It's been a tough few years, and many challenges persist, but performing arts organizations in Charleston are forging ahead with creative programming and plans for increased collaboration. They are raising money and looking toward the future.
It's a notable turnaround for some groups. The Charleston Symphony Orchestra nearly declared bankruptcy in 2010. Pure Theatre was pushed from one space to another, ending up for a spell in a strip mall and unsure of its fate.
But unlike some other U.S. cities, Charleston has managed to retain its professional arts organizations despite the recession and persistent economic slump. The theater companies are on sound footing and gaining traction; the symphony is resurrected and planning big things; and the Charleston Ballet Theatre is celebrating its 25th anniversary season and a successful bout of fundraising that sets the stage for long-term viability.
In a series of three articles, The Post and Courier is highlighting the recent turmoil and successes of Charleston arts groups, beginning with the CBT.
Raising the barre
The Charleston Ballet Theatre moved out of its longtime Upper King Street space this past summer and shut down its satellite studios, consolidating the professional company and ballet school in the Dance Education Center: side-by-side storefronts at The Plaza at East Cooper, a Mount Pleasant strip mall on U.S. Highway 17. A temporary adjunct space for classes was secured downtown near the S.C. Aquarium.
The consolidation of physical space has helped save some money and has improved morale among the dancers, resident choreographer Jill Eathorne Bahr said. The black box on King Street had become uncomfortable for dancers and audiences alike, she said.
"You've got to make the dancers feel good about where they are and how they're treated," Bahr said.
But the biggest change undertaken by the CBT was a "major gift initiative" that has raised nearly $250,000 since the campaign began quietly last fall.
The organization hired the Winkler Group, a Charleston-based fundraising consultant, to help develop sustainable strategies in time for the silver anniversary celebration, according to Bahr.
The fundraising drive began with a $100,000 bequest from the estate of Jon Burgin, which inspired the Charleston Ballet to launch an effort to match the gift 1.5 times.
But the company is not encouraging one-time, limited gifts (though they are always welcomed, Bahr said); rather, it wants to secure three-year pledges that generate income across seasons and help build up reserves, pay down lingering debt and change the habits of donors, she said.
The major gift initiative has required a targeted approach and careful analysis of the ballet's mailing lists, Bahr said. With the Winkler Group, a variety of factors were considered before the organization began to schedule face-to-face meetings with potential donors in February, she said.
The campaign has been working.
"It's turned out to be surprisingly good," said board president Charles Patrick. "We were hoping to finish it up before the end of the fiscal year (June 30), but it's hard to fundraise in the middle of Spoleto" or in June when people leave town, he said. "So we've continued on, and slowly but surely, we're paying visits, making contacts."
The change of venues also signals some good news, Patrick said.
The old space on King Street was likely to be developed at some point, he said. "We knew our lifespan there was going to be limited." What's more, it could only accommodate about 150 patrons, which meant wear and tear on dancers who were required to perform frequently, he said.
By renting the Sottile Theatre, Gaillard Municipal Auditorium or Memminger Auditorium, Charleston Ballet can take advantage of more seats, comfortable venues and fewer performances -- more bang for the buck, Patrick said.
Bahr said the annual budget is $1 million, down from its high of $1.2 million in 2007. The past two seasons were within budget. Most of the professional company's income comes from donors, but ticket sales account for a significant 35 percent, she said. (The education budget is separate, and the ballet school is self-sufficient, Bahr said.)
Charleston Ballet staffers are not content with a business-as-usual approach, even one that's better funded, Bahr said. "We need to grow."
So she is discussing how the organization might design a "city dance" program that engages new stakeholders in the area, bringing ballet to more schools and other institutions and fostering interest among future audiences.
She said the education programming should develop talent that eventually can strengthen the professional company.
It's important to show how the discipline of ballet enhances other disciplines by improving cognitive skills and problem-solving capabilities, Bahr said, citing a body of research that links artistic accomplishment with better academic performance.
"We should be offering an appropriate artistic product to the community at a high performance level," she said. "What has been lacking are representatives of ballet in the community. People see us as just a performing arts group when in fact we bring more than that."
A bump in the road came earlier this year when two licensing disagreements flared, putting the Charleston Ballet Theatre on the defensive.
The Kylian Foundation accused the company of improper use of choreography by Jiri Kylian in recent productions of "Black Swan" and "The Dark Knight."
"Stephen (Gabriel) unfortunately, regrettably borrowed some choreography from the Kylian Foundation," which was used in a gala performance this spring, Patrick said.
Gabriel was demoted from his position as ballet master for choreography, and the licensing fee was paid in full, resolving the matter completely. "In fact, we're performing one of their works this season," Patrick said.
In a separate dispute, Eddy Toussaint, founder of Ballet de Montreal, said the Charleston Ballet had used parts of his "Souvenance" without permission in a Piccolo Spoleto Festival production.
Bahr said she assumed a gentleman's agreement to share one another's works was in force and has since arranged to pay Toussaint a licensing fee.
Toussaint told The Post and Courier that he was satisfied with the resolution.
"They have paid for it and have accepted their mistake," he said. "It is all fine now. I simply wanted to express that this was not proper."
In recent months, Bahr has restructured the company of dancers, which includes seven men and nine women in full-time, paid positions and eight apprentices who work on a per-service basis.
Seven of the dancers are new and come to Charleston with experience working in Russian, Venezuelan and New York companies, she said.
Reach Adam Parker at 937-5902 or on Facebook.
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