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Losing the budget-conscious Fair didn't make it easier to ease the ballet's deficit, which was about $760,000 for 2007.
Fair had helped pave the way for the sale of the Atlanta Ballet's building to the Shailendra Group for $12 million. The sale covers most of the company's most pressing costs, including the purchase and renovation of its new home on the Westside as well as an accumulated debt of $3 million. The company obtained a $500,000 gift from the Goizueta Foundation to help fix two basic needs: revitalize the fundraising wing of the company, and help fund scholarships for the company's nationally renowned Ballet Centre for Dance Education.
"It's been a challenging year, I'm not going to deny that," says Hughson, an affable, candid man whose emerging paunch belies his award-winning dancing background that turned years ago into arts administration. Hughson came to Atlanta from a stint as executive director of the American Repertory Ballet and Princeton Ballet School in New Brunswick, N.J. Before that, he served as the first executive director of Complexions Contemporary Ballet in New York City. Coming from New York City to Atlanta could not have been a bigger culture shock. New York has hundreds of dance companies fighting for lots of money, Hughson says. The Atlanta Ballet represented a lone dance juggernaut fighting for scraps – no major competitors, but not much money, either.
Atlanta Ballet has an $8.1 million budget and a $1.6 million endowment. Compared with companies in five other major U.S. cities – Houston, Pittsburgh, San Francisco, Dallas-Fort Worth and Kansas City – Atlanta's last in percentage of money contributed, second in budget size, third in single-ticket sales, and fifth in both endowment and subscriptions.
As if the debt and tragedy weren't enough, last December a 17-year-old dancer injured herself in a fall during a production of Nutcracker.
"Do I feel as if there's a dark cloud hanging over us?" he asks rhetorically. No, he says. He believes the company can turns things around.
"Atlanta's arts community is slowly coming into its own," Hughson says. "But it's about a community's priorities. Atlanta hasn't been as generous to the arts as it has to other things."
Hughson has no illusions about big solving any of the Atlanta Ballet's pressing financial needs. Its $875,000 price tag is about average for a company production, and there's no telling how ticket sales will go. The event has benefited from positive publicity and constant marketing by the company, but it also falls during spring break, when much of its target audience might be out of town. While advance-ticket sales are slower than a typical ballet, Hughson is banking on a surge leading up to opening night.
But the hope for the company's future remains strong. After this season's finale, the company will join the Atlanta Opera up at the more intimate, 2,750-seat Cobb Energy Performing Arts Centre (compared with the 4,700-seat Fox).
Hughson sees the big production as a longer-term investment.
When asked what would make big a success, Hughson says he sees a dual opportunity: to gain a new audience that hasn't typically attended the ballet, and to lay a foundation to draw a more diverse group of future dancers.
Hughson is quick to point out that, sometimes, Atlanta's diversity is misleading; studies show African-American dance students stop taking classes at around 12 years of age, which explains why there are so few black principal dancers at ballet companies.
"We had a conversation with the National Black Arts Festival about the issue of training dancers, getting them to stick with it, and to find out, where's the disconnect?" he says. They're still working on the answer.
For Hughson and others, it's not so much a question of artistic or commercial success for this production; its success may well be judged by its sheer existence, and figuring out where to go from there. "We'd of course love people to embrace this, and also to consider it artistically valid," he says. "There could be critics [of big], but it won't 'fail.' The failure would be if the Atlanta Ballet doesn't harness the creative energy and the dialogue in the community and not capture that."
This isn't the first time a dance company, or even the Atlanta Ballet, has taken on the challenge of dancing to popular music. Back in 1973, Twyla Tharp turned heads with Deuce Coup, a production set to the music of the Beach Boys, to critical and popular acclaim. The Joffrey Ballet, long known for pushing boundaries and playing with popular songs, brought the music of Prince to the dance stage with 1993's Billboards, which premiered at the University of Iowa and celebrated everything from the balladry of "Purple Rain" to the funky erotica of "Get Off."
And then there's the Atlanta Ballet itself. McFall and choreographer Margo Sappington collaborated with another Atlanta music legend, the Indigo Girls, on 2001's Shed Your Skin. The production, which was remounted in 2004, featured Amy Ray and Emily Saliers performing on one side of the stage with the dancers on the other.