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Monday, September 22, 2014 |  Madison, WI: 68.0° F  A Few Clouds
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After trying times, Madison Ballet looks to the future
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Credit:Andrew Weeks

It's no secret that the last few years having been trying for local arts groups. In 2009, Madison Repertory Theatre folded in the midst of its 40th-anniversary season. Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra musicians went on strike in 2008-09.

And Madison Ballet, the state's second biggest dance organization after Milwaukee Ballet, canceled a number of 2009 shows and switched to recorded accompaniment for signature productions such as its annual holiday Nutcracker.

Now, as the economy improves yet many families still reel from the recession, Madison Ballet is finding its own new normal. Artistic director W. Earle Smith, in his 11th year with the company, is striving to maintain the company's mix of professional performances and educational opportunities for local youth.

While this year's Nutcracker will again use recorded music, it has the largest cast ever - about 165 dancers. It kicks off the ballet's 2010-11 season, which also includes An Evening of Romance (Feb. 12) and A Midsummer Night's Dream (March 19-20). (See below for more.)

Though staffing changes and a poor economy that dented corporate giving have presented challenges, Smith remains optimistic about the company's future, artistically and financially.

The big show

The Nutcracker, which opens Dec. 18 in Overture Hall, is a linchpin of performing arts seasons everywhere. According to Smith, it's the number-one-selling show in the country, followed by other holiday staples: A Christmas Carol and Handel's Messiah. With sparkling music by Tchaikovsky, The Nutcracker is a colorful holiday fantasy and family tradition.

Although Madison Ballet runs a busy dance school out of rented space on the second floor of Westgate Mall, dancers in the show come from a variety of local academies. Smith's goal is to build a cohesive, smoothly functioning cast. "When you walk into the first rehearsal, you don't belong to a certain studio, you are not at a certain skill level - you are a dancer in The Nutcracker," he says. "We are a cast. Like a football team, we have to pull together to put on the best show."

Adult cast members include Marguerite "Molly" Luksik, who has also joined the faculty at the School of Madison Ballet. Luksik will dance the role of the grown-up Clara - one of Smith's innovations since, in the original version, Clara remains a child the whole way through.

Says Luksik of Smith, "He's definitely the nicest artistic director I've worked with! He really trusts his dancers, and he lets you take chances."

For many audience members, The Nutcracker is their introduction to ballet. Luksik, who has danced professionally with Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre, Ballet Austin and Chicago Ballet, agrees that it's a good choice for first-timers. "It has a lot of versatility, especially in the second act. It's not two hours of the same style. Some [dances] are about power, tricks and high energy, and some are smoother and slower."

Although this is Luksik's first year as Clara, it's her third Madison Nutcracker. Through working with a number of returning professional artists, the company has developed a certain unity - even as it has scaled back its ambitious professionalization plans of a few years back.

"When you put a team together, it takes time for the players to gel, to anticipate and feed off each other. I saw that for the first time last year," observes Smith. "Once you see that, it opens up a whole new realm of possibility. You can push dancers in directions they may not feel comfortable going."

Yet, at the same time, Smith maintains that his approach is not just about plugging stars into the main roles. "I believe in the corps de ballet. If you've got a strong corps, then you've got a good ballet."

While Smith would prefer live music over recorded, he feels it's still too risky economically to go that route. "We're just not ready to make that $45,000 leap. That's a big chunk of money." Yet he concedes, "Live music goes to the credibility of a ballet company. I would bet most artistic directors in this country would say the same thing. It's been very tough."

Despite hard times, The Nutcracker continues to draw local audiences. In fact, the last two years were the best-selling ever. Smith attributes that surprising information to "the whole 'staycation' thing. What that says to me is, 'Times are tough and we have to find those opportunities to be a family. We can't go to Disney, so what are we going to do in Madison?'"

In the black

Currently, Madison Ballet is operating with a lean staff of just four full-time positions: artistic director Smith, a school registrar/educational outreach coordinator, an office manager/bookkeeper and a recently hired development director.

Marketing and PR have been outsourced, though the previous marketing manager (who accepted another position locally) has done some pro bono work for the company.

Madison Ballet's last executive director, Valerie Dixon, left in July because her husband accepted a position in California. Eventually, the decision was made to replace the ED role with a development director who could zero in on the company's fundraising.

Smith has taken on much of the ballet's operational tasks in addition to his artistic duties. Luckily, he has accounting training along with his dance chops. As he says forthrightly, "We are short-staffed. After this season, we have to look at the organizational structure and figure out what the next step is."

