For Overture Center's grand opening in September 2004, the three resident companies of its sparkling state-of-the-art concert hall - Madison Symphony Orchestra, Madison Opera and Madison Ballet - presented a night of "Overture Classics" that augured the arts' future in this former cow and college town. In that show, Madison Ballet appeared to be on a par with its sister organizations, but its program was stacked with guest artists from American Ballet Theater, Texas Ballet Theater and Oakland Ballet.
The guest artists flew in, danced and left, leaving Madison Ballet with big pointe shoes to fill. Three years down the road, the organization's taken a big step toward becoming a company that can stand on its own pink satin toes. Twelve professional dancers have signed on for the upcoming season.
Why now? The School of Madison Ballet opened in sync with the new arts palace, with the idea of training local dancers for a professional company down the road. Some fine young local dancers have trained at SMB, but it takes a long time to build a ballet company from scratch. In the short run, since the professional, salaried component's been missing, the best dancers have gone elsewhere, post-high school, to take apprenticeships. For the past three years the pointe corps in Madison Ballet's performances has been its changing, pre-professional studio company, and for the most part, artistic director W. Earle Smith has relied on prominent guest artists to carry his shows.
"We're ready for this change," says Smith, who was hired eight years ago, back when Madison Ballet was a community company doing the city's annual Nutcracker. "What we've been doing is building an institution. Any major metropolitan area has a symphony orchestra, an opera company, a chamber orchestra. Ballet also should be represented at that level, and there are lots of midsize cities that have professional ballet companies.
"But without a major benefactor, you have to have credibility, visibility, economic growth and a strong audience base. I wasn't going down the professional road till we could offer salaries that are competitive at the national level. This spring, the board and I agreed all the pieces were in place. It was time to move forward."
Isn't this a financial risk? Sure, says exec-utive director Brian Johnson. "But it's a logical next step. We had a nice stable budget last year - we're solvent right now, which is great for a nonprofit. We have to rely on the board and our VIPs this year to house and feed the incoming dancers. In the long run that won't be sustainable, and to move forward, of course, we need to grow the budget.
"We may not see huge increases in ticket sales this year, but as our quality rises we expect demand to rise. We also expect Madison Ballet's new Madison Holiday Market [see sidebar] to become a major annual fund-raiser. We're stealing it lock, stock and barrel from Houston Ballet, with their blessings - it's been very successful for them. The idea is to come with your entire holiday shopping list. You'll be able to find unique, high-quality gifts for everyone. We have merchants coming from across the country, including Madison and Dane County."
It's a huge year for Madison Ballet, Johnson adds. "In 20 years, whoever is still around running the organization will look back at this as the largest turning point in our history."
In September, Smith held auditions at the Joffrey Ballet studios in Chicago. "It felt great to walk into a studio full of pros," he says. "I put them through their paces. I told them, 'I'm Balanchine-trained. Do I need Balanchine dancers? No, but I need dancers who can adapt.' The good ones took my corrections and ran with them. I hired eight from that group, plus four who've worked with me before."
The incoming dancers aren't a replacement for the old Madison Ballet. Instead, they'll boost the quality of what we've already got. Some of them will be soloists or principals. Others will do pointe corps and divertissements, along with the members of this year's streamlined, more consistent pre-professional studio company.
And yes, in storybook ballets like Nutcracker there'll still be little kids and intermediate dancers drawn by audition from the School of Madison Ballet and other dance academies across the community. Nut still has guest principals, too - this year, former New York City Ballet and Texas Ballet Theater soloist Michelle Gifford as the Sugarplum Fairy and New York City Ballet principal Stephen Hanna as her Cavalier.
The new company hires aren't permanent. Only a few are signed for the full season: Nutcracker (Dec. 14-16), Peter Pan (April 12-13) and "Pure Ballet," a repertory evening (May 16-17). Some of the dancers have contracts for two shows out of three, and a few were just hired for Nut, at least for starters. There's no guarantee any of them will be back next year. But Smith went for dancers with Midwest ties - another building block in Madison Ballet's long-range strategy.
"This is just the beginning," Smith says. "The strategic plan calls for expanding the season. Eventually I want to do five programs a year - two full-length ballets and three repertory evenings. To be able to execute that we need anywhere from 16 to 20 professional dancers, on a 30- or 40-week contract."
But for now, Smith's taking advantage of a huge shift in the industry. There are a lot of unemployed, talented young ballet dancers out there, and they're basically doing what Broadway dancers do, taking life one show at a time.
"I think dancers will want to come back to Madison after they experience what we have here. Performing with a live orchestra's a luxury these days. Overture's an amazing facility. And Madison's a great place to be."
Unlike guest artists, the new hires will train and rehearse here for three weeks before each production. By taking daily class with Smith, they'll have time to get in sync with his looping, full-out Balanchine style. And Madison Ballet's studio company dancers get to take class with the pros.
"My advanced students have so much to learn by watching them," Smith says. "Big things, like how professionals work through class and rehearsal, and little things, like 'Oh, look what she does with her pointe shoe ribbons!'"
The younger, lower-division students have a lot to gain too. Now, like kids in bigger cities, they'll be able to see the gorgeous lushness of professional ballet on a regular basis. Whether they eventually choose a career in dance or not, they'll come away from their early training with an enhanced appreciation of a fine art.
Excitement at the school is palpable in advance of the dancers' post-Thanksgiving, pre-Nut arrival. Nobody's more pumped than Smith.
"It's important for me, personally and professionally," he says. "By taking this step, from now on we'll be able to hang on to some of our homegrown talent. And most of all I want to tell our loyal audiences, 'Hey, folks, this is it! You've been buying our tickets. You supported us through our first few years. Now, here's my gift to you.'"
So drum roll, please. Madison, meet your new dancers.
