Following three performances of "Spring Rep I" at the Bartell Theatre this weekend, Madison Ballet will suspend the rest of its season.
The company announced Friday that will include the cancellation of the ballet "Peter Pan" in Overture Hall, originally scheduled for March 19-20. Also gone will be "Spring Rep II" at the Bartell in mid-April and a trip to Missouri with "Dracula."
This is the second time in recent years that the Overture resident company has announced shows only to cancel them. Despite a solid showing for "Nutcracker" in December, the organization has struggled with cash flow, lower than expected ticket sales for "Dracula" and flagging fundraising.
The ballet's fiscal year is set to end on Aug. 31. With a $1.3 million operating budget, the ballet has an immediate cash shortfall of between $70,000 and $80,000. It could accumulate $100,000 in additional debt if the company moved forward with the season as planned.
"We have a business model problem," said Scott Knapp, vice president of the ballet's board of directors. "The art has been really good, but the model is not sustainable in this environment."
Madison Ballet includes a small staff of four on the organizational side, including artistic director W. Earle Smith. A professional company of 15 dancers also teach classes in the School of Madison Ballet, located at Westgate Mall, and do outreach in local schools.
The company dancers are on a 32-week contract. According to general manager Gretchen Bourg, they'll have worked 21 weeks of it this fiscal year.
"The board made this decision so we can have a season next year, so we can have positions for dancers," Bourg said. "Could we have made it through? Sure. Did we want to be in that position in the fall? No.
"As difficult as it was, this was not taken lightly."
Bourg insisted that the ballet's primary challenge has not been an ambitious season, which included three full-length shows and two repertory programs in the (cheaper to rent) Bartell Theatre. Knapp insisted that competition from other local companies and schools hasn't had an effect, either.
It's that major contributions were down — $87,000 this year, when 2013-14 brought in $150,000 and 2014-15 saw $100,000. There hasn't been the staff time to write grants or find more donors. Bourg herself is in charge of fundraising, as well as payroll and tour arrangements and fundraising.
"Just giving us a little more breathing space is going to benefit everyone," Bourg said. Cutting the season short is "taking a little administrative pressure off of our staff. They’ve each been doing two, three jobs. We told them we wanted to clone them.
"This is part of the rebuilding of the internal parts of the company so we can continue to do that spectacular programming that we do."
"Peter Pan" is a particularly expensive show, requiring a live orchestra ("Cinderella" can be performed to a recording). The flying alone, Bourg said, can cost upwards of $10,000.
"I expected 'Peter Pan' would do well because we haven’t done it in a while," Bourg said. "The problem was there’s just not much cushion if there's a sleet storm in March and one of our 'Peter Pans' doesn't do well."
Ticket sales were down already this season for "Dracula," which shortened its run from five shows in fall 2013 to three in fall 2015. Of $122,000 budgeted in ticket sales, the ballet earned $67,000. And though "Nutcracker" had its best year ever, that, too, was $12,000 under budget for expected ticket revenue.
Bourg emphasized that the ballet's problems are not what they were in 2009, when the recession led the company to swap out "Peter Pan" for the less expensive "Cinderella," as well as cancel "Pure Ballet" and "Evening of Romance."
"Back when we had the recession a lot of businesses shifted their contributions to more basic needs," Bourg said, like housing or programs for at risk youth.
"We do serve those kinds of populations in a different way," Bourg said, "but it's not as immediately visible as, say, helping the food pantry or Porchlight, which are all wonderful causes."
While the upcoming season hasn't yet been announced, Knapp said "a more modest production calendar is definitely in the offing, no question."
"The big challenge, or the opportunity we have, is to recreate our business model," Knapp said. "This fixed cost structure that amplifies the good and the bad is not sustainable in a town our size.
"We’re getting great reviews; the audiences are enthusiastic," Knapp added. "The upside is, we’ve got great art. The downside is we’re presenting it in a city of 400,000 people that is not big enough to support a fixed cost structure."
What Madison Ballet might see in the future, Knapp said, is a "visiting artist" structure that ties company member paychecks to performances.
He also envisioned more shared administrative services with other arts organizations, like the ballet is already doing with space with the Madison Youth Choirs. An artistic collaboration has been announced as well, with Capital City Theatre in June for a production of "Gypsy" choreographed by Smith.
“You’ve got to turn lemons into lemonade,” Knapp said. “We have to make difficult short-term decisions to ensure (the ballet is) on better footing for the future."