The Mystery of the Death of the Harkness Ballet


People often ask “Whatever happened to the Harkness Ballet?”

This is a question we intend to explore in our film “An American Ballet Story” and we invite your participation in our efforts to uncover the real story. So far we’ve interviewed over 40 people who were associated with the Harkness – principal dancers, soloists, members of the corps, trainees, students, teachers and staff members.

Some thoughts on the reality of running a dance company:

  • It costs a LOT of MONEY to run a professional dance company – whether ballet or contemporary.
    • In many European countries dance companies are state supported – just to name a few: Kirov & Bolshoi Ballets, the English National Ballet, Pina Bausch, the Forsythe Company, the Paris Opera Ballet, the Vienna State Opera Ballet, the Danish Royal Ballet, etc.
    • Lucia Chase spent her entire personal fortune to keep the American Ballet Theater running for the first thirty five years before any appreciable public funding was secured. (and paid the IRS a lot of back taxes because ABT hadn’t been properly set up as a non-profit for many years)
    • Most ballet companies have a school – that school is expected to provide significant income to pay for facility rental and to pay the teachers (many teachers are also company members past or present). Robert Joffrey was able to keep his company together in the 1950’s primarily because of the school.
  • A company must be artistically strong to draw an audience
    • The principal dancers need to be household names (at least in the dance community) to draw an audience accustomed to “Stars”.
    • The corps de ballet members must be well trained and have a strong stage presence. It isn’t enough to be an academically correct dancer – you need to be an actor and have the ability to read well onstage.
    • There needs to be an artistic director who can create a “company image” by selecting the right dancers, choreographers to build an extensive repertoire that will keep the audience interested and desirous of returning for the next performance.
    • Sets, costumes, lighting and music must be good enough to support the dancing without drawing attention to flaws. (It’s amazing how much the audience is distracted by bad lighting, a torn costume, a set that falls apart onstage or a badly played piece of music.)
  • A company needs to be well managed
    • The Board of Directors must actively participate in funding efforts and long term planning. It is not adequate to have an “Advisory Board” – a “Working Board” is required!
    • There must be a marketing team that can plan ahead several seasons so advertising can be coordinated with new works and/or new performing venues.
    • There must be an accounting team that can control expenses so every dollar of income is well spent.
    • There must be a development team that will raise money to pay for those expenses not covered by ticket sales, school fees and other sources of earned income.
    • The managing director must work with the artistic director, marketing, accounting and development to insure that all efforts are coordinated, avoid duplication of effort and keep the entire company focused on pleasing the audience in an affordable way.
  • Some numbers:
    • In 2013, ABT revenue was almost $43 million, San Francisco Ballet – over $47 million, Alvin Ailey – over $36 million, Joffrey Ballet – over $16 million and New York City Ballet a whopping $82.5 million.
    • In 2013, ABT salary was almost $23 million, San Francisco Ballet over $32 million, Alvin Ailey almost $19 million, Joffrey Ballet $6.5 million, and NYCB almost $43 million.
    • In 2013, expenses of the top 24 ballet companies in the United States varied from 66% to 91% on “program”, 3% to 29% on “admin” and 2% to 12% on fundraising.

We’ve visited quite a few dance companies and dance schools over the years – they aren’t always big name organizations with international recognition. Many are very small, with only a few dedicated core members who put their entire personal resources into starting something up from scratch. Few of them have high enough visibility to be significant beyond their local community. Yet it is possible to start small and grow into something significant. It is also possible for an organization to die – loss of a key member, poor artistic direction, poor financial management, inadequate fundraising efforts, unforseen expenses, etc.

Dance is inherently a high risk occupation. All it takes is one injury to stop a performance, forcibly retire a dancer, or blow the budget. Dance training hasn’t always been focused on injury prevention – in the words of dance teacher and former co-director of the Harkness Ballet School’s Maria Vegh “You have to last long enough to become famous”.

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4 thoughts on “The Mystery of the Death of the Harkness Ballet

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