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Grand Pirouette

For arts patrons, getting to know the real people behind Ballet Arizona is philanthropy’s greatest perk

BY JIMMY MAGAHERN

Published by: AZ Society, November 2008


Watch this chap,” whispers Carol Whiteman, as Astrit Zejnati, the Albanian-born principal dancer for Ballet Arizona, gets up from his chair in the company’s rehearsal studio and takes his place as one of eight dancers running through some difficult choreography from an upcoming program. “He’s phenomenal.”

The practice room in the crowded building the company shares with its dance school, hidden away behind a non-distinct strip mall on east Indian School Road, is a far cry from Symphony Hall or the Orpheum Theatre, where Ballet Arizona normally performs.

For one thing, on this hot mid-September afternoon, it smells a little like a Gold's Gym. “We still don’t have showers,” Whiteman says. “It’s hard exercise for the dancers, and they come out of it just soaking wet.“

Nevertheless, Whiteman sits beaming in her metal folding chair as if basking under the chandelier in the New York State Theater at Lincoln Center, where the former New Jersey resident first saw Ballet Arizona’s artistic director, Ib Andersen, perform with the New York City Ballet as the star protégé of the late dance legend George Balanchine.

Today, Whiteman knows Andersen well enough to chide him on his choice of music for the dancers, a wild piano overture that she calls “a cacophony.”

“It gets better,” Andersen smiles, sitting two chairs away.

A die-hard ballet fan since she was a little girl in tutus herself, Whiteman was thrilled when Andersen, the one-time prodigy of the Royal Danish Ballet plucked by Balanchine for the Big Apple, was recruited in 2000 as the new artistic director of Ballet Arizona.

“Before Ib, the ballet was . . . okay,” Whiteman says. “I didn’t go very much, because it wasn’t on par with what I was used to. But Ib brought with him just the highest standards.”

Unfortunately, Andersen was also brought onboard at the absolute worst financial point in the ballet’s 22-year history. Carol Schilling, who began her two-term post as board chair following what she calls “that terrible year,” says the organization had slid into over $2 million in debt when freshly appointed executive director Sherry New launched an emergency drive for new donors and board members.

“At one point during that year, Ballet Arizona was 48 hours away from bankruptcy,” says Schilling. “Sherry and [then board chair] Gwen Hillis called a press conference on a Friday, announcing that if they weren’t able to make payroll the following week, they would have to close the doors.”

Enter Whiteman, who along with Katherine Herberger and an anonymous donor who called promising to make up the difference that following Monday (“it was in the five figures,” reports Schilling, “and he did”), raised the bulk of the $360,000 needed to keep the ballet alive. Whiteman’s gift alone was reported at $100,000.

“Carol Schilling, Carol Whiteman and Gwen Hillis really saved the ballet,” says Sharron Lewis, board co-chair and another major contributor. “I’m sure there were others, but those three people contributed financially and worked tirelessly to keep things going. And they’ve got it to a point now where we have a great board, a great director and much better financial stability. Everything’s come together.”

Under New’s successor, Kevin Myers, the ballet became debt-free in 2005, and now operates on a healthy $5.5 million annual budget. Still, the organization has yet to secure a new building (a 2005 bond issue approved by Phoenix voters granted $6.5 million toward new facilities to be shared with Arizona Opera), and owes money on new sets and equipment for this season’s revamped “Nutcracker.” “But we’re keeping up payments on that,” assures Schilling.

Admirably, one of the primary goals of the post-2000 board has been to make the ballet accessible to those who can’t afford to contribute at all. Through programs like “Ballet Under the Stars,” a series of free performances in Valley parks now in its tenth year, and “Angel Nights,” which donates thousands of free tickets to over 150 non-profit and social service organizations around the city, the board has aimed to promote ballet as a universal, rather than elitist, art form.

“People think of ballet as elitist and effete – which it isn’t,” says Whiteman. “Believe me, there’s nothing effete about these guys!”

For her, getting to personally know Andersen and his 38 dancers in the “down and dirty” confines of the rehearsal studio and wardrobe room has been the greatest reward of her philanthropy.

“These people are real people,” she says, motioning toward the wall of 8-by-10 glossies of the international cast by the building’s exit. She waves to a trim dancer from Santiago, Chile, she says just had a baby – “You’d never know it to look at her” – and taps on the handsome photo of Zejnati, clearly a Whiteman fave.

“He rides a Harley,” she says, with a smile.

”–

 
Photos by Mark W. Lipczynski

Carol Whiteman (left) and Carol Shilling love the ballet - and work to make sure Ballet Arizona thrives.

Ginger Smith as the Sugar Plum Fairy in The Nutcracker.

The Nutcracker, choreographed by Ib Andersen.

Scottsdale resident Chelsea Saari gets some guidance from artistic director Ib Andersen.

Sidebar: Ballet Boxed

Ballet Arizona’s costume director Carolyn Mitchell holds up a bright purple ribbon slated for the garments in its season-opener, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, and shakes her head, already knowing the reaction the color will draw from the company’s visionary artistic director, Ib Andersen.
“Ib wants a certain color ribbon, and I haven’t been able to find it,” says Mitchell, surveying a box of hand-painted color swatches given her by the renowned Danish dancer and choreographer, who’s also, it turns out, an accomplished painter. “I found this one, but it still isn’t quite right.”
Dodging tiny ballerinas in the hallway of the crowded building the company shares with its dance school, Mitchell – whose daughter, Kendra, is a dancer with the repertoire – walks briskly from workshop to wardrobe room, where she comes upon a pile of dress material she says Andersen is also only half-pleased with.
“This is fabric that we had left over from another production, and we’re using it in this new show. That’s kind of what we have to do, to save money – and we’ll make it work,” she adds, confidently. “It’s going to be beautiful. But it’s so frustrating for Ib when it’s not exactly what he wants. He has such artistic vision.”
Such creative recycling is part of the smart business management that rescued Ballet Arizona from the brink of bankruptcy in 2000. But it’s also been the bane of Andersen’s reign, forcing compromise on that all-encompassing creativity.
“It’s not that Ib’s expensive,” says former board chair Carol Schilling. “In fact, one of his gifts is that he realizes we are on a strapped budget and he is able to create a million dollar ballet – with all the sets, the costumes, the music and dancers – for $20,000.”
The Copenhagen-born dance star has also adapted to the fiscal realities of staging an arts program in Phoenix, where most people only think ballet come Christmas. That’s when Andersen’s perennial hit “The Nutcracker” reels in the biggest receipts.
“That’s your bread and butter in America,” says Andersen, who admits to being “allergic” to most holiday programs. “That’s the only time you really make money. We don’t have a choice!”
Still, the ballet’s patrons yearn to provide enough backing to finally match the rich imagination of Ballet Arizona’s director and crew.
“Most people come away from a ballet here completely satisfied,” agrees board member Carol Whiteman. “But that’s only because they don’t know what Ib really wanted. For Ib, it could always be even better.”