The cloud of euphoria enveloping the Sarasota Ballet this week is well deserved. And it is not over the top to exclaim this tiny (in budget) but extraordinarily talented ballet company, Sarasota’s own, reached a historic high in its 26 years of existence this past weekend at the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C.
For one, it’s a substantial milestone in itself that the organizers of “Ballet Across America” invited the Sarasota Ballet to perform at the Kennedy Center — the national center for the arts.
But good gosh, what occurred afterward may never, ever happen again: Alastair Macaulay, of the New York Times, who is pretty much the Zeus of ballet critics around the world, certainly in this country, said Sarasota Ballet performed Sir Frederic Ashton’s “Les Pateneurs” better than Britain’s Royal Ballet, the world-renowed, prima of all ballet companies:
“Hard to believe though this sounds, the dancers perform it with an understanding that surpasses the Royal Ballet’s,” Macaulay wrote. And he added: “The Sarasota performances are the finest I’ve seen of this ballet in over 30 years.”
Those now-immortal words came on the heels of the Washington Post proclaiming Sarasota Ballet “the jewel” of this year’s “Ballet Across America.”
Van Wezel’s pricing
We have recounted these exhilarating comments not just as more deserved applause and cheerleading for the ballet’s artistic director, Iain Webb, and his troupe of young dancers (they were the youngest in average age of all of the companies that performed last weekend). But we are emphasizing them to make another point:
This past weekend’s accolades for the ballet company provide convincing evidence — not that it was necessary — that Sarasota City Hall management needs to change its bone-headed position on the fees it charges the city’s local arts organizations to use the Van Wezel Performing Arts Hall.
What do Van Wezel fees have to do with performing at the Kennedy Center?
Perhaps the ballet’s Kennedy Center success will serve as a long-awaited revelation to the Van Wezel’s management, the Van Wezel Foundation, City Manager Tom Barwin and the entire City Commission that it would behoove the city to show stronger support for one of the most crucial economic engines in this region.
With the national and international accolades enshrouding Sarasota Ballet at this very moment, wouldn’t it make sense now to capitalize on it? To make concerted efforts to showcase two of the city’s acclaimed performing arts organizations — the ballet and Sarasota Orchestra (with its new conductor, Anu Tali), each of which is desperate for a performing venue that suits its stature?
We have that venue to showcase them — in the Van Wezel Performing Arts Hall. But its fees and available performing dates for local organizations are, respectively, ridiculously outrageous and lousy.
The fees are so outrageous it makes little financial or economic sense for either of these organizations to book dates. And the dates often presented to them are so lousy, in all practicality, it’s not worth the pain and angst to try to negotiate with the Van Wezel staff. Nor do the dates rarely justify the exorbitant costs.
Consider the fees:
When Sarasota Ballet is able to book dates at the Sarasota Opera House, it pays $19,000 for three performances and two days of technical preparation. At the Van Wezel:
$60,000 for the same time.
Everyone understands the city’s dilemma. The City Commission and city administration don’t want the Van Wezel to be a financial drain on taxpayers — with all city taxpayers having to subsidize a performing arts center that only a few city residents use.
Over the past two years, the Van Wezel staff has fulfilled that mission well. It has eliminated the $150,000 to $200,000 annual subsidies from the city’s general fund.
But one of the trade-offs in that effort is that none of the city’s arts or not-for-profit organizations that would benefit from the Van Wezel receives “hometown” treatment. No breaks for the home teams.
It’s understandable, to an extent. Indeed, we’ve never been a fan of any kind of subsidies. Nonetheless, it’s not right. The Van Wezel belongs to the people. What’s more, there are ways to structure pricing and dates without taxpayer subsidies that can give our hometown organizations better pricing treatment than some of the traveling shows of worn-out bands and shows that suck up the Van Wezel’s most prized dates.
Do what many businesses do: Give their best customers (hello: local organizations) better pricing than the out-of-towners.
And wouldn’t it make sense to give date preference to the local ballet and orchestra and other organizations, particularly during the height of season? The more and better visibility they receive, the greater their attendance will be, the stronger they will become, the more they will be able to afford and the more recognized the city will become for its cultural riches. Each one feeds on the other.
Capitalize on the moment
This is a moment and an opportunity on which to capitalize. The City Commission and Visit Sarasota, especially, should not squander it.
Indeed, how sad and bad it would be if tourism and city leaders sat on their haunches and allowed the Van Wezel to continue the status quo. We can hear it now: We’ve already booked all the dates for next year; we can’t change them.
Really? Not for a ballet company that was called better than the Royal Ballet?
Click here to view the Van Wezel's 2011-12 budget.