Bay area freelance dancer and Mad City homey Genevieve Custer Weeks got her start with local ballet luminaries Kate McQuade and Charmaine Ristow. At 15, since there was no pre-pro program in Madison at the time, she left for the School of Ballet Chicago, the Windy City's Balanchine-based training academy. In 2002 she joined Oakland Ballet, which folded two years later. Like a lot of young dancers Custer Weeks went freelance, making frequent guest appearances with Inland Pacific Ballet, Peninsula Ballet Theater, Ballet Chicago and Madison Ballet, where she stars annually in Nutcracker's Dewdrop solo and owns the principal role in Cinderella.
Her guest-artist gigs in Madison paid well, but this year she signed on as a company member, for a lower rate. Why?
"This is such a positive step for Madison Ballet, I want to be part of it," she says. "Yes, it's different financially, but that's not important, considering the rewards. I've been lucky getting jobs as a freelancer, but the work I love most is freelancing with Madison Ballet.
"Over the course of my life I've seen some incredible guest artists in Madison, but the notion of my hometown being home a group of professionals, even if it's just a short season, is absolutely wonderful. I know some people worry about how this will affect students' roles in Madison Ballet, but I can't emphasize enough how important it is for kids to be around professional dancers. I'd have died to have had that when I was younger."
Rachelle Butler, also a Madison native, was 13 when she joined Smith's pre-SMB studio company in '99. Later she studied at Philadelphia's prestigious, Balanchine-based Rock School, the School of Miami City Ballet and Ballet Chicago before returning to Madison Ballet. This season she took an apprenticeship with Sacramento Ballet.
"I was torn when I accepted," Butler says, "'cause I really wanted to be part of the new Madison Ballet, but it worked out perfectly. I'm doing Nutcracker in Sacramento, and then Sleeping Beauty. Right after that, I fly to Madison to do Peter Pan and 'Pure Ballet.'"
Jennifer Tierney, the Fairy Godmother in Madison Ballet's Cinderella last spring, has danced with Milwaukee Ballet, Sacramento Ballet, Oakland Ballet and Kansas City Ballet, as well as Kansas City's edgy, brand-new contemporary Owen/Cox Dance Group.
Nikki Wilson Hefko studied with New Orleans Ballet before moving to New York to join Dance Theater of Harlem, which went on hiatus three years ago. Since then she's been freelancing. This year she's balancing short seasons with two small, contemporary neoclassical companies - one in Brooklyn, the other in L.A. - and Madison Ballet.
Hefko had plenty on her plate when she auditioned for Smith. "But I was intrigued," she says. "What Earle's doing sounded really interesting, and my husband is from Madison. His family still lives there. My relatives will get to see me dance for the first time!"
On Bryan Cunningham's professional résumé are Cleveland San Jose Ballet (now defunct), Kansas City Ballet and Pennsylvania Ballet. He spent a few years with Jubilee at Bally's Las Vegas, the Strip's most acclaimed topless revue. "Some people think that's selling out, but Vegas is full of ballet dancers," he says. "Jubilee's a classy show - like Ginger Rogers and Fred Astaire, with lots of pique arabesques."
Cunningham now lives in New York and freelances. This season he'll shuttle back and forth between Florida Ballet in Jacksonville and Madison Ballet, while doing occasional guest gigs elsewhere.
Madelaine Boyce, born and raised in a small Arkansas farm town, got her early training at Ballet Arkansas in Little Rock. At 14 she moved to Philadelphia to attend the Rock School; at 17, she apprenticed with the Metropolitan Ballet Academy in Arlington, Texas. The Met happens to be co-directed by Paul Mejia, a New York City Ballet principal in Balanchine's day and formerly the artistic director of Fort Worth Dallas Ballet, where Smith danced before moving to Madison. Boyce is juggling her second Metropolitan season with her first at Madison Ballet.
Chicago native Shannon Yee spent her teen years with Custer Weeks in Ballet Chicago's program, soaking up Balanchine technique. Since then she's danced with St. Louis Ballet and the City Ballet of San Diego; this year she's freelancing in Chicago.
Bret Samson trained with Rafael Delgado at Danceworks in Milwaukee. Currently she's a flight attendant, which requires unusual efforts to keep in shape. "I take class wherever I land," she says. "On New York layovers I go to Steps on Broadway. If I can't find a class, I'll give myself barre in my hotel bathroom."
Samantha Collen, from St. Joseph, Minn., grew up dancing in the studios of Stroia Ballet in Brainerd, but she never planned to become a ballerina. While at Texas A&M University on an engineering scholarship she signed up for class at Austin City Ballet. That clinched it, she says. She and her dancer brother placed well in the 2006 Varna International Ballet Competition - "the Olympics of ballet" - and her career took off. After a season with Northern Plains Ballet in Bismarck, N.D., she's dancing with San Diego Ballet and doing three Nutcrackers on different schedules - San Diego's, Boston Ballet's and Madison's.
Jennifer Weaver went to Juilliard and picked up a teaching job with Milwaukee Ballet. Trained in modern dance as well as ballet, she takes gigs where she can find them. "I'm young," she says. "I'm always on the lookout for interesting projects. I was thrilled to audition for Madison Ballet."
Katherine Bruno, from Aurora, Ill., is a frequent guest artist with Salt Creek Ballet, a pre-professional company in Naperville, and she's done seasonal apprentice work with Chicago's Joffrey Ballet. Elizabeth Sperling, also from the Chicago area, is apprenticing with the Joffrey for her first professional season.
"They've all got personality," Smith says. "And they can all dance. That's what's so exciting."
I'm psyched, myself. We'll get to see Smith's choreography set on a full company of dancers who are ready for it, for the first time. And for once, I can hardly wait to review Nutcracker.