Ballet Blues
Local dance company wages uphill battle to financial health
By Alex De Grand

If market forces completely dictated Lexington's arts and culture scene, it is conceivable there would be few places to hide from the oppressive hegemony of line dancing and "New Country."

Yet, if grants were awarded to every artistic expression regardless of community interest, it is just as imaginable Lexington would be besieged with atonal, one-string banjo players and mimes acting out bizarre nervous ticks.

Finding a balance can be hard and some of the judgment calls will leave plenty of dissatisfied people in their wake - like those at the Lexington Ballet Company.

In June, the Lexington Arts and Cultural Council told the LBC and the newly-named Kentucky Ballet Theatre this town ain't big enough for the two of them. Using its clout as the premier arts funding agency in Lexington, the LACC told the two dance groups to mediate their differences and merge.

"Please be assured that the LACC sees ballet as an important component of Lexington's arts offerings, but has strong reservations about both the ability of this community to provide resources for two ballets and the community's ability to generate enough audience members for competing ballet seasons," the LACC wrote to the ballet companies.

In short, the LBC's response has been: That's your opinion.

The leadership of Kentucky Ballet Theatre has expressed no interest in a merger of the two companies either.

Going into its third year without the kind of support it used to receive from the LACC, the LBC is determined to show the arts council how wrong it is.

You've come a long way, baby

Allen Porter, the Lexington Ballet Company's business manager, comes off as a quiet and methodical man who reveals his professional background as an engineer when he expresses little patience for "word games."

Numbers are the bottom line for Porter. And the numbers didn't look very good when he inherited the LBC books in 1998 - the year when it was reported the company faced serious debt and many heads began to roll.

"I don't know how exactly it got messed up because it was before I got here, but looking at the books and creditors' claims, it looks like a lot of it was done with credit," Porter said.

"A credit line is normally used to smooth out the revenue [cycles] over the year," he explains, "[But in this case] the credit line was used up in the first few months."

He said the previous management also ran up huge long distance phone bills and purchased extravagant equipment like a phone system sporting a $1,200 price tag.

Porter said the debt was originally estimated at about $90,000, but by the time the last number was crunched, it tallied up to around $170,000.

Through the dedication of Porter and the company's new leadership, as well as a tremendous amount of support from creditors, the debt was wrestled under control.

About $100,000 of the amount was forgiven and the rest was either paid off or refinanced with no-interest loans, Porter said. The company has never missed a payment under the new schedule, he added.

It would seem like a success story if it weren't for the three-year ongoing struggle with the Lexington Arts and Cultural Council, and a (thus far) unsuccessful battle for the restoration of the fiscal support the LBC once enjoyed.

Getting to "no"

The Lexington Arts and Cultural Council historically has been a good friend of the Lexington Ballet Company, according to Dee Fizdale, the LACC executive director.

Fizdale said from 1985 until the disastrous 1997-98 fiscal year, LACC contributions accounted for an average of 16.5 percent of the LBC's annual budgets.

That's a higher percentage than for some other high-profile arts groups like the Studio Players, the Lexington Philharmonic, the Lexington Art League, and the Lexington Children's Theatre, Fizdale said.

"That suggests the LACC is very supportive of ballet," Fizdale said, adding even today the LBC receives benefits from the LACC, such as subsidized rental space in the ArtsPlace building on Mill Street.

But relations between the two groups grew decidedly cooler after the LBC's financial troubles.

"When an organization comes to us and is having financial problems, our job is to help them get better and see the money already spent is well-spent and continues to be well-spent," Fizdale said.

A series of conditions were placed on funds for the 1998-99 allocations and the LBC failed to meet them, so no allocation was awarded, Fizdale said.

The LACC accused the ballet company of failing to live up to its financial obligations again when it denied them funding for the 1999-2000 fiscal year.

For its part, the new management at the LBC acknowledged the problems inherited in 1998 were a reasonable basis to deny funding for the 1998-99 fiscal year.

But the following year's rejection came as a shock. They felt they'd pulled off a herculean task, and believed they had demonstrated themselves worthy of the LACC's fiscal trust.

"After we took over, we got a clean audit and we just [managed] a $170,000 debt," Porter said.

Needless to say, the ballet leadership was even more disgruntled this year when the LACC not only withheld funds again, but insisted upon a merger with the Kentucky Ballet Theatre.

The foundation for this suggestion was that the combined resources of the two groups would make for a more viable ballet company, and that Lexington could not support two separate troupes, in terms of attendance or funding.

Assertions that the LBC doesn't enjoy enough community support to justify its separate existence are simply wrong, Porter said.

"We had 18,000 hours of volunteer help last year and 16,000 hours the year before that," Porter said.

Porter pointed to his own contribution to the LBC. Retired since 1986 after a successful run in the stock market, Porter - armed with an MBA - volunteered to become the business manager.

"I'm a full-time volunteer and I probably save the company $30,000 or more by doing this work," Porter said.