As Anne Katz, executive director of arts advocacy group Arts Wisconsin, says, "There's a perfect storm of issues facing arts organizations right now: declining revenue on all sides and more competition for people's time. So arts leaders are going a bit crazy in the short term, trying to figure out how to keep moving forward."

The good news is that the company ended its fiscal year in the black on Aug. 31. You can almost see Smith breathe a sigh of relief as he says it: "That is huge...I didn't think it was gonna happen."

The ballet has also implemented fundraising events like a Holiday Market at the Alliant Energy Center, which doubles as a way to build audience awareness. The company does community outreach, including a seven-week program called "Movement in Your World," which takes place in 41 Head Start preschool classrooms across the city.

The last few years have been an education in navigating rough waters. "I don't think anyone in the arts believes this [recession] was just a downturn and then we're going back to normal," Smith says. "This was a rude awakening that we have to be malleable. We have to look at our business and make sure it's the best business model. I don't think all of sudden everything's going back to the status quo. We have to look at creative ways to deliver our programs and raise money."

Gone fishin'

You could say that Smith, 47, a tall, athletic man with some silver in his brush-cut hair, was not destined for a career in dance. "I grew up in this sort of 'manly man' background," he says, in which the military and sports played a strong role.

Smith's father was a Navy captain and career military man. The artistic director and choreographer was raised in Honolulu, Hawaii, and even overlapped with Barack Obama at the college-prep Punahou School (the future pres was Class of '79; Smith was Class of '81).

Education and extracurricular activities were important in the family, and Smith tried a little bit of everything before catching the ballet bug. "Since I was 4 years old, I played the violin, I played the piano, I swam on the swim team, I played football, I boxed. I was jack of all trades, master of none. When I started dancing ballet, it was like a lightbulb...for some reason, I just knew that's what I needed to be doing."

Smith put college on hold to pursue his dream, knowing that a degree could wait, but a dancer's career is tied to youth. In his late teens, he left home to attend the School of American Ballet in New York City, co-founded by famed choreographer Georges Balanchine.

Being thrown into that hyper-competitive world was, Smith admits, "a rude awakening for me. I was the rooster in a henhouse in Hawaii and had an incredible teacher. When I went to SAB, I thought I was God's gift to dance. Then you go to New York City and realized you're not as good as you think. I woke up to reality and fought for it." Smith then danced professionally with Pacific Northwest Ballet in Seattle.

After a few years in the corporate world and also in youth services, Smith accepted his position at Madison Ballet in 1999. While dance is his professional passion, his free time is decidedly casual: Going to the movies, watching football (his brother-in-law coaches at Notre Dame) and fishing are favorite pastimes.

"I probably do more artistic work when I'm sitting on the pier or in the boat, drinking a beer, smoking a cigar, and watching the tip of my pole," he says. "It's very cathartic for me."


Sex and Mendelssohn
After The Nutcracker, Madison Ballet will stage two more events for the 2010-2011 season.

An Evening of Romance
Overture Center's Capitol Theater, Feb. 12

"That is who Madison Ballet is, and who we should be in the future," says artistic director W. Earle Smith of this evening of pieces presented in Overture's opulent Capitol Theater. "It's not traditional ballet. It's very contemporary."

Local jazz favorite Jan Wheaton and her band will lend a sultry vibe to the evening. Smith plans to make it clear to potential audiences that Romance is not, as he puts it, "pretty little ballerinas in tutus."

"It's about taking ballet and putting it outside of a box, and I think that's going to resonate in Madison. We have to sell it like everything else: great music and a lot of sex," Smith laughs. "Dance is very sensual. It is not tight, it is not controlled, it's about sensuality."

A Midsummer Night's Dream
Overture Center's Capitol Theater, March 19-20

This version of Shakespeare's classic features choreography by Peter Anastos and music by Felix Mendelssohn. Anastos, currently the artistic director of Idaho Ballet, is also known as the founder of Ballet Trocadero, the all-male, satiric ballet.

Says Smith, "Peter Anastos has done a beautiful job of telling the story and putting the comedy into it. It's a privilege to stage his work."

While An Evening of Romance is skewed for an adult crowd, Midsummer should appeal to virtually all ages. Smith describes it as "fairies and frolic" and says it's geared for about age 4 or 5 and up. "What a great way to experience Shakespeare - through music and through movement."

To make the story understandable to all ages, Madison Ballet will take a cue from opera and use supertitles (to provide plot cues, not full dialogue).

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