Madison Ballet Won’t Skip a Beat
How the organization plans to rebuild and come out stronger than ever before
By Stephanie Harte
Photo Credit: Madiosn Ballet's 2017 "The Nutcracker." Photo by Becky McKenzie Photography
By scaling back the number of productions and professional company dancers for the 2018-2019 season, Gretchen Bourg, managing director of Madison Ballet, is hopeful the company can regain financial stability before stepping into the future.
“We are all 100 percent in for working hard in the arts, but we can’t operate at a high alert level and expect that to be a long-term life choice,” Bourg says. “We chose to trim the production season this year so we can step back and say, ‘what do we want? What is the path that we want to take?’”
This year’s season includes two productions: the holiday tradition of The Nutcracker along with Emerging Voices, a mixed repertory piece dedicated to up-and-coming choreographers. Outside its regular season, Madison Ballet will collaborate with Capital City Theatre for Leonard Bernstein’s On the Town, a wartime musical set in 1944.
While the search for a full-time artistic director continues, Madison Ballet hired Sara Stewart Schumann as interim director to oversee The Nutcracker. W. Earle Smith, who led the company for 19 years, stepped down at the end of the 2017-2018 season to pursue the next step in his career.
Schumann works as an attorney in Chicago and travels to Madison on the weekends to oversee Nutcracker rehearsals. She previously served as a choreographer, solo dancer and ballet master for Lyric Opera of Chicago.
Including her time as a ballet student, professional dancer, and teacher, Schumann estimates working on 30 different productions of The Nutcracker. Despite working on the same piece for so many years, Schumann insists The Nutcracker never feels stale to her.
Madison Ballet's 2017 "The Nutcracker." Photo courtesy by Becky McKenzie Photography.
“It’s kind of like if you see a Shakespeare production,” Schumann explains. “These works have been done for such a long time over and over, but when you see a different production, you catch something new about it. Actors will tell you they never play it the same way, and that goes for dancers too. You can’t dance it the same way every time.”
Schumann also credits the element of live music with maintaining the energy surrounding the traditional production. The Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra will accompany this year’s holiday extravaganza.
Madison Ballet, with four professional company members, is employing an additional 12 professionals and apprentices just for The Nutcracker. Like in years past, the Madison Nutcracker will include around 135 children and community dancers from all over the state.
“Anyone coming to see this production won’t be able to tell the advanced students from the professionals,” Schumann says. “They will be seamless.”
In order to get everyone on this equal playing field, the community members and children rehearse for 12 weeks, while the professionals join four weeks prior to the show.
“Certainly this was not always a production that had a professional company,” shares Bourg, who has been involved with Madison Ballet in various capacities since 2005. “That was a really important thing for us to develop and not to the exclusion of our community cast. We really felt it could only enhance the production quality and provide opportunities for our community dancers to aspire to and work with these professionals.”
Madison Ballet’s near-sell-out productions of The Nutcracker have become a vital source of revenue for the company. Bourg says that an estimated half of their typical Nutcracker audiences are first-timers at the Overture Center.
“We consider that a great responsibility,” Bourg says. “We want them to come back as arts patrons for us, and for other performers, so we better get it right.”
Another crucial source of revenue for the company is the School of Madison Ballet, with enrollment ranging between 250 – 350 families today, and 450 families at its peak. Bourg played a part in opening the school in 2005, serving as education and outreach coordinator from 2006 – 2011.
Rachelle Butler, School of Madison Ballet director, instructs the 2017 Dream Camp for students ages 3 - 8. Photo via Facebook.com/MadisonBalletInc.
The training exposes the Madison community to the art of ballet, while also feeding talent directly into the company. For instance, Rachelle Butler began her training with Madison Ballet in 1999, and now serves as director of the school.
Bourg notes that the School of Madison Ballet never turns away families who can’t afford classes, providing a $25,000 - $35,000 financial aid program.
“There certainly is a perception in the dance world that everyone comes from a certain position of affluence,” Bourg says. “We have a unique responsibility to make sure we are keeping our doors open for everyone.”
For the past 13 years, Madison Ballet has rehearsed in its studio space located at the nearly vacant Westgate Mall. Bourg says moving into a new rehearsal space is another long-term goal for the company, in hopes of providing a new spark of enthusiasm.
“I really feel like we have the artistic challenge part down,” Bourg says. “It’s making sure we have an administrative and development support to continue these shows in a sustainable and manageable way. I’m excited about the prospects we have and the changes we can make.”
Madison Ballet Season Details:
The Nutcracker runs December 8 – 26 at Overture Hall at Overture Center for the Arts.
Emerging Voices runs April 12 – 13 at the Drury Stage at Bartell Theatre.
On the Town, in collaboration with Capital City Theatre,runs May 30 – June 2 at the Capitol Theater at Overture Center for the Arts.
Tickets for all shows, including Emerging Voices at Bartell Theatre, can be purchased at overture.org or by calling the box office at (608) 258-4141.