Dance Augusta stages ‘Nutcracker’ as Augusta Ballet restructures

The Nutcracker” will dance at the Imperial again this November, but the
Augusta Ballet won’t produce the visions of sugar plum fairies. A new
organization, Dance Augusta, will take the stage.

Ousted Augusta Ballet founder Ron Colton and his wife, Zanne Colton, a
former Augusta Ballet artistic director, cobbled together the new nonprofit dance company from the former artistic arm of the ballet and their dance school, the Augusta Ballet School.

“We’re evaluating what we’d like to do and what we would like to produce. We’re moving forward, but we’re moving slowly to find out what the community wants and what the community can afford,” Zanne said.

But because the Coltons are the ones who made the annual performance
of “The Nutcracker” a family tradition for 35 years, Dance Augusta thinks they can manage it one more year. That task will be easier because many of the ballet’s former dancers are coming back to perform: Julia Morgan, Thomas Schumaker, Troy and Jackie McKinney, award-winning former Augusta Ballet choreographer Peter Powlus and Elizabeth Harrison, a former student of the Augusta Ballet School who now dances with the Joffrey Ballet.

“We’re even thinking of having the Friday night performance as a reunion performance, to see if anyone who has been involved in “Nutcracker” would like to come back and enjoy a celebration with us,” said Bon Ellis, the former Augusta Ballet mistress who danced with the company for 20 years and now manages the Augusta Ballet School.

“The Nutcracker” is one of many things the Augusta Ballet has abandoned this year. According to the season announcement released on Aug. 23, President of the Augusta Ballet Board of Trustees Shell Berry said that’s because the company felt it necessary to step back from full-scale performance pieces in
order to continue financial restructuring.

“We’re lucky that we didn’t have to go completely dark, that we could still provide programming,” Berry said. “The Augusta Ballet has a long history of being in financial distress.”

Still, the Augusta Ballet is leaping ahead with plans to provide dance exposure to the community, starting with a series of master classes with nationally
recognized classical and modern ballet dancers that will be free to all dance
students in the CSRA. Berry said that these classes are a way for the Augusta
Ballet to whet people’s appetite for dance and create future demand.

“It’s a way that we can welcome all who love dance,” she said.

Although Berry won’t yet release the names of the teachers because contract negotiations have yet to be finalized, the first of these will be at the Columbia County Ballet and School, formerly the Ron Jones Academy of Ballet. None of them will be at the Augusta Ballet School, according to Zanne Colton.

“We have not been approached,” she said. “They’re moving in a different direction and so am I.”

The Augusta Ballet has also begun a search for new artistic leadership — not that the old leadership was failing. Choreographer Powlus won the Regional Dance American National Commissioning Project Scholarship for Outstanding
Choreography earlier this year just before trustees disbanded the company.

It’s one of the most prestigious awards in the region. Powlus, now artistic director with the Augusta Players, said he suspects that what the board wanted all along was a personality change in leadership.

“They want a personality that is about schmoozing and being in the public eye and spending a lot of energy making the patrons feel all warm and fuzzy and social aspects,” Powlus said, and he said that he is the first to admit that they spent most of their energy in the studio. “We were never really good, if you will, at being those charismatic, party-going, elbow-rubbing kind of directors. You either get someone who is good at PR, or someone who is in the studio doing good work. It’s seldom you get the combination.”

Whatever new leadership the Augusta Ballet attracts, Berry said they will have to be willing to collaborate with other artistic groups in the CSRA and beyond as the ballet rebuilds its ranks. However, what that means is still up in the air, and they may never hire a company of dancers again. Instead, the company may periodically bring in dancers from elsewhere, share dancers with another community ballet or simply present dance performances. The last thing they want to do, Berry said, is close their doors.

“We hope to grow. How we will grow and what we will look like we don’t
know,” Berry said.

In the meantime, the ballet will present An Evening of Music and Dance on Feb. 1 with jazz musician Wycliffe Gordon, the Augusta Symphony and guest dancers. For this event, they will offer discount rates to schools in the CSRA who wish to bring students to a performance. Next year, they will revive their croquet tournament fundraiser and plan to expand their public performance offerings for the 2007-2008 season. For now, the board’s mission is to define their artistic vision and to pay off the ballet’s outstanding debt.

According to Berry, the Augusta Ballet spent more than its $500,000
budget every year for the last 15 years until the accumulated debt became
overwhelming. The company finished last year $52,000 over budget. With
a load of outstanding vendor payables, it was forced to take out a loan
from Wachovia to pay down the debt. They slashed their budget in half
and currently stand at $135,000 total debt, she said, with a three-year
plan to pay it off.

“It’s definitely not a million, but it was crippling to us,” Berry said. “The corporations and our sponsors have been very supportive of what we’re doing.”

The company points to the Carolina Ballet as an example of a company that survived a year of empty stages and came out stronger. That ballet took a year off and raised $1.5 million.

Although they were formerly a semi-professional troupe, they now employ a company of professional dancers. But if the Augusta Ballet makes these changes work, it will be a remarkable tour en l’air, for few in the world
of ballet have been able to spin through financial difficulties and land on their feet.

Feeling the pinch of government cutbacks in arts funding and reduced community interest in ballet, the Ohio Ballet and Ballet Internationale in Indianapolis both answered waning tickets sales with a slamming door and a toe-shoe in the behind for its dancers. The Oakland Ballet in California took the 2004-2005 season off and raised enough money for its 2005-2006 season, but closed its curtains for good this year.

The Atlanta Ballet, the premier company in the state of Georgia, and the Pittsburgh Ballet in Pennsylvania have both cut back on performances, outreach and production costs to reduce costs.

Now that Dance Augusta has taken over the ballet’s most popular presentation, “The Nutcracker,” the Augusta Ballet faces an even greater challenge — finding events to attract financial support without being able to dip from what has historically been its deepest well.

Tickets for Nov. 25–27 production of “The Nutcracker” are on sale now. Prices range from $17-$40. Call 706-722-8341 or visit imperialtheatre.com. The Feb. 1 performance of “An Evening of Music and Dance” are also on sale now. Prices range from $17-$40.

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