $25,000, maybe $50,000."
In a country coming off a 20-year binge of living off the future, may one hope that Ballet West's austerity program is a harbinger? Even more significant, may one hope that foundations such as the Eccles look at such commitment to responsibility, and award their funds accordingly? No one wants to invest in a sinking ship. Most of us would rather be aboard a sturdy little motorboat than a leaky ocean liner.
And surely private foundations, which can pick and choose among hundreds of applicants for largesse, must weigh the ponderables and imponderables carefully before giving out money that has been accumulated by intelligence, prudence and entrepreneural skill. Surely they want to see value received for every dollar, and honesty and integrity exercised in disposing of their gifts.
Ballet West under its present leadership has a good record for living close to the bone, and exhibiting such integrity. If it continues its present course, more grants will inevitably accrue to the company. Hopefully, precarious deficit living will become a thing of the past, and the company can set an example to a world that badly needs to know how to "just say no" to spending money it doesn't have.