Brooklyn Ballet at 10
A lot has changed since our last look at the Brooklyn Ballet. Now, as it celebrates its tenth anniversary, I talked to founder and Artistic Director Lynn Parkerson.
CS: You moved into your own space in 2009. How has having a home changed things?
LP: It mandates that we do a lot more programming. Our overhead went from zero to around $150,000 a year.
I was tired of using my home for an office and costume storage — because of the repertory I do I have hundreds of gorgeous costumes. I was planning to rent an office. We were renting rehearsal space from Charles Moore Dance Theater on Bridge Street; they’re no longer there.
A board member started exploring possibilities with Borough President Marty Markowitz’s real estate people. When this opportunity came up I said, “lets go for more than an office.”
Our landlord is Common Ground/Actors Fund. They needed a not-for-profit community organization as a tenant on the ground floor, and they wanted an arts group. Right away it became clear that our mission and that of this building dovetailed very nicely, but it took two years of conversation — with the building, with Markowitz — for all of us to agree that Brooklyn Ballet should be the Actor’s Fund arts partner.
[Note: Common Ground develops supportive housing. The Schermerhorn, the building that houses Brooklyn Ballet, is designed for low-income working adults in arts and entertainment, formerly homeless single adults, and persons living with HIV/AIDS. The building was co-sponsored by The Actors Fund with funding provided by US Department of Housing and Urban Development (HDC), New York City Department of Housing Preservation and Development (HPD,) the NYS Homeless Housing and Assistance Program, and other partners.]
We opened our doors in the fall and almost immediately a lot of our corporate funding disappeared (in the downturn). We had to create earned income. We were paying nonprofit Brooklyn rent and we had a staff.
For me, part of the draw of moving into this space was the ability to go from an outreach-only organization to having a permanent studio space with access to the 200-seat theater in the building. Because of our tenancy the rental of the theater is very low cost. It’s very expensive to produce ballet, reduced production fees enables us to develop and present work more regularly.
After almost three years we can see the costs; we know a lot about what we need to do. We need to up our sustainability. That means creating partnerships and finding people who will help sell what we do to people who can pay for it. And we need to expand the board, that’s another kind of work.
CS: Its hard work. Is it worth it?
LP: I constantly ask myself, “Are you going to put on the CEO cap or let the whole thing go?” Lots of maneuvering, it keeps me up at night — can we continue? That’s to be determined. Do I have enough help? Am I closing the school? I think not. Will the board step up? Can we go to the next level?
I have great, talented people working for me, and I have wonderful people helping me. It took 10 years to get here, and I’m thrilled to be here.
CS: Take Ballet To The Streets, your free performance series, was one of your first initiatives. Has it changed?
LP: Take Ballet To The Streets is a regular presence in Marine Park, senior centers, Brooklyn schools, and more recently in Albee Square, Atlantic Antic and other free events. Students from our education program go through a barre and sometimes perform. Seeing the kids is great. We provide the audience with ballet vocabulary, basic approaches to choreography, and ballet. We do it any time we’re asked and it helps our attendance.
Elevate was our first program. It’s a residency program that began with funding for a performance by a violinist and two dancers. The sponsor said, “Instead of a baseball I’ll put this in three schools.” Now we’re in eight schools, grades 2, 3, and 6, and we provide master classes in high schools.
Elevate begins and ends with a company performance. Especially important is that one of the people on stage is their teacher. Over six to eight weeks children learn basic ballet vocabulary through the “Language of Dance” system. They experience the discipline of a ballet barre and learn how to describe and notate their experience with “motif writing.” Brooklyn Ballet in the Houses is a newer outreach program providing ballet education to students and families who live in NYCHA housing through “Ballet Magic,” a free performance in the community by Elevate students and Brooklyn Ballet’s Company and Youth Ensemble.
Gifted students from the Elevate program are offered scholarships to Brooklyn Ballet School. We have five kids on scholarship now. Some of our students move to larger conservatories, though eventually we’d like the to move into our own conservatory. We want to be able to develop children here in Brooklyn, to support another level of artistic training and mentorship. Some live very far and can’t get to Manhattan after school; it’s too far. So we want to provide older students with classes four days a week.
