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Milwaukee Ballet's Success Story

Does the Milwaukee Ballet have a thing or three to teach Chicagoans? Pictured are adman Robert Meyer, PR and marketing exec Dana Moore, and artistic director Dane LaFontsee.

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While Ballet Chicago putzes around spending hundreds of thousands of dollars attempting to establish itself, the Milwaukee Ballet is looking good after an ugly breakup with the Pennsylvania Ballet, ending its second post-Pennsylvania season with a balanced budget, a growing band of happy subscribers, and renewed visibility in its hometown. Milwaukee Ballet doesn't have any special secret--just sound fiscal management, a strong artistic product, and aggressive and creative marketing.

The company's rebirth began in late 1988, when Michael Stirdivant, a former executive director and CEO of the Boys & Girls Clubs of Chicago, was lured back to his native Milwaukee to take over as president and CEO of the Milwaukee Ballet, which in 1987 had combined forces with the Pennsylvania Ballet. Stirdivant initially rejected the job offer three times because he'd never worked for an arts organization, but Milwaukee Ballet board members wanted an executive with good management skills more than someone familiar with the arts.

Almost as soon as Stirdivant arrived, he began campaigning for an end to the Pennsylvania Ballet venture. The companies had merged their dancers into one touring company, but the administrative sides remained separate, and Stirdivant says he could see the Milwaukee side of the deal was bearing more than its fair share of the financial burden, an inequity that eventually would do it in if the partnership weren't dissolved. The Milwaukee board agreed with Stirdivant's assessment, and in early 1989 the Milwaukee Ballet stood alone again, with six dancers and a looming $1.6 million debt.

Stirdivant busied himself raising short-term funding while an artistic committee pieced together a company of dancers and a program for the 1989-'90 season. One of Stirdivant's smartest moves was the selection of Robert Meyer and the Meyer & Wallis agency in Milwaukee to handle the reborn company's advertising needs. Meyer astutely recognized the company's marketing problem. "It was time to build a new audience," he says. "What was there already was getting smaller in numbers and older in years." The solution, as Meyer saw it, was helping potential new audiences see beyond ballet stereotypes. "The problem had nothing to do with ballet itself, and everything to do with preconceived prejudices about ballet."

Meyer unveiled a refreshingly different ad campaign for the 1989-'90 season, one that sought to debunk the elitist aura that has traditionally enveloped ballet. In one ad, plastered across a large photo of a little girl eyeing an obviously bashful boy at a kiddie prom event was the question: "Are you still afraid of dancing?" The adjacent copy said: "The cotton mouth. The sweaty palms. The fear that your friends will make fun of you. If the thought of trying a new dance still triggers these reactions, the Milwaukee Ballet has the cure."

Meyer continued his bold strokes for the just-concluded 1990-'91 season, bringing in a cross section of the Milwaukee professional community to be photographed with the company's dancers, again to emphasize ballet's accessibility. "These were people one might think would not go to the ballet," explains Meyer. "We wanted to say that ballet isn't just for the socially elite, and that it can be a lot of fun."

Meyer worked his magic while the board of directors went about the important task of selecting a new artistic director. Their search led them to Dane LaFontsee, coincidentally an alumnus of the Pennsylvania Ballet who left that company in 1986 to found the Nashville Ballet. Starting with no dancers and $300,000, LaFontsee had turned his Nashville company into a $1 million operation in three years without incurring a deficit, remarkable considering the seas of red ink in which most dance companies flounder. "I'm aware of the business side and try to be fiscally responsible and still put out a good artistic product," says LaFontsee.

Though LaFontsee particularly likes the demanding works of choreographer George Balanchine, he hasn't tried to force-feed his audiences all-Balanchine programs. Instead he mixes the demanding with the entertaining. For the upcoming season, LaFontsee has organized three of the season's five programs around specific themes. An all-American evening includes two pieces by Balanchine, Square Dance and the rousing Stars and Stripes, along with Lew Christensen's Filling Station. The season also features a program of romance-themed ballets, a world-premiere program, full-length productions of A Midsummer Night's Dream and Coppelia, and (of course) The Nutcracker at Christmas.

LaFontsee's program packaging helped Meyer come up with yet another eye-catching campaign for the 1991-'92 season, this one based on the tag line "We've got a story to tell." One ad features a striking photo of a male dancer in costume and the headline, "Just last year he was dining with kings and cavorting with noblemen. Now he's working in a gas station." The ad copy goes on to talk about "another season of captivating stories, told as only a dancer can tell them. Like Filling Station, an intriguing tale of fantasy and heroics."

The efforts of all involved with the Milwaukee Ballet appear to be paying off. Stirdivant will have whittled the $1.6 million debt down to less than $100,000 by the end of the fiscal year, and the company should end the 1990-'91 season with a balanced budget of approximately $3.4 million and a company of 27 dancers.

The ballet already has renewed an impressive 83 percent of last season's 3,334 subscribers and expects to wind up with 4,200 by the time this season's subscription campaign concludes. Meanwhile Stirdivant is gearing up for an $8.3 million, five-year fund-raising drive to ensure the ballet company's long-term health. Of that sum, approximately $600,000 would go to creating new ballets, $1.7 million would help offset annual operating costs, and $5.5 million would go toward establishing an endowment.

Milwaukee Ballet's story is atypical of what is happening in the dance world, not to mention many of the other arts. But unlike many groups, the Milwaukee Ballet has discovered that there is no substitute for that increasingly rare combination of artistic and administrative savvy--a combination that almost always leads to success.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Lloyd DeGrane.

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