In Arts & Entertainment Commentary

Michael Pink's Dorian Gray helped Milwaukee Ballet boost both attendance and revenue. (PHOTO: Mark Frohna)

Ballet reports big gains in revenue and attendance for 2015-16 season

The Milwaukee Ballet is celebrating this summer after seeing a huge growth in attendance, proving that high-quality work will capture attention – and dollars – in Milwaukee.

The ballet increased its attendance by 15 percent and counted record revenue of $2.3 million.

This is quite an achievement for a company that, not so long ago, was struggling with a collaboration with the Pennsylvania Ballet that ended up failing and putting the Milwaukee Ballet on shaky ground in this city.

There were doubts that the company could survive, and there were all kinds of schemes suggested to try and keep things going. Nothing seemed to work until Michael Pink came along as artistic director 14 years ago. He took a semi-dysfunctional, classically structured and focused ballet company and revamped it from top to bottom. Pink was a storyteller, having grown up in the world of theater, and he wanted to tell ballet stories in Milwaukee.

Milwaukee responded, and the trajectory for the company is now distinctly upward.

Most modern ballet revolves around movement and the kind of abstract presentations that are designed to wow an audience with physical and visual thrills. Pink and his company are the exact opposite.

For Pink, the story always comes first. In a piece, he works with each dancer on character development. He wants, as a great theater director wants, to create a family on the stage, actors and dancers who listen to each other with every sense available to them.

In a release from the Ballet, Pink said he is proud of the artistic breadth of the past season, which included literary classics such as internationally renowned "Dracula," Pink's bold new full-length premiere of "Dorian Gray" and the popular "ALICE (in wonderland)."

"This past season goes down in records as one of our best ever," he said. "It's been a blockbuster year for ticketing, but it has also provided a splendid visual treat and artistic journey for Wisconsin audiences.

"This season we featured more than 250 student dancers from our Milwaukee Ballet School & Academy in 'The Nutcracker' and 'ALICE (in wonderland).' These opportunities provide valuable performance experience to our students and help them make memories that last a lifetime."

Pink underscored the company's strong commitment to bringing new work to Milwaukee audiences.

"New work is the lifeblood of our art form," he said int he release. "I'm thrilled we will present four world premieres next season, bringing challenging, fresh work to the Milwaukee stage."

The campaign of new work is an example of the growing financial support from philanthropic donors such as former Major League Baseball commissioner Bud Selig and his wife Sue. They matched the New Work Campaign.

In her first season as executive director, Julia Glawe noted that an increased focus on patron loyalty is paying dividends for the company.

"We have worked diligently this season to connect with our patrons with increased quality and frequency, and with stories and experiences which help provide a deeper appreciation of this art form and a build even stronger connections to Milwaukee Ballet," Glawe said.

Despite all the good news, the ballet company still faces challenges.

It has a largely empty reserve fund, a critical element in the financial health of any arts organization. And the plans for a space of its own are seemingly on hold. The Ballet couldn't support a 1,000-seat facility on its own, but a sharing arrangement may be a possible solution. I continue to believe that some kind of collaboration with the UWM Peck School of the Arts might result in something valuable to Milwaukee.

One thing that a dedicated facility would do is provide the opportunity for longer runs of the outstanding ballet's staged by this company.

In addition, a facility to replace the one located at 5th and National could feature additional, as well as better, rehearsal and office spaces, and perhaps a small 250-seat theater for additional audience experiences.

For once, however, the leadership seems on solid ground, and there is optimism that the growing success of the ballet will continue.


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