The Indianapolis Ballet Theatre formed in 1973 by the direction of the Civic Ballet Society of Indianapolis as a group to perform for school children. Just a small company at first, their performances quickly gained popularity and they began to perform outside of IPS auditoriums. By 1986, the IBT employed 20 professional dancers and performed in front of more than 65,000 people in 50 cities regularly across the continent, with regular attendance at home expanding from 4,000 to 14,000 in just five years.
Then, in 1994, the company hired Russian dancer EldarAliev to be artistic director. Unbeknownst to the city -- and the company -- this would be the beginning of a long, painful end. Under Aliev's leadership, the company changed names from the Indianapolis Ballet Theatre to Ballet Internationale and it wasn't long until the money troubles began due to overspending. As Ballet Internationale began sending pleas for help financially, Indy's loyal ballet aficionados gave to save their ballet company. And they continued to give as the company continued to plead until November 10, 2005, when many local fans already had tickets to the Nutcracker waiting in a drawer, Ballet Internationaleannounced they would cease operations immediately, canceling all performances, and declare bankruptcy with over $1 million in debts.
And just like that, the curtain closed and the lights went down on professional ballet in Indianapolis. The ballet lovers of Indy watched numbly as a few other groups tried to woo them, the Cincinnati Ballet, the Russian Ballet Academy of Indiana, but one by one each also failed and disappeared. Thus, the professional ballet stage of Indianapolis has remained largely empty for the last eight years.
To someone like Bob Hesse, that empty stage is unacceptable. "A basic question I raise is what makes a city great? If you don't have ballet, you're not a great city. You can have football teams, baseball, orchestra, but if you are lacking ballet, you have a cultural void that prohibits you from being considered a great city," says Hesse. "And this city should be great." With his passion for the art backed by experience as former Executive Director of the Joffery Ballet, Hesse decided to create Indianapolis' next professional ballet company.
Now, the timing could have been better. Hesse started out in 2006, shortly after the collapse of Ballet Internationale when many people's attitudes and pocketbooks were feeling a bit abused by ballet and shortly before the largest recession to hit the American economy in decades. Couple that with the high production costs and a common perception that the art form's time has come and gone, the odds definitely seemed to be against Hesse. But he persevered. He teamed up with his son, Kevin Hesse, who had been working with ballet companies in New York, to help him overcome the challenges and create Indianapolis City Ballet.
There is no book on how to start a ballet company, but typically a company would want to first open a school to train young dancers. The next step would include hiring professional dancers, a choreographer and other staff members to create shows. Then the company would need to find a venue, build sets, order costumes and start putting on productions in hopes that enough people would attend for ticket sales to cover enough of the initial investments to do it again next year. Bob Hesse knew that he wanted to go slower in an effort to determine if Indianapolis was really ready to support another company so soon after the break-up with Ballet Internationale. So the Hesses brainstormed together to come up with a way to find out whether Indy was ready to have ballet back in its life and they came up with the idea for An Evening with the Stars.
The Evening is a gala-style event that brings in the best dancers from around the world to perform their signature pieces. Each piece is only a 5-10 minute segment, a perfect taste-test to introduce audiences to a variety of ballet so the Hesses can gauge interest in each. "Our first show was a test," says Bob Hesse. "We began with Evening with the Stars because we had to determine whether there was an audience for ballet, whether the audience would like what we presented and whether it was financially feasible."
And at the inaugural event in 2009, the answer seemed to be a resounding yes. Over 1,800 tickets were sold, the audience stood and cheered at the end of the night, the show broke even financially, and the Indianapolis Business Journal named it the #1 entertainment of the year. In the three yearly galas since then, the quality of performance has remained top-notch and the audience now fills the Murat Theatre at Old National Center. Kevin Hesse, for one, was not surprised at the warm reception the city gave to ballet. "Indianapolis has a history, more than 40 years, of ballet here. And it disappeared. It left a lot of mixed feelings," explains the younger Hesse. "But when you show them ballet, they are knowledgeable. They know ballet, which is surprising."
An Evening with the Stars is set up to be a particular treat for our local balletomanes, but it is also designed to be an enjoyable introduction for people unfamiliar with ballet. "I think the Evening with the Stars is our best outreach," says Kevin Hesse. "It has awakened a lot of people to what ballet is. A lot of people have been dragged by partners, by spouses to our event and been awakened to ballet. Had no idea what it looked like, what it could be." Ballet suffers from a great number of myths, like it's boring, slow-paced and only for the older generations. While nineteenth century narrative ballets may not be for everyone, ballet has evolved since Swan Lake was choreographed in 1892 and even if Swan Lake and The Nutcracker are the only ballets most people can name, there are a great many more options in ballet today. "Ballet is one of the most difficult art forms to sell to people," notes the younger Hesse. "And it shouldn't be because it's among the most accessible. It's music and movement. It's really that simple."