Fizdale acknowledged the LBC may demonstrate some evidence of community support.

Asked about the significant amounts of debt simply forgiven by creditors, Fizdale admitted that "does show one kind of community support."

"But the kind of community support [the LACC looks at] is audience numbers and what an arts organization is doing for the arts in the community," Fizdale said. "You have to distinguish between artists and the arts: Artists always want to perform or create. [But] does the community always want what those artists are providing? That's a question we have to look at."

Fizdale suggested the LBC flunks the test of community support by that standard. Other than the Nutcracker, ballet performances draw an average of fewer than 300, she said.

To Porter, arguing the merits of art by how much of an audience it can draw - and by extension, how much money it can make - is out of place in this context of non-profit art groups.

"When you start talking about [the size of] audiences, you're getting into the area of for-profits and then you don't need art councils," Porter said.

Further, he speculates there are other organizations currently receiving LACC funding that might also flunk that particular measure.

The show must go on

Whether the LACC ever learns to live with two ballet companies, Porter is confident of one thing: They'll get along.

After all, while an important source of funds, the LACC isn't the last word on the subject of fiscal support.

Porter noted the Kentucky Arts Council awarded the LBC $17,800 this year, a fact that seemed to surprise Fizdale, who asked if that information had been verified.

Told that it had been, her rejoinder was, "The panelists [making grant decisions for the Kentucky Arts Council] are from out of state except one."

Asked what difference the geographic origins of the panelists makes, Fizdale's response was, "That's all I'm going to say."

Dan Strauss, an arts program branch manager for the Kentucky Arts Council, said the LBC received a "pretty reputable" rating from the state panelists judging grant applicants.

An arts group is judged according to its artistic excellence, its organizational excellence, the impact that the state support will have on the group, and the group's responsiveness to the community.

Strauss said the highest score awarded this year to a group, using those criteria, was 94.4 percent and the lowest was 41.2 percent. The LBC earned a 77.4 percent, he said.

"It shows an organization is in good standing," Strauss said of the score.

Partly explaining the different conclusions reached by the state and local art councils, Strauss said the issues considered at the state level are not always the same as those weighed by a local arts council - given that one scrutinizes groups from across Kentucky and the other deals with just a single community.

Also, Strauss said the Kentucky Ballet Theatre did not compete with the LBC for funds and the issue of duplication of effort by the two did not come up this year.

"But the issue [of duplication] could come up in the future," Strauss said.

Strauss said the two ballet companies can just go head-to-head for grant money. They can also work to define distinct niches for themselves.

Demographics served as one area of distinction, for example.

"A group can focus on elderly dancers or children of a certain age," Strauss suggested.

Stay tuned

"Both [companies] run schools. Both have performance seasons. Both have professional companies. Both have artistic staff," Fizdale said of the Lexington Ballet Company and the Kentucky Ballet Theatre.

"So this issue of non-duplication of services is one the [LACC's allocation committee] will have to deal with," Fizdale said.

"The community couldn't support one ballet five years ago," she continued. "It's questionable whether it can support two at this time."

(Of course, some note, that lack of "support" didn't prevent LACC from allocating $80,000 to the Lexington Ballet Company in 1997-1998.)

Porter is willing to take up the challenge. He noted a consultant hired by a Lexington business group recently remarked this community needs more than just college sports and Keeneland - there's a need for cultural attractions like ballet.

Money from the LACC would enhance the quality of LBC productions, Porter said. But it won't determine whether the company survives, he said.

. What gives?

In 1998 after The Lexington Ballet Company suspended its performing company because of debt, letting 14 dancers and Xijun Fu go, some of the members branched off to form the Ballet Theatre of Lexington. Now the Kentucky Ballet Theatre - with Fu as artistic director and six of the 14 dancers fired in 1998 as part of the company - the organization has survived for two years but is not yet eligible to receive funding from the Lexington Arts and Cultural Council (a three-year minimum is required).

However, the Lexington Ballet Company, 27-years-strong, has been refused LACC funding since the split in 1998.

Recently, the LACC, insisting that the community cannot support two ballet companies, offered $5,000 funding for the companies to hire a mediator so that they could settle differences and form one company.

The companies, however, dispute the logic of such a move. Content to keep moving in their respective directions, they have refused to mediate.

According to Lucia Montero, school director of the Lexington Ballet Company, "we'll never be together because of differences of philosophies." She also insisted that the idea of the companies fighting is ridiculous, and she doesn't understand the reasons that the LACC gives for withholding money.

"I don't understand why they say there can't be two ballet companies in town. We are two very different ballet companies," Montero said.

The last time LBC received funding from LACC was the 1997-98 fiscal year. LACC allocated $80,000, but LBC did not receive all the money because of the financial problems they had that year.

Both companies are determined to keep moving in separate directions, and though they are disappointed by the LACC's refusal to recognize them as two very different ballet companies, they insist that they have come this far and will continue to move forward. -ST