CS: You started the school almost as early as the public programs.
LP: I never wanted to run a school or to teach, though I’ve done it a lot and I enjoy giving choreography workshops for kids. I like mentoring and inspiring, but I never wanted to teach regularly.
I’m happy to pass that baton to Patty Foster, our new, pregnant, Education Director. She’s passionate about develop a school program. She’ll take the school much further than I had an inclination to. Her plans include a conservatory and youth ensemble, as opposed to just a community company. Eventually you want a second company, but that’s way down the line. For now we’re trying to grow as much as we can in this space, doing whatever makes sense, whatever provides stability and quality. If it were just about making money I’d have 49 classes for three-year olds. We already have lots of kids on Saturdays, that’s our bread and butter. But our mission is clear — ballet training for those who might not have exposure, free performances out doors, accessibility to the art form
CS: You had a very ambitious season this year. How did it go?
LP: Rodney Hurly from the Kumble Theater wanted a turn-of-the-century program. I started thinking about that last summer. I danced Isadora (Duncan, considered the founder of modern dance,) in the 1980s. And, “Les Sylphides” was the first dance I ever saw. I wasn’t dancing yet. I went to the ballet by subway. The curtain opened and I loved the set. Then they started moving and I didn’t know they were real. I was completely enthralled.
I’d heard Isadora was influenced by classical ballets like “Les Sylphides,” (music by Frédéric Chopin, choreography by Michel Fokine.) Isadora did her own Chopin dances, immediately there’s a crossover. We called the program “Revolutionaries and Romantics.” It was advertised as a re-creation but it was more of an arrangement, like Sinatra sung by a pop star. I took four or five pieces of Chopin music common to Isadora and Fokine. Working with a violinist, I arranged and directed original choreography intertwining some of it into a new work, and recreating other dances. Arranging the material was a really interesting process. What if the sylphs and the poet were figments of Isadora’s imagination? So Isadora chased a sylph and vice versa. I called it a dance of ghosts. It was rich, interesting work; I’m in love with both pieces.
I wondered if ballet dancers would have an interest in performing Duncan’s work. Catherine Gallant was my collaborator. She’s really thought about the technique of the Duncan work. When we began rehearsals the dancers were just fantastic, they got Duncan. Chopin is difficult, but it relates to music they know. Some dancers did both the ballet and Duncan roles, some only one.
And I haven’t performed in a long time; I love performing. I decided to do Duncan’s “Revolutionary Etude.” It was Isadora’s last work. It’s two-and-a-half minutes, I was ready to pull out of performing if need be. I worked with Kathy and I was able to master it. You go into it and you don’t know how you’ll get out, it’s extremely powerful, and very fulfilling. Also on that program was our hip-hop Nutcracker, “Dolls, Dolls, Dolls.” (Mixing hip-hop and ballet is a trademark of the company.)
CS: On Monday, July 23rd Brooklyn Ballet professional and student dancers are performing “A History of Ballet in 9 Innings” between innings during the Cyclones/Aberdeen IronBirds game. How did this come about?
LP: I’m so excited about this! Our events person, Jeanette Lee, connected us with the Cyclones. Steve Cohen, at the Cyclones, saw the potential and made it happen. Hopefully it will be an annual event for the whole family.
I’ve picked nine pivotal moments in dance history — baroque, hip-hop… We’re performing 30-second dances between each inning, and a little more during the seventh inning stretch. The jumbotron is going to show historical ballet/baseball facts by year looking at the evolution of the two forms. This could be fruitful on many levels.
We compete with tremendous amount of media and entertainment. We always have to be out there providing fun things and opportunities. I’m learning to ask for help, to put people in leadership roles. A great neighborhood is developing around us, people know us. We’re on people’s radar.
For more information about the July 23rd Cyclones event and other Brooklyn Ballet 10th anniversary events, as well as classes and educational opportunities, go to brooklynballet.org.
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