The Indianapolis City Ballet is not only challenging the laymen's view of ballet, but even those of the inner circles of ballet with the IBC's new model for today's ballet company. "The model that we are looking at, it's hard to compare, it's hard to give you an example of what that is," says Kevin Hesse. "It's really re-thinking the way ballet is presented." Typically, a ballet company makes the most money by taking shows on tour. But touring becomes expensive and cuts into profits with large numbers of dancers and elaborate sets. As the Indianapolis City Ballet hopes to move from one big gala performance a year into a full-fledged company, they want to be different. "It's having a chamber-sized company, a company of 16-20 dancers," the younger Hesse continues. "It's a matter of rethinking classical works, of engaging with various dance schools to do a larger, full-scale production." This smaller, lighter approach is a completely new concept to adapt ballet to modern audiences. It is a smart way to stay cost-effective, but it also provides a unique way to engage choreographers and artistic directors around the country.
The challenge to a smaller company, though, is that not many ballets exist that use only 16-20 dancers. Most choreographers create large ballets utilizing upwards of 100 dancers, because they are usually working with large companies that have upwards of 100 dancers that they want to use. The Hesses don't view this as a problem, but as an advantage since Indianapolis City Ballet would provide an exceptional opportunity for today's choreographers to create unique, smaller works using fewer dancers.
Through the Evening with the Stars program, the Hesses have been purposefully creating relationships with different choreographers and artistic directors because when the company takes off, they don't want just one full-time choreographer. "What we're trying to do is almost curate ballet; to have not one choreographer, [but] to literally select from all of them and to have a constantly varying program, be it contemporary or classical," explains Kevin Hesse. "It really opens up the pallet of what you can do if the artistic director is a curator and not a choreographer."
This has been the guiding genius behind the idea of An Evening with the Stars and they believe it will make the stand-out quality for a full company. A traditional company will have one choreographer and one set of dancers--a model that could never hope to compare to the vibrant variety that the ICB can achieve by choosing different dancers and choreographers to work with based on their needs.
The Indianapolis City Ballet has also broken the mold by deciding to not now and not ever open a school. "There are sixty-some schools of dance in and around Indianapolis. That's a lot of schools offering dance and ballet. We don't have one because we'd be sixty-one," laughs the elder Hesse. Instead of creating a school, the Hesses chose to focus that energy towards uniting and uplifting the existing ballet community by developing a Master Class Series. Once a month, every month, the ICB brings in top dancers and teachers from companies around the world to teach a class open to any ballet student who registers. These classes provide invaluable opportunities for Indianapolis ballet students to learn, but also to be seen. More than a few students have been seen and offered scholarships to some of the larger dance schools around the world. But what the ICB is most excited about is the community building.
"What we've managed is to get the teachers, students and parents to trust us that we aren't starting a school, that it's a protected environment where they can meet each other. So you've got parents and students from different schools finally engaging in conversation and going to each other's recitals. It's beginning to build a community of dance, [one] that I hope is stronger," says Kevin Hesse.
So far, the Hesses and the Indianapolis City Ballet seem to be off to a great start, but there is still a long way to get to their five-year goal of having a full-time, Indianapolis-based professional ballet company. They need more audience, they need a better-sized theatre, and they need more funding.
"Our concern with moving to a company too quickly is that we may not have an audience, they may not follow us," says Bob Hesse. While the company has maintained an enthusiastic audience over the past few years, they haven't seen it grow. This is actually more due to the fact that they have maxed out their venue space than anything else. Indianapolis unfortunately has a few large theatres (2,500 seats), several small theatres (500 seats), but nothing around the ideal 1,200 seats the Hesses would like to grow the ballet company. "It's hard to test what the next level is," explains Kevin Hesse about growing audiences in large theatres. "I don't want to go from 2,500 people to 3,000 and have 5,000 seats."
That would not be cost-effective and, of course, the biggest problem in growing an arts organization is always money. "There is a need for financial security for this to move ahead," says Bob Hesse. "People who see what we do, tend to appreciate what we do and support us. We need more of them."
Despite being caught in the vicious cycle of needing more audience to get more money to get more venue to get more audience in a town that, though warming, is still feeling pretty chilly towards ballet, the Hesses are optimistic about their venture. "I think the opportunity is just so exciting," says Kevin Hesse. "For the thirteenth largest city in the nation, [Indianapolis] certainly has the population and the sophistication and the culture to support this." Indy definitely has what it takes to support ballet--whether it wants to or not remains to be seen. Hopefully the optimism, passion, and creativity of the Indianapolis City Ballet will be enough to tempt the city to finally brush off the old memories and heartache of Ballet Internationale and embrace a new company. Bob and Kevin Hesse are counting on it.