State of the Arts: North Carolina Dance Theatre

By Sean O'Connell

The Weekly newspapers’ State of the Arts series maintains discussion with the area’s performing arts groups while they take well-deserved summer breaks. Each week, we encourage arts representatives to reflect on the past season and anticipate the next.

North Carolina Dance Theatre wrapped a groundbreaking season this year – literally. The organization, which temporarily had relocated to the culturally affluent NoDa neighborhood, broke ground in April on a planned uptown facility. The new 34,000-square-foot headquarters opens in 2010, and will include offices, dance and rehearsal space. The facility is the first of many topics covered by NCDT Executive Director Doug Singleton during this week’s State of the Arts.

How would you characterize NCDT’s last season?
The slogan that I kept using was, “We keep moving forward.” From a financial standpoint, I’d characterize our process as positive. We raised a great deal of money in the last year for our new facility. And even in this economic downturn, we were able to fill the gap necessary to start construction. I think when we look back at this point in hindsight, we are going to think, “How were we able to pull that off?”

We had to sacrifice a few things. We would have loved to have completed the black box theater that we had designed in the space. But the infrastructure is in place, and hopefully if the economy starts to turn around, we can finalize that funding opportunity.

We’re still trying to afford every nickel and dime that we can. (And) we are consistently looking ahead. We just received a great announcement from US Airways for $100,000 of capital support, so we’re very excited about that. We just continue to find opportunities.

Talk to me about NCDT’s ticket sales.
We did about what we did last year, so I’d consider that successful. “The Nutcracker” surpassed what we did last year by the skin of our teeth. “Innovative Works” was right on target. “A Night at the Movies” was very close. The one that we were kind of flabbergasted with was “Timeless Ballets by Balanchine.” That one didn’t do as well as we’d hoped.

Does NCDT, like other groups, experience patrons purchasing tickets later in the process?
That’s always been the case. If we go back and look at historical data, we will basically sell 50 percent of our tickets in the final 10 to 14 days (before a performance).

That’s common these days?
Well, after Sept. 11, subscriptions started to wane. What we’ve seen after that is a lot more single tickets being sold. There was a point where people had to ask, “Am I going to be here in May of next year to go to a performance? Well, I’ll just wait and see if I’m here or not.” The transient style of this community, whether they’re heading to the beach or to the mountains or back to New York – we are constantly on the move here in Charlotte.

Is NCDT inspired, at all, by other dance companies?
We do look at our competition. One of the models that we are exploring from a strategic planning point of view is a sister-city model. And the companies that we’re looking at are the School of Aspen Santa Fe Ballet, as well as the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater, which, for years, has enjoyed a partnership with Kansas City. How do we create those kinds of opportunities for us? We already have a sister city, per se, and that’s the Chautauqua Institute in upstate New York. Our dancers are up there for six weeks (in the summer).
In the Charlotte community, though, it only takes us 24 weeks to provide the programming for all five performances of seven programs. With only 30 weeks of work for our dancers, the greatest challenge is to be competitive in the marketplace for exceptional dancers. Most other dance companies across the country are at 36 to 40 weeks. How do we get to that point?

How will NCDT respond to the Arts & Science Council cuts?
With the Arts & Science Council, the writing was on the wall. And I give them credit for telling it like it was. They didn’t want to, and it’s not like this was their choice. They had to make some really tough decisions.

We received a 25 percent reduction. I was prepared for that, and at that level, we were able to manage that reduction through artistic programming. In this type of financial situation that we are in, the investment into new works is the most challenging problem. So next year, we have a lot of repertoire on the program, things that have been done prior to this season. That does not cost nearly as much money as bringing in a new design team. ... What we’re doing is bringing back the best of the best next year.

What, then, are NCDT’s biggest challenges heading into next season?
We were very conservative in our budgeting for next year, so I think there’s great opportunity for us to grow, to be honest. And our growth opportunities are going to be on our marketing and single-ticket sales. We’ve got to have a strong “Nutcracker.” And then the opening of the Knight Theater (in March 2010) with Jean-Pierre Bonnefoux’s “Cinderella” – you couldn’t ask for a better performance to open up the venue. The whole family can come see an incredible dance performance. It’s a family classic. It’s one of our signature works, and a beautiful production.

I’d also like to recognize ... the other aspects of the organization that are thriving. Our school has sold out its summer intensive program. We have never had this many children enrolled before. ...

We’ve also received the Women’s Impact Fund to create dance programs throughout the four regions of Charlotte to provide quality dance training for those who might not be able to afford it. Dance Theatre has always wanted to be a real part of the fabric of the community. We continue to sew that fabric.

The one disappointment that I have going into next year is what happened at Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools, specifically with the Learning Events program. I’ve got three kids in the public school system. I don’t want to lose teachers. I don’t necessarily want to lose sports programs in middle schools. But I know I also don’t want to lose the opportunity for our children to experience incredible art forms such as the opera, the symphony and the dance theater. All of those opportunities are basically gone. The children no longer are going to experience live, symphonic music as part of their education in the CMS system. That is a huge loss, and nobody is talking about it. I’m flabbergasted. ...

I recognize from the school system’s side that they have (challenges). But where was the conversation about what else we can do in a different way? They never happened. And none of the programs in CMS’s entire program were ever looked at individually. One huge magic marker with a big, fat tip went right through it. It saddens me that that happened. ... And we weren’t making any money off of it. We were barely covering our costs to make those programs happen. But it’s a real loss. - South Charlotte Weekly