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We are not amused: Sen. Joseph L. Bruno. Photo by: Joe Putrock

Don’t Stop the Dance
Community organizing and political muscle force SPAC’s board to reconsider decision to dump the New York City Ballet

By Mae G. Banner

Signs adorned with the lyre of Orpheus and headlined “Save the Ballet” are popping up in shop windows along Broadway in downtown Saratoga Springs. That includes the drugstore across the street from City Hall that’s owned by Mayor Michael Lenz.

Inside, shoppers can sign “Fill the Seats” pledge cards that declare how much money they plan to spend for tickets to New York City Ballet performances this July. The pledges will be delivered to Herb Chesbrough, president and executive director of the Saratoga Performing Arts Center, whose board decided on Feb. 12 to cut SPAC’s nearly 40-year-long relationship with the ballet because it cost more to present than it earned in ticket sales.

The board plans to meet again on March 25 to reconsider its decision in light of the community’s strong demonstration of support for keeping the ballet at SPAC. The SPAC amphitheater was built in 1966 to founding choreographer George Balanchine’s specifications, and, supporters argue, the company has become a valued part of the city’s life.

The Fill the Seats campaign is the brainchild of the ad hoc Save the Ballet Committee, which formed immediately in response to the SPAC board’s decision and whose leaders have since been named by Mayor Lenz as his committee to ensure the ballet’s ongoing residency at SPAC.

As of Monday (March 15), $90,000 in pledges had been collected, according to Dee Sarno, executive director of the Saratoga County Arts Council and member of Save the Ballet. “Pledges are coming in every day. Within the next two weeks, we’re going to double that,” Sarno said.

The point of the Fill the Seats campaign is for ballet fans throughout the Capital Region and beyond to show SPAC that they will be in the audience this summer when City Ballet celebrates the Balanchine Centennial.

The news of the potential loss of the ballet has reached beyond the Capital Region. On Tuesday, a letter and petition signed by 52 adults and 51 students from the Cuyahoga Valley Youth Ballet in Cuyahoga Falls, Ohio, was delivered to the Arts Council. It said, in part, “Our students in Ohio have been journeying for over 35 years to your lovely location. They come to study, to possibly dance with NYCB. . . . They bring their dreams, their parents, and I might add, their money to your state.”

On March 4, the Saratoga Post (a free weekly distributed in local shops) ran an open letter to SPAC from the New York City Ballet, signed by Ron Wasserman, principal bassist for the NYCB Orchestra, and James Fayette, principal dancer. The two are the union representatives to the ballet management. They wrote, in part, “We estimate that the 200-plus people in our company (dancers, musicians, costumers, stage hands, photographers, etc.) spend about three quarters of a million dollars every July in the area. . . . On his 100th birthday, let’s not sully (Balanchine’s) memory . . . by just giving up.”

In the run-up to the SPAC board’s March 25 meeting, citizens and state legislators have made some unprecedented moves:

Senate Majority Leader Joseph Bruno (R-Brunswick) and Assemblyman James Tedisco (R-Schenectady), both of whose districts include parts of Saratoga Springs, met with Chesbrough and four SPAC board members. Not happy about being blindsided by SPAC’s decision to end the ballet’s residency, Bruno and Tedisco are looking for SPAC to open future board meetings to the public. “SPAC has lost the trust of the community,” Tedisco said. “They have to work to get it back.”

Bruno offered to allocate up to $300,000 of his discretionary funds (“member money”) to support the ballet residency in 2005 if SPAC can raise $600,000 from corporate and individual sources. This one-time allocation would give SPAC time to work out a long-range marketing and fundraising plan to ensure the continuing residency of City Ballet beyond 2005, Bruno said.

The New York State Office of Parks, Recreation and Historic Preservation began an audit of SPAC’s financial records, the first audit in the nonprofit organization’s 38 years. The office is SPAC’s landlord. The results of the audit will be made public, according to Tedisco, who said, “There should be more oversight from the Parks Department. Also, there should be a governmental appointee to the SPAC board to report back to the Legislature and the community on what they are doing.”

Save the Ballet began the process of incorporating as a nonprofit organization to collect donations for a fund earmarked to support the ballet. Sarno said, “This money will only go to SPAC when we know the ballet is going to be there.”

Save the Ballet also set up working committees to get corporate pledges, to plan fundraising events, and to work with SPAC management on marketing and promotion of the ballet. Local restaurants are planning fundraising dinners, and Meghan Leary of the Saratoga Wine Exchange says they will introduce a New York-made champagne with a New York City Ballet label, the profits to be donated toward the ballet residency.

The Saratoga County Chamber of Commerce, initially indifferent to the potential loss of City Ballet and amenable to Chesbrough’s plan to replace it with smaller, less expensive dance companies who perform to taped music, has done a full pirouette and is now mailing Fill the Seats pledge cards to its 1,300 members.

At a working meeting of Save the Ballet on March 10, spokeswoman Lisa Mehigan said, “There are two challenges: Our challenge is to fill the seats. A separate challenge to SPAC is to raise $600,000 to match Bruno’s $300,000.”

Tedisco said, “SPAC went from one extreme to the other, first shutting out the community, and now trying to put the whole burden (of supporting the ballet) on the community. We have to let them know we expect them to be responsible.”

Helen Edelman, director of sales and marketing for SPAC, said, “Our fundraising efforts are ongoing as they always have been. We’ve gotten a lot more donations [of space and time] from the media this year. For example, we’re going to buy $7,000 [in ads] in summer from Channel 13, and they [WNYT] are donating $14,000 more of time and production costs to promote the ballet.”

Also, she said, “The Chamber of Commerce and the Downtown Business Association have contributed [marketing] ideas, a little more than last year.”

Edelman would not comment on what the SPAC board’s reaction might be to the outpouring of support for the ballet. However, members of Save the Ballet are confident the decision to evict New York City Ballet from its summer home at SPAC will be reversed. Janice DeMarco, co-owner of Lyrical Ballad Bookstore, said, “I think they are on notice to cooperate with us. They’ve been embarrassed.”

Added Mayor Lenz: “I would be shocked if the SPAC board, when it meets, will say, ‘Thanks, but we haven’t changed our minds.’ ”

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